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The Descent - By Casenor

This is a crossover between Shining Force 3 and the classic "The Godfather."
In this fic, Synbios is a GIRL. For Medion's sake, you understand :P
The relationship between characters may differ from the game.
The time is a bit more modern than ShF3 but far from 1945.
Um...well, hope you enjoy the fic. Any feedback would be welcome!


    It was spring in Destonia.
   Not that it would have made any difference to the revelers. From the darkened chamber, Grantuck watched in mild amusement as they feasted and danced with absolute abandon all over the vast Domaric estate. It was the wedding of the Don's only daughter, Isabella, and nothing so trifling as the weather was ever going to affect the celebration.
   He turned his eyes back to his master and the visitor, who were conversing in low tones. For them, the seasons meant nothing; even the wedding could not influence their business. Domaric loved his daughter, yet to him, business must be done everyday, regardless of the occasion. And in many ways, Grantuck reflected, the Don's business was more important than any celebration could ever be. It was, after all, the dealing out of mercy or death.
   The visitor, a wood elf named Hans, had raised his voice, while Domaric sat unperturbed. The Don motioned for Grantuck to bring the elf a drink. Hans took the glass with trembling fingers, then managed to continue in a calmer, though still shaky, voice, "Don Domaric, you must help me."
   "I don't see what I can do," replied Domaric. A bulldog of a man, the Don's aged but powerful frame was relaxed. His voice was quiet and gravelly, yet masterful beyond description. With a steady gaze he stared at his desperate petitioner. "In your own words, your daughter married this David willingly. Whether she regrets her choice now is not my, or even your, business. Granted," he continued, "that in our time the parents had greater influence in the marriage matters. But that's the past, my friend. My eldest, Arrawnt, married the woman of his choice. I allowed my daughter to choose her husband. Now, uh, how can I meddle with your Hedoba's marriage, when I don't decide my own children's spouses?"
   "My daughter made a foolish choice," Hans whispered. He put the glass down, and without a word Grantuck removed it. "This David, he beats her. He abuses her. She wants out, but our customs won't allow it. There's only one way for her to escape this bondage--" He lowered his eyes.
   Domaric spoke easily, "And that is?"
   Hans looked nervously at Grantuck and the bodyguards by the door. With a dismissive wave Domaric urged him forward. Hans whispered quickly into the Don's ear, only to receive a low chuckle in reply.
   "This, I cannot do, my friend," Domaric said. "Your daughter may be suffering, but she lives still. What you're asking of me, it's, uh, unfair to the groom."
   "But you must help me!" Hans voice became urgent again. He moved as if to grip the Don's hand, then thought better of it. "Hedoba is my only daughter--my only child, now, since her brother's death. How can a father stand by and watch one error in his child's life destroy the child? You are different from most humans, Don Domaric. You understand how important children are. Please, please have pity on my plight and aid me!"
   Domaric considered his visitor for a moment, then walked to his side. His voice carried mock sorrow and subtle menace as he said, "We've known each other for a long time, Hans. You know I would help any old friend of mine. But, uh, the truth is, you have not been a good friend. You hardly ever visit me. You didn't invite me to your daughter's wedding. The truth is, uh, you didn't want my friendship. You were afraid to be in my debt."
   Hans trembled. "That...that was true once. I was content to live without quarrel, like any wood elf. But quarrel has sought me out, and I need your help now."
   "None gains my help without first winning my friendship," replied Domaric sharply. "Had we been true friends I would have helped you long before, without your begging me in person."
   Hans had turned deathly pale, and his quivering words were spoken so quietly Grantuck could hardly hear him. "How might I win this friendship now, Don Domaric?"
   Domaric watched him carefully. Grantuck looked uncertainly from the Don to the bodyguards, wondering how Domaric might receive this desperate plea. Then Domaric spoke, "One day, my friend, I may seek a favor of you. Grant it now, and I shall in turn help you."
   The wood elf swallowed audibly, and for a moment looked as if he would ask what the favor might be. Then he stood quickly and, bowing low, answered, "I grant it now, Don Domaric. Please, be my friend."
   Domaric gripped the elf's shoulders, as if claiming a new servant, or slave. "Do not worry any longer, Friend Hans. As a gift from my daughter, on her wedding day, to yours, you shall have your wish."
   Hans whispered, "Thank you, Don Domaric." Then, with what sounded like a low sob, he excused himself and left.
   Domaric sighed, looked at his waiting advisor. "Uh, Grantuck, send Campbell on this one. Tell him to be careful." He glanced out the window. "Why don't you boys go down there, enjoy yourselves? I will be down shortly myself."
   Grantuck hissed in relief. "Thank you."

    Synbios was surprised by the number and variety of the wedding guests, and she didn't try to hide it. From her seat opposite Medion, she gawked openly with her innocent green eyes at the revelers. Her actions made Medion embarrassed for her sake, but also more protective.
   "My father has many...sorts of friends," he offered quietly when Synbios started and pointed at another odd visitor. He held up some food, hoping to distract her, but she wasn't even looking at him.
   "Aren't you going to introduce them to me?" She asked. Medion shifted uncomfortably; the company his father kept were not the sort of people he wanted to introduce to his girlfriend. Nonetheless, he pointed: "That elf over there, his name is Bernard. He's a sharpshooter, quite famous among archers. Um, that centaur and the red-haired woman? That's Generals Franz and Spiriel. They've been working separately for my father for a while, and recently got engaged..."
   "A hobbit!" Synbios exclaimed. She pointed in the direction of two child-like figures talking with a white centaur. "Are they friends? Or distant cousins?"
   Medion glanced at the trio and experienced a faint pang. "No, they work for my father as well."
   He felt her inquiring look, and his face reddened slightly. Very few of the guests at his father's party were simply friends; they were mostly relatives or henchmen. Of the latter he knew most by name, and had even played with them, in an innocent childhood long past.
   Now that he was older, and have learned their business, he tried to avoid them whenever possible.
   Fortunately Grantuck appeared beside them, ending the awkward moment. The advisor gave Medion a warm hug. "Where have you been, kid? Your father's been looking for you. He's hired an artist to do a family portrait, but they can't start without you."
   "Oh...ah, I pretty much just arrived." Medion smiled at Synbios. "Synbios, this is my brother Grantuck. Grantuck, my academy friend, Synbios."
   "Young daughter of Lord Conrad. It's a pleasure." Grantuck kissed Synbios's hand, nodded to Medion, and disappeared into the crowd.
   Synbios watched Grantuck curiously, then asked, "Brother?"
   Medion smiled with sincere affection. "My big brother Arrawnt met him in the streets, before I was born. Grantuck had no home, so my father took him in. He's not as old as he looks; their people all look like that." He pondered a bit before adding, "He's quite wise. I suppose he'd still be war counselor to Arrawnt, after my father retires."
   Synbios frowned slightly. "War...?"
   "It's a term my father uses in his business," replied Medion hurriedly. He was not comforted, however, by Synbios's understanding smile. There was, after all, so much she didn't know about his family. Medion looked miserably around, decided now was as good a time as ever. It wouldn't be fair to continue their relationship if Synbios didn't understand what sort of family she might someday be marrying into. He reached for her hand. "Synbios..."
   She seemed distracted, however. Bending toward him, her brown bangs brushing his brow, she whispered, "Medion, the big man sitting behind me has been talking to himself for a while now. Do you know him? He's frightening."
   Medion glanced over her shoulder and, to his dismay, recognized the man. "Yes. He's an old friend of my father's. More like, an old employee." He hesitated. "His name is James."
   "But why is he talking to himself?"
   Medion listened, then managed a smile. "James is frightening, but he's even more frightened of my father. It sounds like he is rehearsing a speech of some kind. Probably to greet my father with."
   A loud cheer erupted suddenly from the center of the crowd. A singer had just climbed onto the stage. They both turned to watch. Synbios squinted, then said in surprise, "Medion--that's Mageron!"
   "Yeah," grinned Medion.
   She looked disbelievingly at him. "You mentioned your brother was a singer, but you never said..."
   "We can go say hi to him later, if you like." Medion suggested.
   She blinked, then smiled. "I'd love to!"
   "Yeah, well..." Medion paused. "Seeing that he's come all the way from Saraband, I suppose he'd want to talk with my father first. Probably some trouble with competitors again."
   "But how will talking with your father solve that?" Synbios wanted to know.
   "My father...has a way of getting things done." Medion hedged. He looked away quickly, realizing all the sudden he wasn't ready to tell his girlfriend everything yet. Perhaps a week from now, at someplace private, he'd be able to manage it...
   She, however, was too curious to let the subject slide. "I don't understand, Medion. How can your father defeat your brother's rivals for him?" She laughed, then joked, "Is he going to bribe them not to sing?"
   "Look..." Medion took a deep breath, then confessed, "My father helped Mageron from the beginning. At first my brother wasn't famous, or even admired. There were other popular entertainers, and Mageron had trouble getting to perform at all. You probably know he became popular singing at a bar in Saraband, but I bet you have no idea how he got the permission to perform."
   "Your father paid the owner...?" Synbios's voice faltered as Medion shook his head grimly.
   "That's what he did at first. My father offered the guy 100,000 gold to give my brother a chance. The guy refused. Then my father went with James, and the owner paid 1,000 gold to have Mageron sing."
   She stared. "How?"
   "My father...made him an offer he couldn't refuse." Medion answered quietly.
   "And that is?"
   "James held a knife to the guy's throat, and my father promised him either Mageron be allowed to sing or the guy never draw breath again. After that the business was concluded very simply." He saw Synbios's horrified look, took her hand. "Honey, that's my family. Not me." He held up the food again and offered belatedly, "Cookies?"

   Domaric was not surprised to see James being escorted in by Grantuck. He was, however, a bit astonished to see the man's son follow his father in. The nervous henchman faltered before striding forward to take the Don's hand. "Don Domaric, I am honored and grateful that you've invited me to your daugh--daughter's wedding. And I hope, hope that her first child will be a strong boy. And I bring this gift, to you and your family, as a pledge of my loyalty..."
   Domaric accepted the present with a fatherly smile. "I am glad to see you too, James. But, uh, aren't you going to introduce your boy...?"
   "Ah, yes." The bigger man looked about, as if unable to locate his son, before beckoning the boy over. "Julian..."
   The boy, who, Domaric noticed, was about the age of his own youngest son, showed no sign of his father's nervousness. He bowed respectfully before the Don, and said evenly, "I, too, pledge my loyalty to my father's master."
   "I am pleased," replied Domaric. He patted James on the shoulder. "Your son follows your footsteps. That's good, that's good."
   "Yes." The big henchman's frame relaxed slightly as he spoke of his son. "Julian is young, but already experienced. He will make an excellent soldier for you, Don Domaric. I have but one son, but, like you, I've taught him to learn our trade..."
   "Like me!" Domaric felt a moment of sorrow through his icy soul. "Yes, uh, that's very fine. I'm sure the son would be much like his father." His gaze traversed the room and caught Grantuck's eye. The advisor moved forward as the Don said to his visitors, "I am sorry, James, but I must attend to other things now. Please, go back to the party. Enjoy yourselves." Once the pair had gone, Domaric spoke crossly to Grantuck. "Where is Medion? And Arrawnt?"
   Grantuck bowed. "Medion has arrived, and is enjoying the party. Arrawnt, ah, is enjoying the party too, though a bit more privately than the others." The Don frowned disapprovingly, and he quickly added, "But Mageron would like to see you now, if that's ok."
   Domaric smiled, his displeasure melting away. "Sure, sure. Tell the boy to come in."
   Grantuck turned and motioned to the guard, who promptly escorted Mageron in. In the dim light of the cool chamber he seemed subdued and uncertain, even a little fearful. Nothing like his flamboyant look onstage, reflected Domaric. Nonetheless he strode forward and enfolded his son in an affectionate embrace. "How is my big star?" He pinched Mageron's cheeks, then said proudly to Grantuck, "He's come all the way from Saraband to be with the family, when he could be performing for all those fans who adore him, and making a fortune. Just like how I taught all of you--a real man puts family ahead of everything. Go on, get your brother a glass of wine. And find Arrawnt, I need to talk to him after this."
   He resumed his seat and waited while Mageron finished the refreshment, feeling a bit of true pride dispelling the earlier sadness. James was proud of his child, and the Don had every reason to feel the same. Arrawnt and Grantuck had a mind for the family business, and could be counted on to continue his work. Mageron found his calling in being an entertainer, but that was fine too, so long as he remembered his roots. Domaric's only disappointment came from his youngest boy, Medion. Unlike his siblings, he'd learned all the wrong things in the academy. He'd learned to think outside of the family, to consider that his loyalty lay first in his country. Domaric remembered the day Medion boldly announced that he was leaving the academy and joining the army, to help fight against marauding bandits from eastern nations. He remembered his rage, and the feeling of utter helplessness, for on a battlefield even the might of a Don was of little use. To Domaric, who didn't believe in anything outside of the family, it was clear that Medion had become a lost cause. And it tore him up inside, for Medion, level-headed and smart, was the son he'd ultimately wanted to have running the family businesses.
   But then again, perhaps that would be for the best. By training his son to be a mercenary like him, James was probably dooming Julian to a bloody death in battle. Domaric himself lived his days knowing there are people who'd rejoice to see him murdered, and understood that this was the pressure Arrawnt would someday face as well. Maybe, by allowing his favorite son to decide his destiny, he was giving Medion the greatest gift a Don could grant: freedom.
   "Father," Mageron began, snapping Domaric out of his reverie. "It's good to see you and mother so healthy and happy."
   "Yes," replied Domaric with a slight smile. "And your brothers, and their family--they're all here today as well. It is indeed a blessing, especially for an old man, to know his loved ones are well. But uh," he added shrewdly, "You didn't abandon the admiring girls in the sunny courtyard just to compliment your old man. You are in trouble again, and need help--no?"
   Mageron looked embarrassed, but also relieved that his father had spared him of bringing it up himself. He sighed wearily. "Yes, Father. I could really use your aid, again." He glanced at Domaric's waiting frown, glanced down at his hands, then looked about nervously. When his father still declined to comment, he took a deep breath and began: "I can't stay in Saraband anymore, pops. Some unpleasant things have happened, and I...it would be inconvenient, even damaging, to my career if I stayed. So I want to start performing in a different city, with different people."
   The Don regarded him with some surprise. "But how could that be difficult for you? You, uh, are very popular, and well admired. It should be no trouble finding other suitable places."
   "No," conceded Mageron. "But there is a place I have my heart set on--I want to go to Storich. It's a great place, pops, just like Saraband, only Saraband is a harbor and Storich is a major train station. There'll be all sorts of people coming to hear me sing, you know. It'll be great, and I'll become even more successful...it's perfect for me, pops."
   "So what's the problem?" Domaric prodded.
   "The owner of the Storich bars has something against me," confessed Mageron. "And he's a good friend of the Storich mayor's. He is determined to keep me from ever setting foot in that town, pops. He's...set on seeing me go down."
   "That would never happen while you're my good son," promised Domaric, but with a significant look in Mageron's direction. He never missed a chance to emphasize how important blood ties and loyalty was to him. Distantly he wondered how Medion could've forgotten, or ignored, all those lessons. "But I am, uh, confused. Mageron, what does this Storich barkeeper has against you?"
   The singer flinched noticeably. "The unpleasant things I mentioned, the happenings in Saraband...he took it rather personally, pops."
   The Don's steady gaze did not waver. "Explain."
   Mageron looked about uncomfortably again, but obviously realized there was no concealing things from his father. "I...had an affair with a girl he liked. Liked a lot, actually." He breathed heavily, put his head in his hands. "I don't know what to do, pops."
   Grantuck understood Arrawnt enough to find him even when his wife didn't know where he'd run off to. In any case, the panting sound emitting from the locked bedroom on the top floor was clue enough.
   He knocked on the door. Immediately the sounds stopped, though Grantuck distinctly heard an additional feminine whimper at the end. He shook his head and cleared his throat. "Arrawnt, it's me. You in there?"
   There was a pause, then his brother's annoyed voice. "What do you want?"
   "Father wants to see you, Arrawnt," Grantuck informed him. He waited for a reply, and, when he didn't get one, added, "I'll be downstairs. Better come down in a few minutes, or when you're done...whichever is first." The advisor turned and started down the steps.
   He'd hardly reached middle before the sounds started again, this time in earnest.
   To his surprise, though, Arrawnt appeared behind him shortly afterwards. Domaric's oldest son looked flushed and sweaty, but smiled confidently as he followed Grantuck into the Don's room. As Grantuck turned to shut the door, he saw the girl Arrawnt had been with--Brigit, childhood friend of their sister Isabella--descend the stairs, giggling to herself and buttoning her clothes. She managed to throw a wink in his direction before he closed the door firmly.
   "I can't believe you," he murmured to his brother.
   Arrawnt grinned broadly. "Sometimes I surprise myself too."
   They both turned as Domaric rose from his seat, seemingly irritated. The Don patted Mageron's cheek in a rough manner. "Don't know what to do? You can act like a man! What, has all the singing and dancing turned you into a sniveling woman? Now," he shot a meaningful glance at Arrawnt, "I know you'll turn out fine, because you still spend time with your family. Inside you're still a man, all right. So you don't worry. I'll take care of it."
   Mageron shook his head dejectedly. "It's too late, pops. Once the Storich mayor issues the order that I not be allowed to visit Storich, my reputation will be marred. It's too late..."
   "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse," was the Don's firm and final answer. Mageron nodded, understanding, as his two awaiting brothers did, the deadliness of their father's determination. He shook hands with Arrawnt and Grantuck on his way out.
   Grantuck watched expectantly as Domaric motioned Arrawnt over. The Don, however, did not speak a word about his successor's infidelity, choosing instead to go straight to business. "When does Isabella leave with the groom?"
   Arrawnt bowed respectfully. "As soon as the family portrait is done, father."
   "Is Medion ready?"
   "I'll find him soon as we go down," promised Arrawnt. "Um, pops--what position should we appoint Crewart in the family business? Now that he's in-law..."
   Domaric frowned. "Let him make a good living, so he could take care of my daughter--but do not discuss family business with him, ever. In-laws are not family, not to me." He motioned Grantuck over. "I want you to start for Storich tonight."
   The advisor laughed in surprise. He should have known even a wedding wouldn't guarantee a long holiday. "Why Storich?"
   "I want you to talk to this, uh, bartender boss Mageron offended. I'll have a couple of our people right behind you, in case he doesn't like our proposal. And I want you back quickly, because we'll be having a meeting with this uh, young man called Braff next week." He looked around, and for a moment looked tired and old. "If there's nothing else, I'd like to go and enjoy my daughter's wedding."

   The family portrait was done in the stately main courtyard. Medion smiled joyfully when he saw his family--Domaric, Melinda, Arrawnt, Grantuck, Mageron and Isabella--standing already before the artist. They all seemed to be waiting for him. Even the new brother-in-law, Crewart, was nodding in his direction. Out of sudden impulse he took Synbios's hand. "Come on, let's go."
   She started, then blushed. "Oh Medion, not me too."
   He winked at her. "This way we won't have to do another portrait when we...when we get married."
   Her nervous but happy giggle was like music to his ears. Together they ran to where the others were waiting.

   The night was dark by the time Grantuck's train arrived in Storich, but the warm lights of the tavern shone like a beacon. All through the crisscrossing streets of the large town there was a restful silence, while cheery laughter and singing emitted from Grantuck's destination. The dragonnewt headed toward the light, like an insidious demon crawling out of the darkness, with a calm demeanor contradicting his grim mission.
   He ignored the drinking and dancing denizens as he strode up to the bar. The centaur bartender's friendly grin disappeared as Grantuck stated simply: "I would like to see Mr. Donhort, please."
   The bartend rubbed his red nose. "Donhort is listening."
   Grantuck leaned forward. "Mr. Donhort, I've come on behalf of my client's son, Mageron. I'm sure you know the famous singer well. Now, we've heard that, due to some past grievances, you're determined to make things difficult for Mageron. My client would like to make up for his son's mistakes. He offers Mr. Donhort his undying friendship, if only Mr. Donhort would be forgiving and allow Mageron to perform here."
   Donhort's wrinkled face twisted into a sneer when he heard Mageron's name. "So what favors would daddy grant if I was to forgive and forget?"
   Grantuck glanced around at the people crowding the bar and raised his eyebrows. Somehow this only made Donhort angrier. "Go on and say it, you think I've anything to hide?"
   The advisor cleared his throat. "Very well. You've been trying to expand your establishment, but there are a number of competitors. My client could convince them to run their businesses elsewhere. Also, rumors has it your late wife did not die from natural causes; they say she killed herself..."
   Donhort reached forward and grabbed a fistful of Grantuck's silk tunic. The old centaur's grip was surprisingly strong. "You trying to muscle me?"
   "Absolutely not." Grantuck assured him.
   "Well you just listen to me you disgusting Lizard-Man. I will never let Mageron show his ugly face in my bar, or in this town for that matter. I'm gonna see that SOB go down in disgrace--you can go tell daddy that!" Donhort's voice had nearly risen over the loud music and singing; his face was now every bit as red as his nose.
   Grantuck smiled to put off the throng of curious onlookers, but his eyes were ice cold. "I'm a dragonnewt."
   The bartend growled. "Tell ya what, I don't care. You come making those offers again, and I'm gonna make so much trouble for you, you wouldn't know what hit ya!'
   "Mr. Donhort, I'm a business counselor, trying to make a deal. I haven't threatened you."
   "Yeah?" Donhort retorted. "I know just about every big business counselor, and I've never seen your ugly face. Who the hell are you anyway?"
   "My name is Grantuck, and I handle only one special client. Now I'll be staying in the hotel by the station; you know how to contact me." With that, Grantuck turned and politely pushed his way out of the tavern, back into the lonely streets.

   As he expected, the wait wasn't long. By the next evening a carriage had come, courtesy of Mr. Donhort, to invite him to dinner with the bartender.
   The aged centaur was standing with a smile when Grantuck arrived at Donhort's private estate. He hastily shook Grantuck's hand the minute the advisor got off the carriage. His demeanor had changed overnight, from one of outrage to that of someone eager to please. Without waiting for the dragonnewt to speak, he began to show his guest around the beautiful estate.
   Grantuck hid his triumphant grin behind a stolid, business-like mask. He knew Donhort would have his men check out just who the client was, and anyone who had an inkling about who Don Domaric was would scramble to treat his underlings decently. Distantly Grantuck wondered why Mageron went to all that trouble to conceal his father's identity, when in the end he had to have Domaric get him out of trouble.
   "It's all very nice, Mr. Donhort." He finally said politely, to interrupt the tavern boss's breathless tirade. "But, um, about the proposal we discussed yesterday..."
   Donhort's grin shrunk a bit around the edges. "We'll speak of it over dinner, Grantuck. Before we go in though, I'll pay my respects to my deceased wife, if you don't mind."
   The dragonnewt followed his host to a small yard just behind the house. There, under the shade of elms and oaks, was a neat and tidy grave. Grantuck watched with slight bemusement as Donhort knelt before the grave, recalling in his mind the ugly rumors concerning how Donhort treated his late wife. Whether this was merely a display he did not know; but he was relieved when the centaur stood again, and said with a nod. "We can go in for dinner now. You must be famished."
   "Please lead the way," replied the advisor. He cast one last look at the grave, then walked quickly after Donhort.

   Grantuck explained everything again, very clearly and simply, over their food. By the end, though, he could tell from his host's gaze that the centaur was displeased. Donhort leaned closer. "I would treasure Don Domaric's friendship, Grantuck; but you must tell him, he would have to have his son perform elsewhere. I simply cannot grant this favor. However, if there is anything else I can help with, you have my assistance."
   "The Don never asks a second favor once the first is refused," the advisor informed Donhort. "Whatever wrong Mageron did to you, we can amend, to our mutual benefit. If only you could forgive..."
   Donhort struck the table angrily. "You don't understand. I have nothing against the Don, but I'm set on seeing Mageron go down in flames. Yes, if he were allowed to perform in Storich, he'd be even more famous and popular. And I'll never allow that. Mageron stole from me a singer, a songbird I trained for years, a human who was like my daughter. I wanted her to be a star, to be recognized and loved, just like that SOB Mageron is. Then Mageron comes and makes love to the girl, runs off with her, then abandons her! He ditched her back into the gutters I fished her from!" The agitated centaur paced the room, his hooves stomping like hammers. "Mageron not only stole from me someone I treasured like a daughter, he made a mockery of all my pains and efforts! For this one reason, I will never tolerate his thriving in my territory. Ever. Now you get outta here, you dirty henchman, and you tell your precious Don that I don't care how many more of your kind he throws at me! I'm not afraid him; I'm not some simple Saraband bartend--yeah, I know that story, and I tell ya..."
   Grantuck stopped his host by politely standing, leaving the rest of his dinner untouched. "I understand, Mr. Donhort. Now you must excuse me; I have a train to catch. Don Domaric insists on hearing bad news immediately." As he opened the door he added, "Thanks for the dinner, and the tour. I enjoyed it."

