Navigiary: Escape

Babies Change Everything

It is improper to begin a supposed work of fiction with personal stories of the author, but you will find, in the course of this book and throughout this story as a whole, that I only occasionally behave properly.

I was once a very young man that had few cares and responsibilities. I graduated from high school, attended a bit of college, served as a missionary for my church, and married. Although I had to mature a touch for my new wife, we were able to live as house-sitters and earn the money required for our needs at menial service-sector jobs. There was no need to get particularly serious about life and the future for a couple just starting out.

Then, my wife became pregnant.

Suddenly, I was going to have a family and I was going to have to solely provide for my family's coming needs while my wife occupied herself with motherhood and homemaking. The pay from relatively unskilled labor wasn't going to be sufficient, so it was back to college in earnest, along with second and third jobs to accommodate a move to a nearby college town and residence in a tiny apartment. It was in these circumstances, poor as church-mice and stretched tightly around preparations for more prosperous opportunities in some distant future, that our first child was born.

As I said, babies change everything.

It is a situation that is common enough the world over, though I imagine it affects some couples more than others. My wife and I's childbearing years came at comparatively prosperous economic times in a relatively prosperous place, but so many other couples travel the road to maturity, the one that a baby forces you along, in much more trying circumstances and in far more difficult places.

Long ago and far away, a young couple realized they were going to have a baby and that some things needed to change.

We actually know very little about Alaedeus and Cassandra, for they personally kept no record of themselves. What we have of the lives of the parents of the Alaed nation before children are the second hand stories penned by their fourth child who was named Kiyami. These stories tell us that the couple lived in a land that was overrun by evil: violent, decadent evil. Alaedeus and Cassandra were nice-enough people who seemed to get along decently enough in spite of the circumstances they found themselves in, though they worked to keep themselves at a distance from the corruption around them. It was all manageable enough until the news came that they were soon to become parents.

What was once tolerable suddenly became decidedly less so as the young couple contemplated the world Alaedeus and Cassandra's child would grow up in. The chances of growing up decent, much less righteous, in such places and times seemed low and, given their resources and potential, there seemed no better circumstance to flee toward. Desperation settled on their humble situation and they turned to the only source of help that they could think of: God.

If you are unfamiliar with God, as most people are, you might think that petitioning him was a foolish waste of time, something akin to earning your household income through gambling or spending one's time tossing a penny into the air on the hope that two will fall to the earth. Most people find a belief in God to be a cousin to a belief in leprechauns or fairies, something a bit whimsical and indicative of a less than grounded character. From my perspective however, it is only sensible to turn to the most powerful, willing, and altruistic person one can find in times of extreme need, no matter what personal cost may be exacted. In the case of God, of course, the price is an absolute devotion to him and his purposes, which is small in comparison with the potential joy and opportunity he offers in exchange. In the case of the founding couple of the Alaed, the opportunity comes from a man simply called "the Mariner", who takes Alaedeus and Cassandra aboard his great ship Salvation and brings them to a secluded and safe shore on the uncharted island which they name Firsthome. It is here that the first parents of a nation bring their baby into a far more kindly world.

And so, God takes advantage of the changes necessitated by babies.

Typically, we find ourselves in a similar boat as Alaedeus and Cassandra, familiar primarily with the trappings of selfishness run toward evil, but suddenly deposited in a new place of thoughts and acts where we care more for our coming children than ourselves. Our babies bring us into our "first home" and a new chapter in our lives begin, hopefully with a bit less thought toward our own desires and far more regard for the needs of those little ones who depend upon us for a safe haven. What most parents will readily reveal is how much joy and opportunity their children provide in exchange for motherly and fatherly devotion to them.

If you ever wonder why a person as powerful as God would bother helping such selfish beings as ourselves, it is good to remember that God is very much our father and his own joy is derived from seeing us grow in safe circumstances. As we turn to God our father in our extremities, the parent that is God extends his hand in answer. The devotion seems to work in both directions: parents to children and children to parents.

What you are about to read is a story of the journey of some descendants of Alaedeus and Cassandra from their own decadence and selfishness toward a happier devotion to God. You will also find that it is a story of God reaching out as a father to his children.

Behaving poorly and breaking with tradition as always, I will joyously interrupt the proceedings on a rather hap-hazard basis to share my own insights into the many happenings along the way, such as now, where I happily reveal that the Alaed nation does make that great change toward altruism and God and that, as is so often the case, it all begins with babies and how they draw out the Godly mother and father in all of us.

Let us begin.

A Ritual Is Interrupted

All things begin with a load of uncertainty and only pile up a lot of other "un"s quickly enough. Untried. Unproven. Unexperienced (yes, that's more likely "inexperienced", but let's not muddy the waters). Most of all, one is unsure. It is always that way in the beginning, even with the great things, for they were not so great once upon a time. For its part, this tale most unequivocally begins with a steaming helping of uncertainty.

For our first taste, a burly young man looks down at a slightly younger man tumbled on a somewhat deserted beach. For convenience sake, I'll call the burly one Enis, since that is conveniently his name, but I'll not reveal the twisted and mangled yet slightly younger man's name as of yet. You all, as uninitiated readers, have the job of getting tangled up in this story to the point that you'll see the thing through, whether I reveal everything right up front or not. So here we are: Enis the burly one; the bruised, broken, barely conscious and breathing, yet unnamed young man; you perplexed readers; and me, who we shall call Jason, because that happens to be my name as well. Even though we now know a few things about some of the people involved in this story, it seems we are all still managing a load of uncertainty. I will be about that directly.

Initially, because we have only just met, I can only guess at the uncertainty of you readers. Individually, you are reading a book, in which you have invested something. This story is written by a person named Jason which has never written such a large story before and you may be justifiably nervous about making a commitment to a relatively unproven writer. After all, it's quite a risk spending hard earned money on something that may prove to be of little value. My hope is that you bold readers will continue to give this whole venture some attention and I will endeavor to make the entire effort worthwhile.

At the very least, I can reveal why Enis is uncertain. He recently lost his trusted mentor and friend, who uncharacteristically died of old age instead of a spear to the heart, which is the fate of most men of Enis' acquaintance. Other than his father, this recently deceased man taught Enis more about life and shaped his character more completely than anyone else, and the loss is hard on the young man. What is harder still is that this mentor decided just a few weeks before he died that Enis should take the role as leader of their community. It was an exciting prospect for about five minutes, until he faced the reality that all sorts of people were now looking to him for leadership and guidance which he felt infinitely uncertain about providing. Personally, I have faced similar moments and perhaps you readers have as well, though I'm unsure about this.

As for the poor wretch that lies awkwardly on the bleached beach, jumbled in some contorted position where the surf left him, I can only say that with what little coherence he can muster, the man is terribly unsure that he will live. After what seemed like hours where the crash of the surf and the incessant wind were among his few companions, there is this man, not much older than he is, who is staring down at him with a look of (wait for it) uncertainty. I suppose the young man-cum-flotsam is not made overly hopeful by his circumstances, but then very little has occurred as of yet in his part of the story.

"Is he all right?" This is the voice of Tessreen, Enis' newly-wedded wife, who runs onto the beach from a path that leads into the nearby forest. Like so many other young brides, she is figuratively bursting with uncertainties. "Is he breathing?"

Enis doesn't even bother to look away from the younger man's contorted body. This whole "marriage thing" is still new to him and he has not learned that his wife wants to be better acknowledged than this. He will never really gain this understanding fully, but that's explored much later on in the story. "Yes, he's breathing."

Another voice, connected to another youngish man who also emerges from the forest path, calls out. "Hey, are you sure that you should be doing that?" His face looks a bit impish but also wide-eyed with (you guessed it) uncertainty. "You don't know where he's been!" His name is Kevyn and he thinks a bit too much of his own needs and person rather than upon others, as the future again will better reveal.

Enis ignores Kevyn, as he often chooses to do. Of course, in the past, he had this luxury continually, but with his new status as leader of the Waykeep community, which is the name of the village where he lives, he is somewhat obligated to be responsive, even to inane little jokes. "Well, he seems relatively dry, so he must have been here for a while. Otherwise, it seems that he washed up from the sea."

Tessreen looks down on her husband. Now is probably not a convenient time to say such things, but there rarely are convenient times to do anything that really needs doing, such as telling you inquisitive readers that the wife of Enis is beautiful. She is a well-toned and big-boned sort of beautiful, one that a person doesn't want to meet up with in a dark alley in a dangerous situation. Tessreen is an alluring warrior sort and has grown much more disconcertingly so recently, as Enis notices that some of the men in the community, Kevyn especially, still gawk at her longingly as if she were still unmarried and available. "Who do you suppose he is?" she asks.

Enis considers the question, one can suppose, for in a moment he cocks his head and begins to gently examine the ship-wrecked man. First, there's the rolling over so that the young man is facing skyward. Not too long into his prodding, the leader sees the puckering of skin on the palm of his left hand which took the shape of a star with numbers beneath it. "Marvelous," he whispers under his breath.

Though none of the assembled people from Waykeep, who are about a dozen on the shore at this point and poking about a scattering of debris, have ever seen such a branding, the Waykeep leadership have learned of such things that were done to men that had the misfortune of living on Firsthome. It's a symbol that the beached man is owned. The man with the star in his palm is the property of the Convocation of Ladies and it can only be a matter of time before some woman arrives to collect her possession. Though the people of Waykeep don't go to Firsthome, even Enis knows stories of those who live on that sunset island across the channel and their peculiar ways.

"It's one of them." Kevyn spits the statement out with a mix of excitement and nervousness as he ventures a guess and hits the mark. "The Alaed'll be coming." Already, he's looking up and down the shoreline and beginning to move back toward the cover of the trees. "Maybe we should just leave him..."

Tessreen doesn't pay much attention to Kevyn, the mark on the beached man or its repercussions. "He needs our help," she says emphatically in her always strong yet caring way. "We should take him back with us."

Enis remains silent on the plan. The young slave certainly looks healthy enough, but besides the ugly brand, there are no scars of abuse or mistreatment. His hair is roughly cut, but it appears tidy enough. The clothes he wears, though torn in a few places from his ordeal in the sea, seem of fairly good make. For all the stories of slavery that had filtered across the bay, it appears that at least this man is treated tolerably well. In fact, looking at his own clothes, Enis surmises that the slave's circumstances may be materially better than his own. For me, it begs the fleeting question of who should be saved of the two.

The young man's head lolls about and he lets out a groan. Enis pulls back, still uncertain about getting involved, but Tessreen nearly bowls her husband over to tend to him. "Are you all right?"

It takes a moment of blinking and coughing for the slave's eyes to open and come into focus. He looks at the young woman's face and although immediately smitten with her beauty, he averts his eyes from her as he had always been taught to do. He tries to say something, but whatever his mind is attempting to push out, his mouth seems unable to articulate. "You poor dear," Tess coos as she brushes her fingers along his scratched cheek. The broken young man looks to revel, as much as a twisted and battered man can, at her touch against his skin, drinking it in.

The foolish Kevyn continues to race about, back and forth between the safety of the cover of the forest path and the touching little scene playing out on the beach. "Those slaver women will be coming for him!" he whines with anxiety. "We should just get the ceremony done and get out of here..."

It's as if Tessreen can't hear the nervous man as she places the Convocation vassal's head in her lap and begins to carefully and gently arrange him properly and better check him over. Enis stands not too far away, diligently biting his lip, torn about what to do and feeling a tinge of envy that this broken thing on the sand was getting better and more tender attention than he generally gets from his new wife. The young beached man, even through the pain he is obviously feeling at Tess' care, is also looking terribly conflicted as his body reacts to the unfamiliar attentions of this lovely woman and his mind screams for him to show proper reverence. If it wasn't for a good stiff evening wind blowing toward the sea, one could only imagine the smell of anxious sweat that prevails over the scene.

In a snap, Enis knows what he should do. He doesn't know what to do about the ship-wrecked man or his own jealous feelings, mind you, but he knows what he should be about in the current swirl of action. He will do what they had originally come to do: to honor their God and his Mariner, who brought his people to Waykeep and shared his Log with them. "The Ceremony of Gratitude" is what he will do.

Probably just as you readers had been getting a handle on a few things, here I go introducing something new that drags everyone back to the realm of uncertainty. What is all this about God? Who is this Mariner and why should I care that he gave anybody something called a "log"? My only answer to any of these queries is that this is the beginning of the story and everything is going to seem a bit strange and unfamiliar. I can only ask that you patient readers soldier on and take it on faith that these things will ultimately come to make some sense. However, I can reveal a few things at this particular juncture.

In answer to his premonition that he needed to do what he came to the beach to do, Enis makes his way toward a stone marker that juts up tall from the sands of the beach. As this marker is a major feature throughout this story, I feel the need to explain a few things about it.

The marker is set firmly and very deep in the sand, for the tides and surf of many generations have not dislodged it, though it was very obviously placed there by human hands. It was set there by the followers of Kiyami, the righteous son of Alaedeus and Cassandra, who were all ejected from Firsthome many generations ago for frankly being a bit too righteous. They were the first residents of Waykeep, Kiyami was their first leader, and among the first things they did upon arrival was to erect this tall marker in gratitude for their blessings.

Normally, I wouldn't care much about standing stones, as the world seems loaded with them. What interests me about this particular one is a carving on the stone's sea-ward face, a little way from the top. The carved symbol is hard to explain in words, so I have it pictured on the cover of this book. It is actually ten symbols that are carved as one which symbolizes the journey of existence. It is the answer to the ultimate question of "Why are we here?". God had Kiyami and his followers fashion it to help their children when they struggled to understand what life was about, and that is all I am going to say about it for now.

As Enis is moving toward this monolith in answer to an impression that came into his mind, a number of other people who followed Kevyn out of the forest are also moving toward it, knowing that this is what everyone has come here to do.

I feel the need to explore this whole idea of premonitions, for it is a much bigger thing than most people guess. Of course, Enis and his Waykeep friends perform the annual ritual of thanking God for the Mariner and his Log that was carved into the stone, in response to one premonition. But, as he is doing this almost mechanical act that he has participated in since boyhood, another few premonitions are coming, ones that have little to do with the past and everything to do with the futures of everyone we have talked about so far, which I shall conveniently break down for you.

Enis, who doesn't even have to consciously think about the ceremonial words he is reciting, looks around himself and sees snatches of the future. He sees himself doing what God asks him to do, just as he is doing now. Although he is still quite young and inexperienced, he will continue to lead his people as he was meant to do and he will do the will of God and follow the course shown in the Mariner's Log to a fine eternal reward.

