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I awoke a day or so later, in the late afternoon. I couldn't see much, as my face was swathed in light cotton cloths with narrow holes for my eyes. I wanted that Tylenol that was probably crushed forever beneath an unappreciative heel in my dining room. Ouch. Burns really hurt. A lot. My other bruises, scrapes, puncture wounds, and sundry contusions didn't feel all that great either. I couldn't move; the slightest effort in that regard was rewarded with exquisite pain.

Russet's face appeared in my limited visual field, hovering there like a strange but lovely moon. ``He's awake,'' I heard. More rustling sounds, then some serious pain as the cloths on my face were unwrapped, then the burning cooled somewhat as (I guess) my skin was sponged off. I hoped that the water was sterile.

``The water is sterile, fear not.'' A mind reader! First Sharra's voice, then her face, drifted back into my consciousness, which had taken a little holiday in between. ``Swallow this. You will need it, if you wish to live.'' Gentle fingers probed at my raw lips and poked a pill in when they withdrew in protest. Liquid poured in afterwards which was fortunate, because the pill tasted pretty awful. I swallowed convulsively, then kept swallowing because, truth be told, I was pretty dry.

Sharra kept feeding me sips of cool water for the next few minutes. Suddenly I woke up from another one of those two-minute time-outs and was pretty wet and so was the bed, and if it weren't redundant my face would have been burning with shame and embarrassment. No comment was made, however, and in a minute I could feel them bustling around making me dry again, something they could manage without killing me with the pain only because it was my front side, not the rear, that was really badly burned. They got still more lightly sugared water in me (dehydration and kidney failure are associated with large surface area burns, a little memory tickled me) and then whatever it was that Sharra gave me took effect and I went to sleep. Real sleep, complete with nightmares...

The rest of my convalescence is not worth mentioning, except that it involved three miracles. First, I did not become infected. The odds against not getting infected when lots of burned skin sloughs off on a primitive, backwoods planet like Mirath is around one to five million. Second, after that first day, I never really hurt again. I would wake up, have a drink, and feel pretty good. I probed the burned skin gently with my fingers when nobody was looking, and it didn't really feel nearly as bad is it ought. Third, I was completely healed in a week! Oh, and miracle three-and-a-half. When the scabs fell off I had no scars, not even from the shrapnel-like wounds caused by the exploding kiln door, one of which had ripped a gash into my cheek which doubtless was then ground into the dirt when I fell.

If all this seems odd to you, it seemed odder to me; I've taken longer to recover from an ordinary cold, and although I've healed well enough when I've been hurt before, a half-inch-deep gash trimmed with blackened, blistered skin does seem like the sort of thing one expects to take a few weeks to heal and to leave some sort of scar when it does. But there was nothing under the scab when it fell off but clean, pink, new skin.

Mind, I was twenty pounds lighter and weak as a kitten at the end of the week, but my body was whole and unmarked except for various patches of nice, pink, new skin. At that point, amazingly, I was pronounced fit to walk about. I celebrated by shambling over to the potty-chair and using it with a woman on each side to catch me if/when I fell over. Beats the hell out of bedpans, although bedpans hadn't really been invented yet so it was beating the hell out of terra-cotta pitchers and chamber pots.

Tara slept beside me (but not in bed with me - she doesn't shed a lot but burns don't really need animal fur to stick into the wound area) the entire time. She was a no-show at the marshmellow roast because Brin had hit her with a paralyzing dart under the table - she wasn't play-acting or overfull from her feast at the party, she was drugged. He did it subtly - I didn't notice it and was so involved that it didn't strike me as unusual (initially) when she appeared to go to sleep. She was lucky it was only paralyzing - I'm guessing that he was hoping to sell her to the prince or keep her for himself as an ordinary animal, unaware of just how impossible that was.

When she woke up to find me in intensive care, she had a fit to end all fits. After terrorizing the help and sundry as she drove them away from my body, she would only tolerate Russet and Sharra in my company. She spent the little time she wasn't with me digging up and crushing small bones (such as there were) from the pile of ash in the kiln that is all of the mortal remains of Brin.

