Frays in the Weave

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Tomorrow, Harbend had promised, but as with all things said in haste reality seldom agreed with such an easy solution.

Arthur had to agree upon postponing their departure indefinitely. It wasn't as if he really minded. He needed to be that honest to himself.

Verd, he was back in Verd again. Six months on the roads. No that wasn't true. Half of that time he'd spent on the Sea of Grass or as a prisoner somewhere. But now he was truly back in the magical capital of a nation that saw every user of magic shot on sight. Half a year ago he'd sworn that was about as depressing a thought as they came, but now he could taste the beautiful irony in it.

He took up rooms in Two Worlds, the very same he had lived in during his first stay in Verd. That said something about continuity.

This morning, his second after arriving here, saw him down the stairs, out on the shiny streets of the city and away, aiming his feet toward Ming Hjil de Verd.

He tentatively made his way between carts and wagons, crossed Erterius Street, stole a shortcut through Aran and Baran alleys which spat him out on Krante Boulevard. There he halted. Travelling with the caravan had made him forget that traffic moved in two directions within the confines of city walls.

Gaping at coaches, riders in their yellow uniforms with leather details in contrasting colours, young men and women dressed in jackets so short he could have sworn they never reached their navels and old people frowning at the youngsters, he stood. It would take more than a few days to get used to the frantic pace of a city labelled as the centre of the world. He corrected himself. A city who considered herself the centre of the world. In De Vhatic every place was a woman, a mother raising you, a woman loving you and an old crone lamenting your passing away.

And Verd, she had a mind of her own. Harbend had as much as admitted that. So much magic woven into her stones that she had grown sentient, or at least that was how rumours went.

Arthur didn't know about that, but De Vhatic was a poetic language, much more so than the Terran English he was used to from home. If the locals wanted to see their capital as a lover he wasn't going to complain. They certainly cared for her as if she was.

He kept to the pavement and passed spotlessly kept houses in white or red. Marble or granite, because Verd was a shining city of stone, beautiful where Belgera had been imposing, proud rather than strong and always with arms outstretched ready to embrace instead of the impenetrable grey fortification that was the capital in Braka.

Open. He was on his way to find out if a very special place was open. Twice he had entered a Taleweaver's Inn, and Verd should house one of her own. An outworlder taleweaver since early winter he planned to see that inn for himself, and conquer it.

While his life had seen more change the last year than the twenty preceding it one thing stayed constant. He conquered. Facing holo cams as a newscaster or addressing an audience as a taleweaver mattered little. He thrived on adoring listeners.

He walked on. Krante Boulevard emptied in Ming Hjil de Verd, and he allowed himself to pause and wait for the drifting morning fog to dissipate and disclose the wonders on the square. Statues. Statues made of walking glass, shifting in colour from blood red to brilliant blue as they wandered, posed and resumed their perpetual dance in a display of magecrafted arrogance and stunning artistry. Glass on white and glass on black as the man made apparitions walked the chequered square.

In it's centre a dozen warriors of glass were locked in eternal combat and less than halfway there another planted a banner in the ground, declaring victory for Keen in a war Arthur hadn't heard of.

Around them hawkers were setting up their carts and Arthur left the square before it turned into its daily bedlam of shouting peddlers and customers. He smiled as he continued down Dagd Boulevard. Less than a year earlier he'd stood frozen here, gawking at what the population took for granted, and now he was part of it all. A taleweaver. A walking wonder of this world in his own right.

He left Dagd Boulevard for Artists Street. Whistling the signature melody that had announced his shows for two decades he passed the theatres one by one. He didn't stop until he saw the sign he'd been watching for. The Taleweaver's Inn.

Stopping once more, to let a cart laden with dried fruit through, he exchanged insults with the driver and headed for the door.