He can see Tessreen, his young wife, still kneeling on the beach and attending to the ship-wrecked man. She is not where she should be, participating in the ritual, and the premonition is that she will similarly turn from her loyalty to God and the Mariner, just as she is doing now. The cold chill that this fact will one day split the newly joined couple apart creeps across Enis' skin. One day, Tess will distance herself from Enis and all he holds dear to find fulfillment from different circumstances. Gratefully, such things lie far enough in the future that they can hopefully be dismissed, at least for now.

Kevyn is looking and running about in fear of the slave's mistresses, totally forgetting the ritual. He will also ultimately forget to show any concern for God, the Mariner, and a covenant that he made with both as a boy. His fear always convinces him to abandon the things that matter, both now and in the future.

I imagine that you readers are again scratching your heads, wondering about this ritual that I am steadfastly not describing to you, blathering on about God, a mystical seaman, and some covenant that I will also steadfastly not elaborate on at this point. You all will hopefully keep reading to discover how these premonitions will work themselves out, just as you are doing now.

The man on the beach, which is actually a main character of this story and is finally named Daavor, is presently becoming somewhat infatuated with Tessreen, which he was practically bred to do. To the sorrow of many, he will become infatuated once too many times which will hurt everyone around him, but the premonition says that at that future time, he will thankfully recover, just as he will on this occasion.

I imagine that you readers may be thinking that this is quite a boatload of premonitions to try to process over a few paragraphs and I think Enis would agree as it raises quite a headache to the little place on his head just north of the line running between his eyes. It makes it difficult to drone out the words of the ritual, but the young man is used to facing difficulties and he simply perseveres. Also, it allows me, as the obnoxious writer that I am, to plant several dozen story "hooks" in this text. I can only assure you dedicated readers that I will endeavor, before this story is finished, to tie up every "loose end" that I have already managed to create.

Though his mind is not particularly on the ritual at hand, it ends in due course and Enis is left to ponder these premonitions. I will say, as I have said not long ago, that such things as premonitions are often more purposeful that many allow for, and that such things come from God, who is often much more involved in events and the lives of people than (again) many allow for. In fact, it was God that set up the whole scenario that I describe in this chapter, for it is not coincidental that Daavor washed up on the shore on the very day of the ritual honoring God and the Mariner. Though he is greatly distracted by Tessreen's tender touch, the broken man has also noticed the Mariner's Log stone that marks the trail through the forest that leads to Waykeep. This will be important knowledge at some point later on.

As almost an afterthought in the face of what has already been said, Kevyn has managed to get himself up one of the forest trees and indeed spies out a group of relatively well-dressed people making their way along the beach, just as he predicted. The agitation he was displaying before is now replaced with a full-scale frenzy as he falls out of the tree, rushes about frightening everyone nearby, and gets them moving back toward the trail to Waykeep and the safety of the community. Last of all, Enis once again stands over the now-improving circumstances of the young Alaed slave, still held gently in Tess' lap and lapping up the woman's tender care like some love-sick puppy. As you can expect, this continues to be terribly disconcerting to her just-married husband, but he contents himself with the fact that she is already making motions to detach herself from her care-taking.

"We must get away!" Kevyn runs up and hisses for the seemingly thousandth time as he picks at Enis' tunic. The group moves into the forest and out of sight as the new party approaches.

There are four people moving up the beach, but one particular member is stealing away all of my attention. At the center of the group is a fashionable woman around her twentieth year. Even from a distance, I can tell that she is obviously curvaceous and well-endowed, for she made the decision to wear a bright yellow sheath dress with matching high-heeled shoes, pill-box hat and parasol for this excursion. The other members of the group are men that don't seems pre-disposed to advising the woman on clothing choices, for they spend the bulk of their time chasing the parasol that the stiffening ocean wind keeps tearing from her daintily gloved hand. She can't use both hands to keep a proper grip on anything, for one is always needed to stead her balance as her yellow heels keep sinking inconveniently into the sand. I suspect that she would have been quite fetching standing outside some motion picture premiere and vamping for the cameras, but in this setting, she looks the klutz and close to splitting her dress in two as her shoes twist her about and she splays her quite attractive legs. "Fiddlesticks!" she swears.

One of the men, much more sensibly dressed in a proper sailor's uniform, has just retrieved her sunshade and arrives to try and help right the woman. She tries to twist herself into some sort of composure when another wind-gust pries the hat from her head, taking a selection of bobby-pins with it and whipping her lustrously long brown hair into her face. Another man chases the hat as she claws at the hair to settle in a more glamorous way and shifts herself at least onto her knees. She seems to be recovering quite well and even puts her kid-gloved hand gracefully out for the third man of the group, who was a bit zealous in his help and jerked the woman up and forward before she could manage to find her footing. The young woman is forced into a double-armed windmill maneuver, flinging again the parasol and one of the gloves. Now face down in the sand, she is likely saying something a bit un-becoming, but I can't hear it at this distance. Her three male attendants manage to retrieve the accessories again and get the woman in a sitting position before she brushes them off with an annoyed jerk of the arms. Sensibly, the men didn't try to return the shade or hat and they made no comment as she pries her shoes from her feet and throws them into the sea as best she can.

The group slowly manages to move from one body to another as if they are looking for something that the woman has not yet found. As they go, the young woman chooses to ignore another damaged man that crawls after them in vain. They finally reach Daavor and, as one men stands idly by, holding the parasol so that it shades her, the woman kneels awkwardly and examines the branded hand. Satisfied with what she sees, the young woman calls to the men with her and issues curt instructions. The dazed and limp castaway is lifted between the men, and the party moves off in the direction they came from. Apparently, the other beached people are of little interest and left behind to somehow fend for themselves.

As Enis watches all of this from the trees, I imagine that he can't help feeling that chill of premonition upon his skin afresh. He would be seeing that Alaed slave again and their lives would become tangled together at some point in the future, for good or ill. But that day will not be today as the Waykeep leader signals his loitering group to pick up the remaining stranded men and help them along the path toward home. It seems life will continue, even for abandoned Alaed fishermen.

Hopefully, this will be the last of premonitions for poor Enis for some time. He has definitely had his fill of them.

As for the future, I will be leaving any more talk of Enis, Tessreen, and Kevyn for some later time in the tale and we will not be seeing them again for a long while. Our journey together, you readers and mine, will continue in another direction now as we follow the party that bears Daavor back to a small ship that will return him to his life among the Alaed and his future in the hands of the Convocation.

The Convocation Is Introduced

For the record, I have learned over the years that there are some people who simply cannot be reconciled to what society offers as their "fate".

On the island of Firsthome, there are just as many expectations as there is in the society that we are accustomed to. There are places to be for everyone and tasks to do, all meant to serve the needs of a larger culture and to satisfy the base appetites of typical people in the mass. Young women of noble birth, such as the disastrous woman that collected the slave Daavor from his shipwreck, spend the bulk of their time at the Convocation school, learning the ways of the Ladies they might someday become. Men such as Daavor spend their days laboring less than diligently at some vocation or another that serves the purposes of the Convocation of Ladies, which labor seems to include most anything that might break a fingernail or muss a fine hair-do. Regardless of how fulfilling such tasks might be, we are expected to fill the role that our society lays out for us.

My school was interested in introducing me to such things as science and math to prepare me to contribute to some heavily-engineered economy. The Convocation school is introducing its charm-school "misses" to such things as proper poise and poetry to prepare them to be successful in a world that seems to revolve around beauty pageants. Therefore, I am at a terrible disadvantage in that I am writing about a world to which I simply cannot relate. Sometimes, I love my job as a writer, but today is not one of those days.

I speak of beauty pageants because it is toward such an event that I am steering us. It is not a very high-level contest, more like a practice run through which "misses", or Convocation Ladies-to-be, learn the craft that comes with their role in the society of Firsthome. To help you feel the scene better, it is much like how a school play will look beside some Broadway show, though to most of these fifteen-year-old misses, this is as serious as competing for the title of "Miss World". In fact, for one particular girl named Coryn, this and every contest, no matter how insignificant, is approached as if its winning were a matter of life or death.

In the elegant preparation and dressing area, splashed with floral arrangements and curtained bays of dressing tables and padded stools which smell ever so faintly of mint, Coryn slaps away the hand of a plain enough woman that seems to apply her face with foundation a bit too lightly for the teen's tastes. "Can I get some competent women over here?" she calls out to anyone willing to listen, which seems to be no one in particular. Everyone who has spent any time at all with Coryn has a quick understanding of the sort of woman she will be: demanding, slightly crass, violently dismissive of her physical and character flaws, yet enormously proud of what Lady-like attributes she has acquired during her school years. In a shorter description, upon her expected investment at the ripe age of sixteen, she will likely be a very typical Lady. Perhaps she is a bit loathsome to our eyes, but in the world of the Convocation, she will be a goddess from which such behavior is expected and frankly envied by others. If you are catching on at all, you could easily exchange the appellation "Lady" with "Bubble-gum teen idol witch" and all the other details will work themselves out just fine.

The poor make-up woman, some years her senior, is trying desperately to cover over some obvious facial skin blemishes on our little starlet. She is resigned to her place as a servant, unlike myself and many of you attentive readers. She is a dame and I do not choose to attach a name to her, as she is not noteworthy to the Convocation of Ladies as an individual. Like so many, she is a nameless prop upon which more popular people rely. The woman attended the Convocation School in her youth, but was put onto something like the "dame track" when she couldn't handle the pressure of the student contests and failed a key poetry examination. Thereafter, she spent her school days learning various cosmetological techniques in order to serve, in this present case, obnoxious prima-donna Misses. Having lost the chance to be a Lady long ago, this make-up assistant now only hopes to one day serve a more gracious and successful (pageant-wise) Lady, applying rogue to a much finer and less acne-ridden face. However, for now, the toleration of this clientele of posturing and abusive teens seem her lot. Another slap is offered as she attempts to ply her trade. "I cannot believe that I must endure such sorry help!" Coryn looks around with some consternation. "Am I at the right pageant? Or is this some lame-o parade?"

As this horrid girl and I allude to, there are Misses and then, there are Misses. With her obviously false elitism of calling other Misses "lame-o", the young woman's view of any contest "beneath" her as some carnival parade, and her slapping about of those of a lower caste, Coryn demonstrates for all of us the kind of overt behavior that you and I wish to have been schooled out of her a few years back. Disconcertingly, a Lady can look down upon and mistreat whomever she pleases, but a far better Lady has hopefully learned to keep such contempt private and wear her "pageant face" and attendant manners as often as possible. As we can see, Coryn lacks this reserve and doesn't seem compelled to develop such a thing at this point. "One would expect a better level of service for senior competitions!"

Just at this point, another woman approaches Coryn's preparation bay. She is somewhat older than the despised dame and, by her dress and demeanor, of a higher status. "Is there a problem, Miss?" This is the Matron of this pageant and as such, can actually have more direct interaction with the contestants. Though the Matron acts cordial, it is obvious to see that she has an aloof aire concerning this pubescent monster.

"I want this...," the flustered Miss could not seem to find titles contemptible enough to describe her serving dame, so she just motioned toward the offender. "I want this replaced immediately!"

I know that this is a distracting place to mention something, but as your semi-omniscient author, I know things that will take on a larger meaning later in the story. This particular Matron is not the one typically assigned to manage this particular contest. The regular Matron has suddenly fallen ill under somewhat suspicious circumstances and her superior has chosen to take her place. It will be important to know that this highly placed Matron is named Symantha. She will figure prominently in events that will play out soon enough.

The Matron eyed the situation coolly and curtsied a little too sharply. "As you wish." The older woman whispered in the dame's ear to step aside and, with a gesture, called another dame to take the place of the first.

As another distraction, I must reveal that the first dame was a better make-up artist than her replacement, but Coryn felt compelled to lump it after she declared, "Finally! I get a little decent service!" Even in a place like Firsthome, there can be some twisted flavor of justice.

The rejected dame was instructed to move to another bay and another Miss, both far different from the one we have already observed. Where Coryn was surrounded by numberless beauty products and a fleet of dames fussing over hair, fingers, toes, and face, the Miss in the bay adjacent had only a single dame brushing out her long black hair. This wholly different sort of Miss is named Mullicynda. Because she is a large character in this story, larger even than Coryn, who would have been infuriated at the notion. I will often refer to the her as Mulls, which is far easier to type and happens to be the name she is called by her familiars. "Watch out, Mulls!" Coryn calls out from the other side of the privacy curtain between their bays. "That one's likely to make a mess of you!"

Mulls pursed her lips, which seemed to need hardly any lipstick at all. "I will be vigilant," she replied back. The arriving dame kept her eyes averted from Mulls, as she was taught to do. She simply opened her make-up kit and reached for the traditional foundation. Observing this, Mulls took the dame's hands into her own, a breach of protocol which made the older woman noticeably nervous. "Let's just freshen me up a little. Nothing heavy if you please." The dame shivered at being directly addressed by a miss. Although this was all terribly wrong, the woman found herself with a tiny smile and she breathed in gratefully, kneaded her shaking hands into calmness, and set to following Mull's gentle instructions.

The Matron Symantha observed all of this from her place in the periphery of things. She has been watching Mulls for several years now and for some private reason that I choose not to discuss right now. It is enough to mention that she is watching things happen and making notes, as you readers might wisely do.

As I said before, Ladies can behave pretty much as they please. I would not be wrong in revealing that most upper-crust women interpret their status as a license to be obnoxious and haughty. One could almost say that there was a unwritten rule that Ladies were cruel and dictatorial in private to their servants and models of graciousness in public, especially on the pageant stage and at various "red-carpet" functions. To craft a term, Ladies were assumed to be professionally hypocritical.

On the other hand, Mulls is a very different miss and therefore interpreted her societal role differently as well. Where the typical Lady acts graceful when the situation demands it, Mulls simply is graceful. Where the typical Lady looks beautiful after hours of cosmetic "surgery", Mull wakes up in the morning looking beautiful. Every virtue a Lady was advertised to have was embodied in this quiet and unassuming girl, without the "excess baggage" of having to work at it. A Lady can behave as she pleases and Mullicynda seems pleased to actually be a genuinely kind and generous young woman, as opposed to just, as we might say, "playing one on TV".

So, as this fifteen-year-old senior Miss of the Convocation School leans back in her make-up chair, her attending dames happily go about what little effort is needed to prepare her for this latest practice beauty pageant. The dames would have served other girls as assigned, even the rude Coryn, as that is their role in society, but the time is spent so much more pleasantly in the service of a kindly young woman like Mulls. Perhaps they would find some appropriate way to bind themselves to her service permanently. Frankly, Mulls has always had a line of dames begging to serve her, a fact which you diligent readers, the observant Symantha, and I dutifully note.