With Tara to encourage me, my remaining convalescence was quite short. I was absolutely ravenous, all the time. If I wasn't eating I felt like I was digesting myself - I've never been so hungry in my life, and was losing weight at an alarming rate. Fortunately Sharra, at least, wasn't one of those prissy nurses that give you only soft food to eat - even the second day after I awakened (when it became clear that I could keep whatever I ate down and call for more) she fed me anything and everything. Once a day, first thing in the morning, she gave me another of the tiny capsules to wash down with water and wouldn't let me eat or drink for an hour afterwards, but then the sky was the limit. I spent my first three days after the day I took those first few steps eating as much food as they'd give me.

Sharra had all but moved into my bedroom. Russet had (at my insistence) pretty much moved out into a room of her own, although before we nailed Brin she still had occasional ``sleepovers'' with me where we simply shared the bed and perhaps snuggled a bit. I should point out that she smelled far better than she did on that first day - I had instituted a strict rule that anybody who directly associated with me had to bathe, with soap, every day, warm water or cold as they preferred, and that everybody I employed had to bathe at least once a week. We had the cleanest household in Sind-a-Lay.

To facilitate this, I had a sort of a communal bath set up in what used to be the dungeon and which I now thought of as the combined basement, wine cellar, shop, and bath, where it was fairly easy to divert water from the underground stream into large half-barrels. The same furnace down there that used to heat hot irons now heated hot water in a giant cauldron so that I could have a hot bath. Even Dojo had to follow the bathe-every-day rule; at first he was a bit resistant to the idea but shortly he, like everybody else, viewed it as a privilege.

Sharra, on the other hand, didn't share my bed at all - she had a cot moved in and slept in it to be able to tell if I needed help in the middle of the night. In fact, she never left my side, as far as I could tell even afterwards, from the minute they pulled my smoking body out of the clay and cleared my nostrils so I could breath until the day almost a month later that I first stepped out of the house, no longer too weak to defend myself if need be.

Never means never - sleeping together or not we were necessarily as unembarrassed about personal body functions as any old married couple. Houses didn't have proper bathrooms, of course - at best, rooms were equipped with chamber pots, in my case with a chamber pot that was mounted underneath a custom-designed chair with a suitable hole cut in the seat (made by sacrificing an old chair the first day after moving in). My room was also equipped at the same time with a washbasin, a pitcher that was always kept full of boiled water not from the river but from the (presumably cleaner) underground stream, pieces of plain cloth to use as towels, and a crude mirror I used to shave with a straight razor stropped on a piece of rawhide leather.

I had never had a screen or the like installed around these facilities (which were off in a corner). Russet was as un-self-conscious as a three-year old about it, and I wasn't planning on further company. Consequently I was present on more than one occasion when Sharra (who was a bit more reserved but fortunately not afflicted with a lot of false modesty) used the facilities in the middle of the night or day. There I learned an interesting thing.

Sharra had a plan. By that I mean not a set of things to do, but a sealed tube she used as a butt-safe, a plan d'evasion or as the British call it, a charger. Naturally, she had to remove it before doing her business in the morning, and although she always looked over to see if I was asleep before proceeding, on one occasion I wasn't completely asleep and in fact had been watching her through the barest of slits ever since she got up, while drifting in and out of a dream. Her careful removal of a polished lucite tube from her rectum before sitting down to evacuate, her careful washing and drying of herself and said tube both before unscrewing and opening said tube, removing what looked like a small capsule, and reinserting said tube, lubricated with a little spit, with an obviously practiced motion, was more than enough to wake me completely up and gain my full attention, although I was careful not to so much as twitch a muscle.

And yes, there did appear to be a thin glass blade stuffed into the tube, among several other non-metallic things. That solved one mystery, at least. At the expense of creating a half dozen others.

A bit later that morning, when I had officially ``woken up'' and taken a turn on the chair myself, why was I not surprised when Sharra brought to me a small capsule? A capsule that was not from my own stash but which was clearly the product of an advanced culture? A capsule that I dutifully washed down with water and then waited a full hour, my stomach grumbling with hunger, before she would permit me to break my fast?