   Donhort had trouble sleeping that night. The angry conversation with Domaric's goon lingered in his mind like salt on the open wound that was his hurt at being betrayed by his protégé. The look in the dragonnewt's eyes when he showed him his wife's grave annoyed him too: Grantuck seemed to recognize it as a ploy to dispel the rumors. Donhort told himself he could shake off whatever the crime lord threw at him; but alone in his room in the small hours, he didn't feel so confident.
   Dreams came to him, but only for a while; presently, he felt something cold leaning against his side. He shifted uncomfortably, but the weight persisted. Finally he opened his eyes and looked.
   It was the remains of his wife--or rather, the horse half of it. Even as Donhort shouted in horror and tried to get up, he saw the upper half--decomposed almost beyond recognition, it had been carefully sawed off, and was hanging by its neck right before him, arms stretched as if to embrace her husband.
   The tavern owner's horrified screams echoed ceaselessly through the tranquil dawn.

   Domaric regarded his adopted son with some concern. The dragonnewt looked weary and a bit nervous--probably tired from his trip to Storich. He patted Grantuck on the shoulder. "You ok?"
   "I'm fine," replied Grantuck. "I slept on the train." He looked up into the Don's probing gaze and added, "It's just the report Hagane and Hazuki gave me, about their handiwork. I bet it scared that Donhort. It sure shook me up."
   "It's business, son." Domaric admonished. "You know I appreciate it, as does Mageron."
   Arrawnt cleared his throat even as Grantuck nodded. "I have the dirt about Braff here, pops. His mother is none other than Don Basanda; he is her bastard child, by an old acquaintance of ours: Fafhard."
   "The traitor who ran loose," murmured Mageron from his seat by the door.
   "His father is not of our concern," the Don told them. "Go on, Arrawnt."
   "Well, first of all he's reputed to be even better at the killing business than his father. To date he has been involved in at least a dozen killings. But he's also cunning, like his mother. He runs protection rackets, imports prohibited stuff from eastern countries, and owns brothels. It's said Don Basanda will make him the next Don, regardless what her relatives say." Arrawnt looked up with furrowed brows. "This is a guy who's been fighting both the law and members of his family, yet he's still alive and kicking. Definitely a worthy business partner, but also dangerous as hell."
   "So what does he want with us?" Grantuck asked.
   "It appears he's been doing business with a group of...foreigners that was previously shunned by us all." Arrawnt grunted and held up some papers. "He's a friend of the Vandals. And now he wants all the families to cooperate with the Vandals, in order to carry out some...master plan of his. Needless to say, Don Basanda is behind him, and the other Dons are also leaning in his direction."
   The Don screwed up his face. "The Vandals? Those violent murderers...it would appear this Braff has found fitting companions. Yet, to imagine anybody would want to have anything to do with the Vandals is beyond me. I would have to consider listening to him this one time a favor I'm doing his mother; were he someone else's child I would have thrown him out the minute he entered my office."
   "Well, I see him coming up the path now," commented Mageron. "I guess this would be a good chance to judge him for ourselves, pops."
   The Don sat back and watched with shrewd eyes as his young visitor entered. Though Braff looked only about Medion's age, he carried himself with pride and confidence. He took with him no weapons, yet seemed totally fearless in the company of ruthless men every bit as capable of violence as he was. In a second his gaze had taken in the room and its inhabitants; just as quickly, his pose transformed from tensed and prepared to relaxed and innocent. Domaric watched with some envy as his sons stood to greet Braff, for he recognized in a possible enemy potential not detected in his own heirs. If Braff really succeeded Don Basanda, Domaric wondered if Arrawnt and Grantuck would be capable of fending him off.
   He waited until everyone had sat down before he spoke up: "Welcome, Mr. Braff. Now I'm sure you understand my, uh, views on the Vandals, and realize I'm seeing you out of my respect for your mother. So we'll skip the formalities--let's hear what you're asking, and what you'll offer for our assistance."
   Braff nodded with a friendly smile that seemed to reach out to everyone at once. "Of course, Don Domaric. What I need...your support, first of all. I would not dare to go against the wishes of any old friend of my sires. Second, I'd like a loan of one million gold. Third, I would ask you to help convince those important officials that are your friends, those politicians you carry about in your pocket like so many gold coins, to persuade our fellow countrymen that we should welcome the Vandals into our society like any other elves or centaurs..." He added with a nod in Grantuck's direction, "I'm sure you would agree with this, Don Domaric, seeing how you've adopted a non-human son yourself."
   The Don ignored the last remark; his answer was short and simple. "What are the interests for my family?"
   "A share of our profits," Braff told him. "Once things get underway, you get thirty to forty percent--which I reckon would be a good three million gold in the first year. As time goes by, this number will go up."
   Domaric saw Mageron and Grantuck raise their eyebrows. Arrawnt even whistled softly. Braff did not seem to hear, but a smile of triumphant crept up onto his lips as he continued, "As for the family that's already backing me--I mean my mother, of course--I'll pay them separately. In fact, should you worry about my credit or anything like that, I can tell you right now Don Basanda will guarantee everything. Even if I should fail, through no fault of mine, my mother's family will compensate you thrice of what you spent on my behalf."
   This time Arrawnt couldn't seem to contain himself. "Aw, you're telling us we'd make a profit of at least two million under any circumstances? Pops..."
   Domaric forcefully kept his temper under check, saying only in a soft tone, "Wait a minute, Arrawnt. Mr. Braff," he continued, "Your generosity is unequaled. I see that Don Basanda taught her son well, unlike me: as you can see, I have spoiled my children, and they sometimes talk when they're supposed to listen. But one thing remains: you've not told me why you're paving the way for your friends, the Vandals."
   Braff's smile, which had grew with Arrawnt's interruption, did not shrink the least bit. "I intend to use them, Don Domaric. Once they've been properly introduced to our society, they'd be bound to build their own communities, with their own customs and needs. Not only can we be their sole supplier of exotic goods, we can control them, since we made it possible for them to thrive in our territory. And what's more, knowing the Vandal's bloodthirsty nature, we can recruit their young; they would become a well of manpower. Ultimately, Don Domaric, we can build our own empire, a power that would rival any other republics, and live legitimately like as kings we are." Braff's eyes seemed to shine bright with reckless ambition, and for a moment the room was quiet.
   The Don glanced at his sons. Grantuck seemed skeptical; Mageron intrigued. Arrawnt, though sulky for being reprimanded so openly, nonetheless was nodding to himself. Domaric looked at Braff, more wary than ever of this youthful adversary. More wistful, too, when he thought of his own Medion.
   He spoke finally. "Mr. Braff, I realize I must take back what I said earlier--seeing you today has been a pleasure, not a friendly favor, for you're a true businessman. Yet..." He locked eyes with each and everyone of his children present, "I must say, I refuse your offer. I believe you are underestimating the Vandals. I think that working with them would be too dangerous, even for those of us whose line of work has always been hazardous. So I must refuse."
   Braff's grin disappeared instantly. "Don Domaric..."
   The older man did not allow him to continue. "You understand, Mr. Braff, I admire ambition in a young man. I myself understand danger, and how it leads to success for he who braves it. Now there are risks I am unwilling to take, but that doesn't mean I distrust he who does take it. So, reckless as your plan appears to me, I would not stop you; in fact, I wish you every bit of luck, so long as your interests don't, uh, conflict with mine. But that is all; thank you, and good day."
   Basanda's son stood abruptly. His relaxed stance had changed back to that of a wary and calculating predator. "Very well, Don Domaric. I would not voice my disappointment, here in your office. Good day." Without a glance at the other three present, he turned and strode out the door.
   Domaric waited for his children to comment. When they remained mute, he spoke up. "I suppose you all think I've just thrown away our family's future."
   "Not that, father," replied Grantuck. "But you know this Braff is very likely to succeed. His own cunning aside, he'd easily get one of the other Dons--if not all the other Dons--to support him. And then there is the fact that, even some of the honest officials under no one's pay have been reconsidering the laws prohibiting Vandals from becoming a part of our society. If someday they are welcomed to live among us, what Braff just said: the building of Vandal communities, the trafficking of those goods they desire--this will all come true. Someone would definitely be controlling the market and reaping in profit then, and that person would probably be Braff. Power goes with gold, and when a person has power the first thing he does is to eliminate potential enemies. By not cooperating with Braff now, pops, we might very well be risking everything we have in the long run."
   "And if he fails--which might be for the best," Arrawnt interjected, "We get compensation from Don Basanda. It's win-win for us if we agree, pops." Beside him, Mageron nodded in agreement.
   Domaric sighed heavily. "Arrawnt, Mageron, Grantuck--I know you're saying this for the good of the family. But still I must remain firm on this. The Vandals are not ones to be trifled with. They are cunning, ruthless, and evil. If it were in my power, I'd keep them from ever setting foot in our territory. Only because of my promise to Braff not to oppose him, though I disagree with him, do I refrain from sabotaging his efforts. Perhaps there will come a day when the Vandals will live among us; but I would not want to have helped make it happen. I do not force you to act as I did today, when someday I retire. But, uh, for now, I will not change my opinion." Before anyone could reply, his eyes fastened on Arrawnt. "And what's wrong with you, eh? I think your brains have gone soft, playing with all those girls and all. Arrawnt, don't ever let anyone outside the family know what you think, understand? Now go get the guards in here."
   Arrawnt nodded, red-faced, and left the room. In a minute he'd returned with three of his father's oldest and most trusted henchmen--James, Campbell, and Fidelity. Expectantly they stood before their master.
   The Don sat back in his seat. "Campbell, how was the job?"
   The centaur smiled in grim satisfaction. "I didn't get to kill that abusive groom, but he hightailed outta Stamp so fast I reckon we'd never see his ugly face again. Mr. Hans, and his daughter Hedoba, are most grateful."
   Fidelity stepped forward. "Don Domaric, while you were meeting with that young man Braff, a messenger brought this along." He showed them a crimson envelope. "Mageron is being invited to perform, for as long as he likes, at the Storich tavern and hotel."
   The brothers exchanged winks. "Good luck bro." Arrawnt offered.
   The singer breathed a sigh of relief, then looked at Grantuck. "Thanks," he said softly.
   "You'd better prepare to go soon," instructed Domaric. He beckoned the third henchman. "James, come here. I have a mission for you." He waited until the burly human was standing before his desk before saying, "I am worried about this Braff. Even if I were not to affect his plans, I would want to know just what he is doing. I want you to go to him, and offer to join him. Tell him, uh, that you're unhappy working for me. Tell him I'm firing you, after all your years of loyal service. Go aid him with his plans...and tell me what you learn."

   Holding hands, Medion and Synbios walked through the busy market of Aspinia. All around, merchants held up their wares, shouting their best offers and haggling whenever a potential customer complained. Shoppers pushed to get to their destinations, or held up traffic by stooping to examine the goods with no regards to people behind them. The laughter of children combined with the demands and pleas of their bargaining parents; livestock contributed to the rambunctious chorus with their own unique grunts and shrieks. To anyone else, it was just another chaotic day in one of the busiest sections of the great city. But to Medion and Synbios, the mayhem meant little. For they were in love.
   Synbios was chattering gaily. "Next time we visit your family, I want to bring everyone a present from my hometown. I think I'll get a new cape for Arrawnt, maybe some skin lotion for Grantuck, and a few special Aspinian silk gowns for Isabella. As for Mageron...I don't know what to give him. I bet fans shower him with gifts all the time." She looked up teasingly at Medion. "Do you think he'd like a kiss from me?"
   "I'd like one," replied he with a chuckle. He looked about at all the stuff being peddled and sold, asking with shyness he never felt before. "Um, can I get you anything?"
   She clutched his arm tighter. "All I want is you," Synbios told him.

   They spent the night on the other side of town, in a cheap but classy inn. There was only one bed in their room, but that was just fine.
   A few hours before dawn, Medion surprised a passing night man by poking his head out and asking when he'd be able to send a letter to Destonia. After learning he'd have to wait till after breakfast, he promptly crawled back into bed, where a sleepy Synbios snuggled up next to him.
   "What was that for?" She wanted to know.
   He laughed softly. "I told Father I'd be back today. Now I've changed my mind."
   She giggled and hugged him. "I'm very persuasive, huh?"
   "Very," he agreed.
   Synbios propped herself up on one elbow and regarded him seriously. Her voice took on a teasing tone, but Medion heard the underlying fear and anticipation. "Then can I persuade you to marry me today?"
   He arched his eyebrow and pretended to give it careful thought. She waited, then slapped him playfully on the arm. "Don't fall asleep!"
   Medion kissed her. "Of course I'll marry you, but first I'll need your father's consent. Then my father and yours would have a hearty argument about where the ceremony should be held, and there'd be guests to invite, old flames to be notified..."
   She sighed and laid back. "Can't we just run away, and marry quietly, without any of this fuss?"
   He shook his head. "We run away, both of our fathers would send entire armies to search for us. Conrad would think someone kidnapped you, and Pops would assume someone assassinated me..."
   "That's why I want us to run away," Synbios told him. In the dim light she looked both fragile and determined, like a dove awaiting dawn before she took flight. "I can steer you away from the violent ways of your family."
   Medion groped for her hand, found it, and gripped it tightly. "Synbios, I promised you I wouldn't become like my father. My family means a lot to me, but that doesn't mean I'll ever act like them." Instinctively he hugged her to his chest. "Sleep now, honey. We have a big day before us."

   Mageron spent a whole hour in front of the mirror before he felt ready to set out for Storich. Without doubt, the long train ride would force him to preen again when he arrived; but as a famous performer he had to make sure he looked like a star, wherever he went.
   He ran into his father in the hall. The Don was looking about, seemingly irritated. Concerned, he asked what was wrong.
   "Nothing, son," answered Domaric. "It's just that I can't find, uh, Franz. He was supposed to drive me to the market for some fruit, and now he's not here."
   Mageron thought back and remembered Grantuck telling him that the centaur had called in sick early that morning. He informed the Don, then offered to drive his father himself.
   The Don smiled warmly. "But you have a train to catch, Mageron. You must not let us down."
   "It's ok, pops," Mageron told him. "I like doing the driving for a change. I can still get to the station in plenty of time."
   Together, father and son stepped out the door.

   James clutched his blade tightly as he trudged down the empty hallway of the abandoned chapel. Braff, upon hearing his petition, had arranged to meet him, and now he was here to keep the appointment.
   The aged mercenary knew he did not have the brains his master possessed--that was the reason Domaric had been his boss all these years, ever since they started working together. James did not mind, for Domaric treated him fairly, and was often more like a friend than a boss. He knew Domaric often sent him on the most dangerous of errands, but took this as a show of confidence in his abilities. For he trusted his master: he was sure Domaric would do everything humanly possible to see his henchman return unharmed. What's more, he knew his job, and realized very well the dangers involved. His son did too, yet eagerly learned his father's trade. James knew that in Domaric's hands, Julian would be as safe as a soldier of fortune could ever be.
   This did not keep him from feeling a bit of fear and trepidation, however, as he ventured into the ruins. According to Domaric, Braff was a sly youth who would almost certainly become the family's most dangerous rival someday. The master didn't wish to have him killed outright, for he respected the boy's mother, Don Basanda. Nonetheless he wanted to know exactly what Braff was up to. It was up to James to find out, and the mercenary felt every bit the urgency his master must be experiencing. After all, Julian would be serving the Don's heir. The future of Domaric's family, then, was the future of James’s family.
   He turned a corner, and saw up ahead Braff waiting for him with a single bodyguard. James began to breathe easier. Two opponents he could handle, should this be a trap. The halls were uncluttered and straight; there would be no room for hidden assassins to conceal themselves.
   Braff greeted him with a welcoming smile as James closed. The younger man offered his hand, and, when James declined to shake it, spoke with the blandest voice imaginable, "It's good to see you, Mr. James."
   The mercenary dismissed the pleasantries with a grunt. Braff continued smoothly, "I'm Braff, son of Don Basanda."
   "I know who you are," James told him.
   Braff held up a keg. "You drink?"
   James did drink, like a fish, and so did his son. But he'd be damned if he drank now. "No thanks."
   "Well then..." Braff leaned forward. "I've heard about you, Mr. James, and about the unfairness with which Don Domaric has been treating you lately. Perhaps this is your chance to start a new career, as my aide. I could use your knowledge of Domaric's family and business. What do you say?"
   "What's in it for me?" James rehearsed.
   The younger man's eyes twinkled. "Fifty thousand gold, right from the start."
   James tried not to look surprised. Even Don Domaric hadn't predicted this much. Nonetheless he kept up his act as the arrogant turncoat. "Not bad."
   "It's a deal then?" Braff once again offered his hand. "Thank you, Mr. James."
   "Thank you," replied James. He reached out to take the proffered hand--
   Quick as a spring, Braff grabbed his arm and slammed it down onto the table. Before James could even utter his surprise, Braff had rammed a knife straight through his palm, immobilizing him. The aged henchman opened his mouth to roar his rage at being betrayed; his free hand groped desperately for his weapon--
   He barely sensed the presence of the assassin appearing behind him. His voice died stillborn as a bar was jammed into his throat, choking out his cry, his anger and fear, choking out, bit by bit, his life...

   Grantuck had hardly left the restaurant when he ran headlong into Braff. The young man greeted him in a friendly way, but the advisor could only stare at him suspiciously. If Grantuck remembered right, the henchman James was supposed to meet him, less than an hour ago...
   Braff indicated to a waiting carriage. "Come on Mr. Grantuck, let me take you for a ride, eh?"
   Grantuck took a step away and replied coldly, "I don't have the time."
   "Well make the time, my friend," said Braff. All pretence was abandoned now, and his voice carried a commanding tone much like the Don's. Grantuck met his eyes, and felt a shiver through his spine when he saw the malice lurking there. He remembered James’s appointment, and suddenly felt a profound dread for the mercenary's fate.
   Braff seemed to have read his mind, for he said then, "Oh go on, get in. Don't worry--if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead by now." He took the dragonnewt's arm in a grip of iron. "Come on, get in."

   Mageron waited and watched patiently from the carriage as his father strolled through the fruit stalls, taking his time. Mageron was glad to be here, for his father, today. For more times than he could remember, he'd had to seek his father for aid. His success today was based almost solely on his father's assistance. It was only right for him to help his father, in whichever way he could, when he had the chance.
   As he waited, he thought of his brother Medion, and felt a faint pang. Domaric fussed almost constantly over his children, but worried the most about his youngest son. Mageron knew Medion was both his father's pride and disappointment. Pride, because the kid was so brave and smart. Disappointment, because he used his courage and wisdom to serve his country, not his family. Mageron did not like to ponder whether it was his father or brother who was correct in his way of thinking; he only hoped he would never disappoint his father, like Medion did.
   All of the sudden he heard cries of fear and pounding steps. Jumping up, he spotted to his horror two men dressed almost entirely in black pushing through the crowd. In their hands they carried razor-sharp katanas, and attached to their wrists were wicked-looking missiles.
   They were going straight for Domaric.
   The Don noticed them at the same time Mageron did. Dropping the items he'd purchased, he cried out for his son and ran for the carriage. Mageron drew his sword, but hesitated from leaping to his father's aid. Instead he remain rooted to the carriage seat in his fear, praying his father would make it into the carriage before the assassins reached him, so they could gallop away from danger.
   He realized too late that his prayers were in vain. Swift-footed and sure, the twin assassins gained on their elderly target, delivering quick strokes with their weapons. Domaric screamed, stumbled a few more steps, then toppled against the carriage wheel. The sight of his father's blood spraying onto the dusty road finally jolted Mageron into action: with a furious shout he leapt before the assassins, brandishing his sword. Denied of the finishing blow, the killers drew back, then simultaneously hurtled shurikens at him. Mageron managed to block one, but the other shot past him--and embedded itself in the Don's back.
   Crying in rage and grief, Mageron charged toward his opponents. The assassins, however, assured that their mission had been accomplished, retreated quickly. With astounding agility they leapt over the cowering crowd, and then, just as silently as they'd appeared, vanished into the dark alleys, leaving only terror and bloodshed in their wake.
   Mageron stumbled a few more steps in futile pursuit, then dropped his weapon and threw himself beside his father. The Don lay silently between the carriage wheels, eyes shut tightly. His breathing came in shallow, painful gasps. A pool of blood was spreading slowly beneath his prone form, mingling like red wine with the swirling dust.
   With the heart-wrenching realization of how badly he had failed his father, Mageron wept as he tried to raise Domaric. "Father, no--I couldn't, I...Papa!!!!!!"

   The play was lousy, just as Medion predicted. Nevertheless, they were laughing when they left the theater.
   Medion screwed up his face and pretended to be the jilted lover in the play. "Julio, Julio, where are you?" Synbios giggled until her face was a delicate pink, and Medion needed several minutes to catch his breath.
   "Medion..." She leaned against him. "Would you want me to be a spoiled but terribly popular girl like in the play?"
   "Nah," replied Medion, chuckling. "I wouldn't be able to tell a difference."
   She grinned and pinched his arm. "Then would you like it better if I was that famous actress?"
   Medion put up a show of considering the idea. "Hmm...maybe." Caught up in teasing her, he didn't notice she'd stopped walking and was staring horrified at someone sitting on a bench.
   "Medion, look."
   "No, I would still like you as yourself," he decided, looking up. Only then did he realize she was behind him. He turned, and almost immediately saw what stopped Synbios.
   It was the paper a man was reading. The headlines stood out like granite blocks: "Don Domaric Feared Murdered"

   Arrawnt paced within the confines of his house, agitated like a caged tiger. Ever since hearing about the attack he'd wanted to rush to his father's place, to check on Domaric and Mageron. But he understood that no assassination attempt was ever accidental--when one was planned, chances are others were prepared as well. As the direct heir to his father's wealth and power, he could very well be the next target.
   In the living room, his wife, Sandra, had just put their baby son to sleep. She walked softly up to him, and buried her face in his chest. "Oh, my god..."
   Arrawnt hugged her lightly, his mind elsewhere. "Damn, I just hope everyone else is ok. Grantuck should be here by now."
   They both jerked up their heads at a crash outside their door. Immediately Arrawnt pushed his wife away and picked up his blade. "Get back, now!" As Sandra picked up little Arrawnt Jr and ran to the back room, he leaned by the door and demanded in a harsh whisper, "Who is it?"
   "It's me, Campbell. Open up."
   Arrawnt let out a tense sigh and unbolted the door. The centaur was in within a second, and the door locked back up just as fast. Domaric's eldest son regarded Campbell with a steely glint in his eyes. "Well?"
   "You ain't safe here," Campbell said. "In half an hour one of our carriages will be here to pick you all up. Everyone would be safer if we stayed at the Don's."
   "Tell me something I don't know," growled Arrawnt. "How's my father?"
   "Bad, very bad." The burly centaur shook his head. "Some of the men are saying he's already gone."
   Arrawnt gritted his teeth. "Watch your mouth." Then: "Where the hell was Franz?"
   "Sent a note, said he was sick," Campbell told him. "His wife Spiriel wasn't at her post today either."
   Arrawnt swore violently. "Goddam traitor, he knew about this. I want him dead, you hear? I want him and his wife both dead. Go get him yourself soon as you can, and send someone after that red-haired broad."
   "Alright," the centaur nodded, then exited as quickly as he entered.
   Campbell hadn't been gone two minutes, however, when someone rapped on the door again. Cursing, Arrawnt took a firmer grip on his weapon and opened the door.
   Outside stood a young, blue-feathered birdman. He blinked in bewilderment at Arrawnt's bloodshot eyes and ready blade, then held out a letter. "Mr. Arrawnt?"
   The human tore the piece of paper from his grasp and slammed the door in his face. Dread trickled like icy water through his body as Arrawnt tore into the unmarked envelope. He realized this could be anything--from a letter requesting he paid some long-forgotten debt to more ill news concerning his family.
   It was associated with the latter, just as he'd expected. As he leaned against the doorframe Arrawnt marveled at the guts and genius of the enemy. Guts, for daring to try to kill his father, then offer to make peace with him; genius, for putting it in a way he could hardly refuse. He wondered now about Domaric's warning regarding Braff. As usual, the Don had sensed danger before the rest of the family.
   But he hadn't been able to save himself from it.
   Arrawnt was glad his son was still too young to understand anything. The obscenities he shouted as he tore the letter into shreds were not pretty.