There is some clatter and vociferous angst coming from Coryn's bay, as seems increasingly typical. Make-up is running because the contestant is sweating. I will offer that the contestant is sweating because she is afraid she is not going to win this pageant. She is obviously not going to win the pageant because she competes against Mullicynda and the truth is that Mulls almost always wins. The sweat, and Coryn underneath it, knows this truth all too well and hates the circumstance into which both sweat and girl has been thrust. She has always been able to manipulate contest rosters so as to avoid facing her "best friend" on the stage, pitting herself against obviously inferior stock and racking up an impressive and also so-far uninterrupted string of pageant crowns. Coryn had even commissioned a special display case for all of her tiaras that now stands as the prominent fixture in the dormitory room that she and Mulls share. What exactly will she do after today if her manipulated winning streak ends? "Mulls?" she calls out from her chair.

"Yes, Coryn?"

The first girl swallows hard which makes her sweat even more. "Break a leg!" she manages in the most sugary and manufactured voice she has ever attempted.

Mulls lays a hand on the arm of the dame who was touching up her face, gently interrupting her. "Thank you!" she calls out over the screen between herself and her friend. "Best of luck to you!"

Of course, Coryn scowls at the genuine sentiment of her roommate. Make-up is getting into her ears and she is being completely honest for one of the few times in her life. She really wishes desperately that Mullicynda would suddenly break her leg and drop out of the competition.

All of this has been hawkishly recorded from a discrete distance, not just by me for the entertainment of you fine readers, but by the Matron Symantha who is likely far more knowledgeable and interested in this little exchange than I have likely allowed you kindly readers to be.

I am now going to jerk everyone into a tangential description that I hope will be revealing.

Firsthome is a beautiful island, from my current vantage point. It is that perfume-smelling, flower-garden, nary-an-unsightly-weed sort of beautiful, like some fairy-tale theme-park. You can imagine lithesome maidens in finely-tailored dresses skipping about in their bare feet while deer and kittens frolic about on a manicured lawn that stretches forever. You can imagine a muscular knight riding over a scenic ridge, bedecked in shining silver armor, dropping to a knee before a gracious young beauty with a dainty crown on her perfect brow. The knight will surely let forth with a sonnet of absolute devotion and then break into a poem concerning his next crusade to slay some dragon or another to prove his undying love for said maiden. I suppose if you have ever been to, say, the Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria and spread that picture onto a green Scottish island without all the wind, the result would be Firsthome.

It is all real enough. There really are manicured lawns and turretted castles into eternity. Well, there are no deer and the Ladies of the Convocation seem to prefer lapdogs to kittens, but those are just details. The girls are not quite as lithesome as they look on our television, but they are quite ravishing in a fine ballroom dress. There really are muscular guys in tights rather than armor that bow courteously and vie for a Lady's affections with sugary words, but no one needs to sing about slaying dragons because there are simply none to be found. These men seem more the romantic troubadour sort, suitably handsome and seemingly designed just to take a Lady's hand and complete her social ensemble. This is really as it seems: a fairy princess land plucked from every pre-pubescent girl's fondest dreams.

However, I must say that Firsthome doesn't really work for Mullicynda. For her, it is just too frivolous a place. She feels compelled to be more than just a beauty queen, though I have to honestly say that there is no such role upon Firsthome for a graduate of the Convocation School, as far as we can see presently.

I think I am done with my little tangent now. I thank you marvelous readers for your indulgence.

Coryn did very well in all the various phases of the pageant, probably better she ever had before. In the talent portion of the competition, she depended upon her "ol' reliable", a poetry reading that she has worked on constantly since she was five years old and still running about the nursery as the plucky girl that wanted nothing less than living in the royal palace and having a hundred personal servants. It was work honed over those ten years and she was now really intensely good with it and somehow, in spite of her fear of competing against Mulls, she had managed a flawless execution.

There was a new dietary program put into action a few weeks back as Mulls was a bit more buxom than her roommate and research showed that the judges for this contest liked to see a bit more meat on the bones. Coryn had a strategy board that she kept in a secret place away from her roommate that had biographies of each competition's judges and their scoring records going back years, allowing her to plan each step of her performance and look to appeal to each judge she had to impress at one point or another. Like I have said before, this girl didn't like to lose.

Mullicynda was just Mulls, as always. She thought it would be fun to try a formal dance for the talent competition and had picked a gawky-enough wallflower of a young man for her partner because she felt like he needed a confidence boost. What passed as her preparation seemed to be reading from old books that she hid away from the prying eyes of the dorm Matron. She had only casually met two of the judges from previous competitions and spent only a brief time meeting the ones that she didn't know at a reception before this pageant began, nothing much more than a handshake. I think it is safe to say that the young Miss didn't give much thought to currying favor, at least not nearly as much as Coryn.

Mulls' performances were, as was typical, also flawless. However, as she wanted her friend Coryn's record of back-to-back contest wins to remain untarnished, the slightly younger girl feigned a stumble in her dance routine. Her poor partner, who was mortified that he may have caused the point loss, was difficult to console, but Mulls took the extra effort backstage to convince him that she had made the mistake and that he had done a marvelous job after only four practice sessions. From the look in his eyes, I can tell that the boy loved Mulls, as most every decent person did, and that her attentions to his feelings stoked that love into near-worship.

From the shadows, the substitute Matron of the pageant made some notes on a small clipboard after her observations of these events. All I can report of her reaction is a slightly raised eyebrow and just a hint of the curled lip of a smile.

So, Coryn won her tiara with much satisfaction, trying to be gracious while loving the feeling of rubbing Mulls' face in her rare loss. "It is a terrible shame that you picked your dance partner so poorly, Mulls. I know the best dancer on the island and could have introduced you to him." Coryn is back at her preparation bay, getting make-up stripped off her face so as to protect her delicate and somewhat spotty complexion.

Mullicynda is also back at her place, removing her own slight make-up job, having already gently dismissed her dames with much thanks for their time. "Oh, he was a very nice boy. Perhaps I will dance with him again, just for fun."

The older girl harrumphed. "No wonder you lost," she seemed to say under her breath, but also loud enough that her conquered roommate could hear. For Coryn, winning contests was a total commitment and "fun" was something that losers and future dames engaged in.

The younger girl was characteristically graceful about the whole matter, knowing her friend well enough and also knowing that Coryn needed to do these things to protect her ego. As for herself, Mullicynda had all the honors she needed from the quiet gratitude that was borne of the kindness she had rendered to her attending dames, her clumsy dance partner, and a whole string of others that played parts in this scene that were so small that I didn't bother mentioning them. It was easy to let Coryn have the glory she craved: her roommate's joy in victory was payment enough.

Symantha walked around the corners of these things and although she seemed busy about the closing up of this contest, she had viewed it all and, like Mulls, felt well-rewarded for her time.

Daavor Returns Home

I have always found writing a very frustrating procedure in which I have what I consider to be a good idea, write a bit about it, don't like how it is going, get depressed, leave off from the whole project for a period of time, and then somehow begin the process again. Over time, the story itself is shaped into its final form, but the process itself is chaotic and insufferably lengthy.

This story that you are reading now is yet another example of what has become, probably to the entertainment of outside observers, my compositional style. The germ of this story, which would be unrecognizable compared to what you are reading now, was initially set down when I was a teenager. Through the years, I would almost sadistically take it back up and wrestle with the beast, altering key points, adding or dropping key characters, and basically tearing the thing apart in the hope that such changes would permit the story to finally "take" and get completed.

I report now that I am in my forty-fifth year of life and I still torture myself with the production of this story. It cannot seem to abandon me to some peaceful place where it is unnecessary to revisit my old and tempestuous drafts and find something approaching closure. Over the years, I have always been brought back to this point, somewhere in the beginning chapters, where I have run screaming from the newly abandoned text, vowing to stay away until my sanity somehow returns. As always, I just give sanity a miss and soldier on, trudging through beginning, middle, and end just to get the thing accomplished and finally find an ounce of peace, if I am ever capable of having such a thing.

I would wish the same thing for that wretched man that was rescued from the shores of the channel near the stone post that bears the Mariner's Log, but Daavor, which you will recall was the man's name, was not really trying to accomplish anything from which he could be distracted. There was no plan when he started his day of laboring on his Lady's fishing boat. There was no plan when the net tore in two places and a part of a haul of fish was lost. There was no pain or disappointment relative to the time he was asked to take in mending the net as others on the boat continued their work. With little apprehension and fear, he faced the roughening seas that day as the ship's pilot attempted to skirt what looked like a typical squall as there was again no particular plan in sight. There was no larger purpose or obsession that had ship-wrecked Daavor and his compatriots upon that far beach. It was just another happening in another day to which he was quite unintentionally accustomed to seeing in a very long string.

As I have said before and will likely say many times in later parts of this story, there is very little that goes on that is not at least tweaked by larger purposes formulated by seemingly much larger people. I have already alluded to the fact that the God of the Mariner is blessedly at work here, but there are other hands, of a more delicate sort, that also make tiny adjustments at the helm of the lives of men that they hope to manage for their own purposes. The delicate hands I allude to had no part in the shipwreck, but the larger hands of Deity most certainly did, which will become more clear as we move forward in the story. Just as I sometimes feel compelled by outside influences to continue laboring to produce this story, Daavor also feels a similar gentle and relentless prodding, for his life, like mine, is also being gently steered. In this Alaed's case however, he is also manipulated so often and overtly by feminine hands that it would be impossible to see something larger and yet more subtle happening to him.

"What am I doing here?" The haggard voice of the young Matron that rescued Daavor asked to perhaps the fishes that she had just fed with her vomited lunch off the port side of the boat. There was no response or thanks from the sea. There was also no comment on the matter from the various sailors and fishermen that worked on deck near her.

Daavor, only hours from his rescue, was laying on a pallet nearby. Occasionally, he was opening his eyes and looking quietly up at the incredibly clear blue sky through the mast rigging. From my perspective, it is difficult to know if Daavor was still stunned by the shipwreck into this variety of catatonia, for it seems that this was the sort of regular attention that the man paid to every aspect of his rather disappointing life. As I mentioned at some length before, the fisherman approached everything in a rather amiable stupor, perhaps waiting for some interesting event that would give him some reason to respond differently and perhaps more actively. Unfortunately for all of us, that event has not yet occurred.

What is occurring is the heavy breathing of the Matron. She doesn't like boats and it is easy to see that those who are accustomed to boats are not very fond of her and choose to keep their distance. The woman also doesn't have any nautical fashion sense, for she continues to wear the bright yellow sheath dress that was such a disaster on the beach. If one of you fine readers felt the need to pry her hands from the railing and engage the woman in some conversation, she might be persuaded to tell you that she thinks she is quite fetching in this particular color and cut of dress, though I would describe it as the unfortunate uniform of some 1960's flight attendant for some canary-themed airline. She would also be likely to say that her life is just as disappointing as the young fisherman's, but she chooses to be far more visibly aggrieved over this when she is not doubled over the side of a boat.

If the Matron in yellow were in a chatty mood, she would spit venom on the various seaside mansions that the boat was passing. Apparently, each mansion would seem to house some Lady that she had known from her Convocation schooldays and that she would vociferously feel the need to denigrate, if she weren't presently engaged with dry heaves. The tragic lack of fairness in the world would be the theme of the trip if sea-sickness had not blissfully intervened, for the woman was certain that in her youthful beauty contests, she had been often slighted for deserved crowns and that her obvious talents and tastes had been under-appreciated. None of the smarmy Ladies enjoying the fruits associated with these mansions by the sea deserved any of it, as far as she was concerned.

Daavor was as unaware of these attitudes just as the other men on the boat obviously were, and as you readers have been up until the moment where I revealed these thoughts to you. The only evidence of the woman's vitriol was the simmering evil look she leveled at the passing edifices, which look no one is really able to see. She would be perturbed at the lack of attention to her mood were she not distracted by her own maritime hell.

To her mind, life had dealt her a bad hand and she was perfectly willing to let everyone know it under better circumstances. She should have been a Lady. She should be living in a fine house, attended by servants. She should have a fine title, such as Baroness of Carp or Princess of Aquaculture. At best, the yellow Matron can only breathe strangely, sweat profusely, and glare at the forbidden scenery as an expression of her unrequited desires.

I return for a moment to the reclining Daavor for I have discovered something about his present condition and the larger universe of the man's handling of all things. The mast of the ship was causing a shadow to fall on his face and he pinched his eyes open just enough to incite some unhappiness around the corners of the mouth. Quietly, he lurched the bulk of his body to his left about an inch or so, flinging his head a touch further to one side and out of the shade. His eyes opened again to register an increase in contentment, but upon the approach of a deckhand, the eyes snapped shut. Perhaps it is just me, but it seems Daavor is playing a small game of "possum" alongside his now-revealed sunbathing. He also seems to be milking his circumstances, if I calculate rightly.

"Libation, ma'am?" It was the deckhand that caused Daavor to feign unconsciousness, who I failed to mention was carrying a decanter and crystal goblet on a silver tray.

Being the only potential "ma'am" on the boat, the hunched Matron managed to flop her head around to fix her glare on the serving man. Now, she may have been thinking to herself, this attention is more like it. In a very un-Lady-like way however, she practically fell on the offered liquor, knocking the goblet to the deck with a shatter, and glugged down the whole decanter.

The attending porter, decked out in his finest nautical uniform, complete with shining brass buttons, simply raised his eyebrows at the behavior of the woman. In his line of work, it was always wise to assume that any woman you met was of high rank and to treat her accordingly. Although it would have been perfectly appropriate to refer to this particular woman as "mistress" in line with her status, it never hurt to say "ma'am" or "madam" or even "my Lady", just in case you were serving a full Lady of the Convocation. In a more steady state, this woman would have insisted on being referred to and treated as the Lady she felt was her due, rather than the low-level Matron that she actually was. Men may be looked down upon in this society and have to deal with their status as mere pawns to the feminine ego, but that doesn't make them stupid.

I am guessing that the addled idea in the mind of the yellow-dressed woman was that the drink might settle her nauseatingly empty stomach. Nothing close to a minute passed before the Matron swung back and launched the entirety of the "hooch" into the welcoming sea. The serving man pursed his lips and sighed quietly at the sad loss of something he and his mates could have spent a raucous night enjoying. Daavor, who decided to open his eyes slightly to take in the scene began to jiggle a bit in his effort to stiffle giggling. The eyes snapped shut again and the body went cold-still as the deckhand turned and made off before he too began to laugh.

I hope you attentive readers have noticed that I have thus-far refrained from calling Daavor, the deckhand, or any other man a "slave" of the Convocation. Though it is true, for example, that Daavor is essentially managed and controlled by other people, there is no deep-set need for freedom or escape in his heart, as you will find in other stories that feature those in bondage. No money changed hands in relation to him being moved from one Lady's household to another and it would be probably far more accurate to say that Daavor was simply a vassal of the Convocation-at-large, to be placed and used in whatever circumstance the organization, in whatever wisdom it could marshal, deemed prudent. It is instructive to know that he and the vast majority of his fellow men have never known any other existence besides a light and swaddling servitude and would not spend much time considering a different one. In short, they are not displeased particularly with their lot, as one would suppose most slaves would be. It may be interesting to describe to you fine readers exactly why this may be so.