It was an insignificant wooden door set slightly off centre in an equally anonymous stonewall. Almost as if someone had wanted people to fail finding their way here. But there was a sign. In the De Vhatic letters Arthur had never fully mastered, but this combination he knew by heart. Taleweaver's Inn. A door to the history of this world, to tales of wonder and to the Weave itself.

Late autumn, barely half a year ago he had entered through a door like this for the first time, and his life had forever changed. That night he became a taleweaver. After that he'd spun the Weave almost every evening, and he suspected legend already grew around his tales.

Hesitantly he stood facing the door. Watching it while horses, wagons and people on foot passed behind his back. Then he rapped the door hard and waited some more.

It eventually swung open and a man with a face like parchment challenged him. That face could have belonged to the guardian in The Roadhouse Taleweaver's Inn, or the one in Belgera, and as identical twins didn't come in threes Arthur simply accepted that even the guardians were part of the magic that seeped through each inn.

"What is your errand?" came the expected question.

"To Weave, but first I want to see this place," Arthur answered.

"To watch and Weave. Enter."

Arthur bent his head and crossed the threshold. People here were a full head shorter than he on average, and while furniture was simply too often uncomfortable, door frames, and in the worst of cases ceilings, were outright painful.

He passed through a corridor and opened the door at the other end. He didn't even bother to turn. The guardian would be gone only to appear well inside the inn. Arthur knew that by now. That this was the only way in didn't matter. One learned to take the impossible for granted on Otherworld.

Once inside he threw the stage a cursory glance and headed for the table a servant was already setting. She would return with a breakfast he'd only realize he'd longed for first when he put eyes on it. Another impossibility, another thing to take for granted.

He did wonder how such flamboyant use of magic could exist inside the walls of great Verd. Capital of magic and Inquisition alike, but taleweavers were sacrosanct, and maybe some of that rubbed off to the inns that carried their names. He would eat and then he would scout the inn to find out how an audience were most likely to stand and sit. Weaving might allow him to share his tale with those listening, but that wasn't an excuse to cheat on preparations. That was what had made him the greatest newscaster in the federation in living memory and, if he had anything to say about it, that was what would make him the greatest of taleweavers.

He entered the stage wondering how Harbend had spent his morning.

Harbend woke up stiff and cold. Early spring had yet to bring any real warmth to the city, and the quarters he lived in would need several days of heating to banish winter from its stone walls.

Back home in the office he called home he hadn't had time to hire servants to clean the rooms out and even less to bring fresh bedclothes in. He simply had to do with cleaning away the worst of the dust gathered there and hanging out his bedding for airing. For the second night since his arrival he made do with four chairs in a row as a bed. It wasn't comfortable, but half a year on the road had made him used to discomfort.

He was still yawning when he bent over his small stove. He was heating water into which he planned to throw in some of the dried herbs that had survived his absence to get something resembling a cup of hot tea. A rap on the door caught his attention. Harbend stifled a yawn before he walked over and opened the it. It wouldn't do to look like an idiot if it was a customer who, for some reason, didn't know that Harbend de Garak, newest trading house in Keen wasn't expected back for yet another half a year. Opening it Harbend regretted he hadn't kept on yawning. The bad breath of a full nights uneasy sleep might have scared away the man who stood waiting there.

"Harbend de Garak?"

"Yes I am. How did you find out I was back?"

Harbend didn't even bother inviting the man in. During the best of days Arden de Krante was an uncouth and unpleasant acquaintance, and this wasn't an especially good day to begin with.

Arden halted, almost tripping on his feet, and tried not to show he had been expected to be let in. Behind him Harbend could see the gloomy morning covering the street in sheets of fog. Maybe if he made the entire situation awkward enough Arden would reconsider and just be on his way? Maybe not, and it was a childish thought, and definitely not one worthy of a professional trader with his own house being registered for less than a year.

"Why come in, and try not to bring the weather with you, please," Harbend said with a voice he hoped wasn't grumpy enough to be offensive. He didn't have to like the master merchant, but he could definitely do with some information on whatever had occurred during his time with the caravan.