   Braff did not sit far from his captive, yet for some reason would not sit at the same table. In the darkened tavern where he was held prisoner, Grantuck watched his kidnapper curiously, and waited.
   Finally the youth dismissed the henchman he'd been conversing with and spoke bluntly. "I've just received word. Your boss is dead, Mr. Grantuck. My men carried out their missions flawlessly."
   The advisor stared disbelievingly at him. His first thought was to deny it, though the idea left his mind as soon as it was formed. He knew Braff would not bluff about something like this. His next impulse was to throw himself at Braff, to extract whatever vengeance he could before they killed him. This thought was equally fleeting--Grantuck was an extremely reasonable person, and knew how futile any violence from him would be. So he sat, mute and shocked, waiting for Braff to continue.
   His captor seemed to have noted the brief struggle in his mind, for he smirked approvingly and moved to sit opposite Grantuck. "I knew I picked up the right guy. You're not the muscle end of your family, or someone out of control like Arrawnt. You'll listen to reason."
   Grantuck glared hatefully at him. "Arrawnt would be after your hide the minute he learns what you've done. You'll never know what hit you."
   Braff gave him an unperturbed wink. "Oh, he knows alright. But he won't come after me yet, much as he'd like to. I had a message delivered to him, informing him that you're my captive. He wouldn't dare try anything."
   Grantuck replied with a sharp laugh. "If you think a hostage would hold off my brother for long..."
   "Only for a couple of hours," Braff assured him. "What I did was buy your hotheaded brother time to calm down and think. No one wants an all-out war. He'll realize this, given time, and you'll help me convince him peace is the only solution."
   The captive could not believe his ears. "If you think I could be bought..."
   "My tongue is more persuasive than gold," Braff interrupted, "Because I speak the words of reason. Now you listen to me, Grantuck. First of all you know I'm right about the violence--everyone wants to avoid bloodshed. All we want is the smooth running of businesses and the reaping of profits. What I had to do to your father--it just had to be done. Don Domaric was losing his touch; he didn't have what it takes to be a successful crime lord anymore. It was time for him to retire, to let his son take over the business. Arrawnt was all for my plan, wasn't he? He would have agreed to help out. I just made things happen a bit before their time." He saw Grantuck's rage, and added quietly. "Come on, think about it. Ten years ago, could I have gotten to your father so easily? I don't think so."
   Grantuck shook his head. "And now you're trying to act like a friend..."
   "Look," Braff said impatiently, "What's done is done. Nothing can bring the old man back. What you must do now, is to convince Arrawnt we don't need any more bloodshed. You must convince him, and those two goons Fidelity and Campbell, that a truce is the best for all of us. OK?"
   Wearily, the dragonnewt nodded. He hated the idea with every fiber of his being, but his mind knew it was for the best. The thirst for vengeance and prolonged fighting would only mean more loved ones lost. If they could forgive such a heinous crime...there would be hope, for them all. "I might be able to call off Campbell and Fidelity, even Arrawnt. But I don't think I'd be able to stop James if he decides to come after you..."
   A sinister look flickered through Braff's remorseless eyes. "Don't worry about James."
   If you killed him, there'd be another person I wouldn't be able to stop, thought Grantuck. He nodded silently.
   Braff stood, seemingly satisfied that the business was concluded for the day. "You may leave now. Don't try to follow me though--I'm sure you needn't be told twice." He turned his back on Grantuck and headed for the door.
   The dragonnewt sat back in his seat, unable for a moment to stand. The Don had been killed that day by the same man who'd just walked out the door, the same man who'd just entrusted to him, like an errand, the keeping of peace. Fury and shame burned in his heart, but he knew what he had to do. Slowly, he tried to get up.
   The slamming of the door as Braff suddenly reentered the tavern threw Grantuck back into his seat. The human slammed his fist violently on the bar. "Dammit, they say the Don is still alive! Goddamit the old bastard is hard to kill!" He pointed at the stunned Grantuck and growled, his words nearly incoherent with frustration: "This is bad luck for me, but it'll be worse luck for you all if you can't convince your brother!"

   Much to Campbell and Arthur's surprise, they found that, a day after the attempt, Franz was still holed up in his house. The traitor's wife was nowhere to be seen--maybe she was smarter, and had cleaned out first.
   Campbell could smell Franz's suspicion and fear, but he kept his tone light. His wife had asked him to go buy some food for the weekend; would Franz like to come along? They'd definitely stop at a bar somewhere along the way. Campbell cursed his nagging mate like a Lizard-Man, calling her a whore and vowing not to take orders from her, ever. At his side, Arthur watched and smiled at the act.
   It was obvious that Franz wanted to refuse, but it was also obvious he did not have the guts to. Campbell wondered why he stayed behind at all. He should've known Arrawnt was shrewd enough to realize his part in the betrayal, and that retribution would be swift as lightning. Perhaps he hoped to quiet the suspicions by not fleeing--if so, his wife was definitely smarter than him, if not a bit heartless.
   The three centaurs left for the market, with Franz between them like a trapped dog. They chatted casually--or at least Campbell and Arthur did--about everything there was to talk about. They did not avoid mentioning the assassination attempt, for it'd be unnatural not to speak of it. They cursed at that damn SOB Braff, and agreed Mageron should've acted sooner. They wondered why Domaric left the house with only his son to guard him. In all their chatter, they did not mention Franz's absence that fateful day.
   They picked up the grocery--a mere loaf of wheat bread. Campbell did not look at Franz, but he knew the traitor was quaking inside. The poor excuse was a dead giveaway; Franz would realize that, just as Campbell wanted him to. He wanted Franz to know what hit him before he died. For a moment he wondered if the coward would try to flee, and shot a quick glance at Arthur. The white centaur nodded calmly: he was prepared for anything.
   Franz missed his chance there in the crowded market, choosing instead to follow the other two on their way back. Campbell couldn't figure out whether the guy was simply stupid or hoping that playing innocent would save him. It didn't matter: either way he was a fool, a fool who'd soon be dead as well.
   He stopped at the entrance to a bar. He and Arthur had chosen this place earlier, for the quiet streets and secluded spot. Arthur had even planted an unmarked weapon in the shrubs. "Come on guys, let's go drink to the health of my ugly whore so I'll have a story to tell her when I get home."
   Franz laughed weakly. Perhaps he too recognized the place of his execution. "You know what, I'm still a bit ill. Why don't you two boys go ahead, and I'll go on home. We'll have a drink together some other day."
   Campbell shrugged. "OK, whatever you say." He paused, as if pondering something, then stuffed the bit of grocery into Franz's hands. "Take this to my place then, OK? Since you're set on going before us..."
   The second Franz's hands were occupied, Arthur reared up behind him, halberd ready. Franz turned and managed to squawk in terror before the heavy weapon came crashing down. The body toppled unceremoniously over the threshold and into the tavern, shocking the patrons and triggering the expected screams.
   Campbell ignored the frightened flock, glowered down at the corpse. He turned to calmly instruct Arthur: "Leave the halberd. Take the bread."

   Medion jumped from his carriage before it came to a complete halt, and raced toward the mansion. Recognizing him, the guards at the gate stepped quickly aside.
   His heart pounding, threatening to burst, Medion charged through the front door, into the waiting arms of his big brother. Arrawnt clutched him tightly for a second, then stepped back to look him up and down. "Thank God you're unharmed."
   Medion looked around wildly. Just about everybody was crowded in the living room. Everybody, that is, besides Domaric. He whole body quivered so much he had trouble speaking at first. Finally he croaked out, "Where's Father?"
   "Don't worry, he's alive," replied Arrawnt grimly. His voice made it clear there was plenty to worry about. "Mageron didn't think Pops would be able to make it back here, so he and some others managed to get him to Vagabond--the place happened to be parked right by the market, thank God. The healers there say it'd be dangerous to move him, so that's where he'll stay for the time being. I have half the guards down there protecting him. Uryudo is there too, helping the healers in any way he can..."
   Medion shook his head. "But I want to see Pops."
   "You'll see him in a few days," assured Arrawnt. "But not now. I don't care what Braff says; I don't trust that SOB to just call it quits. I want everyone here, together, for a few days."
   Medion had to agree. As he entered the living room, however, he noticed an absence, and asked his brother, "But where's Mageron?"
   "On his way to Storich," answered Arrawnt firmly. "He's not doing any good around here, and I didn't want those idiots at Storich to think we'll concede territory just because Father was hit bad. In any case, even Braff wouldn't touch Mageron. He's a civilian, and Braff knows it." He breathed tiredly. "It's not like Braff would be afraid of witnesses..."
   Medion sat down besides Melinda. His mother smiled sadly at him and took his hand, but said nothing. To Medion it seemed like she had become ten years older since last they met. The anguish in her beautiful eyes was such that Medion felt his own eyes burn. He bowed his head, searching for some words of comfort, but none came.
   Near him, his brothers began discussing Braff's proposal with Campbell. Medion did not look in their direction, but listened intently all the same.
   "...no way we can do that, that's just too many." Grantuck was saying to Arrawnt.
   "I agree." It was Campbell. "It's just too much bad blood. Braff, Basanda, Desseheren..."
   Arrawnt grunted angrily. Grantuck continued, "We can't make this too personal. The key is Braff--he's leading others around by the nose. Everything will fall in line if we kill him..."
   Medion turned to them at that. "Who'll do the killing?"
   He felt Melinda squeeze his hand. The trio stared at him, surprised, then chuckled. Arrawnt shook his head. "I don't want you to get involved, ok Medion?"
   He nodded, and resumed staring at his feet.
   Grantuck went on: "I'm worried about James. Anyone has any idea where he might be?"
   "Maybe he's sleeping over at some slut's place," mumbled Campbell.
   "No. My father wouldn't do that." The new voice clearly surprised everyone. Medion turned to see a young, red-haired teen. The boy was even younger than him, but wore the armor and weapons of a mercenary. His gaze was bold, even challenging--quite unlike any goon Medion knew. Medion could not remember his name, but the image of himself dressed like the boy flashed through his mind. The image was chilling, yet frighteningly fitting...
   Arrawnt cleared his throat awkwardly. Obviously James' son possessed a quality even his intimidating father lacked. "OK then Julian...we'll just have to wait." He turned back to Grantuck. "Go on."
   "If Father should die, heaven forbid, a lot of our power would go with him. The other Dons would almost certainly wind up on Braff's side then, just to prevent all-out war. Nobody wants bloodshed, Arrawnt. We have to avoid it no matter what, and let the others realize we'd rather have peace. So if Father dies...you make the deal, Arrawnt."
   Medion could feel the heat in his brother's response. "That's easy for you to say, he ain't your father!"
   Grantuck's answer was calm and sad. "You know he's as much a father to me as he's to you."
   In the silence that followed, Campbell spoke up. "Me and Arthur took care of Franz by the way. Won't see his ugly face no more."
   Arrawnt nodded his approval. The door opened suddenly behind them, and everyone turned.
   It was Fidelity. Looking uncomfortable, he stepped forward clutching something to his chest. "This was just delivered to the gate..." He dumped it on the coffee table.
   Medion recognized James' blade, wrapped in a dripping cloak. Arrawnt unwrapped the garment, and a few dead fish spilled out onto the carpet. "What the hell is this?"
   Campbell cleared his throat, looked at Fidelity. Neither seemed eager to explain. Julian's voice rang out again, rough and deadly. "It's an old mercenary code. It means...it means my father sleeps with the fishes."

   Medion didn't want to remain within the house, where his brothers discussed the business with their posse of henchmen. Though the tension clung to the entire estate like a heavy mist, he managed to find temporary refuge by sitting on a bench, by himself, outside in the garden. He thought about his father, about the good times they'd share in his innocent childhood, and tried not to envision Domaric lying in some strange building fighting for his life.
   A voice called his name. He looked up and saw Campbell poking his head out a window, waving an envelope at him. Reluctantly, Medion got up and headed back into the house.
   The letter was from Synbios, asking how he was, how his father was. Medion considered writing back, then decided against it. A strange idea was growing inside him, a notion he wasn't even sure of yet. It was as if all the recent disturbances had awakened something buried within, and that something was taking form even as it clawed its way toward surface. He didn't know just what the results may be; he wanted to see Synbios one more time before this twisted infant burst free--so he'd go see Synbios tonight, and answer all her questions in person. In any case, he'd wanted to visit his father too.
   He looked up and around, only to catch Campbell reading the letter over his shoulder. The centaur wore an impish grin as Medion hastily hid the piece of paper. "Hey Medion, why don't you write back and tell that nice girl you love her?" When the boy murmured sheepishly and tried to escape, he continued in an exaggerated opera voice, "I love you with allll my heart! If I don't see you again, I'm gonna die!"
   Medion couldn't hide his grin, but a trace of sadness tinted his every expression now. "Perhaps I will tell her." He caught Arrawnt's eye, and said, "I'd like to go see Pops today. I won't be long."
   Arrawnt frowned. "It's still dangerous...but alright, just let me send someone with you, OK?"
   "It should be OK," Campbell piped up. "Braff knows he's a civilian too."
   Arrawnt sighed. "OK, Medion, go ahead. Don't come back too late."
   Medion nodded and opened the front door. As he stepped out into the morning sun, he heard Arrawnt murmur to Campbell: "Send someone with him anyway."

   Dinner with Synbios was tense and uncomfortable. Medion knew in his hearts of hearts that this might be the last time they met, but couldn't bring himself to be cheerful for her sake. There was just too much on his mind.
   They ate nearly in silence. Synbios kept stealing glances at him with big, worried eyes, but would not say anything. Medion knew they were both thinking about Domaric, but also realized she didn't want to talk about it anymore than he did.
   Finally he stood up. "I have to go..."
   "Can I go with you?"
   Medion knew she meant well. He wanted her to go with him, actually. He wished they could go away together from this mess, just as she proposed in that hotel room, seemingly a lifetime ago. But no. Fate had dealt him a cruel card, and he had to play the hand. There was little neither of them could do.
   "There'll be all sorts of people there," he replied. "Goons, town guards--it'll be dangerous. I'll go alone."
   "I'll stay in the carriage," she promised. "Please."
   He wouldn't look at her. "Go back to your father's place, in Aspinia. I'll write you."
   Synbios did not protest this time--perhaps she knew it was for the best. But she had one last question: "Will I ever see you again?"
   "Goodbye Synbios."

   The minute his ride dropped him off in Vagabond, he sensed something was wrong. There wasn't a soul in the streets. Medion's unease grew as he walked, unchallenged, into the healer's tent.
   He looked about and saw, to his dismay, not a single healer or guard. There didn't even seem to be any patients. Worried, he checked room after room, before finally discovering his father lying motionless in bed.
   Medion leaned over Domaric, fearing the worst. Then the Don gave a weary sigh in his sleep, and Medion slumped with relief.
   A gentle hand tapped his shoulder. He jumped half a meter, turned around. He stared into the serene face of a Kyantaur healer in flowing robes.
   Her voice was melodious but stern. "Please. You'll have to leave."
   Medion swallowed. "My name is Medion; I'm Domaric's son." He fidgeted under her scrutiny, then spoke in a voice every bit as steely: "Where are the guards?"
   She regarded him a moment. "I made them all leave. There were just too many visitors, and they were disturbing your father's rest." She pushed him gently. "And now you must leave too."
   Medion was incredulous. "You ordered all the bodyguards to leave and they just left?"
   "No," she explained. "The captain of town guards was here. He suggested it, and I agreed. He used his authority to chase everyone away."
   "But who'd be left to guard my father?"
   For the first time a hint of confusion clouded her clear eyes. "He promised to have his men come take over. They must be late..."
   "No," Medion told her. "It's not that simple. Do you have a messenger of some sort? Someone who can get a message to my family really fast?"
   She nodded, and left the room. Medion found a piece of paper and scribbled a note to Arrawnt. In a few minutes she returned with a young birdman. "This is the messenger."
   Medion stuffed the note and a few coins into the birdman's hands, instructing him to make haste. After the messenger had gone, the Kyantaur once again plucked at Medion's sleeve. "You should leave now."
   He looked at her. "What's your name?"
   "Listen Grace, I need you to help move my father to another room."
   Her tone became stern again. "That's out of question."
   Medion gripped her shoulders impatiently. "Look, you know who my father is? Men are coming to kill him. Now please, help me move him."
   There was no surprise or fear on her calm face; she merely paused, considered. Then without a word, she bent over the prone figure, and lifted the gravely injured man with startling strength and gentleness.
   Together they found another unused room and laid Domaric down. Medion glanced about nervously, expecting any minute to hear the footsteps of approaching assassins. He bent over his father, realizing in his heart that he'll have to shield the Don with whatever power he possessed. It was his duty, and wish, to protect Domaric.
   He kissed his father's cheek, whispering, "Don't worry Pops. I'm with you now...I'm with you."
   A slight smile formed on Domaric's face; from beneath his tightly shut eyelids, a single tear emerged.

   Medion made some hasty preparations, then looked nervously out the door. Grace appeared behind him again. "I don't think your men will arrive in time."
   Medion agreed. "Look, I know this is asking a lot of you, but you must help me stop them."
   She raised her eyebrows. "How?"
   He explained quickly, adding at the end, "This might cost both of us our lives."
   Grace seemed undaunted. "My job is to protect my patients."
   Together they stood at the entrance. Grace had taken off her robes and wore a simple leather attire; in her hand she held her ankh. Medion clutched a crossbow someone had left in the tent, his eyes darting as he surveyed the empty street. He had been unable to find arrows to go with the bow, and wondered how they were going to pull this off.
   Five minutes had hardly passed when they heard, in the distance, the rapid pounding of hooves. In a minute an unmarked carriage had appeared, making a beeline for the healers' tent. It slowed as it neared--the driver was obviously surprised to see the pair at the door. It stopped not ten feet from the entrance. Baleful eyes glared out at Medion and Grace from behind darkened glass.
   His heart pounded, but his hands, surprisingly, did not shake. While Grace stared back at the confused assailants, Medion calmly lifted the bow and made as if to draw a bolt from underneath his cloak. The eyes disappeared; muted oaths and orders were heard; in a minute, the carriage had thundered off into the darkness.
   The Kyantaur leaned against her staff. Medion himself felt his knees go rubbery with relief, and once again found the strength to look stolidly about, as if welcoming new challengers. There were none--until, a few moments later, another larger carriage barged down the street and stopped right in front of them.
   This one was clearly marked. It belonged to the Vagabond guards.
   Medion stuffed the bow into Grace's hands and shooed her away as he stepped forward to meet the guards. The one in command took one look at Medion and ordered: "Lock him up!"
   He did not struggle as the guards grabbed him, though he wanted to rip the captain's head off. It was obvious whose payroll the corrupt official was on. "What happened to the men protecting my father, captain?"
   The man stared at him. "You little bastard...what the hell are you doing, trying to teach me my business? I pulled them out of here! How the hell you slipped through I have no idea, but I want you away from this place!"
   This time Medion did struggle. He refused to be pulled onto the carriage, and stood as if rooted before the entrance. "I'm not leaving until you get guards to protect my father!"
   The captain's eyes glowered with impotent rage. Medion wondered just how much he was missing for failing to clear the way for Braff. "Boys, take him in!"
   The guards holding Medion hesitated. Finally one of them said, "Sir...he's unarmed. We can't just grab him like this."
   The captain spat on the ground. "I don't give a damn! Get him in the carriage, now!"
   "But sir...he's a war hero. A lotta people are gonna be furious if they learn how we're treating him..."
   "Goddamn it, don't give me excuses. Take him in--that's an order!"
   Medion sensed the cowering guards were about to give in. He raised his voice. "How much is Braff paying you to set my father up, huh?"
   The captain lost control. His fist came hard and fast, impacting upon Medion's jaw with a sickening crunch. Medion's head snapped up, and he nearly lost conscious.
   Dimly he heard the sound of more carriages charging up. He shook his head to clear the stars. Grantuck had arrived with at least a dozen of their men, in three separate carriages. Ten of the goons immediately set about to secure the area, while Grantuck strode arrogantly up with two men in tow. "That's enough, captain. We've come to take care of the business. Now let my brother go."
   The captain looked as if he wanted to punch Grantuck as well. He glanced at the squad of henchmen and clearly had second thoughts. With an animal snarl he ordered: "Let him go."
   Medion almost fell, but clung on to Grantuck's arm. Together they watched the guards climb back into their ride, the captain cursing nonstop. In the distant horizon, pale fingers of light were showing. It would soon be dawn.

   Campbell, Fidelity, and the three brothers ate their breakfast in silence. Outside, henchmen milled about, patrolling the vast estate. The mansion felt like a fortress, the dining room a war council.
   Finally Grantuck spoke up. "I didn't recognize a number of the men."
   "New guys," explained Arrawnt. "We'll need the protection, since I had a number of Basanda's people wasted before you and Medion got back. I want them to know we're ready to play rough."
   He looked at the silent Medion. "I have another hundred on the streets, with orders to waste Braff the minute he shows his face. We'll get him."
   Grantuck nodded. Arrawnt studied Medion's bruised face till he looked at him. The older brother grinned. "Look at you. Beautiful!"
   Medion grunted. "Yeah."
   "Guess what--Braff contacted me. He wants to talk. Can you believe this guy? Made another attempt, failed, then offers to talk. The bastard..."
   "What did he want?" Grantuck wanted to know.
   "Peace," snorted Arrawnt. He indicated to his youngest brother. "He wants us to send Medion, to negotiate. Guess he got tired of our faces..."
   "He doesn't think Medion will try anything funny," Campbell said.
   "But what about Don Basanda?" Fidelity asked.
   "He promises that Basanda will call a truce too, if we make a deal with him."
   Grantuck nodded slowly. "Arrawnt, we ought to listen to him..."
   Arrawnt slammed his palm on the table. Everyone except Medion jumped. "No! No way am I going to let that SOB go this time. Playing nice didn't help any, and you all know it. Grantuck, tell them they deliver Braff's head, we call a truce. Otherwise we'll slug it out..."
   Grantuck rolled his eyes. "The other Dons won't just watch us fight, you know. They won't sit still for this!"
   "Then hand me Braff!"
   "Arrawnt, even Pops wouldn't agree to this! You're taking it too personal. It's all part of business."
   He glowered at his adopted brother. "They tried to kill Father and you call this business?"
   Grantuck said carefully, "Even the assassination attempt was part of business, Arrawnt. You know that's how all this works."
   Arrawnt knew Grantuck was right. But he wasn't ready to concede. "Then business stops now, alright? I don't want to make up--just help me win this, OK?"
   Grantuck didn't promise anything. He simply changed the subject. "I found out about the Vagabond captain."
   Medion looked up.
   "His name is Garzel. He's crooked alright, in fact he's more or less like Braff's bodyguard. The problem is, Arrawnt, we can't start killing people like Garzel just to get to Braff. Garzel's an official, the head of the Vagabond guards. We kill him, the people of Vagabond would be against us. How long do you think the family will survive if we alienate so many people, Arrawnt? Even the old man's politicians would abandon us! It'd be absolutely disastrous. So do us a favor...wait a while, think things over."
   The two centaurs nodded in agreement. Arrawnt sighed heavily. "Alright, alright we'll wait..."
   "No." Medion's voice startled them all. He faced them now, with a calm face and steady voice. "We can't afford to wait, and we can't trust Braff. He'll go after Pops again, I know it. We have to kill him."
   Arrawnt shook his in disbelief. The transformation of his little brother from pacifist to mastermind was just too sudden for him. "So Medion, what would we do about this Garzel character?"
   "They want me to negotiate, right? Fine. Tell them we want a meeting, and insist on a public place, like a restaurant. For my safety. They won't tell us where it'd be, of course, so we'll get our informers to find out. Also they'll search me when I show up, so I can't go armed. Somebody would have to plant a weapon there. We meet, we talk, and I'll kill them both."
   The others burst into surprised laughter. Arrawnt shook his head again. "I thought you wanted us to send an assassin. And I thought you said you don't wanna get mixed up with the family business. Listen Medion, you know everyone will be hollering for your head if you do this? Do you think this is gonna be like fighting off bandits, when you outnumber them ten to one and all they do is run? You're gonna have to do it up close, and get blood all over your nice clothes. Come on Medion, that captain hit you once and you're taking this more personal than I am!" He looked at Medion's determined face and patted his head. "The kid..."
   "Who said we couldn’t kill an official like Garzel?" Medion asked stubbornly.
   Grantuck grimaced. "Medion..."
   "No listen," continued Medion earnestly. "We're talking about a captain who's working for a crook. An official that no one would miss. Why can't we kill him, then release the story? The people of Vagabond might even be grateful, you know."
   The others looked at each other, then murmured their assents. Arrawnt looked carefully at his brother and saw both careless confidence and meticulous planning. Medion threw him a wink. "It's not personal, bro; it's strictly business."