As a short interlude in this exposition, the woman in yellow managed to find something hiding in her most reclusive gut to spew forth spasmodically to the fish. The incident sent the limp form of Daavor jiggling once again, but no one besides us noticed this.

To continue, the very essence of the Convocation attitude toward men is one of gentle appeasement to their baser natures in exchange for what is intended to be total devotion. These women learned long ago that one does not fight natural inclinations but rather uses them as a bridle point. If you want to softly control someone (notably a male someone), you use a person's temperament, passions, hormones, strengths, and most especially, a man's weaknesses to liquor, sex, and violence to bind them to your service. The goal of an effective Convocation household in relation to its assigned men is to produce devotion in them, specifically to the larger system. Cold intoxicants, heated romps, and state-sponsored gladiatorial games seem the primal desires of the male heart and as such, most men gladly run headlong into the service of the "weaker" gender for its admittedly man-pleasing benefits.

Annoyingly, I will avoid the whole topic of gladiators for now. You will see it in spades soon enough, which will hopefully impel the bo-hunk-ly sorts to buy this story. You patient readers will just have to know that certain sorts of men and women really "get into" such brutality and further sorts actually enjoy participating in them, perhaps even to the point of nearly killing and nearly getting killed. However, I will speak no more on that subject for now.

It is sufficient to say at this point that the Convocation knows what satisfies the puerile portions of the male soul and provides it copiously in exchange for their service. This is why our man Daavor, instead of jumping overboard in the lax attention of a sea-sick taskmistress, only jiggles with barely suppressed humor at her plight. Why escape in the face of such sun-bathing opportunities and free entertainment?

If Daavor had any clue as to the future God was moving him toward, perhaps he would behave differently, but I am not certain that is true. The man already pushes some notably strange circumstances out of his mind and chooses to ignore facts that would likely complicate his life enormously if he paid them any heed. It isn't a bad way to approach life, if your scruples can tolerate it.

For example, only an elite group of men called consorts are branded with a star in their left palm and typically only when they reach manhood and earn that mark. Daavor has had a star in his palm since before his childhood memories began and always wrote it off as some happy accident that he could occasionally use to get free drinks at upper-crust parties.

Also, he never really gave any thought to why this atrociously yellow Matron rescued him from the shipwreck in the first place. Why didn't she bother to rescue anyone else? It might do the man a nice ego-stroking, but Daavor was not that priceless a fisherman or a consort and the Convocation has men enough to fill all its needs without chasing down the ones gone missing. What is so special about him? I would say, but the truth will come out itself in due order.

These are the circumstances through which one quite special man returns home to his specially managed circumstances that prepare him for his unique Convocational destiny, of which he knows absolutely nothing. Even further from his understanding than the inexplicable interest in him from highly placed women, a much-differently motivated and far more cunning God has his eye upon him, also with plans for the future.

Of course, to all of these machinations, the youngish Daavor is blissfully unaware and his only thought at the moment is that the one thing needed to top this relaxing and entertaining homecoming would be a cold alcoholic beverage with a very long straw.

A Moment of Great Weight

I loathed "field trips" as a school-boy. They seemed to be little more than an excuse for a teacher to get a few hours away from the pressure cooker that is the common school. Nominally educational, the day would be packed with roll calls, constant loading and unloading from buses, hidden indiscretions, "getting lost from the group" in moments of authoritarian inattention, and the sort of inter-student retaliations that work best away from the formal school campus. Basically, it was the playground for thuggery.

Every teacher supposed that the students wanted to get away from the classroom just as much as they did, so there was little pressure required to coerce students into the field trip. The attitude often turned to using it like a privilege to elicit good behavior. Nasty students played along, knowing the opportunities to practically rape others or smoke marijuana on school time could not be passed up. I seemed strangely singular in contriving some excuse to miss the "opportunity", like getting a terrible case of some 24-hour flu or having to catch up on some assignment.

"Are you sure?" the teacher would say sympathetically, as if I should be distraught.

I would sneeze again with gusto and wave off her concern. "No, really. I would only be a burden."

At this, the pity would climb a notch and she would often pat me on the head. "You wouldn't be any trouble!"

The most important thing at this juncture is to get the teacher to be on your side. I always found that coughing up phlegm on some part of their pant-suit or dress would get the job done. "I'm so sorry!"

Disgusted, every teacher would move on, their duty to give you a "good college try" done. It was the way a teacher was trained to behave, a kind of vague heartiness for their charges without all the cruft of actually caring much about them. It makes their manipulation far easier as most students know.

Mullicynda has approximately the same attitude about field trips as I do. Her teachers have unspoken motives as well, but it is not just to get away from the school. The regular field trips to Trechiva were billed as cultural opportunities for future Ladies to learn how the "other" half lived, the people that would soon be serving them so faithfully. Of course, no one among the teaching staff or the student body actually believed this. I will offer you this one hint on the subject: everyone gets a thrill out of "slumming it" in some way. Well, the one exception may be Coryn.

"What this place needs is a good scrubbing," she said with rancor. "Both building and people."

It was quite obvious that the cluster of girls from the Convocation school were not a part of their surroundings. Although they were in uniform and not their formal-wear today, they still shown like freshly-minted pennies against the throngs of smelly things that varied from blackened muck to dark, dank brown. The girls didn't need to be told to close up ranks and stay together; the bustle around them only fitfully parted to let them through and the future Ladies reflexively kept their distance and pressed against each other.

One girl piped up to the elegant Matron that lead the group. "Where are we off to today?"

"The fish plant." This elicited groans from many girls and not a few put lacy handkerchiefs to their noses in preparation for a nasal assault. "Half of the Alaed economy is based on fishing, so half of your girls will likely have your start as mistresses of fishing. You will want some exposure to them before you rule them!" This revelation, if you readers felt comfortable calling it such a thing, didn't sit well with the trailing young women and the older Matron nodded at the expected response. "If you want to rise from this fishy fate, you will see how important your studies are to your future disposition."

I must say at this point that the Matron was telling a convenient lie here: far more than half of these schoolgirls would spend their lives as part of a fishing household, but far fewer than half would have the fortune of being the Lady ruling over it. Oh, and if you have not already learned this from our reality, I will reveal that the work anyone does in school has absolutely no bearing on anything that happens thereafter. There is your free insight for the day.

An over-eager girl piped up, ever trying to get a shoulder up on her fellows. "How much time did you spend in a fishing household, ma'am?"

The Matron's eyes were hooded as she turned on the offender. "I was recruited as a teacher immediately out of school." The other girls looked at the fool among them with a mix of pity and bemusement at her stupidity. "The powers that be saw my obvious worth to the preparation of you girls for the future." She fixed her gaze on the instigator of this fool-hearted-ness. "You might consider your own worth before asking such questions." There was a "ooooh" that rippled through the group until the Matron snapped her head up with a hawkish look. All went deathly silent. "Watch you don't fall into the pit like these." She indicated the throng that was all around them and turned back to the task of moving the group forward.

Mulls was not far from the front, looking about her at the hunched mass of dung-colored folk. She wondered where they were going and what purpose one or another might be about this morning. Often enough, she would find herself wondering if these dirty people were having more joy in their lives than she was able to muster in hers. Sadly, as this is not the story of the common folk of Trechiva, both I and Mulls must turn aside from this beguiling possibility.

Coryn was whispering deviously, as she often did. "That little tramp will be lucky to make it through the poise finals, much less speech class!" Mulls merely shrugged as she typically did when dealing with Coryn. "I doubt she's fertile anyway," the older girl continued. "It's a waste of resources to bring such as her on these outings in the first place. Her time would be better spent learning to clean commodes!" Coryn snickered at her own comment and a few other girls nearby who had heard her contempt chose stupidly to copy her.

"Oh, I think she will fare well enough." Mulls wasn't one to whisper, as she rarely had anything conspiratorial to say. "She's a cute girl and bubbly and I don't think the opinion of one Matron matters much as to what girl get invested." She was speaking clearly enough that the Matron in the lead likely heard it, but the older woman made no sign. There is no point arguing an obvious truth. The offending girl, who was getting elbows in the ribs from her neighboring classmates, brightened as she heard the assessment. Mullicynda moved closer to her junior. "You might do well to study the module on demureness again," she said quietly.

Coryn sneered at her roommate. "Can't have much fun around you, can we?"

This brings to light something that is probably quite obvious to you savvy readers, but which I will mention now in the interest of the less cogent: Mullicynda is obviously both liked and disliked by all. Younger girls often adored her, if somewhat quietly so as not to lose their egos, for she is generous and kindly with her often-quite-valuable insights. The girls that are closer to her age and standing, those nearing their terminal examinations, hate her with vitriol because they are compelled to compete against her in contests and for all they know, the better girl will steal away a Lady-ship obviously intended for them. The Matron at the head of this particular group may fear her on some level as one who may shortly be her superior and exact some sort of revenge upon her if not treated carefully. Of course, there are unseen forces, both in the Convocation and without, who have an eye on this interesting young woman and may not know exactly how to feel about her or, in one case, how to manipulate her to their own advantage. I will say that those unseen folk are definitely planning something in relation to Mullicynda though there is no reason to say anything about that at this point.

As the group moves on, a peculiar excitement grips the cluster of potential Ladies. Even the conniving Coryn raises a brow and lets out a small smile as the anticipated circumstance draws close and I feel it is my duty to inform you that it has nothing at all to do with fish or the stated reason for this field trip. It is quite likely however that if this particular event were not a part of the trip, several of the girls would have come up with excuses or perhaps phlegm to avoid it.

Of course, the Matron in the lead is no fool and her vast experience understands the absolute vital-ness of some time spent before a certain storefront just around the next corner. Some of the girls are already twittering and whispering to the less informed of the group in preparation for what they will shortly experience. Mulls, though typically somewhat indifferent to the thing that is coming all too quickly, is experiencing a bit of a fluttering heart and a strange rising of the typically soft and fine hairs on the back of her neck that herald something that wants more than casual notice.

Annoyingly, I will take a short detour in the proceedings here to talk about the whole concept of portents. I hope all of you wonderfully adept readers either know exactly what I am referring to or will understand in very short order so that we can follow the Convocation schoolgirls around this anticipated corner. But until we can do that together, I feel the need to reveal that there is much happening in life that we can barely perceive, much less see.

I speak of forces that some regard as supernatural and others dismiss as some fantasy or bad digestion. For my part, I know that unseen powers can affect our lives, if we keep ourselves open to them. I choose not to view such things in a mystical context but rather attribute them to a God who is trying to guide me toward a better path and marvelous opportunities that await just out of sight around some metaphorical "corner". When I get a raising of the neck-hairs or a thought that makes my heart sing (for the lack of a better way to describe it), I have learned to look around for any evidence of God injecting himself into my day. I must say that I typically find such influence always leads to something positive and good for me. Where others run away from such feelings, perhaps referring to such sensations as something "spooky", I find myself increasing following those feelings and gawking with wonder at the vistas that such things open to me.

I don't really know how Mulls feels about premonitions or where they come from, but the sensation is there and I can say that she is not pulling away from it on this occasion. If anything, she is leaning forward to catch a better glimpse of what future might present itself around that corner that you readers and I will now finally turn.

Of course, all the girls know that it is the fitness room called the Stable. There is a large plate-glass window that lets the casual passer-by view the various men engaging in all sorts of glistening perspiration and physical exertion. I use the word "casual" as the Matron leading the group has feigned some reason to stop and engage a stranger in getting directions to the fish plant. The rest of the group has come up short as well and, with nothing conveniently better to do with their spare time, are having their collective gaze "innocently" drawn toward the activity on the other side of the window. Although some of the younger girls twitter and point, the more mature among the group keep up the casual and convenient "accident" facade while leering hungrily out of the corners of their eyes.

The men inside retroactively notice the schoolgirls loitering in front of their workout session, but they have also taken the attitude of casualness about the whole circumstance. Of course, if anyone besides you fine readers and I were really paying any attention, one would notice that the men, most in their early twenties, were flexing their muscles a bit more now that their exercise routines really required. In veiled response, even some of the very seasoned young women, mere weeks away from their investment as Ladies, could not keep up their pretense and gawked straight on with wide-eyed avarice.

May I say that "The Stable" was more than just a clever name that arose from following common marketing practice. The name was a very apt description of what the exercise room actually was. These be-muscled men were of a special sort, for it was typically the duty of human males to do the hard labor that the Convocation of Ladies required for the maintenance of society. Households certainly couldn't brook any free time to be taken by the common man for something as frivolous as bodybuilding. Yet, these behemoths were here, in the middle of the most productive time of the day, "unintentionally" showing their sizable muscles to a batch of future Ladies. These are men of the "consort" class and their fitness room and their existence in society at all has the absolute and enthusiastic sanction of the Convocation. The Matron who is acting rather befuddled by the directions she has been offered now for the fourth time knows this fact all too well.

In every social system, there must be "perks" for those of higher status and seeming responsibility. A corporate chief executive officer must have his personal jet aeroplane, a starlet must have her glittering wardrobe, and a Convocation Lady must have, all crudeness aside, her boy-toy. The male consort is supposed to make his Lady the envy of all the rest by being the man they all want but cannot have, at least for the moment. Of course, he must be handsome of face and rippling of body, witty of speech and devoted of attention. To all eyes, he must be the ultimate fashion accessory that she puts on her arm when she goes out. After all, the Lady is only as good as the consort who escorts her and I must add that this is not the only "perk" she enjoys from him.

Even among this group of schoolgirls are those who have already passed all their tests and are only waiting for their sixteenth birthday and their investment ceremony as Ladies. Most of these particular young women are already enjoying one of the "other" perks of consorts and are already showing off the beginnings of their first pregnancies. This doesn't preclude them from visiting the "stable" of other potential consorts, for there is a definite market in "trading up" to a more luxurious model.

One should not think that this situation is demeaning at all to the men. There is a particularly physical and lusty competition among consorts to be noticed and chosen by Ladies of high title. The prestige of being on the arm of a Duchess rather than a simple Princess or Baroness is simply incalculable. The consort of the Queen enjoys a lifestyle and celebrity that every other consort might literally kill for, so these young studs are all too willing to spend copious amounts of time on exercise equipment and parading before teenage girls as one of these could be the next Grand Duchess and the ticket to social glory.