I said nothing about it at the time; I merely filed it away for further consideration later. Sharra was near the top of my list for investigation anyway as she by her own story was a traveller of the multiverse like myself, deliberate or accidental, and there were too many things about her that didn't quite add up. Like a hopefully shatterproof personal safe that would clearly make it through a metal detector and maybe even an X-ray. That seemed a bit extreme for a simple mother bereft of her husband and children and forced to flee following a revenge killing. She clearly had a plan in both senses of the word.

When I finally got up enough strength to leave my room and walk to the garden (a woman under each arm and Tara spinning in circles around us) I found Rendar waiting, talking quietly with Mikal. Next to him was a chest. A rather large chest.

As I emerged from the shadows he and Mikal sprang forward to help me, and the two of them sat me down on a comfortable chair in the shade. Dojo appeared out of nowhere followed by servants bearing platters of food and jugs of wine and a small keg of ale; they set them on a stone table and vanished as suddenly as they had come without a word being said. No sooner was I seated and comfortable (Russet and Sharra hovering behind my chair) then Rendar embarrassed the hell out of my by literally kneeling at my feet and offering me his sword, tears streaming down his cheeks.

Mikal wasn't quite so demonstrative, but he was beaming away and bowed very low indeed before me. Given that he was a King's son and all.

I bent forward with a groan and fumbled at Rendar's shoulders to lift him up, saying ``C'mon, Rendar, stop it. God, don't kneel to me, get up! Here, take back your sword.''

At the latter he lifted his face, looking a bit stricken, and said ``I cannot - it is yours forever. Whether you will it or not.''

Something in his voice convinced me that he was telling me the truth, so instead of being flip I said, ``Fine. Then take up my sword and use it as you must in your daily affairs, except when I have need of it. And at the moment I need you to get up and pull up a chair and pour me and yourself a nice, big glass of wine.'' The latter was a bit gruff, for I'm just not used to having people swear ``fealty'' to me and am not really comfortable with the concept, natural and even sensible as it is in a feudal culture.

Fortunately, after a few more seconds with his head bowed, he complied, sheathing his sword and rising and sitting down in a chair next to the table. He proceeded to pour several silver goblets full of wine and passed me one while the others stepped forward to take one as well. When everybody had goblets I lifted mine and said, ``Drink to the fall of Brin.''

Sharra had lifted her goblet in unison with mine; the rest of them took a full beat to get the idea and lift theirs as well. We then drank them half off, more or less together. Toasting wasn't exactly unknown on Mirath, but it usually consisted of raising a mug and shouting ``Beer!'' followed by the echos of other mugs lifted and voices raised in ``Beer'', ``Beer'', ``Over here!'', ``Mrrrshlnfg'' as the other drinkers would echo the sentiment and the act to the extent their sobriety permitted. I might have started yet another civilized custom (at least among this crowd), one that I clearly didn't need to teach to Sharra.

We all held out our glasses to be refilled, a duty that Rendar performed with complete aplomb. ``So, Rendar, what news?'' I asked.

``What have you heard so far?'' he countered with.

``Nothing,'' I replied. ``This is the first time I've been out for a week, they tell me, and I've been asleep or resting quietly almost all of that time.''

``Well, then, let me begin with the immediate aftermath. When Brin died in the blaze of your magic thunder daemon that Mikal called out of hell with your queer machine, I helped see you into your bed and was driven almost immediately out of your bedroom by Tara. I waited outside until I was assured by the girls that you would live, and immediately took leave of the premises to set affairs in motion that would be to our tremendous advantage.

``I collected all of the guard that were readily available (some twenty or thirty strong) and at their head set out for the house of Brin. When we arrived we found the premises in disarray - there had been a mighty explosion and a small fire just about the minute, as far as I can tell, that Brin had died. The explosion wrecked a few rooms and most of their contents but failed to really damage the building. The fire, started by the explosion, had started in Brin's private library but - by good fortune - never really caught. The servants were able to salvage many of the books.

``Brin's servants tried to defend the place as best they could against our entry, but didn't seem to know what to do against a few tens of guardsmen. They were used to being defended by the mere reputation of Brin, and simply froze at the sight of naked steel being held to their throats.

``Most of them surrendered before being killed, and when they immediately tried to tell us why acting as we did was equivalent to committing suicide, I announced Brin's death in a loud voice and then equally loudly claimed that I was confiscating the contents of his house in the name of the prince. This (combined with a bit of encouragement from the flat of sword blades applied briskly to buttocks, thighs, calves) prompted a mass exodus out into the street as fast as their feet could carry them.