"Thank you. I think I'll do just that." Arden crossed the threshold as Harbend stepped back and closed the door.

A yell whistling and a cloud of steam had Harbend sprinting for his pot. As an afterthought he got a second cup which he wiped with his arm sleeve before offering it to Arden.


Arden gave the concoction offered a suspicious look. "You call that piss tea?"

"That piss, Master de Krante, is the same as I have." Ah, you could always trust Arden to behave like the peasant he was. "I have been here for but a couple of days and have not had time to cater for my pleasures yet," Harbend added as an explanation. No matter how much he would have liked to see the back of the man vanish out the door he would gain nothing by matching the lack of etiquette that was something of a trademark of the master trader.

"I see. Believe I'll have to do with this, eh, tea then."

"I believe so as well," Harbend said with what he hoped was a pleasant tone. "Anything interesting happening in these parts?" he asked after sipping a little of his tea. Arden was unfortunately right -- it didn't taste like any proper herbal tea should do, Harbend noted sourly. He flashed a smile to Arden and made a show of taking another mouthful of the swill.

Arden grimaced and put his cup down on the table they shared. "Apart from Hasselden burning and rumours of the imperial engineers bombarding raider ships at the south coast, no."

Hasselden burning, well he knew that to be true. How could he not? Memories of shipwrecks littering the harbour and the ghostlike shells of houses behind it still lingered in Harbend's mind. They had been forced to make land north of the port when the ship's captain, sensibly enough, refused to risk his ship in a harbour turned reef.

"I know," Harbend murmured. "We sailed there from Chach, or would have. Had to find temporary port elsewhere."

"I was going to ask about that. From Chach you said?"

"Yes. Should have come back the same way we went, but there were some trouble in Belgera and we were jumped from there."

"Magic! How could you resort to such foulness?"

Harbend sighed. He didn't want to start a discussion about magic, especially not in the capital of Keen. "We were not given a choice," he said. "They wanted us out of Belgera as fast as possible." Well, that was almost true. Neritan Hwain had wanted Arthur and him out of there as fast as possible, but he was definitely not going to explain why he had trusted a golden mindwalker without even asking for an explanation.

"What did you do?" Arden gasped.

"We did not do very much, but there was some kind of conflict involving Gaz, and, ah, as we had arrived with a lot of valuables there was a clear risk that I, as the head of the caravan, would be directly targeted." Now that was taking a wide berth around the truth, but Harbend droned on, "They could not risk it evolving into a conflict with an official merchant expedition from Keen involved. Bad for future trade." Neritan couldn't risk it exploding into a full blown war if it ever became known that a taleweaver had been hunted down like an animal inside the capital of an allied nation, was closer to the truth Harbend guessed. He fervently hoped that Arden couldn't read the truth from the thin but involuntary smile spreading on his face. "Look, Master de Krante, I am here. The caravan is safely on its way back by now and I can prepare for the sales before it even arrives. Should we not just be happy that things took such a happy turn instead?"

Arden didn't look convinced, but Harbend knew he would not start prying. Not yet anyway.

They shared the rest of the tea, or rather Harbend drank it himself while Arden looked on with ill disguised distaste in his eyes, and during the time it took Harbend to down the awful tasting drink as it cooled, something that did nothing to enhance its taste, they did exchange news in a sense. Harbend said nothing that would reveal what had really happened, and Arden didn't give away any information that Harbend could possibly have used to gain any kind of trading advantage.

In the end Harbend had his wish to see the back of Arden de Krante vanish out the door fulfilled, and could start planning to meet Arthur in a more pleasant environment.

Ordering a coach didn't take long, and during the ride to Two Worlds, watching the last strands of drifting fog clear away from the busy streets, Harbend had time just enough to realize that with Arden's visit over the word would be out that Harbend de Garak was back. More were bound to come asking for him and for news about the caravan. Some he could avoid, and those he wanted to meet he'd already contacted the very day they arrived, but a few would come he neither wanted to meet nor could afford to avoid.