All at once, something, or rather someone, breaks the spell of this scene of mutual lust and desire. When he moves into sight in the interior of The Stable, everyone on both sides of the glass let forth an audible intake of breath. This person's presence in the room is so unbelievably stunning that no one, not even the Matron who takes a pause from her pretense of asking an eighth woman from the street for assistance, can help but notice the new arrival. Mullicynda herself has a fresh raising of her neck-hairs and really has no idea what to do with it.

This is the entrance of Daavor.

A few of the bo-hunks inside have already found new reactions to the incomer as the remainder can't seem to get past their disbelief. There are shouts and finger-pointing, but Daavor seems content to simply take a seat on a vacant piece of equipment and begin fiddling with its adjustments.

Three particularly big men move toward him in a menacing way and all by-standers, man and woman, are riveted to see what will happen next. Daavor seems non-plussed as he lays back and begins to move the bar of a bench-press machine up and down. Things were so quiet on the street among the schoolgirls that the sounds of shouting could be heard quite clearly, although the man on the bench-press seemed not to notice.

Just in case you were not paying attention previously or I failed to be clear, Daavor is not very muscular. As evidenced by the particularly puny weight he was struggling to bench-press, he was hiding no wiry tendencies either. I forget if it came up before, but this young man is also not particularly handsome, as his nose curves to one side and his face looks as if his attending obstetrician had chosen to beat him out of the womb rather than just allowing him to be born in the traditional way. To add further insult to injury, Daavor was likely shorter than most of the younger schoolgirls staring wide-eyed at him. Typical consort fodder he most definitely was not and that seemed the primary concern of the other men in the room. The Stable and its patrons had a reputation to protect, by golly.

The three vociferous men had formed a tight ring around the bench and had begun flinging insults and the occasional punch at Daavor who was doing his best to steadfastly ignore them. Next, the biggest grabbed him by the shoulders and brought him up straight off the bench, which looked awkward as the smaller man held tight onto the bar and didn't choose to let go. There were a few more jabs to the abdomen, each accompanied by a flinch from the collective girls outside and a rise in the pity level of Mulls. Finally, Daavor let go of the bar with his left hand and it flew up for all to see.

There on his left palm was the star brand - the mark of a Convocation sanctioned consort.

There were even more exclamations from the three men but there were now some from the other men in the room. Apparently, it was one thing to rough up a common man who had come into a place where he had no business, but it was quite another if you were working over a fellow consort, no matter how incongruously scrawny and ugly he may be. The three finally detached and returned to their workout with disgust that such a man could ever be in their ranks.

Daavor rubbed a bit at his bruises and stretched his pale and spindly chest to readjust his spine. Suddenly, without any provocation at all, he looked straight at Mullicynda and, beyond all reason, gave her a wink!

The young woman was flustered and reddened suddenly. The hairs on the back of her neck near pulled themselves out by their roots and she rubbed at them furiously. She looked behind her to see if the pathetic man had perhaps winked at someone else, but there was no one there.

"Mulls!" It was Coryn hissing at her from tail of the group that had already moved down the street after the Matron had finally found help that apparently satisfied her. The roommate was motioning her fiercely so that she would avoid any further embarrassment. The whole mess at The Stable had suddenly sagged beneath the dignity of a nearly-invested Lady such as Coryn in the course of a few seconds.

The slightly younger woman started to move away from the window and toward her group but seemed unwilling to take her eyes off of the curious little man. He smiled pleasantly enough at her and even offered her a small wave, which she tentatively returned.

It wasn't much of a meeting, as such things go, but God willingly takes whatever opportunity he gets. I even think the thought of the coming visit to a fish plant was now just a little less loathsome to our favorite young miss.

A New Princess is Crowned

"Look!" Coryn barked out with a bit too much excitement and volume. "It's the Queen!" I almost think that she would have waved frantically, hoping that royalty would notice her and perhaps even acknowledge her, but she was taught some level of decorum in school. She merely wiggled in her seat with glee and breathed erratically. "Someday," she intoned, as Mulls sat next to her, rolling her eyes and mouthing the words that the older girl always said in these circumstances: "I will be her."

As they settled back into their seats in the section of the auditorium set aside for Misses, Mullicynda smiled the smile of forced serenity. Coryn was always dragging her to another contest as the older girl couldn't seem to get enough of them. There was always the ready notepad as well, for there were copious notes and observations to make as preparation for such competitions when it was her turn. Mulls enjoyed watching the beautiful events, but to my eyes, she seemed to enjoy them on the same somewhat detached level as the commoners that crowded the middle section of the hall from front to back, simply as a pretty spectacle. Although she understood that, like Coryn, she would someday likely be one of the participants on stage, she was not really excited about it at all. It was her courtesy to Coryn, who had begged the younger girl to accompany her, that had put Mulls in this place.

There was another young woman who looked just as non-plussed to be at this pageant. She sat next to the Queen, as was her right, though the two women really didn't like each other. The Grand Duchess was next in line to the throne, ready to step into the royal pumps the minute "the old hag keels over" as she whispered conspiratorially to almost anyone that she could manage to conspire with. Of course, the words "old" and "hag" were used in a context here that somewhat eludes me and probably you fine readers as well, for the Queen is as traditionally gorgeous as a regular beauty contest winner should be and is all of twenty-five years of age. The Grand Duchess is only a few months younger but it seems that spite and envy magnify every difference and as I look at her, I do think the Queen is infinitesimally more beautiful than her immediate junior.

It is not beyond the Grand Duchess to smile a little slyly these days, as another opportunity for the Queen to expire is coming in the not too distant future: she is once again pregnant. In any other culture, this would not be a cause of joy to one's enemies, having another potential heiress to the throne, but within the Convocation, things just don't work that way. All baby girls are taken straight from their birthing suites to the Royal nursery, where their preparations begin as future Ladies and beauty contestants. There is no distinction or even connection between a girl born to a sitting Queen and one born to a country bumpkin Lady that has never even gotten past auditions as no one seems to track a baby girl's origins. They are all Ladies, daughters of the first Queen Saradyo, and, at least before they start hating and wishing doom on-stage to each other, they are all simple sisters within the Convocation of Ladies. So, with sisterly concern, the Grand Duchess wishes not-too-quietly that the present Queen dies in childbirth, as is quite traditional for a royal expiration, and gives an obviously more worthy woman the throne.

As you will recall, I told you that Coryn was a rather typical example of a Lady. I hope my description of the Grand Duchess bears this out.

There is not time just now to talk further on such matters as the master of ceremonies has taken the stage and, for obvious reasons, all eyes are upon him with various degrees of longing and raw lust. It is the stunningly handsome consort of our Grand Duchess, who simply beams at seeing her current paramour raising such a stir, for she has him in her bed and every other Lady, the Queen included, does not. The man is doing a fine job, for as part of his role as a consort to such high Ladies, he is often pressed into this sort of service. Our less impressive Daavor would very much like to take up the "MC" training, but the opportunity has so far not arisen. What has also not arisen is anyone's notice of the small smile on the Queen's lips, for without the knowledge of the Grand Duchess, this master of ceremonies has slipped into her private chambers on some recent occasions and "spent some time", as it is said. There is now only finding the right timing to reveal this fact to her "next in line" to crush the Grand Duchess properly. In the meantime, everyone's eyes are sparkling as the man sings through his opening number to launch the pageant.

I must admit that I have always found things like beauty pageants and award shows imminently boring and I must apologize to you readers that do not agree, for I am not going to describe at any length at all the proceedings here. Everything is so scripted and, except for the few required "surprises", you can watch any televised contest from the comfort of your couch and get a better picture of what is going on than what I could ever describe here. I find the differences between this contest and those that our society would recognize to be a far more interesting topic to write about.

As an example, I find it intriguing that the present Queen and Grand Duchess, not very long ago, faced each other on this very stage, vying for the tiara that the Grand Duchess now wears. As there is no competition for the title of Queen, the royal crown is passed onto the sitting Grand Duchess only upon the death of previous Queen, as has been said, effectively leaving the pageant that decides the next Grand Duchess as the ultimate prize that can be won. The current Queen is only the Queen because, two contests ago, the current Grand Duchess stumbled with her flaming batons in the talent portion, this coining her latest nom-de-plume "Fire Witch". Not long later, the former Queen expired on the birthing table, the current Queen vacated her role as Grand Duchess, and her first runner-up managed to win the pageant for the empty spot. Uncomfortable though it may seem to us, this situation comes up on a regular basis on Firsthome and puts the worst of pageant enemies into the royal sky-box side-by-side, smiling broadly and waving that traditionally royal wrist-rocking wave to an alternately adoring and covetous crowd. What is back-stabbing in private is a beautiful unity in public.

Now that the breath-taking consort has finished singing and welcoming his adoring fans, the time has come to introduce the contestants. As the title being vied for this particular evening is "Princess of Fish", we are seeing a goodly proportion of Ladies that head up fishing households, as they have a bit of an advantage in the scoring of the judges and tend to flock to the opportunity. As this is something of a final "stepping stone" to the highest contests which decide who will wear one of the four ducal crowns, it becomes a more intense competition than most. Certainly, there are the fresh upstarts who auditioned for this contest as potential wildcards who actually win often enough to encourage even the newest Convocation School graduate to attempt to jump several rungs up the status ladder in this one single bound. The consort master of ceremonies is dutifully mentioning this as opportunity presents buxom girls that look to be not much more than twelve years old, presenting themselves beside obviously more mature and likely contestants.

Some women are on-stage because they wear tiaras belonging to the next lower level below title for which all are competing. In this case, as we are witnessing the selection of a new Princess of Fish, the "automatic" contestants include the Countesses of Carp, Trout, Anchovy, and Mackerel. This last mentioned, the particularly stunning Yvette, is the clear favorite to win, but there is always the chance of a faux-pas in one section of the competition or another, making the way clear for someone unexpected. Besides these four, various Baronesses, named for lesser or more common fish breeds, have guaranteed spots on stage as well, leaving a few positions for those wildcards who I and the master of ceremonies mentioned before.

One interesting wildcard is an older woman (all of twenty-six) who held this very Princess title in the past, gave it up graciously a few years back as no Lady can compete for a crown she currently wears, but is now eligible to win it again. She had even gone beyond the Princess level and once won the title of Duchess of Aquaculture and sat on the Ducal Court herself. Beyond this, she had been a fine contestant in the last pageant for the crown of the Grand Duchess, giving the current title-holder that we already saw conniving in the royal sky-box a good challenge. However, this particular Lady obviously lost that competition, served her two years as Duchess, and now must find some place for herself in whatever circumstance becomes available to her. As the consort announces this previous winner, a ripple of "oohs" and "aahs" rise from the crowd and the confident smile of assumed winner Yvette tightens with apprehension.

This is the kind of drama that makes contests on Firsthome so followed by everyone and that presents the only interest I can muster for such things.

The contest proceeds as you starry-eyed readers might expect. There are various stages that highlight the various attributes that are required from not only a fine example of a Convocation Lady, but more specifically the figure-head of all things fishy among the Alaed. The ranks of contestants are whittled down as the judges rate each young woman's prowess in matters of hair, smile, personality, and how one fills out a form-fitting leotard. In the case of this particular pageant, each contestant in the semi-finals gives an elaborate presentation on how she is best suited to encourage the fishing industry, typically employing large panels of painted cloth on-stage that have depictions of fisher-folk happy in their service. The favorite Yvette has added a bit of spice by having stagehands move the panels about in cadence to a musical accompaniment as she walks among them and gives her impassioned speech of how much she loves and cares for her wonderful workers and their increased output. The crowd, especially those commoners in Yvette's current employ, cheers enthusiastically and the judges tabulate their scores accordingly.

In the latter parts of the somewhat long process, stretched over nearly a week, the field of Ladies is eventually whittled down to five finalists. I would personally have wondered off long before day three, but as this is a culture seemingly centuries before the concept of switching television channels, this contest is one of the only entertainments available this week. The Ducal Court, among its many duties as the high arbiters of pageantry, also makes sure that there is a rather constant yet not overlapping schedule of events to keep both Lady and commoner enthralled. It wouldn't do to have a contest, especially one on the level of choosing a Princess, poorly attended in favor of some other distraction. The five young women are present on-stage, the master of ceremonies is looking as fresh and virile as ever, the interview portion has just been completed, and any commoner who was as uninterested in the preliminaries as I am have finally succumbed to the excitement of the moment and crowded into the large hall for the final results. It is finally time to reveal the next Princess of Fish.

Coryn and Mullicynda are in their reserved seating. The older girl has been whispering to the other for days now, picking apart every flaw and highlighting with contempt the winner of each stage of the contest, swearing that she would have bested them, all the while also scribbling madly in her notebook every idea that she thought would profit when her own chance to really compete finally came. Mulls was characteristically studied in her nonchalance, but the crackling excitement was even getting through to her and she was inching toward the edge of her seat.

A Baroness was here, as well the Countesses of Trout and Mackerel, the former Duchess of Aquaculture, and of course Yvette the favorite. There had been plenty of drama as a sixteen-year-old beauty, freshly graduated from the Convocation school, had done very well in the semis, but the judges had quietly decided that there would be no "surprise" upsets in this case and the obvious maturity of women three or four years older would win the day. The younger woman had been sent packing and these finalists were here, dressed in thier most Princess-ly gowns, ready for a crown to be placed on their heads.

I find this the perfect time to interrupt the climax of these proceedings to explain something about the Alaed culture as it may jaundice whatever picture you expectant readers had in your heads regarding this scene. I specifically use the word "expectant" as each of the women on this stage is, to use our cultural term, "expecting". They are not so much expecting to win as they are pregnant. The Baroness and the Countess of Trout are not very far along at all, but the Countess of Mackerel and Yvette look to be within seconds of needing the birthing suite. A product of our culture would find this an odd feature of a beauty contest, given our penchant for the appearance of virginity among our "scholarship" contestants, but for a Lady of the Convocation, especially a highly placed one, fertility is the most vaunted trait that can be displayed. Where our culture would fashion a formal dress to often hide a woman's delicate condition, the gowns worn by these "far-along" women are cut to call attention to the pregnancy and, as much as is possible, enhance it. It even looks as if the "old" Duchess may have had a pillow sewn underneath her crowning outfit to make up for her pathetic three month along torso.

So, it becomes my duty to report that, although the former Duchess clearly won several key phases of the contest, the favored Yvette was given an unsurprising victory, winning "by a belly" as it is said quite openly among the girls in the Misses section.

"I knew it," Coryn whispered. "I knew she would win."

Mullicynda simply smiled her serene smile and nodded.

An Ant Shows Off

I have always heard that ants can lift many times their own weight, a feat that, as I grow older and often wider, I find myself increasingly less capable of even approaching. Even as a younger man, I was more the sort that had the upper body strength in line with our audacious Daavor and I feel the need to admit that such strength has likely not increased with time. So with gratitude to move past from my wounded pride, I will leave off the comparisons and return to the incredible ant, or one in particular.