``In a few minutes, we had the entire place all to ourselves. I sent away for carts, and within an hour was going systematically through the place and seizing its wealth in the name of the prince. Naturally this meant picking out the most valuable things I could find for me - well, for us - while having the rest packed up for the king's warehouse.

``I have never worked so hard looting a house in my life. His house was huge and filled with strange things - it took days (and really isn't finished yet). From his extensive dungeons (they rivaled the prince's own) we liberated some twenty folk that had gone missing over the last year, some of them nearly starved to death, many of them children. In his kitchen we found evil things. In his treasury...'' he paused for emphasis, ``we found enough gold and silver and jewelry to make us rich a dozen times over. So much that I loaded a chest for the prince that should make him fully satisfied, nay, overwhelmed, with his portion of the pickings even as I shovelled the rest into...''

``...This.'' I suddenly realized that he'd leaned over and laid a familiar hand on a chest sitting on the ground beside him. It had two poles stuck through loops on the sides and was meant to be carried by four strong men. He leaned over and opened the lid. An impossible ocean of gold glittered up at us, mixed in with a rainbow of glittering colors from the gems mixed into the hoard. A quarter-ton or better of loot where the least valuable part by weight was the mere gold.

``There are five more chests this size, although two of them are mostly silver and copper and some white metals I do not recognize in bars - like this one...'' he pulled a small bar of what appeared to be - platinum? - out from among the gold.

``And it's yours.''

``Huh?'' I came back with my usual willy repartee.

``Yours. I've already paid off my men (enough for them to feel mighty glad to work and fight for me, not quite enough to retire - yet - as country gentlemen), paid off the prince with almost a dozen such chests containing (ahem) a somewhat greater mixture of silver and not so many jewels. To be frank I took only a modest share myself, and as a result am richer than any noble of the city. To take more would only risk bringing down the wrath of the prince on my head before I'm - we're - ready.

``Recalling your thirst for information and machines I most carefully resisted burning the place to the ground before you had a chance to look over its contents, and have dawdled as much as I can at the looting of the place into the King's warehouses, starting with simple furniture. Most of his equipment is still there and intact, but I can make nothing of it.''

``Well done,'' I said. I didn't let my face register the problems that I saw associated with being the owner of roughly a metric ton of gold, jewels, and precious metals - a true pirate hoard. I'd have every greedy S.O.B. in the planet making a beeline for my door. Kingdoms have been bought for less.

``In a day or two I'll try to visit Brin's and go over the rest of his stuff. In the meantime, could you oversee the transfer of this gold into smaller chests and have it carried downstairs into the cellar? And hire me fifty completely honest men to guard it with their lives? Otherwise we'll draw every pirate on the planet directly to our ill-defended doorstep as soon as the word spreads.''

``Not necessary,'' said Rendar with a wolfish grin. ``Don't you understand? You defeated Brin. Brin was the one man that nobody dared to go up against. Not the prince, not the pirates, not the king and all his armies. Certainly not me with all my guardsmen at my back. Brin had proven impossible to stab, shoot, poison, burn and even drown, and openly flaunted his power. Brin was a monster who pulled people, even small children, apart as a young boy might pull apart a fly, a name used to scare small children into being good (and staying far, far away from him).

``But you have him over to dinner. Shortly after, smoke and shouting signal a battle in your house, and a crowd gathers in the square outside. A flash lightning and blast of thunder is clearly seen, following which Brin is simply gone, as evidenced by the fact that I and my guardsmen proceed from here directly to his house and loot it for all the world to see.'' He paused and gave a crooked grin. ``What do you expect them to conclude from all of this? What can they conclude? Why, only that you are an even greater wizard than Brin, and consequently even more dangerous than he. On top of this,'' his grin grew even wider - ``it is known that we are together as allies and there are not many in this town besides Brin, including the prince, who would openly have crossed me two weeks ago and there are none today. The entire city knows all of this to be simple fact, and I doubt not that word is even now winging its way to foreign lands with every caravan.