   Medion listened carefully as Campbell explained to him how to assemble the weapon. The experienced centaur had designed a rapier that could be taken apart into three pieces; with a coat of rust-colored paint they'd look like ordinary pokers. Once correctly put together, it'd be as deadly as any weapon. Campbell promised to have the pieces near the fireplace of the restaurant where they'd meet--wherever that was.
   As Medion tested the rapier, Campbell coached him. "OK, so you've killed them. What do you do next?"
   Medion jabbed viciously at the air and replied nonchalantly, "Sit down and finish my dinner."
   "Don't fool around. What you do is walk quickly out the door. Don't run, just walk fast. Don't stare at anyone, but don't be afraid to look at anyone either. Remember, they'd be frightened of you. Before leaving, drop the rapier. It doesn't matter--I have dozens of them--and they're impossible to trace." Campbell breathed deeply. "After that, you'll take a long vacation, and wait till everything blows over."
   "How bad will it be?"
   Campbell's eyes became glassy as he thought back. "Ten years ago something similar happened...and it was really bad. But no matter, this is what we have to do. We don't stop Braff now, it'd be too late." He patted Medion's shoulder. "We're proud of you, you know. Proud of you for joining the army and all. Even your father was proud, though he wouldn't admit it."
   Medion nodded, and plodded back into the living room after Campbell.

   It was an hour before the meeting, but their informers hadn't contacted them yet. The bunch of them sat around the living room, their meals untouched, waiting, just waiting. The pressure was unbearable.
   Campbell ventured, "Maybe we can hire a birdman to tail Braff's carriage."
   "The kid's a suspicious one. It wouldn't work." Grantuck told him.
   Arrawnt grunted. "Why don't we just butcher whoever's in the carriage?"
   "Braff might not even be inside, Arrawnt!"
   "This is just too risky," said Campbell. "Maybe we should call it off..."
   "No," Medion piped up. He'd been silent all the while, brooding over what he's about to do. A part of him wished he didn't volunteer for the job--but that voice was a small one, nearly unheard next to his newfound confidence. He knew what had to be done, and was actually glad he'd been able to figure out a way. "Braff would suspect something. I have to go, no matter what."
   Julian strode in then. He glowered at Medion, as if he resented having someone else help avenge his father. The boy dropped a piece of paper on the table. "Got the location."
   They bent over to look. Medion felt a thrill of regret as he recognized the name--a restaurant near Aspinia, where he and Synbios once dated. But almost instantly, the sentimental side was shoved to the back by the calculating side. He smiled. "I know the place. It's got a quiet atmosphere, and most of the customers are family with kids. The lighting is dim, and there is an unused fireplace. It's perfect."
   Campbell stood. "I'll go plant the weapon this minute. Now Medion, remember: you find an excuse to leave the table, quickly assemble the rapier, and kill them. No heroics, no mercy. And make sure they're dead, OK?"
   Arrawnt ordered, "Fidelity, you'll pick up Medion after he wastes them. Medion--don't forget to drop the weapon, alright?"
   Medion nodded calmly to the instructions he'd heard hundreds of times. He waited until the centaurs and Julian had gone, then asked: "How long will I be in hiding?"
   Arrawnt shrugged. "Um...about a year, a year at least, I reckon." Awkwardly he embraced Medion. "Listen, I'll explain to Mom and Isabella why you had to leave like this, OK? And I'll have a letter sent to your girl, when the time is right..."
   Grantuck patted Medion's shoulder. "Take care."
   Medion shook hands with his brothers, then walked into the night.

   Braff's carriage picked up Medion at the gate, then sped off. As Medion's eyes adjusted to the dim light, he was relieved to see only Braff and Garzel, with the latter driving. He'd feared a throng of guards. Either Braff wasn't as shrewd as he thought, or he didn't trust all of his men.
   Or he really thought Medion wasn't capable of killing him. If so, he was in for a fatal surprise.
   Braff gave him a smile. "Our first meeting, Medion. I'm glad you came. We can straighten out this whole mess, this mess that never should have happened..."
   Medion didn't return the smile, answering instead, "Yes, we'll straighten everything tonight. I don't want my father bothered again."
   "He won't be, long as you keep an open mind when we talk," Braff told him. "I promise on the blood of my family. We just have to make a deal. I know you're not a hothead like that Arrawnt; you just can't talk business with him. Now," the young killer continued, "I hope you don't mind, but I'll have to frisk you for weapons."
   Cautious to a degree, then. But Medion had expected this. He nodded and kept still as Braff searched him, wondering if he should ask to frisk them as well. He was positive Braff and Garzel were armed, though he spotted no weapons. Not that it would matter if he took them by surprise.
   Braff nodded to himself and said to Garzel, "He's clean."
   Garzel looked back and shot Medion a grin. The ill-tempered captain from the night before seemed to be in an absurdly light mood. Obviously Braff had been generous with him in light of his failure. "Hey Medion. Sorry about yesterday. I must've been doing this job too long--can't stand nobody talking back to me."
   Medion said nothing and kept his eyes glued to the street. He noticed they were going in the direction of Storich instead of Aspinia. "We going to Storich?"
   "Maybe," was Braff's reply. A moment later, as they entered a dark alley, Braff suddenly grabbed Medion and pulled him out of the carriage. Medion started to struggle, but then noticed another waiting carriage. The three of them hastily boarded it in the dark. Garzel climbed into the front seat, and drove them off in the direction of Aspinia. Medion breathed a mental sigh of relief.
   Braff winked at him confidently. "Hope we didn't surprise you."

   They pulled up at the restaurant and hurried in. Medion looked quickly about, his mind both remembering pleasant memories and planning the killings in a few seconds. Braff found them a table at the center of the establishment, away from the few other patrons, and invited them to sit.
   Garzel busied himself ordering food, but Braff immediately began the negotiation. "Listen Medion, I'm sorry about what happened to your father. I didn't want it to happen, but it's business. Your father's ideas were old-fashioned. You must realize that, and understand why I had to do that."
   Medion nodded, his expression neutral. He was reviewing in his mind the minute details of the plan he's about to carry out, but managed to look interested and intent on reaching an agreement. "I understand."
   Braff smiled. The arrogance and carelessness with which he spoke of the assassination attempt made Medion relish the thought of getting to kill him. "Then let's start from there..."
   "What's important to me," Medion said, "Is that my father's never bothered again. Can you guarantee me that?"
   Braff frowned. "What guarantees could I give you? I'm the one your brother's hunting; I'm the wanted one. I made a mistake, you see. Medion, you must realize I'm not too different from you, and I'm not as clever as you think. Now what I want, is a truce."
   Medion knew Braff was lying through that insincere smile, but something he said made him pause. Yes, perhaps they were not so different. The thought disgusted Medion, but didn't stop him from saying lightly, "I have to go to the toilet. Is that ok?"
   Braff glanced at Garzel, who began to frisk Medion again. But then Braff said, "No, it's alright, I already searched him. Go ahead."
   Medion got up, and walked as causally as he could toward the rear of the restaurant. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted the fireplace, with its stack of pokers, but he didn't dare make a move yet. Their eyes were bound to be on him. Medion entered the stall, closed the door, then waited with his ear to the door.
   In a minute he heard Braff's and Garzel's voices as their food arrived. This was the perfect chance. Yet for a second Medion hesitated, his steps faltering as he neared the brink of the chasm he'd chosen. He knew there would be no going back. Anguish flooded his mind as he thought, once again, of Synbios and his own lost innocence.
   In the next second he'd sneaked expertly out the door, creeping quickly to the fireplace. From Garzel's and Braff's voices it was apparent they were still complimenting the cooking. Medion's hands danced over the pokers, trying not to succumb to panic as he searched. Why did they have to have so many pokers! Then he noticed the three pieces, with their distinctive shade of rust, hidden underneath the others.
   His fingers worked with inhuman speed as he assembled the weapon. As soon as he was sure it was ready, he bolted from his hiding place and charged toward their table.
   If they'd expected an attack, they certainly didn't expect it from the direction of the fireplace. The looks of terror on their faces as Medion neared seared his mind like heated iron, but he didn't pause. With a swift stroke he pierced Garzel neatly in the throat. The Vagabond captain clutched his windpipe, gurgling and choking on his own blood, and toppled across the table. His weight brought the table crashing down with him, sprinkling on him a gruesome confetti of food mingled with blood.
   Patrons screamed and scattered. Medion turned toward his next target.
   Braff had jumped back. The young killer was fast, and though his eyes stilled burned with disbelief and rage he was prepared to defend himself. A knife appeared from beneath his cloak. With a snarl he hurtled it at Medion.
   Medion dodged as the blade whistled past his ear. Pain erupted in his left shoulder, but he didn't pause to inspect the wound. Doggedly, mercilessly, he cornered the man who'd cause his family so much grief.
   Braff picked up a chair and tried to block Medion's attack. The heavy piece of furniture crashed down, nearly snapping the rapier in two, but Medion feinted beautifully. The point shot in, cutting Braff's wrists. With a shout of pain Braff dropped his weapon.
   Their eyes met. Braff spat, and said hatefully, "You bastard, this was supposed to be a negotiation! This was not supposed to be personal!"
   Medion smiled grimly. "This is business. I don't hate you, but..."
   With lightning quick jabs he impaled Braff again and again. The victim screamed, cursed, then dropped into his own pool of blood. There he thrashed like a drowning man before becoming still.
   Medion tossed the bloodied rapier on Braff's body. He paid the gapping waiters no mind as he walked hastily out into the streets, climbed onto Fidelity's waiting carriage, and rode off.

Arrawnt watched patiently from the front door of the mansion as a parade of carriages rumbled up to the gate. Henchmen scurried about under Fidelity's orders, guarding against possible assailants; behind Arrawnt and Campbell assembled the rest of the family, whispering quietly among themselves as they watched the controlled chaos. It was a big day indeed: the Don was coming home.
   As the new head of the family watched healers unload his father from the center carriage, he reflected on how miraculous it was that Domaric was still alive. The days after Braff's slaying had been utter mayhem. Don Basanda had openly sworn to avenge her son, and the three other families had sympathized with her. The people of Vagabond were also furious when they learned their captain of guards had been cold-bloodedly murdered. It was one family against everyone else, with few rules and little restraint. Arrawnt was surprised not a single family member had been killed yet.
   The man everyone wanted his hands on was, of course, Medion. Basanda demanded his head, and had told Arrawnt she'd consider peace only when the murderer of her favorite son was dead. Arrawnt had told her to go to hell. Braff started the whole mess and deserved to die. Everyone in the family was proud of Medion, even if they didn't appreciate the violence. They were determined to see him elude retribution from their enemies. Arrawnt and Grantuck had shipped him off to a safe haven in secret; no one else was supposed to know where he was. Arrawnt wondered how his little brother was coping with having a bigger price on his head than anyone else at the moment. He wondered when they'd be able to welcome Medion back home.
   But for all the casualties, Medion's gambit seemed to have paid off. The Dons were as ruthless as Braff, but they had respect for their old nemesis. Not a single assassination attempt was made on the ailing Domaric. Most of the deaths on both sides were limited to henchmen and the occasional business associate. The people of Vagabond, whose anger was initially every bit as terrible as Basanda's, gradually became pacified as Grantuck had the stories about Garzel's corruption released into the papers. The popular sentiment in Vagabond now was that Garzel got what he deserved for betraying the public's trust and working for a gangster. Basanda's fury could not vanish as easily, but as time went by the other Dons began to withdraw their support and mind their own businesses. It seemed that Domaric's family had indeed rode out the storm. Soon, Arrawnt knew, it would simply be Basanda versus them. And given Braff's popularity with his own relatives, Basanda could not hope to prevail alone. She'd have to concede and sue for peace.
   Arrawnt and the others moved aside as Uryudo and a Kyantaur healer carried Domaric into the house. Grantuck directed them to the Don's bedroom on second floor. Grim and silent, the procession made its way up the stairs. That Domaric was stable enough to be moved home didn't mean he was out of danger; the aged body still needed plenty of rest to recover from the horrible injuries.
   After the Vagabond healers have been paid, thanked, and shown the way out, the family gathered around their patriarch. Domaric was tired but fully conscious. Arrawnt watched as the kids read get-well cards to their grandpa, then shooed the women and children downstairs to prepare lunch for the family. There was still business to discuss for those who ran the gangster empire.
   "Things have been bad since Garzel and Braff's killing," began Grantuck. He played the role of the war counselor flawlessly, to both Domaric and Arrawnt. It was his way to put business before everything else. "Governors and mayors in every city and town are being pressured to crack down on our operations. We can't do business--and neither can the other families--while things are like this."
   Arrawnt attempted to justify their decision to waste Braff. "They hit us, so we had to hit them back."
   Domaric nodded weakly at his eldest son, then motioned for Grantuck to continue. The dragonnewt said, "Thankfully, our contacts with the newspaper companies were very cooperative. They released just about every bit of dirt on Garzel. The Vagabond folks are feeling forgiving now, and so are those big officials. The pressure is letting up, Pops. Things would be back to normal, soon."
   Mageron piped up. "I'm leaving Storich and going back to Saraband, Pops. I'm thinking of giving up the performing career and learning to run a hotel, or a casino. There's a lotta money in that, and I'd be able to contribute to the family business more."
   Domaric acknowledged that with a faint smile, and for a moment seemed to be drifting off. Arrawnt was about to lead his brothers and Campbell and Fidelity out when his father's voice asked worriedly, "Where's Medion?"
   An uncomfortable silence ensued. Arrawnt looked about, and saw no one eager to break the news. He sighed, realizing his responsibility, and told his father, "It was Medion...who killed Braff and Garzel."
   Domaric's eyes fluttered angrily. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then shook his head, as if in despair. A strange sorrow and understanding seemed to pass over his face. Arrawnt took the chance to escape, and the others followed him.

   Arrawnt stopped Grantuck before the advisor entered the dining room. "We can make this end quicker, you know. Just find out where that whore Basanda is hiding, and waste her too."
   Grantuck stared at him. Disbelief and impatience seeped into his voice. "Arrawnt, things are just starting to loosen up. You kill Basanda now everyone will be after us again! Just, just let Father recover, so he can make the deal with the other Dons. It'd be better this way."
   Arrawnt disagreed. "Pops can't do nothing till he gets better! And during that time Basanda'll still be messing with us! I say we take care of this now. I don't believe she had nothing to do with Braff's decision to take out Pops. You know, the same trick with Braff might work on her. Some of her own people would love to see her gone."
   "We kill her too, the other families will realize what we're up to! No one's going to cooperate with us again; in fact they'd be more eager than ever to eliminate us. Arrawnt, you're giving us a very nasty reputation, which isn't helping, you know that?"
   "Isn't helping what?" Arrawnt demanded.
   "The business! We're running out of money fast, you know. This war of yours is costing us too much. We can't go on like this!"
   "Well don't worry about it, the other families aren't doing business either! We have always been more powerful--that's how we survived the days since Braff was wasted. We can hold out."
   Grantuck rolled his eyes. "Our power and resources came from Father's years of maintaining peace between the families and doing good business. We've wasted enough of it already. Any more we'd be broke. Even if we take out Basanda, she'd drag us down with her!"
   Arrawnt had depleted his small reserve of patience. "Look, stop telling me it can't be done, just do it! Goddamn it, if I had a real war counselor, a human, we wouldn't be in this mess! Father had Rogan--who did I get?"
   His adopted brother glowered and said nothing. Arrawnt realized he'd stepped over a line and tried to reconcile. "Look...I'm sorry. I didn't mean that. Um, mom's made lunch. Let's go eat, eh?"
   Grantuck walked past him. "Alright."

   Melinda, Isabella, and Arrawnt's wife Sandra had prepared a wonderful feast. The family sat around the table, enjoying the first family meal in a long, long time. Without the presence of guards in the room, the atmosphere was relaxed, even cheerful.
   Isabella and Sandra chattered about recipes while Melinda fed little Arrawnt Jr. Arrawnt mentioned to Grantuck, "You know it's ironic that the Vandals are actually having a pretty good time with the big officials now that everyone's attention's on us..."
   Crewart sneered. "Those damn brutes. They don't seem too broken up over their buddy Braff's death."
   Arrawnt was about to agree when Isabella looked up resentfully. "Pops never discussed business at the table."
   Crewart glared at his wife. "Hey, shut up, don't you interrupt Arrawnt when he's talking."
   Arrawnt glowered at his brother-in-law. His voice was filled with menace. "Don't you ever tell my sister to shut up."
   Isabella looked worriedly at her big brother. "It's no big deal..."
   Melinda shook her head at Arrawnt. "Don't interfere, dear."
   He nodded sullenly and went back to his food. The tension slowly melted away, and everyone began gossiping again.
   Then Crewart said, "Hey Arrawnt--I could be helping out a lot more with the family business, you know. Maybe we oughta talk about that..."
   Arrawnt didn't even look at him. "We don't discuss business at the table."

   Medion may have been hundreds of miles away from all the chaos, but his mind was in such turmoil it was as if he never left Destonia. Sitting alone in his room, high up between the branches of the ancient, massive trees of Stamp village, he brooded over the past and mused worriedly about the future.
   Just outside his door sat his two bodyguards, Garosh and Bernard. Not far from his abode lived Mr. Hans. Medion knew his father had helped Mr. Hans before, and realized the wood elf was paying his debt by taking in Medion. He wondered whether Hans now rued begging aid of the Don, as he'd more or less invited the troubles of the outside world into the secluded haven. Hans should have known Domaric never granted a favor without an eye to future benefits. For normal, peaceful people, doing business with Domaric was a desperate act indeed, and one they'd very likely to someday regret.
   Medion wondered how his father was, and wanted more than anything else to see him.
   When his thoughts weren't of retribution and killings, he recalled the distant past, with its long-gone innocence, joy, and love. In the stuffy little room those memories were like perfume and candles, wine and music. Sometimes he'd see himself as a boy again, running without a care all over the estate, playing with his father's 'employees.' At other times he'd think of Synbios, and the smile that came with sweeter memories would turn sad. He still remembered very clearly her face, her voice, her touch. He remembered that night in the dark hotel room, when she'd asked him to run away with her. To his ears, his refusal now rang like an ironic reminder of his choice and actions.
   He began to write letters to her, then, even though he knew they'd never be sent. In his letters he tried, again and again, to explain why he did what he'd done. He tried to justify how he'd thrown away their future, to make her realize he hadn't lied, at least not intentionally, when he told her he'd never become like his family. He loved his family; he loved her--and he was forced to make a choice. That was all.
   After a month of this Medion got tired of being stuck in the room, as if it were not a nest but a birdcage. The young man realized there was no telling how long he'd have to live in Stamp. It could be twelve months or twelve years. After all, he'd ruffled the feathers of Don Basanda, who was not a docile mother hen but a cruel bird of prey. Chances were, he'd never be able to show his face in the old town again. And perhaps that was for the best. If he could never fully reclaim the happy past, it would be better if he started anew, here in Stamp. The village was a secluded paradise he'd enjoy, despite his years in the cities. He might actually learn to love the place like home, and never have to go back.
   So he proposed touring Stamp a bit. The bodyguards leapt eagerly up. An entire month on their bottoms made them welcome any hint of action, however remote and unlikely. They cheerfully slung their bows and arrows over their shoulders, like a couple of hunters out for game, and trailed their master outside.
   It was in this way that Medion met Hedoba.

   Mr. Hans at first fretted over Medion leaving the safety of his treehouse. He reminded him whenever they met that Medion's life was his responsibility. It was apparent that Hans thought Domaric would have the entire Stamp crashing down around him if anything ever happened to Medion. But as Medion promised to remain within the village and never go anywhere without his guards, Mr. Hans relented, and even took pleasure in discussing with Medion the sights of his beloved home.
   Bernard didn't talk much, but Garosh pestered Medion constantly to speak about Destonia. When it came to big cities, the blue-haired archer had only been to Saraband, where he'd learned to envy the rich lifestyle of the city folks. He hoped Medion would be pleased with his service and take him to Destonia when he went back. Medion didn't have the heart to tell him he didn't know himself when he'd be able to return home.
   One day, even Garosh's ceaseless chatter was paused when they climbed onto a platform set high up in the trees. There, singing and dancing above a sea of clouds like angels, were a dozen wood elf girls. Silent, spellbound, the three men watched them.
   One of the girls broke away from the group to watch a soaring skylark. She recoiled in surprise when she ran into the three men, hidden behind vines. Her eyes met Medion's for an instant. She murmured something, blushed, then ran back to her friends.
   Numbly Medion turned and descended from the platform, his bodyguards following quietly. Bernard commented, "It seems as if you were hit by a thunderbolt."

   Mr. Hans was waiting with lunch when they arrived at his place. The elderly wood elf smiled warmly. "So boys, where have you been this morning?"
   "We saw some real beauties," Garosh piped up. He slapped Medion's shoulder. "I think this guy here fell in love."
   Hans laughed. "Be careful son, the girls here are more dangerous than swords and knives."
   Everyone chuckled, and Medion had to agree. "She would have tempted the Vandal King himself."
   Their host leaned back. "The girls here are virtuous, though. So what did this girl look like?"
   Garosh considered. "She was in this green and white dress, rather revealing if you ask me..."
   "She has long, brown hair, flowing like willows in the wind," added Bernard with a poetic touch. "And such eyes! Such a mouth!"
   Medion noticed their host had become pale at the description. Before he could interrupt his men, Hans stood abruptly and disappeared into the back room, yelling orders. Curious, Garosh followed and peeped through the curtain. He returned agitated. "Oh damn I get it, it's his daughter! Let's go Medion, or he's gonna kick us out himself."
   Medion felt no nervousness, and not because Hans still owed Domaric a debt. He ordered calmly, "Garosh, go ask him to come and talk with me."
   Garosh shook his head, and Bernard shrugged. "You don't understand--that girl is his daughter!"
   "I realize that. Ask him, Garosh."
   The henchman shook his head at his boss's nonchalance and stepped warily into the back. A moment later he had returned, trailed by Hans and two of the wood elf's hired hands. They looked apprehensively at the men their boss wanted them to throw out, and hesitated.
   Medion ignored them and addressed Hans directly. "I apologize if I offended you, sir; I meant no disrespect, to you or your daughter."
   Hans nodded irritably. His hired hands looked relieved. Medion continued, "Now you know very well who I am, and who my father is. We wouldn't want to disturb your way of life. But I can offer your daughter much--if you'll allow me. I ask to meet her, with your permission, under the supervision of your family."
   The elderly wood elf looked both glad and worried. Dealings with Domaric had made him presume Medion wouldn't act half so decently. He pondered for a long moment, then apparently decided there was less harm in honoring his guest's wish. Medion saw his nervous eyes and knew Hans was remembering, once again, just what Medion's family was capable of. He said, "Come around in a couple of days. We'll have a little party. If my daughter agrees to your courtship, we can start from there."
   Medion stood, bowed, and prepared to leave. At the door he turned and asked one last question: "Pardon me, but what is your daughter's name?"

   When he looked out the window and saw how high the sun was, Arrawnt finally climbed out of bed and began putting on his clothes. Lying on the tussled sheets that were the result of their storm of lovemaking, Bridget smiled voluptuously. "Aww, leaving already?"
   "I have to pick up Isabella," he explained. "She wants to have lunch with her big brother."
   Bridget grinned. "Does she know her big brother is sleeping with her best friend?"
   "Hell no." Arrawnt shuddered at the thought. There were others who knew, though. Sandra suspected he was having an affair; Domaric and Grantuck knew all about it. They frowned on his behaving like this in times of trouble, and gave him a piece of their mind more than once. Arrawnt disagreed, however. He felt there was no point in fighting so damn hard if you couldn't enjoy yourself. And so he took the chance to have his fun, whenever he could.
   Still, personal enjoyments had to make way for family engagements. After all, family came before everything else. He ignored Bridget's repeated seductions as best as he could, promised to come again soon, and made his way out into the morning sun. His guards saw him coming and climbed onto the carriage. In a minute they were off.
   Isabella wasn't at her front door to greet him. Surprised, worried that the black hand of his enemies would not spare even his sister, Arrawnt stepped into the modest cottage. She was waiting for him in the hall, sobbing quietly to herself. As he approached worriedly, she turned away. Arrawnt gripped her thin arms and turned her toward him.
   Her pretty face was a map of bruises and cuts. Arrawnt bit back a curse and dropped his hands. He felt her pain like a blade in his heart.
   "It was my fault," she pleaded. She knew what her brother was capable of in his rage. "I started it. We were just arguing, then I hit him, so he..."
   "Shh, shh," Arrawnt quieted her. "It's alright now."
   She looked into his tight face and enraged eyes and knew it was not alright. "Please Arrawnt, don't do anything."
   "I'm just gonna get a healer to come and look at you," he assured her. In his mind he was guessing where that SOB Crewart would be. He'd teach him a lesson soon enough. "Should I call Uryudo?"
   She nodded, clutched his hands. "Arrawnt, please--don't do anything!"
   He managed a chuckle for her. "Oh come on, what do think I'm gonna do, make your child an orphan before it's born?" When she smiled through her tears, he gave her a brief hug. "Now you stay here. I'll have Uryudo here shortly."
   Without another word he stormed out.