He climbed down the wooden block of stairs placed at the side of the coach and continued to the hotel entrance. As always they opened for him just as he was about to knock, and he passed the liveried guards, made his way up three stories and, surprised at his lack of panting, promptly knocked on Arthur's door. Half a year on the road may not have been comfortable, but it had apparently been good exercise.

He stood there in the marble corridor enjoying the view of overdecorated walls, cluttered statues and general gaudiness of the place. It grew on you, especially if the only decoration you had had for an entire season was a white blanket of snow with a thin, blue line of mountains as an added artistic touch. After that, nothing that broke the monotony seemed to be too much.

He smirked. It would be, he admitted to himself, only a matter of time before he came to his senses again. The smirk turned into a wide grin. He intended to enjoy every moment of that time.

He knocked again, but when the door still refused to open he returned down the stairs and left a message telling Arthur that he could be found in The Tree.

Arthur stretched his arms and legs like a satisfied child and burped rudely. He was sitting in a tree house, one of several in The Tree, his favourite, very exclusive, very expensive and absolutely marvellous restaurant in Verd.

He fondly remembered the restaurant from the first time he'd been here. After that he'd made it an almost daily routine dining here, but that was half a year or an eternity earlier.

Arthur was enjoying a gorgeous wine; rounded, full bodied and without any sharpness at all. The food had, as he'd fervently hoped when he ordered it, been exquisite and the company was one he never seemed to tire of -- and he had had plenty of time doing so sharing cramped rooms and more often an even more cramped wagon with the man since early autumn.

Harbend was in short nothing like the businessmen Arthur had met during his years behind and in front of a camera back on Earth. Not that Harbend wasn't a businessman, quite the opposite, but he had none of the tired arrogance of the too rich to enjoy their wealth that flocked around the money Arthur generated. It had been more like a game the already successful had to participate in rather than a real competition -- well with one ghastly exception. At least Arthur suspected Christina Ulfsdotir to be behind the murder of his wife and two children. He had never been able to prove it. Had fled from it all rather than try to prove it, Arthur corrected himself with a guilty grin.

Harbend proved to be a good friend, even though they didn't always agree with each other and sometimes made their decisions from a very different moral and ethic viewpoint.

Arthur toasted his friend again. They were both getting a little bit drunk, he more so than Harbend, but then he had his med kit available should he need to sober up immediately for one reason or another. Harbend didn't have that benefit.

Arthur studied the face in front of him. Stubbled in a way that didn't agree with the strangely Asian features and topped by an unruly hair that should, if Arthur recalled correctly, be gathered in a knot to one side and otherwise mostly be shaved. Harbend was younger than Arthur, which showed, yet old enough to be to be middle aged, something that didn't show. Somehow, though, Arthur suspected him of having experienced more during his life, with the possible exception of tragedy perhaps, but then that wasn't a kind of experience Arthur cared to see any friend carry around.

Still, life back on Earth, or anywhere else in the parts of the Terran Federation he had visited for that matter, in general seemed simpler, more prepared and orderly. The only exciting event concerning all of humanity Arthur could recall was the finding of the Gate fourteen years earlier, and Otherworld behind it. Otherworld with secrets of magic and legend, and most of those legends only rumours carefully filtered through the official channels on both sides of the Gate. Now he was a part, a very small part, of those legends, and the reality he had seen was both more complex and at the same time more mundane than what he'd been left to believe. Hell, he'd even made holo shows about what was to be expected once Otherworld was finally opened for tourism.

Arthur frowned, drawing a questioning look from Harbend, and swallowed a sip of wine. The memories made it taste bleak, as if he didn't want to make it justice any longer.

"Harbend," Arthur began, "what will happen now when I'm a taleweaver?"