``Right now nobody in this city dares to touch you, to offend you, to rob you. Not the prince, not the greediest and bravest pirate captain with all his scummy crew at their backs, certainly not some hapless footpad with a family to support and a wish to live to spend their booty. Right now, everybody wants to be your friend, everybody at least hopes that as wizard-warriors go, your appetites are less bloody (and inclined towards children) although nobody really expects anything like moderation.

``Today you could walk down the street naked, with your hands tied behind your back, and with a bag of gold tied in plain sight around your neck and be cheered by every person you meet instead of having your throat slit. In a week, in a month - then they'll start to forget, and perhaps you will be challenged - but not yet.''

``So sure, we'll put the gold in one of the cells in the dungeon here, add some strength to its door, and I'll post a few more men to guard the house both outside and inside, but I've let it be known that you have a truth spell like Brin's and that if any of your employees steal from you it is just a matter of time before you use it. I've taken the liberty of having a few - just a few, mind you - of the more ``interesting'' torture machines from Brin's dungeon moved into yours. In the meantime...''

He raised his voice a trifle. ``Dojo!'' Dojo materialized from nowhere; he must have been hovering in the wings listening.

``Have this chest moved downstairs! Put it in one of the empty cells next to the torture chamber, lock it in, and keep the key. Pick one with a sound door, but get a smith in here to see that it locks properly. And bring us more wine!''

Dojo bowed, and then hesitated. He turned to me, blanched, and sunk slowly to his knees, with his head bowed. ``Master,'' he said. ``Please forgive me.''

``For what?'' I asked.

``For letting Brin do as he wished when he came. I knew he was here to kill you, when he arrived with his friends in their dark cowled robes and they made us all leave them alone, both that day and many other times before when you were out. I don't know what traps he set for you; all I knew was that it was better to cut my own throat than to oppose him.''

``I didn't realize that you were even more powerful than he - I thought I was serving a dead man. And master,'' he continued. ``I stole gold. I was certain you wouldn't need it. I've put almost all of it back but,'' his voice caught, ``I spent some. I will willingly sell myself to you as a slave in lieu of the rest if you spare my life.''

He waited there for the axe to fall. I stopped for a minute to think, taking a few good pulls from my wine goblet in the meantime. I didn't give a rat's furry behind for his ``betrayal'' - he was absolutely right about what Brin would have done to him if he'd won, and probably right in his assessment of Brin's relative chances for victory as in retrospect we were lucky, although a lot of that luck was spelled ``Sharra''. At this point I had an embarrassing surplus of treasure - perhaps a billion dollars worth of spending power in gold and jewels in an economy where accumulations like this were unheard of - so I didn't care much about the petty thievery.

However, at hearing this Rendar was wearing the same smile he had on his face when he was about to cut a throat, and in order for me to remain credible I had to do something to Dojo. The question was, what? I didn't personally care for the idea of killing him, torturing him, or even firing him - he did make the house run. And has already been intimated, I'm allergic to owning slaves even in a culture where slave ownership was an integral part of the economy.

A pretty puzzle. To gain time to think, I beckoned to Russet and asked her to fetch me my swords. Rendar sprang to his feet and wordlessly offered me his, presuming I'm sure that I had decided to be merciful and just kill Dojo on the spot; I'm pretty certain that if Rendar were the offended party Dojo would be having his guts pulled out and roasted over a fire before his very eyes in a matter of minutes. I waved it aside.

Dojo obviously felt the same way. He leaned forward, the better to bare his neck for me, and closed his eyes, which were leaking tears that dripped to the floor.

What to do, what to do? I needed some sort of serious penance, and I didn't want it to involve blood, serious pain, and the removal of body parts. Suddenly I had it.

``Mikal,'' I said. ``Where is the lightning machine?''

It was Sharra who replied. ``I had it moved back to the workshop lest it be ruined by the weather. It is still on its cart.'' I think she got the idea, as there was the slightest crinkling of humor about her eyes as she replied.

``Fetch it,'' I said, as grimly as I could, when a part of me was already laughing inside. ``And a chair. And the iron stake and wire.''

Half an hour later (a time well-spent imbibing a fairly considerable amount of wine for a semi-starved convalescent) Dojo was stripped naked and sitting in a chair, while Mikal pounded in the stake and without being told, urinated on the ground around it. Dojo looked far worse off than he really was. We didn't even tie him down; I just told him to sit in the chair and not move a muscle, ``or else...''