   Arrawnt found Crewart easily enough. The rat was holed up in his favorite bar, flirting with the girls, seemingly unworried about his wife. Arrawnt thought of Isabella, hurt and crying, left alone at home, and strode straight up to his brother-in-law.
   Crewart turned, saw him coming, and with a shout of fear tried to flee. Arrawnt caught him by the scruff of his neck and threw him to the floor. The other drinkers backed away as Arrawnt yelled oaths and began beating Crewart. Those who tried to interfere were stopped by Arrawnt's bodyguards.
   Crewart scrambled to his knees and attempted to crawl away. Arrawnt hauled him to his feet, punched him on the nose, then tossed him against the wall. Before Crewart could move his assailant was upon him again. Arrawnt pummeled him until Crewart's scarred face was even uglier than before; he punched and kicked until he heard Crewart's bones crack and felt his own knuckles bleeding. Finally he backed away, exhausted, and let the barely conscious Crewart slump to the floor.
   Arrawnt gritted his teeth and told him, "You touch my sister again, I'll kill ya."
   He kicked Crewart one last time before leaving. In his wake his goons compensated the bartender for the mess.

   They say in the fairy-tale-like realm of Stamp, love could come like wildfire. That was certainly what Medion felt. His courtship with Hedoba, however constrained by the presence of her relatives and his guards, was what could only be called a whirlwind romance. She was sweet, innocent, and obviously enjoyed how he treated her. Medion learned from Bernard that her previous husband had been abusive--in fact, the Don's favor to Hans was to chase the guy away. In comparison, Medion was every bit of a charming gentleman. Together they'd walk the long forest paths, holding hands, talking and laughing about every little thing. She found his knowledge of the outside world intoxicating; he, her pleasant woodland stories refreshing. In him she found a link to things she'd never known, and in her he discovered a connection to the joys he'd forgotten. With her at his side he thought less and less of the depressing memories. He became convinced that she was his salvation; that he had been given a chance to return to innocence, here in the serene little village, with the beautiful wood elf at his side.
   No news came from the outside world, and that pleased Medion. He didn't want to return home now, even if he could. He had found peace in Stamp. When he'd first confided this in his two bodyguards, Garosh had looked crestfallen, but they'd both agreed it was probably best for everyone if Medion gave up the past and decided his own future.
   Medion and Hedoba would sometimes sit on one of the hanging bridges that connected the treehouses. The fearsome height provided some privacy for the lovers. It was on one such date that Medion got down on one knee, and asked Hedoba to marry him.
   Their wedding was beautiful, more wonderful than any Medion had ever seen. Pretty much everyone in the village came to wish them happiness. Hans watched, both nervous and joyful, as the two pledged their everlasting devotion. Medion had become a permanent member of the peaceful paradise. He would be a loyal son-in-law.
   That night, as Medion and Hedoba made love for the first time, Medion didn't think about Destonia, the Dons, or his family. In the embrace of his newfound joy, he didn't even think about Synbios.

   The guards at the gate wouldn't let her in at first, but Synbios made it clear she was prepared to stand there until she talked to someone in the family. They ignored her and pretended she wasn't there. After an hour had passed and she still relented, the guards once again asked her to go. She repeated her request. The exasperated guards looked at each other, shrugged, and sent someone into the house. Within five minutes Grantuck appeared and hurried to let her in.
   The dragonnewt apologized profusely, but reprimanded her for coming over. "It's not safe, Synbios. You should have simply sent a letter."
   She regarded him angrily. "I have. I sent dozens of letters. Now I want to know where Medion is."
   He shook his head. "I'm sorry, but nobody knows where he is. We only know he's safe--that's all."
   "Give me the name of the town," she implored. "I want to send him a letter. Please."
   He shook his head and seemed genuinely sad. "I'm sorry, but I can't do that. For Medion's safety."
   She fished an envelope out of her purse, and tried to give it to him. "Then could you send this to him for me, please? Please? I just want him to know how much I miss him, how worried I am."
   Still Grantuck refused. "It's too dangerous, Synbios. We don't contact Medion unless it's absolutely necessary. It's just too risky." Gently he pushed the envelope back into her hands. "Just be patient. Medion will contact you--I'm sure of it. We must all be patient."
   Synbios could not reply. She stared at the dirt path and tried to fight away the tears. It had been almost a year since she last saw Medion. His sudden disappearance had hurt her terribly; she'd felt betrayed and scared when she learned what he'd done. But she couldn't blame him, couldn't hate him, because she still loved him too much. All she wanted was to see him again, to know he's safe. Yet she'd heard no word from him, and had been unable to contact him. Even her letters to Medion's family--Grantuck, Isabella, Melinda--had been met with patronizing replies advising patience and endurance. Now that she'd seen Medion's brother face to face and demanded to know more, she'd only been told that she wouldn't be allowed to contact Medion, for his own safety. Her inborn stubbornness would have forced Grantuck to reveal all, but her love for Medion was too acute for her to dream of putting him in danger. She'd stared down the henchmen because of her love; now, her love only made her feel helpless and weak. She lowered her head and did not speak.
   Grantuck put a hand on her arm. There was concern and admiration in the advisor's voice. Perhaps he did understand how she felt, even if he would not help. "Come, let's go inside. It's too late to send you back to Aspinia now. Stay the night; you'll feel better in the morning."

   Isabella prepared dinner in silence. She didn't want to speak with her husband, for fear of another fight. It's been a week since Crewart had limped home with cracked ribs and a bleeding face. He'd cursed when she offered to apologize and nurse him, and had stormed into their room. For the first three days he'd lay in bed, recuperating, eating whatever Isabella brought him. Isabella had slept on the couch in the living room during this time. She didn't mind the discomfort; she wanted to convince her husband, and herself, that love was still possible between them. She did not speak of her own wounds.
   But once Crewart was up and about, he ignored her most of the time, and never spoke without throwing in a few oaths. He didn't thank her for her forgiveness and concern; in fact he wouldn't even apologize to her. He still treated her as a maid and whore, coming to her only to satisfy his animal desires. Isabella began to despair of their living happily ever after, as the fairy tales liked to proclaim. But she didn't want him to hit her, or to have Arrawnt hit him. So she resolved to stay out of his way, and treat him as lovingly as possible. Maybe, just maybe, Crewart would change.
   A knock on the door startled Isabella. Crewart was napping in the living room, and they weren't expecting any guests. Arrawnt had assured her the family's enemies wouldn't try to hurt her, but this brought little comfort as she cautiously tiptoed to the door and, after a slight pause, opened it.
   Outside stood a woman in the revealing attire of a street prostitute. She brushed back her long black hair and winked at her. "Hello darling, is your master at home?"
   Isabella blinked. "My...master?"
   The woman frowned. "Mr. Crewart. You are his maid, no?"
   Isabella could only stare dumbly. The prostitute huffed with impatience. "Well, whoever you are, tell Mr. Crewart I'm here, alright? Go on, hurry--I have a lot of customers."
   With an angry cry Isabella slammed the door in her face, and stormed into the living room. Crewart had been awoken by the commotion and was just getting up. He squinted at her and swore. "What the hell's the matter?"
   "A woman was here to see you," she replied hotly. When he didn't comment, she added, "She was a goddamn whore!"
   He stared at her. "And when was who I see your business, you slut?"
   She could barely restrain herself from slapping him. "I'm your wife you jerk! I'm your wife and you have whores come to our house!"
   Crewart sneered. "And how are they so different from you? You little bitch."
   Isabella screamed in rage and ran into the kitchen, where she began to hurl plates and glasses to the floor. The shattered glass cut her feet, but she hardly noticed. It was so unfair. Hadn't she done everything to keep their marriage happy and fulfilling? She'd been married for only a little over a year, but it had felt like a lifetime of abuses. Crewart had used her like a handmaid and prostitute who didn't cost any. He had beaten her, many times before Arrawnt found out. And she'd endured it all, out of her love for him; she'd shielded him, braved everything--just because she imagined they could be happy together. Only now was it obvious that Crewart had never cared, that he'd never loved her. She had been a fool to let him have his way.
   Crewart had entered the kitchen, where he watched her tantrum with a careless sneer. "Oh, go ahead and break it all, you spoiled little brat. Go ahead--go on and break it all."
   She screamed at him, "Why don't you bring your whore home for dinner, huh?"
   "Maybe I will--why not? She'd be pleased to see another of her kind under this roof."
   Isabella stormed into the living room, where she began to break porcelain vases. Crewart followed, yelling, "Now you clean this up you little brat!"
   She hurtled a vase at him. "Like hell I will!"
   He slapped her so hard she fell to the floor. Isabella grabbed a jagged piece of glass and tried to cut him with it. He knocked it out of her hand. "Oh yeah, go on and try to kill me, you slut. Become a killer like your daddy. All Domaric's children are goddamn killers anyway."
   She struck at him and tried to pick up another piece. "I will, I will! I will kill you you bastard! I hate you!"
   He pulled her up by the hair and threw her in the direction of the bedroom. Isabella saw him pick up a horsewhip and tried to hide in their room. "I hate you, I hate you!"
   He kicked open the locked door easily, and began to whip her mercilessly. "Try to kill me, huh? You little brat, I'll kill you now! Goddamn slut!"
   Her screams echoed in the small cottage, but there was no one to save her.

   Grantuck flipped through some business contracts and sighed quietly. Almost half of their associates were pulling out, and the rest were considering it. The 'war' between the families was costing them dearly. He'd hoped that things would have quieted down by now, and that everything would have gone back to normal. But as the new Don, Arrawnt had insisted on fighting to the death with Don Basanda. Thus the mayhem continued, with no sign of ending. Grantuck hoped Arrawnt would either succeed or come to his senses soon, and knew there were plenty of people, on both sides, who wished the same thing. Bloodshed like this could only damage the underworld. If only Arrawnt and Basanda would call it quits...then they can go on living like they did, before that fool Braff pulled his little stunt. They might even be able to welcome Medion back, if only there were peace.
   Then the message came. By bad luck Arrawnt was pacing idly by the door, and it was he who picked up the crumbled, tear-stained piece of paper. Grantuck heard Arrawnt curse; he put down his papers and went to look over his brother's shoulder. He recognized Isabella's handwriting, albeit shaky and blurred, as if she'd wrote the brief note in pain. Grantuck read enough to realize what had occurred before Arrawnt threw it down in rage. "Goddamn bastard, goddamn SOB!"
   The dragonnewt knew what was going to happen next. He followed Arrawnt as his big brother charged out the door and into the stables. He could barely keep up. "Come on Arrawnt, calm down, calm down!"
   "Goddamn bastard!" Arrawnt repeated as he climbed upon his fastest steed, oblivious to Grantuck's pleadings. He nearly trampled Grantuck as he urged the horse out the stable gate. "Goddamn bastard!!"
   Grantuck despaired of making his brother see reason. In his throes of passion--whether it was lust or rage--Arrawnt was simply incapable of possessing some common sense. He ran to the guardhouse and roused the napping henchmen. "Come on, get off your butts! Follow Arrawnt!"
   The goons knew their jobs. They asked no questions as they piled hastily into two carriages. By the time they rode out the gate, however, Arrawnt was long gone.

   Arrawnt had no idea where Crewart was, but he knew he'd have to check on Isabella first. Chances were that the SOB would be napping in the same room Isabella was bleeding and crying. The thought alone made his blood boil. It hurt him more as he recalled it was he who introduced her sister to that bastard in the first place, and that he'd just recently given Crewart a very clear warning not to abuse his sister. That Crewart had treated his warning as nothing enraged Arrawnt all the more. This time, he vowed to himself, Crewart would learn the lesson, or die like the dog he was.
   He rode hard and fast through the busy streets, leaving the trailing bodyguards far behind. The people doing their midday shopping had to scurry out of the way as the furious man charged by, heedless of whom he might run over. Arrawnt thought of nothing but revenge for his sister.
   He turned and approached a narrow lane--one that he'd passed through every time he visited Isabella. It was a quiet little place, normally not crowded, but today there appeared to be problem. A carriage and a wagon had collided near the center, and the two drivers were arguing heatedly. Arrawnt stopped behind them and cursed. He couldn't wait to get his hands on Crewart. He shouted at the fools to move, but they paid him no mind as they yelled threats at each other.
   Another carriage pulled up behind Arrawnt and stopped as well. The arguing men didn't seem close to reaching an agreement, and now Arrawnt couldn't back out. He swore and leapt off the horse, clutching his blade. If the idiots wouldn't get out of his way, he was going to have to convince them himself. It was a dangerous thing to be interfering with Arrawnt when he was angry.
   It was at this moment the drivers in front of him hit the ground and rolled underneath their respective vehicles. Arrawnt scarcely had time to blink in confusion before the doors of the carriage behind him slammed open, revealing six bowmen. Above him, on the roofs of buildings on both side, appeared another throng of men with taut bows and ready arrows. The glinting steel tips were all pointed at him. Arrawnt's blood turned into ice water when he realized the trap he'd stumbled into.
   The first volley of arrows fell like lethal raindrops. An entire dozen pierced Arrawnt's horse, killing the poor animal on the spot. Another half dozen struck Arrawnt. He screamed in rage and pain, and tried to reach his assassins. He'd hardly taken two steps toward the carriage before the next volley came. Arrows pierced his legs, his arms, his torso. One embedded itself in his cheek. Arrawnt stumbled, fell to his knees. Blood poured from his innumerable wounds, turning the ground into a lake of flowing crimson. Still he tried to hurl his blade at them, as a last show of futile defiance.
   Then an arrow pierced his throat, and Arrawnt, eldest son of and successor to Don Domaric, dropped down into the blood-soaked dirt.

   Grantuck had no choice. The women were sobbing and holding each other, Mageron was sitting around looking ill, and most of the henchmen were patrolling the estate. He knew it was his responsibility then, just as it had been Arrawnt's responsibility to tell the Don about Medion.
   Now it was his turn to reveal the bad news to his father. And this time it was much, much worse.
   Alone he ascended the stairs. The weeping was quieter on the second floor, but still painfully audible. The Don would have heard it, then. He would not be asleep, as Grantuck hoped (so he could sneak away and delay the inevitable) but wide-awake, wondering just what had happened. Grantuck did not look forward to entering the room and showing Domaric his own tear-stained face before confirming, yes, someone has died.
   He paused outside the door, and took a deep drink from his glass of whisky. The wine steadied him a bit, but did nothing to dispel the dread in his gut. Nevertheless he boldly pushed open the door and entered the room. The Don was waiting for him alright. From the sickbed Domaric looked up with shrewd and worried eyes. Grantuck sat down next to his father but was unable, for a moment, to speak.
   His father held out his hand for the wine. "Give me a drop." Grantuck complied, wondering if Domaric had sensed his dread, and was also preparing himself for the news. He watched the Don's throat bob and tried to gather his emotional strength.
   "Now," Domaric began, after emptying the glass. His voice was steady, but the tone quivered. "I hear my wife crying downstairs, and I hear carriages pulling up to the gate. My war advisor, I think it is nigh time you tell what everyone else seems to already know..."
   "I--yes, I was just going to tell you now," Grantuck hedged. He gently took the glass from his father's frail hands and put it on a table.
   "But you needed a drink first," observed Domaric.
   Grantuck nodded, took a deep breath. "They killed Arrawnt, Pops. They ambushed him and shot him with arrows. He's, he's dead."
   The bleak news hung in the still air for a moment, like a ghastly corpse on the end of fate's rope. Domaric closed his eyes tightly and did not say a word. Grantuck leaned over him, concerned that perhaps the revelation had been too much for his ailing father. Then the Don opened his eyes and Grantuck saw the sorrow and anguish that flowed from it. Domaric exhaled, and began to get up from the bed. Grantuck hurriedly admonished him, but grief seemed to have filled the Don with strength. He stood without assistance and ordered grimly:
   "I want, I want all inquiries made. But I don't want any acts of vengeance, from anyone connected with the family. And, uh, I want you to arrange a meeting, with the four other Dons. This war stops, now."
   Slowly Domaric tottered out the door to comfort his family. Grantuck watched, tears in his eyes, and thought of what his father said. Peace, at last. Peace, coming with Arrawnt's death. In his heart he cursed his reckless older brother, even as he wept for him--for ultimately, all that Arrawnt's stubbornness and bloodlust has ushered, was his own death and the long-awaited truce. Death was what had started the war, and now death shall end it. And it was too expensive a price, for any father or brother.

   Medion and Hedoba sang and laughed like innocent woodland children on the top platform, where they first met months ago. The newlyweds were happy, without a care--just as Medion always envisioned for himself and his love. It was as if they were locked within a cocoon of private joy: no one could break in, or tear them apart. They were one and whole.
   At noon they had a little picnic, in the solitude above the clouds. Medion felt as if he were in heaven, enjoying the nectar prepared by his divine love. The simple morsels of food never tasted so delicious. After the meal Hedoba dropped off into sleep, leaning against his arm. Medion smiled at her, tenderly kissed her petal-warm lips, then laid her down in the shade. She murmured peacefully and went on napping. Unable to sleep, but unwilling to disturb her, Medion watched her for a while, then decided to go check on his guards. He descended the bridge to his treehouse--only to find Mr. Hans waiting worriedly for him.
   "Where's Hedoba?" He asked without preamble.
   "I left her on the top platform," replied Medion, confused. The fear on his father-in-law's face reminded him only too clearly of the painful past he thought he'd left behind. The shrapnel of dread that emitted from Hans's voice were piercing his joyous cocoon, marring the restful Medion and summoning to surface his older, more restless self. He felt an ugly premonition in his heart. "What's wrong?"
   Hans took a deep breath, looked around, then leaned close. There was sweat on his brows. "A message was here for you. It was from your family. Your brother Arrawnt...they killed him, Medion."
   Medion felt the blood rush from his head. "My god."
   "It's not going to be safe for you here, anymore," Hans continued, looking just about as faint as Medion was feeling. "Your father wants you to return home, now. Your enemies know where you are. Assassins may already be on the way. You have to leave, as soon as possible."
   Medion nodded numbly. Arrawnt...dead. Assassins here to kill him. He bit back a curse. Just when he was happy, when he had every reason to believe he could be happy for the rest of his life, the past had caught up with him. He realized now past sins would always find him, wherever he hid. There would never be any reprieve for him. There would never be a new Medion, but only the same old person, attempting in vain to hide his face, behind one delusion after another.
   Hans was mumbling incoherently about Medion being the scourge that would bring destruction to his village, that he'd been a fool to ever ask aid of Domaric. Medion clutched his father-in-law's arms and forced himself to speak calmly. "It's ok, it's ok. I'll pack my bags and leave this moment. Those assassins will have no reason to ever bother you."
   The wood elf was still terrified. "My daughter..." He began.
   "I'll leave her here, for the time being," Medion assured him. "She won't be in danger long as she stays away from me. When everything's alright again, I'll take her with me. Or," he continued hastily, when he saw the objection rising to Hans's lips, "I'll come back and live here, long as you don't mind. You'll just have to help convince her to stay put, for the time being."
   Leaving Hans to his irrational fears, he ran into his house. Bernard and Garosh looked up expectantly; both were armed to the teeth. Obviously they'd learned what happened. Medion gave them hasty instructions. "We have to leave in an hour or two. Bernard, help me pack. Leave Hedoba's stuff. Garosh, why don't you watch the door, alright?"
   Bernard complied and hurried into the back. Garosh hesitated, then said, "Where's your wife, Medion?"
   "On the top platform. She's asleep. I'll go up shortly and wake her myself, to say goodbye."
   "She isn't coming with us?"
   "No." Medion felt a pang. He didn't like the idea, not one bit, but knew it was for the best. Whoever who remained near him would always be in danger. And he would be damned if he placed the treasure of his heart in peril. "Um, go escort Mr. Hans home or something, alright? Keep your eyes open."
   "Understood, boss." All the usual playfulness was gone from Garosh's voice. He obviously knew just how serious things were. Without another word he left the room.
   Medion and Bernard made quick work of the few items Medion had to pack, and in ten minutes they were outside. Garosh was waiting for them. Hans was nowhere to be seen.
   Carrying the baggage, Bernard began to carefully descend the bridge to a lower branch. As Medion looked after him, Garosh promoted, "Aren't you going to see your wife now, Medion?"
   Medion nodded and began to ascend the crossing. Garosh was right behind him. Medion stopped in surprise, however, when he heard her call out to him. She was standing at the other end, looking irritated to have awoken alone. She began to trot toward him.
   Out of the corner of his eye Medion saw a flurry of movement. He turned and saw Garosh climbing quickly, without an upward glance, down the long ladder that reached the ground far below. Medion felt a sudden twinge of dread with his confusion. "Garosh, where are you going?"
   Garosh looked up once but didn't acknowledge his boss. There was fear and annoyance on his face; he just kept on climbing. Medion called his name again, then turned in horror, realization a sickening dagger in his gut. Hedoba was halfway across the bridge.
   "NO! No, Hedoba!" He shouted, irrationally stepping onto the tampered bridge, hoping beyond hope to rescue her. Hedoba had stopped right in the middle, staring puzzled at him. That was the last expression Medion saw on her face.
   The ropes suspending the bridge snapped. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion. Hedoba stumbled as if confused, screamed when she realized what had happened, then pummeled down toward the ground. Medion barely managed to leap away and cling to the edge of the platform. There he hung, scratching his way back to life, wishing against all his survival instincts that he, too, could die, when he heard her last scream followed by a sickening thud.