Harbend stared back across the table. The difference in height between the men wasn't as accentuated when they were sitting down. "I do not know. The Weave is a part of you." Harbend grinned, looking very much like a younger man than he was. "Your problem, or opportunity, not mine."

"And your problem is more personal in nature, I guess," Arthur countered mischievously. "Or have you forgotten her?"

Harbend had the decency to blush, but the blush soon turned into a satisfied grin. The boyish smile was contagious, and Arthur joined a silent laughter that for a time banished his tired thoughts.

They finished their meal in silence, both men leaving the wine in favour of clear water, and it wasn't until they rose and left the restaurant Arthur spoke the question that had been lingering in his mind.

"We can't leave Verd, can we?"

Harbend's face gave away that he was mulling over the question carefully before he voiced his answer. "We can. I honestly believe we can, but not until we have done the duty others would have placed on us." He gazed over the garden, eyes more thoughtful than sad, even though his voice had carried a tired quality that would have been easy to mistake for sadness by anyone who hadn't shared the time they had spent together.

"People who deserve to know what has happened, and those who would demand to know?" Arthur asked when they entered the garden surrounding the restaurant.

"Yes, I think that is about right," Harbend answered.

"But how could we tell when we haven't even told each other all about it?"

Harbend winced at first. So, I was right about that, Arthur noted for himself and grimaced. "I was going to," Harbend started, but Arthur interrupted him.

"Please, don't. Whatever you truly believed I needed to know you have already told me. I think our friendship can stand a tweaked version of events or two."

"Thank you." A silent reply, but filled with genuine relief nonetheless.

Arthur waited for Harbend to leave the garden and closed the gate behind them after he entered the side walk as well.

"You know that when we are interrogated..." Harbend started to protest, but Arthur continued without pausing to listen. "... we need to tell them stories conforming to each other enough to keep us out of a second interrogation."

Harbend looked unhappy. "I do not like it."

"I know, and I agree," Arthur said. Then he smiled. "Damn it, there are things I don't want to share with you, but we need to fill each other in and agree on one version." He shot his friend a grin before continuing. "It'll take close to half a year before the caravan returns, and by then I hope I'm far enough away from here it won't matter any longer."

Harbend shivered in the afternoon cool. "When the truth is known here we need to be away," he agreed. He tugged his cloak tighter around his shoulders. It was, Arthur noticed, the same, rugged one he'd worn during warmer days. In as much as any winter day on the Sea of Grass could ever be called warm.

Arthur shrugged. He'd made a living of distributing half lies mixed with stunning truths all over Federation controlled space. A very good living at that.

Mairild de Felder, minister of culture and spy master of Keen, waited for the servants to leave before she turned to her guest.

"Admiral Radovic, please be seated."

"After you, Madame."

She nodded and pulled out a chair for herself before he had a chance to offer it to her. The outworlder was polite as always, sometimes a bit too much so for her taste.

"Admiral," she said after they were both seated and both had a small sip of the watered wine the servants had left on a tray together with some dried fruit. "I would want you to know that the taleweaver is back with Master de Garak."

Admiral Radovic frowned. "That's excellent news, but I assume that by giving Arthur Wallman a title like that you still consider him an, ah, permanent guest of yours."

Mairild smiled back. "Prisoner? No, not at all. He's free to return to your world." She dropped the smile and mustered her haughtiest voice. "You, however, are not free to force him to."

She watched the admiral, Rear Admiral Erwin Radovic and outworlder diplomatic envoy, force a smile to his face. "There's no need any longer," he said with an uncertainty that for once matched his years. How did one so young rise so high in rank where he belonged? "It's too late anyway. He's already done the harm we wanted to prevent."

Mairild licked her lips. "He hasn't done any harm to us," she said, careful not to anger Erwin too much. She had got her message through anyway.

Erwin shook his head in disagreement. "He has. In ways you don't know. For the sake of protocol, though, you have my promise we'll not attempt to capture him again."