I pulled myself out of my chair and wove my way over to the generator without quite falling over. Sharra came over with me to assist. I took all but two of my homemade capacitors out of the circuit, and looked Dojo over to select a spot. I expected to be able to get a couple or three joules out of the capacitors when they discharged, and didn't want to go to ground through Dojo's upper torso in case his heart wasn't so good.

Sharra fixed a ground onto his ankle while I slipped a copper plate under Dojo's buttocks right where it would do the most good, and coupled it with a wire to the downhill side of the spark gap. Turn the crank, charge up the capacitors to a few thousand volts (and a few joules of stored energy), and when dielectric breakdown of the air gap occurs - lightning! And a nasty little shock to anything in the series circuit to ground, but no worse than a ``stubborn dog training collar'' back in my world. Dojo was going to get the ``bad dog'' treatment.

It was time to do my part of the ritual. Dojo's eyes were rolling back in his head and he was sweating like a horse (which would doubtless only improve his electrical contact). Even Rendar looked a bit apprehensive. He'd seen this very apparatus apparently vaporize Brin's arms and cause him to shrivel, burn and die. Up to that point the kiln fire was clearly not working in and of itself, and he knew nothing of the stored power in Brin's high-tech bracelets that actually provided most of the energy from the blast. He looked at Dojo, caught his eye, and shook his head while tapping his sword, clearly communicating that it would have been a cleaner end. Dojo just nodded his head tightly and looked straight ahead, waiting for the end.

We called in the rest of the household staff and had them stand in a small crowd off to the side. I stood in front of Dojo and tilted his head back so he had to look me in the eye. I then began to intone.

``Dojo! By your own admission, you have betrayed my trust in you several times and ways. Is this not true?'' He nodded. ``I have the right to take your life - or worse - for even the least of these offenses. Indeed, you were promised far worse,'' pause for Tara to slink slowly around his chair, lightly scratching her extended claws across his belly, drawing blood once or twice and smearing it out for maximum effect. (I'd given her instructions off to the side earlier, although it was difficult to convince her to hold back; I'm certain that some of those punctures were deeper than they needed to be as Tara had her own idea of justice and punishment.)

``However, you confessed openly to these betrayals, which were already known to me. You have offered to make reparations. You have offered to become my slave to save your worthless life and the lives of your family. You did this even though,'' and I paused and looked out over everybody there, ``you know that I despise slavery. You add insult to the injuries you have already done me. And so I am strongly inclined to inflict upon you a punishment far, far worse.''

``Yet,'' I continued, as if talking to myself, ``you did give good service, for the most part. And you would be difficult to replace, as by now you know my ways. Perhaps...''

``Look you,'' I went on. ``This is the very spell that struck down one as mighty as Brin himself, calling down lightning from the sky to blast him to a small pile of stinking ash that you yourself have scattered to the winds. With it I can destroy - or chastise. Which should it be?''

``Do you, Dojo, swear by all that is holy to you to serve me and no other, for as long as you shall live? Not as a slave, but as something much more difficult for you - as a servant? A servant that will be lucky to just get put out into the street with his legs and fingers broken if he ever steals from me or endures others stealing from me? A servant who will have to be smart enough to tell me if others seek to bribe or threaten him to suborn my household? Or would you prefer to be slowly, horribly, burned into a small pile of stinking ash and scattered to the winds?''

We then paused for a full minute before Dojo could get enough saliva into his mouth to reply at all, and another minute while he babbled variations on the `yes' theme, throwing in oaths holy and unholy, the lives of his children as collateral, all his personal possessions, and every drop of blood in his body wrung slowly from it on the racks of my enemies if only I would forbear blasting him to ash and sending his soul on to be tormented forever by the demons in hell.

A shameless laugh was working its way up from somewhere deep in my belly. I never got anything like this sort of response when putting on an electrostatic demonstration in a physics lecture. Of course I never had the opportunity to apply it quite so colorfully to an undergrad's naked behind (although I can remember a few undergrad's who might have profited from the experience even as Dojo was about to profit). I tried to twist my lips into a scowl but they kept turning back up into a smile that threatened to split my face. Sharra, too, was having a hard time - she kept rolling in her lower lip and biting it and looking away, while her shoulders gave an occasional heave.