   Grantuck tried unconsciously to melt into the background. It was both easy and difficult at the same time. The dimly lit room was filled with serious-looking individuals, in dark robes or cloaks, speaking softly among themselves. Just as he was. The only problem was, they were nearly all human. As one of the very few non-humans, he stood out clearly. People noticed, whispered softly, never pointed, but confirmed all the same that he was Grantuck, the adopted dragonnewt that served as war counselor for Domaric, and Arrawnt, when the reckless and ill-fated young Don was alive.
   He didn't want to stand out, of course. There was never any harm in keeping a low profile in companies such as these. For Domaric had called a meeting of the Dons, just as he promised. Their goal today was to settle all their disputes, offer compromises, concede and apologize. They were here to do whatever it takes to finally end the underworld war.
   When the last of the Dons with their posse of advisors and assassins have filed in and taken their seats, Domaric stood to address the group. From the head of the table, Domaric looked powerful and in control, almost as he did before the attempt on his life. Only a slight tremble of his knees, now and then, revealed how physically weak he was; only his humble, plaintive words proved his fatigue and sorrow.
   "I, uh, would first like to thank Don Desseheren for helping me arrange this meeting." He nodded toward the purple-haired black widow at the other end of the table, who smiled coldly in return. Grantuck noticed the girl beside her--secretary or killer? --looking about worriedly, her green mane wavering like a gentle waterfall. She was human, but her innocent and fearful composure made her stand out even more than Grantuck. The dragonnewt wondered, as he heard several others had done, why Desseheren would bring a girl who looked more like a scared little sister than an experienced aide to such a place.
   Domaric continued: "And Don Basanda, of course, for agreeing to talk. And Don Goriate, Don Fiale..." He nodded at the respective rivals along the table. "I thank you all, for coming today--for giving me the chance to speak." Grantuck watched the varied responses and felt relieved. Most of them were haughty, but attentive--as he'd imagined, no one wanted the costly war to prolong any more than necessary. Everyone was exhausted, emotionally and financially. It was high time the silliness ended and business resumed.
   Domaric sat down, wearied already by his short presentation. He words became sadder, but did not suffer in strength or volume. "How, how did things get this far? I don't know. It was, uh, so unnecessary, so unfortunate. Don Basanda lost a son, I lost a son...when will this end? I'm quits. So, uh, if Don Basanda agrees, I'm willing to let things go back...to as they were before."
   Desseheren spoke up. Grantuck felt a chill at her mere voice, though her words sounded supportive. "We all thank Don Domaric for calling this meeting as well. We know he's a man of his word, and what's more, a man of reason. He's modest and firm--he'll listen to our demands and offers..."
   The other female Don at the table interrupted her. Basanda's baleful glare was filled with scorn. "Yes, Don Desseheren, he's modest. Too modest. So modest that he wouldn't acknowledge his own immense power and wealth, and refused to share them when we petitioned for aid. He would rather keep them all to himself, it seems--"
   It was Domaric's turn to interrupt her. An edge came into the old man's voice, as if intent on reminding his fellows that, yes, he still held power, and if he wanted to he could still make them pay. Grantuck hid his smile when he saw Basanda flinch at Domaric's rebuttal: "Now, now, when did I ever refuse an accommodation? When did I refuse, except that one time? And this was not because it was Mr. Braff, your son, Don Basanda--it was not anything personal. It was just this, uh, Vandal business. I have never agreed with it, and I didn't intend to concede then. My reasons are simple: I believe this deal with the Vandals, it will only ruin us, in the long run. It's not like our other businesses--the smuggling, the gambling, the, uh, prostitution--those are businesses that deals direct profit, to both our customers and us. The only one who stands to lose anything is the officials--and even they are agreeable, and willingly turn a blind eye, if we make a deal with them. But this deal with the Vandals--it's too risky, and not worth the risks. Why invite a potential rival into our territory? I could not agree to that then, and I disapprove now."
   "Times are changing, now," Desseheren said. Her tone was almost silky, as if she were trying to be the one who patches things up. Grantuck felt only revulsion and distaste--for if her voice were silk, it was spun from a poisonous spider's web. "We can't stand to be stubborn about our personal likes and dislikes, as in the old days. A refusal is not an act of a friend. Don Domaric controls most of the politicians--even if he wouldn't help us, he must let us use them. He must let us draw water from the well, so to speak, lest we die of thirst. Now, he may charge a hefty fee for the services--he certainly has that right--but he shouldn't deny us outright. It would make him unfit to own the officials."
   Domaric slumped tiredly, causing Grantuck to involuntarily lay his hand on his father's shoulder, to offer whatever comfort he could. He knew that Domaric had been afraid of this argument--it was one he was unable to counter. Had the Dons tried to convince him of the Vandal's harmlessness, or tell him to surrender to the inevitability of time and tide, he'd have been able to firmly lecture them on being cautious and sticking to one's own guns, whatever the situation. They would not have been able to gainsay him. But Desseheren had presented the ultimate rebuttal--one that dealt directly with the foundation of the whole underworld game, with the Don's own beliefs; and as a man of reason, Domaric would be unable to disagree. He wanted peace, perhaps more than anyone else--and that made him weaker than he'd ever been.
   Grantuck's eyes wandered over the other Dons. Fiale was nodding and looking pleased; Goriate reserved and slightly indifferent. Basanda was still glaring in Domaric's direction, but her look was one of triumph. She, too, understood that Domaric would have to accept their proposal if he wanted peace. The battle she'd waged through her son was about to be won, and she didn't look as if she minded the price of blood as much as her rival did. Perhaps that was why victory was ultimately hers.
   The dragonnewt's gaze fell upon the Don whose mere words had helped Basanda win--and an unpleasant feeling of realization coursed through him. Desseheren looked neither triumphant nor pleased; her expression had remained neutral, but her eyes, fastened upon Domaric, were watching with the insidious intent of a calculating predator. It seemed that she was looking beyond the immediate profits, and already scheming to counter Domaric's future stratagems. Grantuck had always loathed Desseheren, but only at that moment did he realize just how deadly an opponent she was. In his heart, he began to doubt whether Arrawnt waged the war against the right nemesis.
   Domaric shifted; Grantuck realized he had also been studying his rivals. Whether he noted what his adopted son noticed he didn't show, but a sudden calm appeared to descend upon him. There was confidence, and strength, in Domaric's voice when he spoke the words of seemingly humble and helpless acceptance: "Then I must agree."
   A sigh of relief passed through those assembled in the room. They expected Domaric to concede and pretended not to fear him, but it was obvious that they were frightened of the Don's wrath. Grantuck saw Desseheren's green-haired escort make a comment to her master; in reply the female Don laughed, loudly and mirthlessly. The advisor could tell from the younger woman's surprised expression that this was not the expected answer, and suspected that Desseheren merely used the opportunity to taunt Domaric, to flaunt her success, and to dispel any remaining fear her followers had. Those near her laughed, for no apparent reason, as well. They were jeering at Domaric for his weakness as one. Grantuck clutched his leathery hands, unable to do anything in his father's defense but stare defiantly into space.
   Yet support for Domaric came abruptly, from a least expected source. Don Goriate had risen. His face was still indifferent, but his voice carried a reprimanding note. "This is all good and well, but I insist we have some rules." His heavy hand slammed the table. "First of all, I don't want the Vandals interfering directly with our businesses. Let the officials welcome them into the slums, or the suburbs--where they'd be out of our way. We intend to use them, so I don't want them prospering or becoming a force to be reckoned with! And second, I want all dealings with them made known to all the Dons present. I agree with Don Domaric that we may well be hatching serpents in our own nests, so if it ever becomes a war between them and us, I want to be prepared."
   Domaric nodded in swift agreement, and stood as well. "Don Goriate is right. I am willing to accept this request, for the sake of peace, but we must not forget whom we're dealing with. We must, uh, not regret this in the future. Precautions must be taken."
   For an instant deadly silence enveloped the room. The henchmen watched their masters and waited with hands on hilts; the Dons watched each other and spoke not a word. With the mandatory abruptness of underworld dealings, alliances have shifted, prodding what appeared to be mutual agreement back onto the brink of the plank of war. Basanda, furious at having her victory snatched away, stared jagged daggers at Goriate. Fiale followed suit. Goriate ignored them and continued glaring haughtily around the table. Grantuck knew, however, that the next move belonged to Desseheren; together with his father, he watched the true mastermind behind the whole business.
   The purple-haired woman came quickly to her feet and spoke in tones so plaintive that it would have melted the hearts of those who didn't know her better: "Come, my friends, this is but a slight difference in opinion. Our goal has not changed. It is agreed then: the Vandals will be allowed into our territory, but will not be allowed to interfere with our businesses. We will agree upon how best we are to control and use them. Don Domaric will pave the way and offer protection--and we will have peace."
   The other four Dons nodded and spoke their assents; their goons relaxed again. Grantuck watched Desseheren curiously, slightly surprised that she'd not try to put up a fight. Perhaps she realized the whole situation could easily splinter the Families once more. A war in which Domaric had an ally would be even worse for her--it'd not only make all her efforts for naught, but also possibly lead to her downfall. In retrospect, a compromise was indeed the best she could have hoped for.
   Before the meeting could be concluded, however, Basanda had to put in a last word. There was a good deal of scorn in her voice; her baleful glare had lost none of its heat. She was scathing for having to concede a small portion of her victory, and she wanted Domaric to know it. "Before I leave, I want strict assurance from Don Domaric. I want him to swear that he will not seek vengeance, or go back on his promise, after time has passed and his position becomes stronger."
   Desseheren cut in with a forced smile, edgy that her hard work would be undermined. "Look, we're all reasonable people. We don't have to act like warlords. If Don Domaric says he will maintain the peace, then I believe him..."
   Domaric held up a hand to stop Desseheren. He addressed his challenger directly: "You speak of vengeance, Don Basanda. Would vengeance bring your son back to you? Or my son back to me? Vengeance would only lead to further bloodshed. So I'll forgo the vengeance of my son. I swear on the blood of my grandchildren that I would not be the one to break this peace." With a frail hand he threw on his cloak, and made his way toward the door, as if he were finished speaking. Before exiting, however, he turned and spoke once again, this time to all those assembled. His tone was stern, even harsh, and his words rumbled like concealed thunder. "Still, I will admit that I have selfish reasons for wanting peace. My youngest son Medion was forced to go into hiding, because of this ugly business. I have cleared his name, and arranged to bring him back. But I am, uh, a superstitious man. So if some unfortunate accident should happen to him--if unruly officials should hang him, or if--if his carriage should topple over a cliff, or, or if he should get struck dead by lightning--then I will blame some of the people here in this room. And that--that, I do not forgive."
   They said nothing, but stared, secretly frightened by the ruthless will that had not been handicapped in the least by its vessel's frailness. Satisfied that he'd left the image of his wrath and might imprinted on their minds, Domaric walked through the door. Quietly, Grantuck followed him out.
   As they were climbing into their carriage, Grantuck thought it best to confirm his father's instructions on the Vandal business. Boldly he ventured, "I advise, Pops, that we insist on Basanda allowing us to examine her dealings with the Vandals at least once a month. She wasn't happy with the agreement--everyone could see that. I think we should monitor her actions."
   In return the ailing Don gave his familiar, shrewd smirk. "You can mention it when you meet her people, but don't insist on it. Desseheren is a Don who knows what lines not to cross."
   The dragonnewt faltered. "You mean Basanda..."
   "No." Their eyes met. Grantuck understood abruptly that Domaric had indeed noticed everything, and had drawn his own conclusions. "Basanda isn't half as smart as her bastard son Braff. Yet I didn't realize, until today, that it was Desseheren all along..."

   He didn't run, trot, stand stock-still and stare, or even pause when he finally returned. The Medion that descended from the carriage and walked stolidly through the gates of his father's estate was neither the rash youth who spilled blood to avenge his father, or the dreamy lover who shed tears over happiness slain. He was older now, far older than he looked, and much more careful. The journey he'd begun years ago, leaning against the door of a toilet stall, had reached its end. Along the way two versions of Medion had been shed and abandoned, like snakeskin, and his true nature had been born--or rather, revealed. He had become a man not only worthy, but capable, of succeeding his father, the Don Domaric.
   He didn't waste time speaking of the grievances that had befallen him when he finally met his father. It was not only that Domaric must have already known, but because Medion himself had forcefully put it behind him. Like the killing of Braff and Garzel, Hedoba's death was but a nightmarish episode of his journey. There was no use in looking back and regretting, now he'd made it to the end. Maybe one day he'd be able to avenge her. However, one way or another, it didn't concern the family's business, so he would not mention it.
   Medion was still capable of sorrow, though. And as he walked with Domaric through the well-kept gardens, he felt it wash over him. For his father was certainly much weaker than before the assassination attempt. Death had not snatched Domaric, yet its claw marks on the old man were woefully clear. Medion looked about the estate and knew that it would last longer, much longer, than the man who almost single-handedly built it, then transformed it into a throne of unrivaled power. Perhaps it'll last longer than he himself, or even his children. For all he knew, the sturdy structure would still be standing the day Domaric's descents had forgotten their forefather's name. Mortal lives and achievements rarely survive time and tide like stone and dirt do--this inevitable and unavoidable truth, when linked with the sight of his tottering father, gave Medion a secret anguish that rivaled his heartache.
   If his father felt his sadness, he didn't comment. After all, business must be put first. It was the way men like Domaric lived. So father and son spoke only a few words of greeting before the elderly man began a detailed description of the deals with the Dons, and what Medion must do to ensure the prosperity--not to mention survival--of the family in the future.
   They spoke a long time, walking the grounds of the vast estate. Medion listened and commented little. There was really nothing new to learn. The facts and figures would be memorized in time; what was essential was cunning combined with ruthless determination, and that could never be taught. Fortunately, of all the children Medion was the one who had truly inherited the quality that had put his father on top. It was child's play, then, to understand the underworld business. Medion sucked in his father's lifetime of experiences and insights in one afternoon, often surprising Domaric with innovating ideas. At such times Medion would notice a strange mixture of emotions--pride tinged with regret? --pass over the older man's wrinkled face. Apparently, the irony of the situation affected Domaric more than it did his son. Still, the time passed smoothly, if not pleasantly, though the business discussed was grim; soon, the setting sun signaled the end of the discussion, and the two headed in for dinner
   But Medion had one question left, as he trailed his father up the stone path: "Pops--what about Arrawnt?"
   Domaric bowed his head, sighed a world-weary sigh, but declined to answer. His avoiding the topic of vengeance, however, only made Medion's blood boil, bringing a temporal revival to the angrier side. He might accept that some things have to wait, but he could never forgive the wrongs done to him. Medion caught up with his father, stared almost accusingly, and added, "And what happened in Stamp? What about that?"
   The fatigue was evident on Domaric's brow as he replied, "Medion, my son--let it be. No good would ever come out of this exhausting business. I, uh, I promised never to break the peace."
   The new Don shook his head. "Pops, wouldn't they take this as a sign of weakness?"
   Domaric looked squarely into his son's eyes and confessed: "It is a sign of weakness."
   Medion lowered his eyes, both sympathetic and impatient. He understood his elder's reluctance but disdained it all the same. There might come a day when he, too, would be willing to forgo all for the sake of peaceful rest--but that day has yet to come. He wasn't tired, he wasn't weak, and he would be damned if he allowed his enemies to walk over him. The wrongs must be set right.
   He told his father, "Then I will take care of everything. I never made such a promise, Pops. You don't have to get involved--I'll take full responsibility, and deal with the consequences."
   The pride mingled with sorrow passed over Domaric's face again; he said nothing, and simply ushered Medion into the house.

   Synbios was honestly happy for her older sister, and throughout the wedding she laughed, sang and danced like everyone else. It took no effort to maintain her cheerful attitude through the whole joyous but slightly tedious party. Yet the occasion stirred within her buried memories--how could it not? --and when the tables had been cleared, when most of the guests had left and her father had retired for the night, she felt the memories overwhelm her joy. She said goodnight to her sister Margaret and her husband Tristus, then slipped out into the night.
   In the fading twilight she walked quickly along the outer wall. She allowed herself to think about him, again--to think about and miss him as she hadn't allowed herself to do for more than a year. The wedding at which he'd promise to marry her; the wedding today that might have been her own if fate hadn't been so cruel; those marred memories and shattered dreams pierced her heart like red hot needles. She should have just forgotten him, so she could be spared of the pain and go on with her life, marry a better man, and live happily ever after. But no, she was unable to ever let go of his memory. Thus was she doomed to this lurking sorrow and gnawing hunger.
   She neared the gate of her father's estate, and saw a lone man standing there beside a dark carriage. He appeared to be waiting for someone. As she drew close to ask if she could help him, however, she recognized with a start the long blond hair, the sharp blue eyes, and the serious brow.
   She stared, utterly speechlessly, and he stared right back. Synbios was certain it was but a product of her own tormented heart--how could be possible that he was here, after all that time? It was wildly impossible. Yet Medion didn't speak, run to embrace her, or even smile. He just watched her. The strange way in which he acted convinced her that he was in fact real, and not a delusion sprung from her mind. It was indeed Medion.
   All the lines she'd rehearsed for this encounter left her mind. Her words came out rushed and low. "How...how long have you been back?"
   His answer sounded almost indifferent. "A year, I think. Or maybe a bit longer..."
   But then he smiled, and added, before Synbios's disappointment in their reunion became too acute: "It's good to see you again."

   She walked at his side as they aimlessly patrolled the darkened grounds, content if only to hold his hand. He wouldn't answer most of her questions, so for the most part they walked in silence. Gradually, however, he began to tell her about what he was doing now, about the role in the family he'd be chosen to succeed. He tried to soften the impact with explanations about his father's health, yet his meaning was only too clear to Synbios.
   She gripped his hand tightly. "Medion...you once told me, you're not like your father. You promised never to become a man like him. That's what you told me..."
   He sighed and said plaintively, "The fact is, Synbios, my father's not different from any other powerful man. Like any lord or king...maybe even a bit like your father."
   Synbios had to laugh at the incredulous thought. "Please, Medion, do you have any idea how naive you sound?"
   He professed to look puzzled. "Why?"
   She gave him a light slap on the thigh. "Kings and lords don't have men murdered!"
   "Oh, Synbios--who's being naive now?" Medion's tone was not only confident and sincere, but also mingled with a hint of pleading. "In any case, the old way of doing things is over. Even my father knows that. It will take some time--maybe five, six years--but one day soon, all the Family's dealings would be completely legitimate. It's the goal I'm reaching for, my love."
   She couldn't face him anymore. If he'd come to simply convince her of his father's innocence, or to claim he could dab in the black river of crime and remain untainted, she could have firmly rebuked him and tried to steer him straight with her infinite loving patience. But no. There was obviously something more, much more, in those words. He was telling her all this as if preparing to ask her something. Synbios knew what that something was: it was what she could never refuse him, however different he might seem, however twisted his ideals had become. It was the wine that would make her helpless to refuse anything he says; she would trust him, and suffer any consequences there might be, to hear him ask her this.
   Yet she still had her dignity--that and all those days of heartache--left to sustain her. She faced him squarely, demanded in a quivering voice, "Medion--what do you want? Why did you come back to me, after all this time? I wrote to you, but you never replied, and now..."
   His voice was husky, full of emotions. "I came here, Synbios, because I need you. I care for you..."
   She tried to turn away. "Please stop it, Medion."
   "Synbios--I want you to marry me."
   The pure joy that should have come was now bittersweet, tainted like his soul. But it was joy, nonetheless--joy, to make up for her lonely nights; joy, to offer her a way out of this gray existence. Her protests sounded feeble, even to her own ears. "It's too late, Medion..."
   "It's never too late." He caught her in his arms, and embraced her with all the passion and energy Synbios remembered from their happier days. "I'll do whatever it takes to make up for the time we lost, Synbios. I'll do whatever you ask. You will guide me, and save me, whenever I go wrong. All that's important is that we're together--that we share our lives with each other." She sobbed and buried her head in his chest. "I love you, Synbios."
   There was just no way she could have resisted the raw, masculine power that radiated from his core. And the promise that her most cherished dream would come true, after all this time--how could she turn away from that? There was nothing Synbios wouldn't do in order to stay by her lover's side; she would succumb, forget and forgive everything, if only to have the happiness and fulfillment she has always envisioned become real. Wordlessly she allowed Medion to lead her away. Together they left Conrad's estate, climbed into Medion's waiting carriage, and were gone.

   Fidelity was extremely vexed, and he obviously wanted his new master to know it. Back and forth through the darkened den he paced, grumbling curses at nothing in particular. Campbell stood by the door, looking not much more pleased than the other centaur. Domaric sat looking out the window, admiring the serenity of late night, and said nothing.
   Medion watched them all from behind the grand oaken desk. He knew Domaric was acting uninterested and refraining from coming to his rescue because he wanted to see how his son would deal with the situation. He also understood that the older man did not understand some of Medion's new proposals himself, and was waiting for him to elaborate. No matter. Medion had everything in this room, and in the whole criminal empire, under control. Unhappy henchmen, shaken loyalty--those were all things he had expected, and could deal with. He knew how to reward the patient and loyal, just as he knew how to make object lessons of the insubordinate and rebellious.
   "Desseheren's men are taking over more and more of our territory, and she isn't doing anything to restrain them," began the fuming centaur. "If we don't do anything about it, she'll soon swallow us whole!"
   Medion gave a sigh of weary patience. "Just bear it, Fidelity. Be patient."
   "Look Medion, I'm not asking for help. Me and my boys can show those no-good bastards. Just--just give the order."
   In reply the new Don repeated, "Be patient."
   Fidelity grunted in disgust and resumed his pacing. From the door Campbell spoke up: "At least let me recruit some new men. We lost plenty when your brother was in charge. We need new muscles, so we can defend ourselves."
   Still Medion refused. "That won't do--it'll only give Desseheren an excuse to start fighting again."
   "I can't believe this!" Fidelity exclaimed. "Medion, I've been in this business as long as your father, and I'm telling you, you're wrong."
   "Don Domaric," said Campbell, intentionally ignoring Medion and addressing the retired patriarch. "You once told us that, one day me and Fidelity could break off and form our own Family. Until today, I've never even considered it. But now I must ask permission..."
   Deliberately Domaric motioned toward his son. "Medion is the Don now, Campbell. And if he approves it, you have my blessings."
   Medion regarded two of his father's oldest henchmen with a steely glance. His tone was quiet but menacing. "After we move our operations up north--near Maya, Dormant--then you can form your own Family and make you stand here. If you still feel like going separate ways at that time, that is."
   Campbell stared wordlessly at him, but whether the weathered centaur was intimidated or merely disbelieving Medion could not tell. Finally he asked, "And when will that be?"
   Medion did a few calculations in his head. "I'd say six months, at least."
   Both centaurs made exasperated noises. Fidelity addressed the older human, "Forgive me, Don Domaric--but Desseheren fears no one now that you're retired! Sooner or later we'll come under her thumb..."
   "And I hate that whore Desseheren!" Campbell chimed in. "In six months there would be nothing to build on! She'll have us eliminated, or enslaved. One way or another there's no way we can wait six months!"
   Domaric watched them carefully, then asked, almost casually, "Do you have faith in my judgment?"
   The two henchmen shot each other surprised looks, but did not dare hesitate. "Yes, of course..."
   "And your loyalty--do I still have that?"
   "As always, Don Domaric," Campbell hastily assured him.
   "Then be a friend to Medion, and do as he says," instructed Domaric. He said nothing more, and resumed staring out the window. Unhappily, the centaurs turned back to their new master.
   Medion gazed intently at them from the master's chair, then explained: "Things are being negotiated that will solve all your problems, and answer all your questions. That's all I'll say for now. You'll come to learn what those things are in due time--if you remain true to the Family. You'll find no reason to regret following my orders, I assure you. But you'll find woes aplenty should you disobey me--this too, I can promise you."
   Medion had finished what he had to say to them, and right on cue, Grantuck entered with Crewart in tow. Medion addressed the new arrivals directly: "Crewart, you grew up in Dormant and know your way around. When I move my operations up there, I'll make you my right-hand man. Grantuck," he continued, "You will no longer be our war counselor. I want you to go to Saraband, and take care of our business there, as well as keep an eye on Mageron. It's not that I doubt your skills as an advisor, just that--" Here he finally smiled with a trace of genuine affection. "Who would be a better counselor than my father? Well, that's it."
   The centaurs grunted noncommittally and left, choosing only to shake Domaric's hand as they made their exit. Grantuck and Crewart hesitated, both apparently surprised by the abrupt way in which Medion had given their instructions. After a few moments Crewart bowed politely, shook Medion's and Domaric's hands, and made his way out as well. Only Grantuck stayed rooted to the spot, unwilling to leave just yet.
   He spoke up when Medion looked questioningly at him. His voice was hesitant but defensive. "Um, Medion--why am I out?"
   Medion regarded his adopted brother a bit sympathetically. "You're not a wartime counselor, Grantuck. You're best at keeping things running smoothly during peaceful times. It's going to get rough, with the move we're planning, and I feel that you'll serve best keeping an eye on things in Saraband."
   "I advised Medion on this, Grantuck," explained Domaric. The older man looked affectionately at the two sons who were to carry on his business. "It's not that I thought you were a poor war counselor. I thought--that Arrawnt was a bad Don, may he rest in peace. As Medion, you will always have all my confidence. But, uh, it would be best if you took no part in what's about to happen."
   Grantuck still looked hurt. He turned back to his younger brother and said plaintively, "But you know, Medion, maybe I could--"
   Medion's reply was curt and final. "You're out, Grantuck."