There is a beach on the island of Firsthome, a bit isolated and not often occupied, a simple stretch of sand between rising bluffs where the footprints never last long against the incoming and outgoing of the ocean waves. Not far at all inland from the lapping waves is where the manicured lawn of which Firsthome is famous begins, making this patch of grayish sand such a striking feature.

Upon this tiny valley where the land meets the sea, we find our powerful ant.

I have no thought that this is a spectacular ant in any way, for to my eyes, it looks like many others that I have encountered. It is black and rather on the small side, but it displays a speed and a spunkiness, for lack of a better word, which marks it in my estimation. I grant the spunkiness, for it seems to sprint madly toward the sea whenever the waves pull back and to run just as quickly toward the grassy inland when the next wave threatens to engulf it. A tenacious little thing, I must admit.

It is not immediately obvious to me exactly why our ant is doing all of this sprinting. It has been about it for as long as I have been here observing it, which seems like hours. This is a pelagic coast, as we look out west to the open sea that the small boats of the Alaed traditionally do not ply, so the beach is longish and made so by the greater waves. Our industrious ant therefore runs a far race back and forth along an almost beaten path that seems not to vary to the left or right.

What is motivating this tiny creature? In my observation, I cannot say, but conditions are changing and the moon moves along in its progression, shaping things in its passing: the tide is going out. Hours press on and I see a pink bit revealed by the receding sea. The ant runs on and on, ever coming closer to what seems to be its goal, a prize that it perhaps spied during the previous turning of the tides. I am tempted to run out and see what the pink thing is, but I fear I will frighten the little being from his purpose and I am far too enthralled.

To and fro the ant runs, its pink purpose jostled by the relentless waves, but kindly staying somewhat where the sea has deposited it. I think to myself that the time has come in the moon's progress to swing the pendulum of nature back toward a rising tide, but another force seems to be at work that I cannot seem to attribute to mere nature. The ant is so close, the slightest hint of water just reaching past what I imagine is a tempting bit of seashell but keeping the tiny landlubber just out of reach. Suddenly, a gust of wind pushes out from the green lawn across the waves and it is enough. The next few thrusts of the sea are held back just a bit and the treasure is available.

The ant sprints out with seemingly fresh courage and makes it to the pink. It tries to take hold but the incoming wave spooks it. Taking only a few steps back, our friend is back to the shell and getting better purchase: it manages to move the thing a centimeter or two toward land. It has been too long a journey and too much an effort for the noble ant to simply go off, though it seems the breath of wind that won its goal has wandered off to rustle some tuft of grass. The ant has one last chance before the forces of wave and tide engulf again the bit and our hero accepts the challenge.

From my vantage, it is now no longer an ant running away from the waves, but a pink bit of flotsam skittering up the beach. It is a victory rare to see, acted out by forces certainly greater than my own. The ant has won through its devotion and tenacity, but I feel that there was one more ingredient in this winning mix: the hand of God.

It would be easy for one to say that the blast of wind that drove back the steady work of waves was just a simple coincidence, but in such things I see the handiwork of God. In my mind, it was the small reward offered for such a long labor of faith and desire on the part of the ant and how could a kindly maker hold it back from such devotion. Where others might say that God, if he is there at all, only acts in large cosmic ways beyond our ability to see or conceive, I prefer to think that he also chooses to offer little bursts of assistance that we are likely to miss if we are not diligently observant.

So, these hours spent watching an apparently empty shore may seem a waste of a chapter of your reading, but I think it was time and insight very well spent. An ant shows me how very much stronger it can be than I certainly am and a God reveals that, even in a seemingly small way, he is willing to reward heroic effort. Perhaps you readers will ponder on that as I do.

It may be a good time to see what those crazy Alaed people are up to.

Two Secretive Women Meet

If you have surmised that Mullicynda is a beautiful, finely-mannered, yet curiously odd young woman, that would only be partially correct. At this particular time, she is walking down a very disreputable street in a very disreputable part of Trechiva, wearing very disreputable clothing, having just done a very disreputable thing. You certainly wouldn't recognize her as a model student from the Convocation school, which she sneaked away from a few hours ago. She is wearing the kind of dress that would put her among the more lowly common women that decent Convocation Ladies would give as much attention to as they would a scrap of greasy paper. A worn headscarf covers her perpetually perfect hair and she is walking with a bit of a limp that she had perfected over the last several months.

It isn't a street where any Lady would ever go, so it is all the more likely that she won't be discovered by anyone that matters. The guise is just as much to help her blend in among the rough and tumble commoners that do all the real work at Port Trechiva. This is a place of fishers and gutters and the smell is a bit obnoxious, requiring her to spend some extra time in the dormitory baths afterwards to avoid questions. What with all these long baths she took oft-nights, she has developed a reputation among the other girls for being a bit soft and enjoying the warm waters a bit more than is equitable. All the better for Mulls, for this perception puts her even further from any suspicion of her nocturnal activities.

She is just returning from an hour of quiet rummaging through the old library. It had been abandoned so long ago that the slimy activities of fishing and processing have engulfed what had once been a bastion of real learning. The Convocation has no need for such things when there are tea parties and beauty contests to occupy the attentions of Ladies. The fishers and their ilk don't require reading skills and are never really offered them, so the only use they have for a building full of books is to use torn-out pages to cover tables of offal or to wrap the fish that would be bought at the market up the way. Mulls tries not to think of the tomes that may have already been destroyed for their paper and has been happy to discover that the rare book section of the library was toward the back and that the paper-gatherers have contented themselves with the more convenient pickings up front.

There was no time to really stay and read at all in the dusty yet still quite comfortable chairs in the reading rooms as the snatched hour here and there from school was dangerous enough. Mulls only had time to choose out a book or two to take back with her to her dormitory room, where she would hide the ancient bindings under delicate pastel and lace covers that the few books used at the school were adorned with. A proper Lady was expected to have a private diary, which she wasn't to show to anyone, containing a record of raucous trysts with cute serving-boys or the times when she bested rivals in contest. Mulls has a scatter of such diaries left casually at her desk, most filled with such mindless drivel as she could contrive in a few moments, for the curious girls that always poked around in other girl's private diaries. Some of her pilfered library books are dressed to look as much like these tawdry tomes as she could make them and kept under the pile on the desk, but her most prized and most dangerous volumes are kept under a loose board beneath the floor under her bed.

At this particular moment, Mulls is beginning her journey back to the dorms with her latest find when she notices an intentionally unnoticeable woman pass by her that she utterly fails not to notice. What she can't help noticing is a flash of luxuriant red through a very nice but supposedly concealing dark cloak and hood. There are plenty enough dark cloaks with hoods about, but they are more of the variety that Mulls was wearing to look like a fishwife and fight off the cold and damp. This cloak however belongs to no commoner.

The noticed woman ducks down a narrow cobbled alley and then another and another still, as if she is putting off any pursuit. I know all this because, of course, Mulls follows her, having nothing better than a hot, bubbly bath and some amateur book-cover binding to do that night. The girl hangs back a bit and the worn common boots she wears give up no sound in her passing, but even if they had, I doubt that the woman in the fine dark red dress is giving any particular thought to really being followed. She moves quickly, with great purpose, never looking about, trusting most likely to the fact that people have their own business and don't want the potential trouble of meddling in the doings of others that don't concern them. However, as I said, Mulls is not precisely as she appears and one thing I can say about her is that she has no compunctions about breaking with standard practice.

At the end of another alleyway is a rather undistinguished warehouse, made undistinguished by the fact that it looked exactly like every other warehouse that lined this alleyway. It is getting late and there are no lanterns here, but it is still easy enough for the girl to follow the woman, as she is now comfortable enough that she is not holding her cloak quite as close and the color of her rich dress showes plainly. She ducks into a short and narrow door and disappears into the last warehouse. Probably hoping for something a bit interesting to justify this whole distraction, Mulls waits for a bit of revelation, something like a lit lantern inside that would show through some window. Instead, a clicking noise rises slowly in the direction of open end of the alley. The girl scrambles for some cover which isn't even hard to find in the darkness of the far side of the alley.

Another cloaked figure is entering the scene, but this one seems less charged with purpose. Obviously another woman, but this one is looking all around and is obviously startled by every noise and shadow, real or imaginary. Mulls melts further into the shadows across from the doorway where the red-dress has disappeared, but she did notice that some lantern had finally been lit within and the dim light is illuminating a small window set high in the wall just above the outer door. It is a moment or two before the new woman feels comfortable enough to continue into the dark alleyway.

If the first woman had let a few hints of her status peek out of her cloak, this second one seems hard pressed to keep her association with better things covered at all. The loud clicking came from her high heeled shoes that were bright yellow and having serious troubles navigating the uneven cobbles. The Lady is flailing around just to stay erect and her formal gown, which matches the yellow of her shoes, billows full into view with a gust of wind, the cloak that is supposed to be hiding her nearly flapping away. Fortunately for her, the only person looking at any of this is the secreted Mulls, who is also the only person in earshot that could pick out the soft grumble the Matron was growling.

The canary-dressed woman moves forward unsteadily and just as she was getting to the same warehouse door that the other woman had entered, another gust of wind catches her cloak, tears it from her, and drops it on the cobblestones a few feet away. Mulls shakes her head, for it looks as if the woman has just finished attending some fancy ball and has come straight here from it. The sad truth was that this is one of only two decent outfits that this woman manages to have. At best, she seemed like one of those Matrons of a country Lady who had the basic status but hardly enough resources to look the part. Thankfully, she has chosen to leave her stewardess outfit at home and wears something that lets her stumble about alleyways a little more gracefully.

Just now, she is tottering back to her cloak and it is obvious that she has come from gorging on the sumptuous fare of two too many Investment parties for her now very tight-stretched bodice. She is laboring to spread her legs and lower herself enough to snatch up the cloak, but she was already swaying more than gravity really appreciates. The precarious movements, the unsteady feet on high heels, and the tight dress that prevents movement (and likely proper breathing) all conspire against her and she pitches over the cloak and onto the hard cobbles with a sharp cry and a very unwelcome tearing sound. Now as the dress was somewhat looser, she easily sits up and gives the roughest curse that the Convocation school taught its future Ladies: "Drat!" She snatches angrily at the cloak and gets herself back up onto her high heels, roughly putting the cloak back over her split dress and cinching it up as best she can.

The yellow-dress only manages a few unsteady steps before her ankle is wrenched and one of her heels snaps, pitching her to the cobbles once again. On this circumstance, she finds a curse that isn't in the Convocation vocabulary but seems a bit stronger than the previous one: "Fiddlesticks!" Sensibly, the Lady takes off both shoes and flings them into the darkness, nearly hitting Mulls with them. Now that she has finally solved the worst of her troubles, she stomps over to the door, tears it open angrily, and rushes on through it. There seems to be a corridor that the door leads onto and this corridor is unlit by the light that weakly shines in the main part of the warehouse, which circumstance is made more obvious by the sound of barrels being tripped over by the canary-colored-dress. Mulls sees none of this, but it is easy enough to hear the Matron let out another uncatalogued curse, a thump, then a scream of pain. This is what comes of letting your anger kick out at a hard barrel when one has no shoes on. There is one last, very loud curse that certainly would have been grounds to have a lowly dame turned out from Convocation service entirely.

Mulls sprints across the alley and climbs atop a pile of something she doesn't bother to examine too closely, just so she can see through the small window to the doings within.

In the rather dim light of the lantern, one can only see a table upon which is strewn cups and bowls that are being stirred at and shuffled about by the woman with the red dress. In her intensity, she seems to be ignoring the newly-arrived and limping canary-colored woman, who is gesticulating strongly and ranting about something, though from her place behind the small window, Mulls can hear nothing. Red stirs a bit, puts this bowl down, takes up a cup and drips out a careful measure of liquid into yet another cup, deep in concentration. Yellow, perhaps in a bid to look important and dramatic, goes to stamp her foot in frustration and causes a bout of thrashing pain for her earlier bare-footed barrel-kicking theatrics. Red pays her no notice, as more bowls are stirred and more liquid is tipped.

Finally, it seems a few words pass between the two women and Red gestures into the shadows that the light of the lantern barely touches. There are bits of movement there but too indistinct for Mulls to identify. Canary takes a tentative, painful step toward the place, but she doesn't look happy about it, her lips jabbering on in that way that inanely talkative people have. Red points more sharply in command, upset to be distracted from her work of mixing and pouring and getting on with whatever intrigue that would bring two Matrons to an abandoned fishers warehouse on the wrong side of the channel from lovely Firsthome. Canary works herself forward a little further, but seems afraid of what she was being asked to do. There is one final tip of a cup into a bowl and a good stir before Red finally gives up on her associate, comes around the table herself, knocks the hesitant Yellow out of the way, and enters the shadows.

Upon re-emerging into the dim light, Red holds a wiggling, distraught little bird tightly in her grasp. She motions Canary to come forward and help as the bird's wings are roughly pinned down to the table by Yellow's uncertain and seemingly repulsed fingers. Very carefully, Red forces the beak of the bird open and tips a drop from the prepared bowl into it. The bird understandably flinches wildly and spooks the already unsure Canary, who lets off holding the wings and jumps back. The bird darts off the table and flies up into the rafters of the warehouse, Red's eyes flashing her displeasure as she snatches up the lantern and attempts to follow the bird's movements. Mulls can't really see much of what happens next, but one can't ignore the great thump against the glass of the small window she peers through as the bird sees hope of escape but doesn't comprehend the properties of a transparent semi-solid. The girl outside the building flails back, nearly losing her balance, but catching the sill. The shock pulls air out of her lungs and it takes a moment of panting to put everything right again and to bring Mulls back to her eavesdropping.

The lantern is still lit and vague glimmerings can still be seen from Mulls' vantage, but not the light itself. It is moving about out of her vision as the women inside look for the bird that was likely stunned by the encounter with the windowpane. Several moments pass and the light of the lantern hovers into view again, carried by Red, and returns to the table. The bird is laid out again, wings spread as before, but there is no struggle. It seems very dead. Red examines it closely for signs that only she knows of, seems satisfied, takes up the bowl of concoction, and pours it into a vial that she stoppers and marks with a blue ribbon tied around its neck. It is put beside another vial, obviously prepared earlier, which had a pink ribbon tied onto it.

There is much discussion now between Red and Yellow, probably instructions about the use of the contents of the vials by Canary. Red seems animated in holding up one, carefully saying its intended use, and then the other, as if Yellow is some dolt and needs this explained very simply and clearly. Canary is looking quite indignant with the treatment, as any Matron would, knowing that she is of a deservedly higher class than this behavior would imply. Apparently, Red doesn't have much regard for Yellow's status or her ability to keep the vials straight as she also scribbles out a note that probably repeated yet again in writing what she had now repeated at least twice verbally. The note is proffered and Canary snatches it ungratefully from Red, along with the two vials. Neither bothers with the customary pleasantries as Yellow storms out and Red turns to the work of settling the bowls and cups into their places and tidying up.