She sighed and raised her glass to get a few moments to think. With this problem solved they'd need to continue rebuilding the relations between Keen and the outworlders. She didn't know how much power the man facing her had, but she did know he represented a government with enough power at their disposal to have massacred a full regiment of imperial cavalry ten years earlier. That was, as far as she could recall, the one single major mistake blackening the career of her colleague and Minister of War, Olvar de Saiden. Mistake or not, how did you coerce that kind of power to increase the amount of metal sold in Verd? Metal that was desperately needed by a nation starved by naval blockade for four years.

"We're willing to allow you to land more of the sky ships you use, even to the degree of granting you more land," she said knowing fully well she was resorting to bribes.

"Why, thank you." There was genuine surprise in Erwin's eyes now. He raised his own glass in a toast, something she'd learned he usually only did when he was embarrassed, or grateful. That had to mean the outworlders wanted the increased traffic almost as much as Keen did. She smirked. As much as the ruling body of Keen wanted. Most of the population wouldn't care. Not any longer when the novelty of outworlders had worn off somewhat and sightings of them were still rare enough not to cause consternation among those living outside the capital.

That would change, she knew, when the outworlders were commonplace, and with that change there would be new fears. There were always new fears.

Mairild turned her attention back to her guest. He had been watching her. Young maybe, but definitely not stupid. He's wondering what I'm thinking, what I want from him, what I fear of him. She shrugged, as much in apology for not being a perfect hostess as to banish the concerns she had.

"Oh, my, I see your glass is almost empty. Please, let me remedy that." Aw, what a stupid thing to say. If I keep this up he'll start believing I'm flirting with him, and he's younger than my youngest. She blushed a little at the unwanted thought.

"Madame, thank you," Erwin answered. "Ah, that's enough," he said as she filled his glass. "I am, you know, authorized to disclose some information, especially now when Arthur Wallman is, if you excuse my expression, running rampant giving his view of what we are and what we want to anyone who's willing to listen."

Mairild sat up straighter. So, there was going to be a gift in return for the promised land? "You have my attention."

"It's come to my knowledge that you are constructing rail roads of your own. We could help you with rail cars that don't require the burning of wood."

"Thank you," she said nonplussed, "but why would you want to do that?"

"We have some concerns about environmental matters." When it was clear she hadn't fully understood what he mean Erwin continued, "We have our own history of mistakes. The steam engine I assume that you plan to copy was never meant to be put to use in any large scale."

Mairild grinned despite her attempts not to. She'd known the engineers going through the machine would be seen of course, but the artillery commanders wanted the knowledge for other reason than to propel wagons on a rail. Olvar himself had said they desperately needed a weapon that could throw missiles far enough to protect their harbours from the raiders.

"I'll think about this offer of yours," she said. "We all will," she added.

"Please do. And, by the way, you do understand that I will report the return of one of our citizens to my superiors?"

"I never doubted that," Mairild admitted with a laugh. "It's been a pleasure meeting you."

"The pleasure is entirely mine," he said and rose acknowledging that the meeting was at an end.

She rose as well, and they shook hands; another of the peculiar customs the outworlders had.

Erwin bowed, wheeled and marched out of the room. He was definitely a military man, she thought when she had her chair and table for herself again.

Harbend had guessed that questions would be asked. He'd even expected to see more than his fair share of guests, but a delegation from the Council of Twelve waiting in his small office when he returned home was beyond his wildest imagination. Or nightmare, he added grimly after he'd recovered somewhat from the sight of liveried servants, four imperial guards in their yellow and black and two high ranking officials from the council in expensive silks glistering as if alive in yellow and red.

Harbend reached for the key in his pocket, uncertain if he'd locked the door on his way out, but the glittering stone set in its handle was still a bright yellow rather than the dull grey telling him the door was unlocked.

"How?" he asked into the air and pointed to the door he'd just left behind him to make his question clear.

A smug smile but no answer was the only reaction he received.