   Mageron waited eagerly at the gate of Saraband for his brothers' arrival. In the letter Medion had said that he was here to drop off Grantuck, who would be overseeing business in the port city. He also had some things to discuss with the owner of the main taverns and casinos, Steele. Since Mageron had mentioned that he knew Steele personally, Medion had asked him to arrange the meeting. Mageron had accepted the mission without hesitation. He was eager to show Medion that he was getting around just fine. Maybe he wasn't smart enough to succeed their father's business, but he could still help. He would prove that he'd never fail the Family again. Who knows, maybe once Medion saw how well he was doing, he'd let him manage things in Saraband. After all, he was no longer just a popular entertainer, but a casino manager as well. Grantuck could use his talents elsewhere; Saraband was truly Mageron's turf.
   Right on time the carriage arrived. From its stuffy confines emerged Medion, Grantuck, and a red-haired bodyguard. Grinning widely, Mageron hastened to greet them. Grantuck appeared pleased to see him as well, though Medion only mumbled a half-hearted greeting. No matter, the kid must be tired. Talking gaily, Mageron welcomed them to Saraband with well-rehearsed lines, and prepared to show them around.
   Medion stopped him with an annoyed look. "You'll have time to show Grantuck around after I leave. At the moment I just want to see this casino owner of yours."
   Mageron frowned, disappointed at having his carefully arranged activities disrupted. But Medion was the boss now. Mageron suppose he'd just have show off his knowledge of the place to Grantuck, some time later. Still maintaining a cheerful front, he led them toward the center of the great port city, where the main hotels and casinos were located. He'd arranged another little surprise for Medion there, so there was still a good chance to impress his little brother.
   On the way there he tried to convince his brothers of his merits as a business manager. He spoke of how he'd help run the casinos and taverns, under the patient instructions of his mentor, Steele. Grantuck listened good-naturedly and offered him some advice, but still Medion commented little. Once again Mageron attributed this to Medion being tired from the journey. He must have been bored but unable to doze off. No matter--the pleasant surprise waiting in the suite Mageron had arranged for him would be sure to cheer him up.
   Mageron couldn't have been more mistaken. Medion barely glanced at the busy hotel's extravagant facade when they arrived; when Mageron showed him his room and, with great fanfare, opened the door to a gaggle of expectant entertainers and bar girls, he looked only more displeased.
   Unaware of the guest's curt attitude, the musicians struck up a tone, and the girls flocked over. Medion ignored them all. He stared sternly at his older brother. "Who the hell are they?"
   Mageron faltered, unable to comprehend the reason for Medion's foul mood. It was wholly unexpected, and ruining all his meticulous preparations. Everything meant to please and impress his brother had only backfired. He glanced pitifully at Grantuck, but the dragonnewt only shook his head disapprovingly in return. Mageron stuttered, "Why...well kid, they're here for you. I only thought--thought you'd enjoy some company."
   Medion didn't show any gratitude at all. He ordered angrily, "Get them out of my room. I'm here to do business, and I leave tomorrow. I have no time for this nonsense."
   Mageron could only stare, perplexed that Medion would be so ungracious. But his kid brother only glared back impatiently. Humbled, Mageron quickly interrupted the musicians, quieted the girls, and shooed the whole annoyed bunch out. He shut the door after them, then looked expectantly, like a fearful servant, at his brothers.
   Medion asked, "So where's Steele?"
   "He...said he'll be here, once the party started," Mageron told him. He shook his head. "Well, there'll be no party now, but I'm sure he'll be here shortly."
   The young Don nodded approvingly, relaxed a bit. He looked about the spacious, luxurious room, then asked: "Mageron, are you still in the performing business?"
   Mageron was a little surprised, as well as offended, that Medion saw him as only a singer. But he replied honestly that he still sang a little for the patrons, now and then. Medion nodded. "Good. You see, I figured that entertainment would draw more people to the casinos. After the hotels, bars, and casinos come under our control, I want you to not only do the managing, but also appear on stage, at least once a month. It might be a little tiring, but it would certainly make us more money."
   "Huh?" Mageron wasn't sure if he should believe his ears and, if he did hear right, whether to be glad or incredulous. Medion was promising him a prominent position in the family business, a chance to really prove himself. The problem was, the job Medion was offering wasn't his to offer. The entertainment centers in Saraband did not belong to the family, but to Steele... He started as he realized his brothers' intentions. Hastily he tried to prevent a conflict between blood relatives and boss: "Um, Medion, you know Steele loves this business. He never said nothing about selling out..."
   "No problem." Medion didn't look troubled in the least. "I'll make him an offer he can't refuse."
   At that moment Steele himself entered the hotel room. If he was surprised to see no sign of merry-making and only three grim-looking men, he didn't show it. With the flamboyant boisterousness that was common among men of wealth and power, he greeted them all, then immediately made himself at home. Mageron greeted his employer with mixed emotions. Steele's careless ways should've made the atmosphere more relaxed, but with Medion's ominous promise still echoing in his mind, Mageron could only watch and dread.
   Steele appeared to not have noticed the tension. He grinned at his guests, displaying his wolfish teeth. "It's been a long time, fellows. Grantuck I know a little better, and Mageron is my bitch round this town." He laughed uproariously at his own condescending joke, before adding: "Don Medion I've hardly met though. How ya doing, kid? Enjoying this place?"
   Medion smiled politely, but his scorn remained unconcealed in his eyes. Mageron shuddered at his menacing reply. "So much I would like to own it myself."
   Steele laughed again, a clown still fooling around in the lion pit. He obviously didn't think the young Don would be a threat, and wasn't taking him seriously. The tycoon spread his arms expansively, as if to take in the whole port city. "This is my kingdom, boy! I may not be the lord of Saraband, and I don't ask for no taxes, but Saraband is mine. I make more money than those officials, and they're on my payroll!" He chuckled merrily, basking in his power. "I treat friends visiting my turf well, I assure you. Come on, how about coming down to the gambling rooms for a few games? The Don's money is good, and if you lose too much I won't ask you to pay for your room." Steele stood and beckoned them to follow.
   Mageron stood as well, but Medion remained seated. His piercing blue eyes bored through the boastful tycoon. His words were chilling and challenging. "I have no taste for the casinos, thank you. I'm much more interested in buying them from you."
   The words echoed in the suddenly quiet room. Medion had set the tone of the game, clear and loud, and Steele had finally understood. He stood frozen, rooted by shock, squinting disbelievingly as if Medion were an ant that dared to charge an elephant. Mageron trembled, half expecting his employer to have men come in and dismember Medion on the spot. Yet Medion simply sat there, in one of Steele's best suites, and watched his host patiently. Seconds passed like hours. Finally Steele sat back down, and managed a strangled-sounding "What?"
   "The casino, hotel, tavern--we're interested in buying you out. As you said, our money is good." Medion winked and leaned back masterfully.
   Steele had by now recovered enough from his shock to be furious. His fur stood on end, and his tails shot up like chrome lances. The tycoon growled as if ready to tear his human adversary apart. "Hey now, just a minute you bastard--I'm the boss here. I buy you out, you don't buy me out!"
   "Your casinos are losing money," replied Medion matter-of-factly. "Your luck is bad. A change in owners just might turn the tables..."
   "You think I don't know how to do business?" The tycoon's eyes looked ready to pop out of their sockets and nail Medion like bolts. The young Don merely smiled gamely: "Perhaps."
   Steele kicked over the coffee table and let out an angry laugh. "You ungrateful humans, you really tickle me. I take in your brother when your head was a ticket to retirement for every hitman, and now you're in charge you try to muscle me out of business? You goddamn bastard!"
   Medion's tone lowered several more degrees. "Let's not twist the facts, Steele. My father paid you handsomely to take in Mageron. It was not a favor you did us, it was strictly business. Same as this--this is business."
   "Yeah, this is," agreed Steele with a disdainful sneer. "Lemme tell you what I know about your business, kid. Ever since you took over, your family's been bullied about by the other Dons. You don't have the power to defend yourselves, much less buy me out! You're getting chased out of Destonia by Desseheren, and everyone knows it. So you think you can turn on me, invade my turf and hide your cowardly ass here? Bah! I've talked to Fiale and Desseheren--both of them would be willing to help me out, and I still get to keep the place! Your family means zilch to me now, ya hear?"
   The young Don's tone was now truly murderous. "Is that why you call my brother your bitch?"
   Mageron couldn't keep still any longer. The way this was going, either Medion's or Steele's guts would soon be spilled on the carpet. He tried to intervene: "Aw that, Medion--Steele meant nothing by that. It's just the way he talks. But we're good friends, me and him--ain't that right Steele?"
   Medion ignored him completely. His accusing gaze was locked on Steele. "I've heard plenty about you too, Steele. I heard 'bout how you make my brother do servant’s work as well as managing the place. The Family means nothing to you now, so you treat my brother like dirt?"
   "Medion..." Mageron began, but Steele cut him off. He was all but shouting at Medion now. "I treat my employees any way I see fit you bastard, and I don't give a damn whose brother he is! Now I've heard enough from you--get your sorry ass off my turf, and take the rest of your bloody kind with you! You'd be sorry if you stay here, I guarantee that."
   "Then I'll just have to find somewhere else to stay the night," was Medion's unperturbed reply. His gave another easy smile, but it was every bit as frightening as his menacing snarl. "Think about a price, will you?"
   Steele stormed out the room, shouting for his men. Medion and Grantuck got up calmly and picked up their bags. Mageron looked worriedly after the enraged Steele and tried to think of a way to make his brothers see reason. Conquering the goldmines of Saraband and giving him control over them was all good and well, but the way Medion was doing things he'd not have an ally left. He'd be hunted down and lynched in months. Arrawnt had been hotheaded and offensive as well, but Mageron never thought Medion would be like their big brother. Domaric would never have acted like this--hadn't their father taught Medion anything? Obviously the young Don needed some pointers before he ended up like Arrawnt. Mageron thought he had a pretty good understanding of the business as well, and this was not the way he believed it should be done. He looked at Medion's stony face; he turned to Grantuck instead and implored, "Come on Grantuck, you're the counselor. You can talk to Pops, straighten this out..."
   His adopted brother shook his head, looking just about as unworried as Medion. He beckoned: "Father's semi-retired now, Mageron--the kid's in charge of the family business. If you have anything to say, you should say it to him."
   Mageron looked helplessly at the dragonnewt. Didn't Grantuck care if Medion messed things up? He faced his little brother, admonishing: "Medion, you don't come to Saraband and talk to someone like Steele like that!"
   In answer Medion gripped him by the shoulders and glared into his eyes. Mageron trembled at the swirling wrath lurking beneath the icy pupils. His words were like steel blades. "Mageron, you're my brother, and I love you. But I warn you--don't side against the Family ever again. Ever."
   He spoke no more, but left the room, with Grantuck in tow and Mageron in shock at his transformation.

   Synbios sat on a bench in the garden and waited for her husband to return from his meetings. In her arms she held their three-year-old son, little Algernon. The boy was lively and restless, so it was difficult to keep him from squirming off her lap. She sang snatches of songs to him, told him stories, and marveled at how much he resembled her. The same soft brown hair, the same curious green eyes, and the little puckered brows!  So intent was she on studying her son's features--something she probably did everyday since he was born, but still found indescribable joy in doing--she didn't notice Medion approaching until he was standing over them.
   Her husband smiled affectionately and kissed them both. He seemed warm and joyful, nothing like his haughty demeanor when he was conducting business. He seemed to be the Medion she remembered from their academy years, not the mastermind of a criminal empire. But something in his eyes told Synbios, who was now adept at reading all the subtle signs revealing her husband's mental state, that his mind was elsewhere. He was playing the part of the loving husband and father for their sake, concealing the things troubling him so as not to mar their innocent pleasure. Problems with his associates again, perhaps--or, more likely, trouble with the law. Synbios had come to accept who her lover had become, even if she didn't agree with it. Medion told her it was the way things had to be, at the moment. The family business had always been tainted with crime; there was no way he'd be able to legitimize everything in a few years' time. Give him more time, he'd implored her, and he promised to make the family a suitable place for Algernon, and the siblings that were sure to come, to grow up in. He'd told her that he would do all this, if only out of his love for them, and once again she'd trusted him.
   Yet sometimes Synbios had to wonder if he were indeed on the right path. The years were beginning to show on Medion, though he was still young. While he claimed he was making progress everyday, bringing the family inch by inch out from beneath the shadow of crime, he still had henchmen patrolling the estate and acting as bodyguards. He himself did not look more carefree, as Synbios would have expected if he were indeed putting the underworld behind him, but only more distrusting and jaded. Were it not for peaceful interludes like these, when he still laughed and made them laugh with him, Synbios would have despaired of reviving the pure, guiltless side of Medion.
   She jostled him slightly. "Ready to take us out to dinner now?"
   Immediately his eyes clouded, and Synbios sensed his discomfort at having to break yet another promise. "I...have some things I need to discuss with Pops. I'm sorry Synbios." He shuffled his feet guiltily, but did not bow his head or avert his eyes. "Have dinner without me. Um, we'll eat together some other time, go see a show--I promise."
   Synbios didn't put up a fuss, responding with only an irritated frown. This was hardly the first time he'd taken a rain check, and of course his absent-mindedness had been a clear enough sign. She slid Algernon off her lap, stood to head indoors, then remembered something she had to tell Medion. "Honey, your sister was here a while ago. Isabella wants to ask you something..."
   He grunted in a slightly unfriendly way, as if suspicious of why Isabella needed Synbios to convey the message. "She knows where to find me--let her ask."
   "No honey, she's afraid to." For a while Synbios studied him, trying to puzzle out why his own sister would fear him. When Medion shifted impatiently, she continued, "It's just that she and Crewart want you to be Godfather to their little boy..."
   He seemed surprised at the request, but paused only an instant. "Oh, that. Well, we'll see."
   Synbios frowned, displeased that he couldn't give a straight answer to such a simple question. "Will you?"
   Her husband turned away from her. "Maybe. We'll see."

   Medion sat in the back garden with his father, and together they drank red wine for supper. The warm rays of the setting sun washed over the estate, dyeing everything the hue of their beverage. It was a splendid view, but neither spent too much time admiring it. The panorama was like the wine, or the countless wedding days, funerals, birthdays and gatherings during which the Don had discussed his business. For men like Domaric and Medion, life was certainly meant to be enjoyed, but their business was life. Everything else was merely little extras to decorate the background, to make things feel different when they're not--like desert flowers amidst barren sands, perhaps, or flickers of starlight through cold, lonely nights.
   "Now Desseheren--she would certainly make a move against you." Domaric was saying. He sipped carefully, licked the dripping red liquid off his chin. "She'll set up a meeting with someone you thought you could trust, somewhere you thought you would be safe--and at the meeting, you'll be assassinated. Whoever who comes to you with Desseheren's invitation, then, would be the traitor you have to eliminate." He breathed out softly, no more disturbed by the grim topic than his son. He tasted the wine again, before confessing: "I'm drinking more than I used to, you know. Always liked wine, but I'm drinking more now."
   "It's good for you, Pops," Medion told him. His own glass had hardly been touched, so intent was his concentration on his father's instructions. But Domaric apparently felt like taking a break now, so Medion swallowed his entire share in quick mouthfuls. The liquor rejuvenated and relaxed him; it made him feel younger, steadier, more confident--yet also more cautious. Unlike most men, the seduction of letting down his guard only made Medion warier than ever. He knew his limits, and skirted them like an intelligent beast of prey. He was, without doubt, a born survivor.
   His father poured himself another glassful, and asked, "Your wife and child--you happy with them?"
   Medion smiled. He was happy with them, perhaps happier than they are with him. "Very happy, Pops."
   "That's good." Domaric looked thoughtful for a moment, then said in a hesitant, even apologetic tone, "I hope you don't mind my going over this Desseheren business over and over again, Medion. It's, uh, just an old habit I have. I spent my life taking care not to be careless. Women and children, they can be careless--but not men. Not men." He sighed, weary with the conclusion of his life's philosophy, and looked over the blazing glory of dusk as if trying to enjoy it. For a few moments there was silence. Then Domaric continued, "And how's the boy?"
   "He's perfect." Father and son chuckled, connected in the way two generations are when the younger one finally experiences what his elder experienced decades ago. Medion grinned as he spoke of Algernon, as Domaric might have done once when he held little Medion. "He's kind of like me, I mean he's looking more like his mother every day." Domaric laughed, admitting that his own youngest son always looked more like Melinda than himself. "And he's smart--he can recognize my name in the papers."
   "Recognize your name in the papers, that's good." They both laughed good-naturedly, taking in stride the guilty implications. The merriment could not last for Domaric, however. He drained his glass, poured himself some more, then reminded Medion, "Remember now, of all the Dons, Desseheren is most capable, and ready, to play rough. If she comes after you, she won't come alone. She'll have anyone you ever offended--Basanda, Steele--backing her up. If you're to deal with her, you must not give her the chance to strike back."
   "You told me that, Father," Medion reminded him gently. When Domaric only nodded and continued to mutter to himself, Medion put a concerned hand on his father's arm. "Pops--what's bothering you? I told you I could handle things, and I will. What's wrong?"
   Domaric didn't reply immediately. He just sat there, sipping red wine and watching the red skies. Medion waited patiently. Eventually Domaric dropped his hands to his lap, hung his head. The expression of pride mingled with regret--such a familiar expression now on the old man's face--returned. He spoke, as if to himself, "I knew...knew that Arrawnt was going to have to go through this. And Mageron--well, yes, though Mageron...even he, too, would have gone through this, were you unwilling to, uh, succeed me. Grantuck would have made a fine Don as well, but of course he has always been more of a counselor, an advisor, than a master. I just...I just never wanted this for you, Medion. I worked my entire life, and I don't apologize, to take care of my family in the way I saw fit. I refused to be a common fool, dancing on the strings, manipulated by the kings, queens, lords and such. I've had my way, and I don't apologize, but I--it's just that--I've always thought, when it was your time, you would be the one to hold the strings. Lord Medion, even King Medion...something like that..." The weathered patriarch shook his head wearily, defeated by his private disappointment. He looked as if he had just realized that, for all his victories over countless forgotten foes, he was still a long way from his fulfilling his dream--and both men knew he would probably not live to see it fulfilled.
   Medion thought of his own promise to his wife. He wondered if Domaric ever made such a promise to Melinda, and, if he did, what Melinda thought now. To think he once believed he was different from his father, and could find his own destiny! Medion was walking the very path his father chose at his age, and knew he could expect to encounter all the hardships and hurdles his father had to survive. They could have been mirror images of each other, but for the difference in years. Medion's hand found his father's; together they watched the last vestiges of the sinking sun disappear from sight.

   Domaric sat by the tomato patch his wife kept, holding his lively grandson and basking in the waning heat of late summer afternoons. More and more was he learning to forget about the business, and truly enjoy life. Medion's masterful way of handling things made it possible for him to relax--as did the humble realization that he was, for all his terrible might, not immortal, and slowly drawing near his end of days.
   But as all aged mortals, he found joy and hope in the new generation that would live far longer than him and keep his name remembered. Algernon was really the perfect little boy Medion described him to be. His brown hair was like fine silk; his green eyes sparkled like twin oasis. He had a slim, quick body, and a trove of expressions from which he randomly selected and displayed for his grandfather. Most of the times it was a happy smile, or innocent peals of laughter. But even when the boy became upset the storm was never long lasting. He seemed a little angel born to be sunny. Domaric thought back to his childhood, and was a bit surprised when he remembered that he, too, was once much like Algernon.
   He tried to teach Algernon how to water the plants. Medion's firstborn was smart, and picked up very quickly. Domaric marveled at that. Not one of his children--or himself for that matter--was this clever! He chuckled with unconcealed pride, and Algernon laughed merrily with him. The boy was still blessed with the ability to be happy without apparent reasons. Domaric watched him, wondering to himself how long this innocence could last. Another four years perhaps, seven at most. In his family innocence was always short-lived. For this Domaric had his regrets. The irony of his protection ruining his loved ones' pure spirit haunted him. Perhaps, given enough time, Medion could really changed things, and provide the protection with a clear conscience. But how much time would Medion need? Domaric shook his head, told Algernon to not grow up yet--but the little boy only laughed back at his grandfather.
   Toward dusk Algernon got hungry and asked for food. Domaric saw that it would still be a few hours before dinner, and he didn't think a snack would hurt the boy's appetite. He picked a few oranges from Melinda's garden and peeled them. Algernon ate quietly and tidily, generously offering a large share to his grandpa. Domaric smiled at his grandson, then thought up a trick. He turned from the boy and secretly slid a slice of orange over his teeth. Then he turned back and began making monster noises while waving his arms.
   Algernon jumped away, startled, and started to cry. Domaric laughed, pulled the orange slice off, showed the boy it was alright. Immediately Algernon squealed with delight, and ran through the garden. Domaric resumed his monster act and chased the boy. Together they ran through the patches, chasing each other as they played hide and seek.
   After a while Domaric realized he was panting and needed to rest. He stood for a moment, back bent and hands on knees, trying to catch his breath. Little Algernon still raced around, giggling for his grandfather to find him if he can. But Domaric felt now that he could hardly breathe. A great pain erupted in his chest, jolting his every fiber, paralyzing his limbs. He tried to stand up, but his legs were useless, and he stumbled and fell. He tried to call out for help, but the agony locked his throat, reducing his cry to grunts and whimpers. He grabbed wildly at anything his bleary eyes could make out, tearing plants up by the root, but none could keep him to the shore of the living now. The last breath came as a wheezing gasp that thundered mercilessly through his ears; his eyes saw the setting sun, for one last time. Then his senses left him forever, and Domaric's life of cruelty ended in the tomato patch his wife tended.

   The Don's funeral took place a few days after his death, in the stately cemetery by a grand church not far from the estate. Grantuck had once asked Domaric whether he'd wanted to be buried on his own property, but for all his sins Domaric was religious to a degree. He had wanted to be buried near a holy sanctuary, so his soul might yet receive redemption. Thus was the occasion removed from the grounds of his children's weddings, the throne of his power and nest of innumerable clandestine plans. Grantuck sat with the rest of the family near the open grave, breathed in the earthy scent, and watched carefully each visitor who'd come to pay respect to the deceased crime lord.
   The quiet and solemn procession took a long time. Though Domaric had little friends during his lifetime, he had a great number of associates and acquaintances, each of which had come if only to confirm that the mighty man was indeed dead. The dragonnewt detected little sorrow on the faces of the visitors. Some even wore the expression of open relief. They were perhaps convinced that they had escaped the patriarch's grasping claw, now that it was slackened in death. Grantuck glanced out of the corner of his eye at his youngest brother. He knew Medion would settle all the unfinished business, in methods likely more ruthless than Domaric would have employed. Those who thought they'd had a lucky break were in for a rude, and maybe even fatal, surprise.
   Behind him, Melinda, Isabella, and Mageron wept quietly. Synbios clutched little Algernon; mother and son mirrored each other's sorrow. But like his adopted brother, Medion did not look especially upset. Not that he didn't feel for his father's death, Grantuck knew--his grief was every bit as terrible as anyone else's. But he was the Don now, the symbol of the family's strength. He had to show that Domaric's death did not handicap their capability to do business, to grant favors and exact revenge. He had to prove that the family might was unswayed, even by death. Grantuck understood the importance of the act, and he played it out as admirably as Medion did. There was always time for tears later, in private.
   He looked on as the other Dons came to bid their worthiest rival farewell. Basanda had the nerve to bring Braff's father, the traitor Fafhard. She was showing, not so subtly, her disdain for Domaric. Fiale and Goriate were a little better, appearing with only the minimum amount of guards. Desseheren had brought with her the green-haired assistant. The haughty woman tossed a rose onto the casket, then glanced in Medion's direction. She bowed her head slightly. Medion didn't bother to return the salute.
   The tension faded as the four most dangerous visitors made their exit. In a short while, however, Fidelity made his way over to where the family sat. Grantuck realized quickly what he was up to, and what it meant. Medion had repeated their father's warning considering Desseheren. Together they watched the unsuspecting turncoat as he knelt by Medion's side.
   "Medion--Desseheren wants a meeting with you. She's hoping that you can straighten out all your differences with her, for the sake of ensured peace."
   Grantuck remembered Medion's false promise to Braff and said nothing. Medion nodded calmly, as if interested, then asked, "You talked to her?"
   "Yeah," replied Fidelity. "And don't worry, I can arrange the security. Hmm, on my territory, alright?"
   Medion appeared to give it deep thought before agreeing. "OK then, you arrange everything, right?"
   "Right, Don Medion," the centaur confirmed. He smiled confidentially at them both, then made his way back to where the other goons were assembled.
   The brothers met each other's glance. They both knew what the other was thinking. Grantuck leaned closer to Medion. "I'd always thought it'd be Campbell, not Fidelity, if it were to be one of them..."
   "It's a smart move," explained Medion. "And Fidelity was always the smarter one. Were it not for Pop's warning, it would have worked flawlessly. But I'll wait. I've decided to be Godfather to Isabella and Crewart's child. I'll meet with Basanda, Desseheren--the head of the four other Families--and finish this business, once and for all."
   The grim promise disappeared without an echo in the slight breeze. The two brothers did not converse again, but watched the funeral, and waited.

   The baptism took place only a few days later, in the church next to the cemetery. Together with his wife, Medion made his way toward the altar. There were few others present--Isabella and her husband, Melinda, and some guards. It was not that Medion feared to bring the taint of crime into a holy sanctum, or any of that nonsense. Nor was it really because that the baptism of a child didn't need a full house to make it seem grand. It's just that, most of the others had businesses to take care of.
   Synbios carried the baby boy--named Medion, after his Godfather--with gentleness only women are capable of. They bowed before the priest, who quietly began the ceremony. It was a simple ritual, one that Medion's father had gone through many, many times. This was the first for Medion, of course. He knew it'd be memorable.

   Arthur trotted gaily down the street, with Syntesis and Uryudo riding his back. The three of them wore not their usual leather warrior's garb, but colorful clothing like that of street performers. On their faces were silly, jolly smiles that fitted right in with the costumes. Today they were not assassins, but clowns out for a good time and gold coins. No one could have suspected what their real mission may be.
   As they neared the gate to Basanda's estate, the elf and the hobbit took turn standing on their heads and juggling oranges. Arthur opened his mouth and began singing a circus song, purposefully off-key and purposefully loud. In minutes they had a crowd of spectators.

   Campbell was dressed in his finest as he approached the grand Hotel Lookover in downtown Destonia. Under his arm was a long, narrow box, which he took care not to accidentally poke passersby with. He smiled at girls, threw coins at urchins, and escorted old ladies across the street. People chuckled and nodded respectfully at this charming centaur gentleman, and he saluted them right back.
   Yet however gallantly Campbell went out of his way to assist others, he did not stray from his path. He was soon at the entrance of the hotel.