Mulls draws back from the window thoughtfully and moves down off her perch, going quickly and quietly out of the alleyway. Canary emerges, spends some minutes looking about the shadows for her discarded shoes, and stumbles back on her way, broken heel, sailor-cursing, and all.

The Canary and the Commoner Conspire

"Are ye well, m'am?"

It was obvious that the Matron was not well, but it was respectful to ask. A kindly young common woman was already reaching down to offer what assistance she could to the disheveled woman. As was customary, the Matron, looking wretched in her torn and muddied yet still bright yellow dress, brushed the commoner off, repulsed by the though of being touched by such a low creature.

The helpful woman shrugged and revealed something. "Ye dropped these." There was an open packet with a note and two fine bottles in it, decorated with ribbons. As soon as the bedraggled Matron regained her composure from her fall into the mud, she indignantly snatched the packet and its contents away from the wretch.

"Such a fine Lady shouldn't be 'round 'ere of an evenin', m'am. Could be dangerous." It was a curious accent from the woman, not at all like the one commonly heard in that neighborhood, but the canary-dressed woman wouldn't have known that or cared. It was horrifying enough to be in this place far from decent things, her status somewhat revealed, and be forced to interact with a disgustingly low woman.

She was very short and very curt, as all women in the service of the Convocation were taught to be when speaking to underlings. "Which way to the ferry?"

The commoner smiled with surprisingly straight and white teeth, which she quickly hid behind her lips. "Lost are ye? Should be keepin' to more proper places, ain't ye?" She waved her hand up the street. "Th' docks be yonder, m'am."

Without another word, the woman moved off in the proffered direction, flinching in pain with the fall of one foot and limping strangely with the fall of the other. The commoner watched this for a few steps and then moved to follow.

The high woman hadn't got far at all when she was again interrupted. "'Scuse me, m'am, but it's custom for a girl to get a bit of a tip when she helps one such as y'self." Lips pursed at the distraction, Canary reached into the purse tied to her girdle and flung a few coins into the mud. She was strangely satisfied to see the woman scrabble down in the filth to retrieve the discarded money and she turned to continue on her way.

A few steps more and she was accosted again by the same commoner. "Beg pardon, m'am, but you ain't walkin' so good. Is there somethin' a girl can he'p with? Smooth the way a bit?"

Sighing, the Matron turned a loathing eye on the bothersome wench. She should say something, she thought. Something vile and demeaning. Something to not only put the hag off but also punish her properly for her insolence at daring to converse with the higher-born. Rather than that, something much better came to mind. "Of course you can help me. And there is a silver coin in it for you."

The common woman's eyes fairly sparkled. "How can I serve ye?"

The high woman looked down at the packet she carried. She was already pushing being late. Her superior would be very angry and vindictive if she fouled up another task. No one wanted that as a relatively new Matron trying to impress those who had given her a chance! She looked from the packet to her torn and now muddied yellow dress, her best one. It would absolutely not do to be about her Matronly duties looking like this. Still, she was late and if she failed, word would get back to Symantha, whom she had just left and from whom she had just received very strict instructions. If she botched this, she might be sent back down to the sad ranks of the dames again and never recover.

"I need you to deliver something for me."

Canary was clumsily weighing the risks and costs of the idea that had curiously popped into her head, as she had clumsily fallen into the mud. Of course, such incidences can be accidents, or they can be purposeful and portentous, just as Daavor's shipwreck and rescue had been. The Matron herself had not a clue that larger forces had placed the idea in her mind, but the common-looking woman had some inkling. She had read stories in old books about such happenings and the fine hairs on the back of her neck were tingling.

As commoners were meant to be in the presence of a money-making opportunity, she was eager. "Whate'er you need, m'am!"

There was more looking at the packet and thinking from the new Matron. It was always best to play things safe, they had taught her in school before she flunked the basic intelligence test. She put the pink-ribboned vial and note in a secreted pocket in her skirts and held out the vial with the blue ribbon. "Take this to the household of Yvette." She tried to think quickly, but it looked painful. "She is feeling low and it is an elixir to make her feel better."

The face of the common woman lit up. "Queen Evette?" This was the Queen of the whole Convocation and doing favors for such as that one would probably net a poor woman quite a tip!

Shaking her head, Canary got another pained look. "Of course not, you fool!" How silly for the beastly idiot to think that any commoner would be asked to come within a mile of Royalty! No wonder such stupid hicks could never be a part of the Convocation! "I am speaking of the Princess Yvette whose household is on Green Meadows Lane on Firsthome. Do you know the place?"

Laughing at her own hopeful presumption, the common woman nodded. "'Course it wern't be the Queen! Yeah, I know where that Princess of Fish lives, m'am."

"Good." One could almost see the Matron's mind churning away, heavily taxing the limited capacity that could easily be surmised through her eyes, turning over the ramifications. The common woman was working just as hard to mask her intrigue and let patience and bad grammar rule the moment. The Canary finally nodded her approval of the thought that had taken her mind. "Yes, you will find that she is giving birth tonight. Make certain the midwife gets that elixir and that your Princess Yvette takes it." She smiled slyly to herself, pleased at the simple brilliance of the idea that she selfishly called her own. "You will need to get cleaned up a bit and catch the next ferry across..."

Mulls, in her role as the common woman, had been distilling here before this ridiculous Matron about as long as seemed necessary and the continued raising of the hairs on the back of her neck were starting to bother her. "M'am," she scratched her nose innocently enough, "you mentioned something about silver?"

Mullicynda Witnesses A Birthing

It is difficult for me to find words to describe that sensation when one feels that they are being carried by events. I have always equated this with somehow being in the hand of God and that He is placing your feet, moving your hands, speaking with your voice, and basically steering the course of things that are too important to be left to chance or the limited capacity of mere people to understand or do properly. This night is such a circumstance for Mulls and I cannot emphasize enough to myself or to you dear readers that these sorts of occurrences should never be ignored or forgotten.

Perhaps those silly girlish diaries have a bit of use to them after all.

In answer to her raised neck-hairs and bits of inspiration, Mullicynda rushed back to her Convocation school dorms back on the isle of Firsthome and found her most mature-looking dress. Knowing the propensity of people not to question when things just work out well and to praise their own genius when it happens, Mulls had no compunctions about altering the conditions Canary had put on the evening. She would take the elixir to Princess Yvette as instructed, but instead of doing it in the guise of a commoner, she would attend the birth in as Matronly an appearance as she could muster. Properly attired and with her hair pulled up in a most serious bun, she looked at herself in a mirror as she rushed out. She knew she appeared as a much more imposing figure than the silly yellow-dressed Matron she would stand in for, which would ultimately be to her advantage. None of the girls that she flew past in the dormitory commons gave it a second thought, as it looked as if one of the school's higher Matrons was off to attend some pressing council gathering, instead of the ethereal Mullicynda off to have a meeting with something akin to destiny.

The house of Yvette was not too far, but the electricity of the night impelled Mulls to move quickly anyway. Her heels were blessedly sensible and she seemed much more familiar with them than Canary, and her cloak was properly done up against the storm which was rolling in from the sea and beginning to sprinkle upon everything.

She had thrown on a tasteful brooch at her bosom that would hopefully speak of some rank and it all seemed to work properly as Mulls breezed through the portico of the house of the Princess of Fish. She moved and gestured and gave the aura of a highly placed Matron and everyone about the house simply reacted as if it were so. "Your Matron could not attend the birth, so I have come to attend it myself." The servants bowed to her obvious rank and showed her immediately into the birthing suite.

Mulls had never been in such a place before, or even in the house of a Lady as of yet. The home was finely appointed, as befitted a young Lady with a number of pageant wins under her belt. Of course, each Lady's house had a birthing suite, for each Lady seemed to keep herself in a perpetual state of pregnancy, what with the obvious service of consorts and the method of scoring that judges used in the contests in which all Ladies vied. There was nothing better to guarantee a pageant victory than a pregnancy in its advanced stages.

Mulls swept into the birthing suite with a determined gait and a severe face. This was certainly not her normal approach to things, but she had observed enough commanding Matrons to make a good show of it. All activity stopped and all eyes were on her, which was frankly terrifying for a fifteen-year-old girl, but she seemed to be pulling off a determined woman who was five or so years older just fine. She looked down her nose at the assemblage of lowly dames and midwifes and gave a gesture and a word "Continue."

Poor Princess Yvette was already moaning miserably, stripped practically naked and strapped tightly to various metal protrusions from a hard and heavy inclined table. Mulls' first impression was that this was all done for the purpose of splitting the poor woman practically down the middle and making the birth easier for the midwife, who was quietly moving about and attending to Yvette's birth canal. The apparently high Matron Mullicynda had been duly acknowledged by all in the room with deference, except for Yvette, who was so deep in the throws of her last stages of labor that she wouldn't have noticed if God himself had appeared.

Now, as this is Mulls first time in such a situation, she has no frame of reference for comparison in circumstances of childbirth. The best she can see is that it looks quite painful and imminently unpleasant. I, on the other hand, have seen the births of all my children, which are not a few, and I can report that there is something almost inhuman about the procedure that is laid out here before us. If I can, I will offer up my own crude comparison.

As I have said, I have witnessed several births. In our culture, we spend a good deal of time being thoughtful to a mother's pains and seeing to her comfort, perhaps with even more concern than with the poor child who is also having a very traumatic experience. It may be because we foresee the difficulties ahead for the mother as she loses herself, it is hoped, in the care and nurture of this child. We want to respect and honor her for both the present and coming sacrifice she makes for the good of humanity and society. Perhaps, we are simply selfish and want to avoid feeling or seeing pain or undue discomfort. We should make the new mother feel as comfortable now as we can muster, for she will have little of such things over the coming years of the roller-coaster ride of motherhood. We bring her pillows and ice and provide pain relief as best as can be contrived. Selfishly or not, we care greatly about how the mother feels at such times.

The most recent birth I witnessed was quite a different event. It was a surgery rather than a birth. The cesarean section procedure is anything but considerate of the mother, in this case, my wife. It was my first time in an operating room where I was not the one being anesthetized and operated upon. It was gruesome, as all such things of nature must be. But, what was more striking was the fact that, once my wonderful wife was put under anesthesia, she was frankly forgotten. While there was a bank of monitors that beeped and clicked her condition, only one bored technician was charged with attending the continued life of my wife. A curtain separated her head and upper torso from the well-lit belly, where all the interest and action was taking place. For nearly everyone in the room, the extraction of our last child was the most important thing. I was permitted to move back and forth from the darkened and forgotten corner of the room where the somewhat recognizable face and barely moving bosom of my wife lay and the split-open belly, awash with light and the buzz of medical professionals, working over the ghoulish sight of a purple creature practically exploding out like some horror movie. I was assured that everything went according to some textbook and that the baby was fine. I was much more concerned about reassuring myself that they would at some point pull off the curtain and realize that my wife, who had already gone through so much for our family and who would do even more in the future, was present and that I wanted her to live and find happiness as well. This eventually happened, but it was still disconcerting to see the terrible shade of yellow my wife was in for weeks afterward as everyone cooed over our twins and seemed nonplussed by what I considered to be my wife's near-death experience. No one really seemed to care about how my wife felt, and I, as a young father, had no idea what I was supposed to do except worry for her.

As I look upon this scene in Princess Yvette's birthing suite, I am much more reminded of a very primitive form of surgery than birth. Here in this Convocation birthing chamber, conveniently placed in the most prominent part of the house, this recent beauty pageant winner must be reminded again and again that she is basically just a vessel and that her authentic purpose in life is to create more people, specifically Ladies, to feed the needs of the Convocation. There is no more graphic portrayal of this fact than the view Mullicynda now has of the thrashing and moaning pain of Yvette that is being completely ignored by the midwife and her attendants. Although Mulls has no frame of reference, as I do by having seen a kindly birth in a pleasant birthing room, even the uninitiated must understand the inherent cruelty of the wails of torment as the beauty queen is attached to her torture table in a cold and lifeless room. The Matronly girl was hard pressed to keep from vomiting.

I won't go into the particulars of the birth itself, as the midwife and her attendants seem to know exactly what they're about. It is interesting to note here that there is no talking in the room, nor indeed should such a thing be expected. For the Convocation, birthing is a procedure that is actually steeped in much secrecy and the dames involved are carefully chosen for their discreetness. How a woman like the Canary has become involved in a managerial way with such a group is frankly beyond my comprehension, but one must trust the Convocation on such matters over which it exercises great pains. This situation was something that Mullicynda was never really meant to see from this vantage and which will ultimately do much in changing the course of her life.

The baby's head is beginning to crown and the attendants have taken their places around the room and begun to chant upon the virtues of health and beauty, leaving the midwife alone to do the unspeakable things that her training demands. If again you will indulge my interesting need to tell you things you would likely never discover otherwise, I will reveal that this whole rising volume of chanting is really designed for the purpose of getting the attendants out of the way and, more importantly, out of sight and hearing of what they are not permitted to know. Sometimes, mysticism is far more practical than one would imagine. The point you need to see here is that Mullicynda, perhaps in her ignorance, is not putting herself in a position to miss what is happening like the rest, for a Matron over a midwifery household is entitled to witness such things. If anything, her morbid yet insatiable curiosity is edging her closer for a better look.

My wife and I have had many heated discussions about how exactly to portray the gruesome scene of the final stages of a Convocation birthing to you fine readers. I want this depiction to be as graphic as possible to impress upon your mind that these women of the Alaed, who may seem nice and even whimsical at times, are actually far less than kindly in these situations. My wife, with her many pregnancies, wants to see that the experience is realistic and yet not "over-the-top", so the legions of female readers will not accuse me of being clueless on the matter. We never have reached any sort of consensus so I have chosen to instead escape to something of a "radio" experience rather than battle further on the subject.

I agree with the people who say that radio is much better than television. I find that the picture I manufacture in my head is so much more vivid and engaging than anything that can be projected on a screen. Therefore, I will simply tell you that this birthing is both realistic and grotesque at the same time and allow you wonderful readers the opportunity to create the imagery for yourself. Not only will this save me mounds of time, it may also do much to save my marriage. I thank you for your indulgence on this point.

Once it is seen that the precious baby is whole and breathing, it is bundled up quite tightly in a blanket and handed off to Mulls, who is obviously the Matron in charge here. The attending midwife is anxiously hanging about the Matronly girl, as if expecting something from her and Mullicynda finally guesses that the Canary's vial is wanted, which is duly produced. In moves that strangely mimic the actions of the red-dressed woman in the warehouse, the midwife perfunctorily pulls open the gibbering mother's mouth and pours the contents of the vial down the wretched Princess's throat, the only bit of attention the poor thing should expect to get in this whole procedure. Then, appropriately ignorant of the bound victim once again, the midwife focuses her attention on the real concern here, which is the tending of the stretched and torn perineum.