"Would you mind answering why you are in my office, which I locked before going out?" Harbend asked, feeling surprise slowly give way to irritation.

"Answering questions are not our department. You're called to attend a meeting with Mairild de Felder within the day. We expect to see you there at dusk."

Harbend's colour rose. "Now you..." A hard stare from one of the guards brought his words to a halt. He was very recently made a full trading house, but he still hadn't brought the proof of his value to a gathering. He could still lose his standing, and the council wasn't anything he wanted to aggravate, no matter his status among the merchants in Keen. "I will be there," Harbend said when the silence threatened to stretch too long.

"Good, and bring the outworlder with you."

Harbend could only stare in bewilderment as they all marched out of his office.

What do I do now? What do they want, he wondered as he closed the door. He'd done nothing to warrant the interest of the ruling body in Keen. He couldn't imagine anything they would be interested in, at least nothing they could know of, but that was an impossibility unless the very council ruling a nation where magic was banned itself made use of the gift.

That was a distracting thought if any.

Harbend shrugged off his discomfort and started to rummage through the contents of the shelves in his small kitchen in search of some tea, remembered the horror he had brewed the day before and gave up in disgust. Nothing decent to drink and yet a sour taste in his mouth as if he'd indeed been taking a mouthful of cheap wine.

Harbend swallowed, but the taste refused to go away, and with a feeling of defeat he made his way to the door and went out. He locked the door behind him and swore silently between his teeth. The small sense of security the office had always given him was gone with the knowledge that there were people who could make their way into it without his knowing. It was a little bit like being duped, but with a lingering feeling of uncertainty bordering on fear clinging to him in a way a trade gone sour never did. He felt, he realized as he rounded a corner, helpless. Staring down the street he noticed in dismay how each and every stranger he met suddenly loomed like an unknown threat, and he avoided meeting their eyes as he walked.

It was later, how much later Harbend didn't know, that he halted, and not until he looked up did he recognize the entrance to Two Worlds. Maybe his legs had given him the direction his mind refused to yield. He waited for the doors to open and entered. Now he had a goal, and he resolutely climbed the stairs, passed a corridor and knocked on Arthur's door. There was no response for a while, and Harbend started to worry if Arthur had already left for his daily excursions in the city. Then the door opened and Arthur peered out at him.

Harbend bowed slightly and received a raised brow at the formality.

"Welcome Harbend. I'm sorry. Is it that late already?"

Harbend frowned. "No, no you are not late," he answered remembering that he was the one who usually picked Arthur up for their meal at The Tree. "I am here on a different errand."

"Please come in." Arthur backed away from the door and let Harbend inside. "I was afraid I had overslept." He smiled sheepishly. "As if I had a time to keep anyway."

Harbend smiled as well. A grimmer smile. "You do. We both do."

"What's happened?" There was worry in Arthur's face now, and concern.

Gods, I bring bad news and scare my friend at the same time, Harbend thought. He waved an apology to Arthur and remembered the expression from Khi probably was unfamiliar to the outworlder. "I am sorry. I did not mean to upset you."

"Harbend, I'm not upset, but you look like darkness come alive. What is it?"

The friendly outburst shook Harbend back to reality. "I have... we have been called to the Council of Twelve."

"I don't understand," Arthur said giving Harbend a nonplussed stare. "Why would the city council want to meet with us?"

The misunderstanding brought the first laugh from Harbend for a long time. "Council of Twelve, Arthur, not city council."

"I don't... oh... oh!"

"Yes. They want us there by dusk, or at least one of them."

Arthur stared at Harbend, a crooked grin spreading over his face. "And being late is not an option, I guess?"

"Being late is not an option," Harbend confirmed.

Arthur spat a few words in English, and it took Harbend a few moments to recall that the sexual activities mentioned were strong profanities where Arthur came from. "My thoughts exactly," Harbend said, which brought yet another stream of curses from Arthur.

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