Eventually, I waved him to silence with a gesture. He once again sat there, trembling, and waited. I took several meaningful hits on my wine goblet, swirling around its contents meditatively, trying to compose myself. Finally I became brisk.

``Well, then,'' I said. We'll see. Mikal?''

Mikal began to turn the crank, slowly at first and then faster. Little crackly noises began to come out of the capacitors (I had the primary spark gap open far too wide for an unplanned discharge). I let Mikal crank for a bit, and suddenly the secondary gap (which didn't discharge through Dojo) went off with a bright flash and loud report (so to speak). I got an entirely satisfactory response from the audience - screams, oaths, several people fainted to the ground. Dojo looked like he was about ready to keel over, so I stepped forward and opened the secondary gap, then closed the primary gap to where I wanted it even as the capacitors started to crackle a bit again on their recharge.

Several things happened all at once. The capacitors discharged across the primary arc with a bang. Dojo launched himself straight up out of his seat with a convulsive yelp to fall at my feet in a dead faint. The servants fled the courtyard, jamming in the doorway and nearly trampling one another in their haste to leave the scene. Finally, Sharra and I caught each other's eye and burst into near hysterical laughter.

I think this, more than any other thing, sealed the deal. What kind of hardened power-mad wizards must we be not only to cast a horrible lightning spell that literally kicked the offender in the butt but to laugh about it. And not just any laugh; a deep, passionate belly-laugh that showed that we savored Dojo's agony and fear.

Mikal was pale as he let go of the crank and stepped back from what he had wrought. Even Rendar looked shocked and somewhat fearful. Russet preened, happy in her brainless way to be connected with a puissant magician. Tara sniffed around Dojo's prone body and then lifted her head into the air and huffed, clearly irked that he was still alive. This sent me into fresh paroxysms of laughter - I was literally weeping.

Finally I got myself under control, although I didn't dare look at Sharra, who had collapsed into a chair and was still shaking for fear that she'd set me off again. I reached down and untwisted the wire on Dojo's ankle that bound him to the chair. With a grin I then poured the rest of the 2/3 empty wine jug over Dojo's head. He woke up, sputtering, in a pool of reddish fluid.

``Ho there,'' I grinned. ``Didn't you hear Rendar's commands? Gold into the cellar, chop chop. Another jug of wine or two. Bring us food, food for one and all. And Dojo...'' I cocked my head off to the side and said in a kindly voice, ``You're a mess. Get cleaned up and get some clothes on.''

He scrambled to his feet (obviously surprised to learn that he still had feet to scramble to) and ran for the door as though all the devils of the world were behind him. Before he got there, I stopped him with a word. He turned, apprehensive, to see what new indignity was about to be heaped upon his hapless person.

``Here,'' I said, throwing him a very small red jewel from the chest. ``This is yours, for you yourself and your family's enrichment. Sell it and keep the money. In the future, if you ever need more money than your salary, come ask me, but do not steal or sell me out or the next time I'll blow your balls completely off. Tell the rest of the staff that I offer complete amnesty from any previous crimes and I do not want to hear a litany of confessions or to receive any reparations but their hard work and devotion, but that any future crimes will result their in being sat in that chair and blasted to a cinder. Anyone who cannot live with that and who isn't prepared to be examined magically with a truth spell at any time in the future is to hit the road. Do I make myself clear?''

His eyes nearly popped out of his head as one of his hands closed on more wealth than he'd ever handled before and the other rubbed the point on his fundament that had taken a electrostatic whack that was about the same, energetically speaking, as being swatted with a cricket bat. He swallowed, nodded briefly, and then fled. Ten minutes later more wine appeared (delivered by the most respectful and self-effacing of serving girls), with food following in a steady train thereafter. We all just sat there and ate and drank and watched the evening spread out across the sky all etherized and everything but failed, somehow, to talk of Michelangelo.

My household, it can only be imagined, ran smoothly thereafter, for the relatively brief time I occupied it. I'm certain that it runs smoothly still, awaiting my return.

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Robert G. Brown 2007-12-29