   Medion helped Synbios untie the baby's bonnet. The priest leaned close, breathed gently on the baby three times, then resumed reading strange, unintelligible verses from his book. Medion saw out of the corner of his eye how concentrated on the ceremony his wife was. He tried to pay attention too, but of course his mind was elsewhere.

   Bernard hadn't had a haircut in a long time, so it was high time he got one. Carefully he chose a neat, quiet little shop not far from the market. Once in his seat, he relaxed, read the paper, and told the barber to take his time. His bulky bag lay in a corner, neglected and unremarkable.

   Julian never preferred to do things secretly, like a coward. But for all his hotheaded ways he knew when to be cautious. The heavy blade on his back did not slow him as he vaulted smoothly over a wall and into Desseheren's private garden. It was broad daylight, but no one saw him.

   Campbell entered the hotel, still clinging the package. He explained to a helpful clerk that it was a present for an old friend who was staying at the hotel. He knew the room number, so the clerk needn't worry. A generous tip was given; then the centaur began making his way up the stairs.

   The priest made the sign of the cross over the baby, then asked Medion to kneel. Synbios stepped back, and Medion complied. The priest's voice rang over the near-empty church as he asked, "Medion, do you believe in the Creator Camelot, He who formed our Heaven and Earth?"
   The question was supposed to be addressed to the baby, but of course it was the Godfather who should answer. Medion bowed his head humbly. "I do."
   "Do you believe in Elbesem, His method and path, and swear to follow it?"
   "I do."
   "Do you believe in the Holy Child, the Innovator Spirit that shall guide us through folly and into bliss?"
   Medion repeated, "I do."

   There was a single guard in the hallway, who had the bad fortune to spot him. Before the goon could open his mouth or draw his weapon, Julian's blade was through his heart. He dumped the body unceremoniously into an empty room, ignored the bloodstains in the carpet, and continued through the great mansion.

   Campbell climbed another flight, then paused to wipe sweat from his brows. He cursed Fiale for choosing a room near the top floor, but doggedly continued his ascent.

   Syntesis danced seductively while Uryudo played a fiddle. The guards at the entrance hooted and cheered. From behind the gate's steel bars, a throng of children stared with wide eyes. Arthur continued to prance about and sing, keeping up his act as the boisterous ringmaster. His eyes, however, were fixed on the house. Any moment now Basanda would be attracted by the commotion and come to chase them away.
   He began to sing louder, cruder tunes. Syntesis responded by taking off her thin jacket and removing her shoes and stockings. She tugged suggestively at the straps on her shirt and shorts. The henchmen's hoots became louder; the children's eyes grew wider. Arthur watched, and waited.

   Bernard thanked the barber, paid him, and left. He did not forget to take his dirty sack with him.

   Medion listened patiently as the priest droned on. His eyes stole to an ancient grandfather clock, dutifully reporting the hour. He saw the time, smiled to himself, then returned his full attention to the ceremony.

   Julian kicked the door to Desseheren's office open. A guard was instantly in front of him with weapon ready, but that didn't pause the young mercenary. With inhuman speed and accuracy he slid his blade past the guard's defense and struck a killing blow. Then he turned and zeroed in on the two stunned women in the room.

   Bernard found his carriage parked where he'd left it. He climbed in and began a leisurely trot through the morning market. In the distance he saw Don Goriate, out for his morning stroll with a platoon of guards in tow. Causally, unworried that someone might see him, he removed the heavy crossbow from the sack.

   Campbell finally reached the hotel room where Fiale was residing. He tapped gently on the door and announced the arrival of room service. Breakfast in bed, courtesy of the hotel.

   Steele lay comfortably on the massage table as his private masseur went to work taming the tycoon's strained muscles. He felt drowsy, but enjoyed the massage too much to fall asleep. Instead he hummed a little tune to himself and recalled pleasant memories of driving opponents to bankruptcy.

   The priest finished another string of meaningless chants, then thundered grandly: "Medion Son of Crewart--do you renounce the Bulzome teaching of mayhem and discord?"

   Campbell knew Fiale was bond to have at least one guard by his side; he also knew that, given the Don's love for privacy, chances were there would only be one guard in his room. From the package he drew a short but wicked blade. Without pause he stabbed it through the chest of the person who opened the door.
   It was, of course, not Fiale but his henchman. His only henchman. Fiale himself had jumped up from his bed, where he was still napping. The Don looked pitiful in nothing but his nightclothes. He grabbed frantically for his staff while Campbell calmly unwrapped the main content of the 'gift'--his steel lance. In the small hotel room there was no place for Fiale to run or hide. Campbell charged in, impaling his helpless victim. The force of the blow crushed Fiale against the wall like a squashed insect. Blood splattered everywhere, but the centaur hardly minded. Following his custom, he did not bother to retrieve his weapons. He stepped over the bodies and sauntered arrogantly back into the hallway.

   Medion knew the proper answer by heart. His reply was equally loud and convincing. "I do renounce it."

   Steele heard the door open, heard his masseur gasp. Lethargically he looked up--and caught the point of a featherless steel shaft in his right eye. He fell back to the table without a whimper.

   The priest continued smoothly, "And all the followers of the Bulzome teaching--do you renounce them?"

   It was child's play for a sharpshooter like Bernard to pick out Goriate among his underlings. The single arrow sailed straight and true, piercing the back of Goriate's skull and reemerging between his eyes. The Don toppled to the pavement. His henchmen shouted, screamed, and ran after the carriage, but not one came close to touching Bernard. He rode away without a scratch on his body.

   "I do renounce them."

   Finally Basanda came to the gate, shooing away the children and yelling for her men to get back to their posts. She then stormed up to the clowning trio and demanded to know what they thought they were doing.
   In reply Arthur reared up on his hind legs. He raised his arm and intoned: "Burn now, the flame!" Without pause Syntesis and Uryudo dropped their act, chanting in chorus: "Let me send you to hell!" "Take this!"
   Caught in the midst of the elemental furies, Basanda had no chance. Even as her scream of rage and disbelief left her throat, a salvo of spells struck her full force. In seconds, her body was reduced to an unrecognizable, smoking husk. The elf and hobbit hopped onto Arthur's back, and he galloped hastily from the place.

   "And all their pomp?" The priest wanted to know.
   Medion repeated in a sincere tone, "I do renounce them."

   Desseheren managed to pick up her staff and began chanting an offensive spell, but at close quarters even her powerful magiks were no match for the finality of a cold steel blade. The weapon shattered her staff. Remorselessly Julian kicked her to her knees, then brought the edge down swiftly, beheading her.
   The other woman in the room--Desseheren's secretary, probably--let out a shriek. Julian turned toward her and raised his bloodied weapon. The green-haired girl backed away fearfully, raising her own staff as she tried to defend herself. Once again the blade cut through the wooden shaft with hardly any trouble. She tried to retreat further, but the cold stone wall blocked her escape.
   Their eyes met as Julian moved in for the kill. But something in her innocent and frightened look made Julian's icy heart pause. A strange unwillingness to hurt the girl coursed through him. The young but hardened mercenary shook himself, unsure of what to make of his sudden weakness. Attempting doggedly to regain his bloodlust, he lifted his weapon high. She did not cower, scream, or even close her eyes. With her empty hands pressed against the wall, her expression one of understanding, she just watched him.
   Julian dropped his hands in frustration. "This was business," he told her as a way of explanation and apology. Then, unable to meet her probing glance another minute, he kicked open a window and slipped skillfully away.

   Satisfied that the young Don had answered all his questions properly, the priest raised his voice to all its holy grandeur once more. "Medion Son of Crewart--will you be baptized?"
   Medion turned his eyes from the clock and said, "I will."
   The priest nodded encouragingly. He prayed as he poured holy water over the baby's forehead: "In the name of the Creator, and the Child--"

   The relatives of Don Basanda gathered about her mangled, burnt corpse, and whispered among themselves. A few of the more softhearted ones wept, but there were satisfied grins on the faces of many. The bastard son, then the mother. Both dead and gone for good. They couldn't have asked for better luck.
   With all the guards pursuing the assassins, there was no one nearby to interfere with them. So there, right over Basanda's still-smoldering body, the prospective successors began debating among themselves how best to take over the business, and how they should share the family fortune. No one even mentioned taking Basanda's corpse indoors.

   Slowly but unceremoniously, the town guards hauled Goriate's body away. One of the men pointed questioningly at the broad trail of blood. Never mind, the captain told them. The rain will wash it away.

   "--And the Innovator Spirit--"

   Her whole body shook as she looked upon the gruesome scene, but Jane managed to step to the door without fainting. She stumbled into the hallway, and began crying for help. Though of course she knew Desseheren was long dead, just as her killer was long gone.

   The priest had finished, and he spoke his blessings. "Medion--go in peace, and may the Creator be with you."

   The family crowded together on the front steps of the church, chattering and laughing. Everyone congratulated the child's parents, and joked about Medion's title of Godfather. Melinda hugged her son proudly, recalling when he was but a beautiful baby with blond hair and blue eyes, much like little Medion. Synbios giggled at the image, and Medion blushed.
   By and by, three of Medion's 'employees' came up to the church. They laughed when they heard Melinda recounting their master's childhood--they remembered it well, for they had worked for Domaric even before Medion was born. They had been Medion's babysitters, childhood friends, guardian angels--now, employees. They joked about the paradox that the brief human life is, and everyone laughed with them. After so many years working for the Family, they were family.
   No one noticed the white centaur whisper to Medion; no one saw Medion smile in satisfaction.
   Isabella reminded them that they still had a train to catch. Medion had decided that they all deserved a holiday, now that they've gone through so much. Courtesy of Mageron and Grantuck, the entire family would be touring the bustling port city, Saraband. It would be a long, relaxing, well-deserved period of rest, and they all looked forward to it.
   As everyone was preparing to leave, however, Medion spoke to Crewart: "Crewart, wait--something's come up. We won't be going to Saraband yet. Everyone will leave without us."
   Immediately Isabella's face became fearful. She looked carefully from her husband to her brother, before interrupting, "But Medion, it'll be our first vacation together as a whole family. Surely the business can wait..."
   "Isabella, will you--please," Crewart growled. He seemed to have learned the lesson about not abusing his wife, at least not in public. Or at least not in front of her brothers. He turned pleasantly back to Medion. "So what's up?"
   "Go back to the house," Medion instructed. "It's something to do with the Dormant deal. I'll be there shortly to discuss it with you."
   Crewart nodded. "Sure."
   As he turned and left, Medion went to his wife and son. He kissed both of them, promising, "It's nothing serious. I'll only be a couple of days."
   Synbios shook her head. "I know about your promises. I'll see you in a week." Then she smiled playfully, kissed his cheek. "But if you make it on time, I'll reward you."
   "Then I'll be sure to make it," Medion told her, and he meant it. After all, it really was just a bit of leftover business to take care of.

   Grantuck and Fidelity stepped from the house to the waiting carriage. With the entire family off to Saraband, the vast estate and mansion would be rather empty for a few days. The two of them had just finished arranging for some of their men to watch over things; now they too were headed for the train station.
   From the carriage stepped Bernard. The elven archer's eyes met Grantuck's; he nodded a fraction of an inch. In response the dragonnewt smiled. Bernard spoke to Fidelity, "Excuse me, sir--but the boss sent me to tell you he's got some other business to take care of. He won't want you to accompany him, and he's canceled all deals with Don Desseheren."
   "Huh?" The centaur looked bewildered, then annoyed and scared. "But that will screw up all the arrangements!"
   Another henchman appeared from behind them, stopping directly behind Fidelity. Grantuck ducked his head apologetically. "Sorry about this, Fidelity. I'll be with Medion."
   Fidelity looked from Grantuck to the two assassins, realization dawning gradually on his face. Yet another henchman appeared from behind the carriage. This one was dragging a broad sword that conveyed only too clearly the Don's order of execution. Fidelity looked helplessly about at the faces he'd known for decades, now unfeelingly sending him to his death. He gave a last, desperate try: "Tell--tell Medion it was only business, only business. I've always liked him--he knows that."
   "He does know," confirmed Grantuck without smiling. There would be no compassion for a traitor, even one that had been his father's old friend and like an uncle to the children. The dragonnewt turned and started toward the gate.
   Fidelity called pitifully after him, pleading, "Grantuck--can't you get me off the hook? For old time's sake..."
   Grantuck did not look back. He replied in a cold, business-like manner that would have made Domaric proud: "Can't do it, Fidelity."

   Crewart sweated, mumbled, but otherwise tried as hard as he could to not remind the others of his presence. It was, of course, in vain. He knew, just as Medion wanted him to know, exactly why they had come to see him. He was the last piece of business to take care of, before Medion left for Saraband.
   In the room which had been the stage of Crewart's abusive behavior toward his wife, Medion, Grantuck, and a couple of henchmen formed a semicircle around him, watching him sweat. Crewart detected no pity on their faces. He cowered in his chair and awaited their verdict.
   Medion pulled a chair for himself, sat across from his brother-in-law. He stared at Crewart until the coward looked up. His voice was like the night wind on winter nights. "You have to answer for Arrawnt, Crewart."
   The dread that'd frozen Crewart's guts was making it hard to speak, but he managed, "You've, you've got it all wrong Medion. I wouldn't..."
   Medion slapped his hand across his thigh in anger, shutting Crewart up. The young Don leaned close; his breath chilled Crewart's damp brow. "You set my brother up for Desseheren. The little play you performed with my sister--did you honestly think it would fool us?"
   "No, Medion, I'm innocent," Crewart insisted weakly. He tried to stand, to regain some measure of dignity. "I know you're upset about how I treated Isabella--I was wrong--but I've changed. You shouldn't blame Arrawnt's death on me. I swear on the kids I'm innocent." He looked at their steely expressions and knew he was not convincing. His composure broke down again. "Medion, please, don't do this to me..." He whispered.
   Medion responded by tapping the chair. "Sit down," he ordered calmly.
   Crewart dropped back down, but did not stop his pleading. "Medion, please don't do this..."
   Medion shut him up with a glare. "Desseheren is dead, Crewart. So are Basanda, Fiale, Goriate, Steele, and Fidelity. My father spared you, spared them all, for the sake of peace, but that's not my way of doing things. Today's the day I settle all the family businesses--so don't tell me you're innocent. Admit what you did."
   The bloody list of victims whose corpses were still warm shook Crewart. With each word he trembled more violently, until he seemed about to faint. Medion watched him critically, snapped his fingers. "Get him a drink."
   He continued in a slightly softer tone, "Come on, Crewart, don't be afraid. You think too badly of your in-laws. I'm not about to make my little sister a widow. Your son shares my name, Crewart, and I'm his godfather. Why do you think I'll harm you? That I'll eliminate you like my other rivals?" His gaze remained on Crewart, however, and it had not softened a bit. Unable to face any of them, Crewart kept his head bowed, looking up only to accept the drink one of the stony-faced henchmen poured for him. He put the glass to his lips, paused, then looked doubtfully at the young Don.
   His brother-in-law grunted in disgust, pointed. "Drink." Hastily Crewart complied, downing the liquor in one gulp. Medion continued, "Crewart, your punishment is simple--you're out of the family business. After you arrive at Saraband with us, you'll be staying for good." He took the ticket Grantuck held up and showed it to Crewart. "I've arranged for you a simple little job there, one that would enable you to take care of your family but keep out of my way. Grantuck and Mageron will watch over you for me. If you stay there and behave, you'll have little to fear from me." He stuffed the ticket into Crewart's hands. Crewart managed a feeble smile, but Medion's tone suddenly turned deadly again. He was not through yet. "Only don't tell me you're innocent. Lying when it's so obvious--it insults my intelligence. And that makes me very, very angry." His voice had become quiet, yet it rumbled in the small room like approaching thunder. "Now tell me, who approached you--Basanda or Desseheren?"
   Crewart swallowed. "It was--Desseheren."
   "Good." Medion appeared satisfied with the answer, as if he'd been justified in his actions. Though, of course, with all potential enemies dead, there was little chance he'd not yet avenged his brother. He stood. "I don't want to see your face a minute longer. There's a carriage outside that'll take you to the station. You can explain to your wife, or I will--it doesn't matter. Now get up."
   The coward stood shakily. He reached out, trying to clasp the hand that could so easily determine his life or death. "Medion, please..."
   The young Don turned away with only one last contemptuous glance. "You try my patience. Get out of my sight."
   Cowed, Crewart followed them wordlessly outside. The carriage waited by the footpath. A red-haired mercenary was loading Crewart's things into the back; another goon sat in the driver's seat. They looked intimidating, but as Crewart studied his two in-laws and their bodyguards he realized he had no choice. He certainly didn't dare complain. With Medion's promise not to harm him, it would be wise to listen to his orders, and get out of his sight, as soon as possible. Maybe one day Medion would meet his downfall...maybe it was still possible for Crewart to get his revenge, and win back the dignity and prestige he sacrificed today.
   He climbed in besides the driver. The red-haired mercenary sat behind him. Crewart took one last look at the young Don, who was watching him intently, and breathed a sigh of relief as the carriage started moving.
   He caught the eyes of the mercenary. The boy, who looked hardly Medion's age, nodded coolly. "Hello Crewart."
   The next instant Crewart felt a burning, tearing sensation in his chest, and warm liquid on his stomach. He stared down, horrified, at the blood-covered blade that had erupted from his chest. His voice locked in his throat as darkness descended over his eyes; the last words he heard were those of the man who'd killed him. "Goodbye, Crewart."

   Synbios watched as a posse of goons and hired hands loaded their things into a caravan of carriages. Merely a day after their return from Saraband, Medion had begun the grueling process of moving house to their new place in Dormant. The beautiful estate that had been his father's throne was being sold. What could be taken away was being handled by the men; what could not go would stay, as a tribute to Domaric's reign.
   When Synbios asked her husband whether he regretted having to leave, he'd smiled coolly. "I'll be happy anywhere, as long as my family is with me." When she’d laughed and hugged him, he'd added, "Do you regret having to leaving Destonia with me?"
   No, she'd assured him. Her sister would take care of her father, and she would often return to visit. She looked forward to a new setting. What Synbios didn't mention was that she secretly hoped to leave the sinful taint of wrongdoing behind. Perhaps crime was like a curse on Domaric's estate; perhaps, once they've settled in their new home, Medion would begin his journey back to innocence.
   And yet, another voice, deep inside her, doubted her cherished hopes. More and more she felt that her husband was hiding things from her. He never forbade her to ask about his business, yet became annoyed when she probed too deeply. He told her that there were things too complicated and troublesome to burden her with, and that all she needed to know was that he was committed to protecting the family. She believed him, of course--but what she dreaded was the methods with which Medion shielded his kin. She wondered how many lives her husband had ruined for their sake. Medion had become like the reincarnation of Domaric. How he was going to weed out the seeds of evil he planted himself, and right the wrongs--Synbios had no idea.
   Lost in her thoughts, she didn't notice a carriage shoot through the gate and pull up to the house, until it was right in front of her. Isabella jumped from the driver's seat, stormed toward the house. From the passenger's side Melinda climbed slowly down. She tried to stop her daughter, calling, "Isabella, dear--I'm telling you you're wrong!"
   Isabella returned an angry, disbelieving laugh. "Mama, please!" She banged on the front door, yelling, "Medion! Medion!"
   Frightened, Synbios came up behind her and tried to calm her. "Isabella, what's going on?"
   She shot her a baleful glare, but refused to answer. A henchman opened the door, and Isabella shot through like a bolt. Synbios could barely keep up as she ran through the house. "Medion! Medion!"
   They came to the door to the Don's office. Synbios hesitated uncertainly; Isabella all but tore the door down. She charged up to the desk, where Medion was conferring with a couple of his men. Without preamble she slapped her brother across the face.
   The men jumped up to shield their boss. Medion looked from his sister to his wife, then beckoned for his men to back down. His voice was calm and unsurprised. "What is it, Isabella?"
   She let out a shriek of anger. "What is it? You bastard, you killed my husband! You waited until Pops was dead, so no one could stop you, then you killed him! You blamed him for what happened to Arrawnt--everyone did--but you never gave a damn about me and my son! What am I going to do now? I am a widow already you bastard!"
   Synbios could not believe what Isabella was saying. She put her arm around her, tried to shush her. "Isabella, please. We know you feel terrible about what happened to Crewart--we all do. But what happened was a mere accident. His carriage drove off a bridge..."
   "Ha!" The frenzied woman laughed a single note of scornful disbelief. "You believe that? You honestly believe that? Why do you think he kept Crewart at home when we were on our way to Saraband? All the while, he knew he was going to kill him!" She directed her fury toward her brother. "And to think you stood Godfather to our baby! You lousy, cold-hearted animal!" When Medion responded with only an innocent shake of his head, she turned back to Synbios. "Read the papers. Read the papers and you'll see how many people he killed along with Crewart! This is whom you married! This is your husband!"
   Caught in the throes of her hateful passion, Isabella fainted clean away. Synbios barely managed to catch her. Her husband nodded at his goons; they stepped forward to remove Isabella from Synbios's embrace. He ordered. "Put her in a room upstairs, and call Uryudo to check on her. She's just broken up with grief. She'll be alright."
   The men left with his sister. Synbios stared about the empty room, and for the first time felt a sense of fear to be alone with her husband. She watched wordlessly as Medion leaned back, apparently unperturbed with his sibling's accusations. Synbios tried to remain calm as well, but couldn't. Her sister-in-law's words had been like an arrow that'd finally pierced her bubble, bringing forth all her hidden doubts and suspicions. She wanted to leave, to forget about what happened--but now she had one question. One question to ask her husband, to tell her whether she'd been a fool all along.
   When he looked puzzled at her, she ventured, "Medion--is this true?"
   Immediately his face became a cold and angry mask. "Don't ask me about my business, Synbios."
   But she had to. For her own peace of mind. "Is it true?"
   He stood, towering intimidating over her slight figure. "I said don't ask me about my business!"
   She persisted. "But is it?"
   "Enough!" His hand came down, hard and heavy, banging against his desk. She backed away fearfully, stupefied by his anger. Was this the real Medion? The man she'd married? She began to wonder, in earnest, whatever happened to the Medion she knew, and whether it was still possible to bring him back. She could almost hear Isabella's jeers.
   He appeared to notice her fear. For a second he looked a little ashamed, then saddened. But all the weaker emotions vanished before she could properly identify and understand them. His face became noncommittal as he sighed, pointed. "Alright. This once--just this once--I'll let you ask me."
   She didn't know whether she had enough wits left to hear the answer. But before her dread could stop her, the words rushed out. "Is it?"
   He shook his head and replied simply, "No."
   Synbios stared at him, doubtful. But then he smiled, hugged and kissed her--and became like the Medion she knew, the Medion she married, again. It was enough to make her forget his anger and coldness. She laughed in relief, suddenly embarrassed that she'd suspected her husband. She leaned into his arms, vowing to never harbor ill feelings toward the man she loved ever again.
   "I'm sorry..." She whispered. He responded by holding her tighter. She relaxed, touched by his love and forgiveness. After a bit she eased herself from his arms. "I guess we were all pretty shook up by what happened. I'll get us a drink, OK?"
   She strode from the office with renewed confidence. At the door she ran into Campbell, Bernard, and Julian. They bowed respectfully before her as she passed. Remembering their profession, she ignored them as best as she could. They were the reminder of Domaric's criminal empire; they were the ones who would mislead Medion and seduce him into straying from the righteous path. In the battle to wash her husband clean of sins, the goons were her enemy. She would have nothing to do with them.
   A few steps later, however, curiosity got the better of her. She stopped, glanced back.
   Campbell was kissing Medion's hand. "Don Medion," she heard him say in reverence. Bernard followed suit.
   The demonstration of loyalty made her start. She remained standing there in the hallway, trying to see what was happening, to figure out what this meant. But then Julian shut the door in her face, and she saw no more.

The End.

Thanks to...
Athrades, for being there till the end
Eomer, for keeping up my spirits toward the end
Omega Entity, because she's nice
Sinful Desire, for finishing it in one go...
Zephir, for telling me I rock :D
Darius, for being my fan
Arai, for falling asleep and laughing -_-
S Walch, for bearing with me
Penn the Penguin, for trying to read :P
Cullsoft, for appreciating Grace's role
Wilmer, for not reading it (I think) T_T
Murasame, for occasional kind words
Hayward, for confirming it's 'Fafhard'
Shinsachiel for JuMeSyn,
Moogie for SFC
And anyone else who's read it!

And of course, to Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather
and the entire cast that produced the splendid movie.

^^ I had fun...did you?? ^^
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