The attendants have stopped their chanting and are back about duties, scrubbing the chamber and fetching rags and hot water in a large bowl for the midwife. The woman strapped into the table begins contorting wildly and screaming as the midwife scrubs away at the wound with a primitive antiseptic, none-too-gently. The mid-wife seems to take the reaction of the Princess in stride, as if all the pain is just part of the aftermath of childbirth, but it is affecting Mulls quite strongly. The impulse to stop the midwife somehow and comfort the poor wretch on the torture table washes over the girl, but she is kept back by her need to act in a role and not reveal her deception. This certainly does not help her dispel the growing sense that she was now a participant in something quite wicked. The mid-wife is now working quickly with needle and thread to bind the split ends of the perineum back together, but not in the interest of reducing the pain and torture inflicted on the possessor of the birth canal.

With the job of extracting the blessed child done, there was apparently more mess than anticipated and attendants were signaled to come clean afterbirth and such from the floor. While one would have thought this would have given the new mother a bit of a welcome reprieve, she seemed to be shaking uncontrollably now, so much so that she could no longer scream out her anguish. The others in the room steadfastly went about their work of ignoring the woman in travail, except for Mulls, whose eyes were wide in the horror she was witnessing. There were two massive flinches from the woman on the table, but the strong straps held her firm and she suddenly went limp. The problems that the attendants were dealing with were handled with accustomed proficiency without any notice that the beauty contest winner was quite obviously dead. Only Mullicynda seemed aware of this and only Mullicynda seemed to be appalled about it.

The bundle in the girl's arms began to move about and there was the muffled sound of cries. In her shock, Mullicynda snapped back to her place and everyone else, instead of noticing the corpse on the table, were giving her curious looks, wondering why the Matron was still here. In a twisted thankfulness, she tried to compose herself and left the room as quickly as possible. Supposedly, at some point in the work of the birthing suite, it would be found that the mother had expired and the attendants would calmly go about their work of disposing of the now worthless husk of the former Princess Yvette.

It was raining outside and Mulls was stumbling about in much the same way the Canary had earlier, now in some realization of that woman's grizzly occupation. The raindrops were cool on her feverish face, but it did nothing for her sharply beating heart and shaking limbs, which were loosening the blanket that held the new-born girl that would someday join the next generation of baby-manufacturing Ladies. She only managed to find a corner somewhat out of the rain, crouch down, and sob over what she had just witnessed. The baby was exposed now and had begun to whimper and her natural reaction was to pull the baby close into her bosom. They both cried, for their separate reasons, for a few moments, realizing the strange new world both had just entered. The baby was obviously on about life outside the womb, but Mullicynda wept for the growing realization that the world of the Convocation that she had thought was so kindly if a bit superficial had finally revealed a bit of its inherent darkness.

The girl also cried at the fact that she had been drawn into it, if even just by what anyone besides myself could have called a twist of fate. You readers know that I see it as the quiet hand of God steering events toward this terrible realization. It was she that had unwittingly provided the blue-ribboned vial and dealt the fatal blow to the Convocation's creature Yvette, that along with her sister-Ladies, only really existed to produce an endless supply of new material for the Convocation's insatiable appetite. It was making Mulls sick and angry at the same time, for if events proceeded as they were meant, she would soon enter Yvette's world and at some point face the same fate.

The rain kept reaching her coldly on the skin where she was exposed, but there was a rush of warmth where the baby was pressed to her. Added to the other emotions she was dealing with was a more practical one: she had just been urinated upon. Reflexively, she pulled the child away and the last and most startling realization hit her like the last and heaviest brick of a pile that has fallen upon her. In spite of all the Convocation had taught her about Ladies and their exclusive birthing of noble daughters, this baby was a boy.

So, I hope you notice that, as I originally predicted, the arrival of a baby has just changed nearly everything for Mullicynda.

A Rabbit On The Road

You can learn an awful lot about a person by observing their driving habits.

For instance, I drive down a lot of practically deserted back-roads, often recording myself talking. When I travel for business, I often eat and conduct needed telephone work as the car is still moving as well. What do these things say about me? Perhaps that I have a general disregard for vehicular safety and I try to mitigate it by staying away from traffic? Maybe that I get bored easily and can't just do one thing at a time? Perhaps you don't want to meet me on the road? A multiplicity of possibilities could emerge from just a few informative lines.

If you have learned anything about me at all from reading the previous chapters, I hope you understand that I have little reticence to telling anyone exactly what I think. Where many novelists get a bit smug in answering the often-asked question "What did you mean by that?" and usually reply "It means what you think it means," I am rarely so dodgy. I actually enjoy coming right out and telling you what I intend for you wonderful readers to think about things. I will even go so far as to give you the proper interpretation of my driving, whether you really want it or not.

I like being away from people. Almost all of my contact with other people, outside my family, is done because contractual obligation or social etiquette demands such. My preference for places to live would probably be quiet, far off the beaten path, and presumably where other people would choose not to be. If that brings to mind what many would describe as lonely and desolate places, I think you have my meaning. The times when I am forced away from such places, usually by my wonderful wife that actually enjoys a bit of human contact, it is often to meet the needs of others that I am connected to. I have already told my children that I will probably disappear after they are grown and gone and their mother has passed away, if I survive her; such is my interest in being away from the affairs of men. Now, you may not have immediately picked this insight out from the simple thought that I prefer driving on somewhat deserted roads, but I feel that I am obligated to give you high value for your reading time.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I have killed a few rabbits in my times of driving automobiles. I know this again says a lot about me and, if I don't think amiss, about a lot of people. It would be easy to say that I just don't care about little furry animals and happily run them down, but I don't think that is exactly what I revealed. I consider myself mildly well-disposed toward all things leporid, certainly a step or two better than being totally indifferent to them. Although I have killed a number of rabbits under the wheel, I often take the opportunity to make steering corrections, albeit minor ones, in order to avoid crushing the cute little creatures. Though I could have simply let the statement, "...I have killed a few rabbits in my time..." stand on its own, I feel that the small exploration in this paragraph helps others to put off any thoughts of me as some thoughtless killer, especially given my generally asocial disposition regarding people. "He was quiet and kept to himself before he began murdering everyone in sight..."

As a counterpoint to my now growing reputation among hopping animals and those who love them, I will say that I love my wife and my children. I would even go so far as to say that my family would readily agree with my perspective without too much arm-twisting. Additionally, if I were driving a car along my accustomed and nearly-abandoned back-roads, happily recording some private insight, and looked up to see one of my children staring in frozen fear at their impending death just a few meters in front of my vehicle, I would dutifully swerve wildly, probably flipping the car over several times in the process, in order to avoid killing my child. This is the kind of person that I feel that I am and, as you marvelous readers are learning all too well, I am not particularly shy about revealing this in any given manuscript that I write.

All of this talk of cars and rabbits and such is provided, not just for your mid-book entertainment, but to make an analogy to our relationship with God. In making some references to God in this story so far, I had hoped that you brilliant readers would make the connection that divine intervention features quite prominently in these pages. If I were a traditional novelist, I would probably just go on believing that you insightful readers would get my point and keep to the tradition of making vague references and hoping that you will figure those insights out. My "inner autistic" simply cannot let this point go until I feel that you understand completely.

God does not think of you like some random rabbit on his road. I worry that many people, often very religious people, have this view that humans are of only limited consequence to the supreme being. Oh, and if you think that God is only "mildly well-disposed" toward you and that he will shrug off the problem of metaphorically crushing you under his wheel, you would be wrong. God thinks more of you than that because he knows you in a much more intimate way.

If I can bring back the poor rabbits for a moment, I will attempt to clarify things. While I am momentarily stung by the act of killing a rabbit with my car, I think I would be a bit more troubled if I knew that the rabbit's name was Norbert and that he had a wife named Phillis and three kids named Georgie, Aparadax, and Pid. I would be further horrified by my actions if I knew that tomorrow was Pid's birthday and that I had her present right there in the car beside me. My revulsion to causing pain would obviously be intensified by better knowing these creatures and having something of a relationship with them, you must see.

In the case of God, I will reveal that he knows us personally and loves us and cares deeply about what happens to us individually. Sadly, few people honestly believe that and fewer people behave as if they thought such a relationship were true. Although records show that God prefers to be referred to as "our father," most folks don't act as if that is anything more than a cute play on words. The honest fact is that God really is the actual father of every man, woman, and child on earth. Physically, we look like him and typically have the same number of fingers and toes as he does. Emotionally, we can have the same joys that he experiences. Ultimately, we as his children have every opportunity of becoming just as much God as he is. In short, we are the literal offspring of God.

On a personal level, God knows my name is Jason and he knows when I was born, what flavor of ice cream I like to eat, and how much I would like to spend a lot of time on a deserted and stormy seashore, among a million more things about me. He even knows about my driving habits and the fact that I have run down a few rabbits in the past. I imagine that he appreciates my efforts to avoid killing little animals and that ingratiates me a bit in his eyes. I anticipate that, as I seek to know what he wants from me and actually go out of my way to do what he wants, God will be pleased with me, bless me, and be a bit more than just kindly disposed toward me and my desires. Hopefully, I could even trust that he will use his rather large influence over everything to help me, as an honored and appreciated father would do by nature. I think one could package all of this up in one simple word: love.

I hope you brilliant readers are seeing God's influence working in favor of the goodly characters in this story. I hope you see that a few people are working to do the right things and that God is working to help them with the things they would like to have. I also hope you take to heart that God is just as willing to lend a hand in my life and in yours, as we do what he asks us to do. I further hope that you are getting the message clearly as I break all the rules of writing.

With this concern of mine out of the way, we can bid Norbert and his rabbit family "God-speed" as they continue to hop across the back-roads of life, I can peacefully eat my lunch while motoring, and you kindly readers can continue on to notice that God graciously intervenes in the lives of our intrepid characters as he is wont to do.

A Supposed Library Tryst

There is an extra shadow in the quiet darkness that is five o'clock of a morning. Besides the odd pillaging run for paper, the old library on a forgotten street of Port Trechiva is quiet as a tomb. At this hour, it is particularly still, save for the occasional rat that scrabbles about on some private mission. A shadow is curled up in a dusty high-backed chair far in the back of the rare books section and has been there for several hours already. It is trying to reconcile things in its mind and it needs the quiet and solitude to do so.

Dawn is just making its way into the deeper confines of the library and we can now see that the shadow is our dear young Mullicynda. Even in the dimness, it is plain that she is haggard, eyes red from rubbing and crying, mouth drawn down in a deep disappointment, the package made complete with her worn-out commoner costume that her mood somehow makes complete. The sun peeks up over the horizon and sends a ray through a window and onto her face, causing her to squint darkly and frown all the more.

She has come to understand that almost everything she has been told in her young life was a lie.

There was one particular Matron that Mullicynda had for a teacher that she especially liked. She was a kind-hearted soul and took a particular interest in Mulls as one who might be a bit of a kindred spirit. When she was being particularly abused by the other girls in those tender pre-teen years, this teacher gently took her aside and told her how much the Convocation needed sweet and humble hearts to offset the propensity for haughtiness and venom among the Ladies. "That is why things are the way they are," the Matron had said to that little girl of long ago, "This school and this society exist because the world is a better place with good-hearted and generous Ladies at the helm. You will be one of those." She also said, "We value beauty and grace because these are what separate us from the viciousness of animals and men. It is what makes us better." Those words had brought solace to a young schoolgirl, but as Mulls thinks on it now, though it was comforting at the time, it too was a lie.

In that birthing room, presiding over the birth of an impossible child and the execution of its mother, Mullicynda began to understand a few of the blacker truths that lie at the heart of the Convocation of Ladies.

She had been taught that she would become a Lady because she was special. Everyone knows that Ladies are essentially different from the common folk, not just by a royal lineage, but by something we would call "genetics". Everyone knows that Ladies only give birth to the next generation of Ladies and dames. It was obvious that common women gave birth to both girls and boys; there were plenty of men about to do the hard work and society could even choose the most handsome and virile among them to eschew labor and be consorts to the Ladies. These ruling women had a natural right to their status as Ladies because they were biologically superior to others and therefore special.

But the thought that a Lady could give birth to a boy was patently absurd. Generations of teaching that Ladies were inherently different in a biological way would be washed away by such a revelation. Mullicynda had held that patent absurdity in her arms and she now knew that the "special" status of Ladies was based on a lie. Princess Yvette had been no more "genetically superior" than the random woman upon whose doorstep her screaming infant son had been left by a totally disoriented schoolgirl. The Convocation, through its trusted school, had lied to her just as it had lied to countless others throughout the generations.

If that were the only trouble running about in Mulls' mind, she probably could have stayed in her dormitory room and found ways to cope with it. What drove her this distance across the channel as far as she could be from the school was the nagging suspicion that her actions had involved her in the killing of the Princess of Fish. The birthing experience was awful enough, but the young Mulls rightly surmised that the vial into which the Matron Symantha had tipped the poison was tied with a blue ribbon specifically to kill the Lady if she gave birth to a boy. The silly canary Matron required the color-coded vials to ensure the job was done correctly and when she passed off the task to someone who didn't know the system, it was logical to "play it safe" and kill the mother no matter what gender the baby turned out to be. It was a tidy little plan, but that fact did nothing to placate Mullicynda's guilt as she had become a tool in a despicable act.

It was one thing to lie in order to hide the inconvenient fact that Ladies were just as likely to conceive and bear boys as the common women were, but it was very much another matter when women were being killed in order to protect that fact. Judging by the way the birthing was done, the chanting and the careful inattention by everyone to the act of birthing itself, this situation was not an isolated thing. Over the centuries, perhaps thousands of Ladies had been poisoned because they could not possibly live up to their "special" lie. It was stunning to Mullicynda.

Some other realization jars Mulls just now and she sucks in a frightened breath. It was not just the death of thousands of Ladies. This poisoning was surely the death of all Ladies! If they could give birth to boys, it was sensible that a Lady would give birth to a boy at some point and face the prospect of being poisoned upon the birthing table as a result. As she though of it, a old nagging situation came into her mind, one that she had shrugged off in the past: she had never seen an old Lady. Even the current Queen was only in her mid-twenties. Mulls could not recall ever seeing a Lady that appeared to be any older than thirty. It may have been easy to dismiss with the teaching that such women were "special" and that a by-product of that was enhanced youth, but now that the "special" fantasy was shattered, perhaps it was also possible that Ladies met their ultimate doom much earlier than anyone allowed themselves to realize.

Perhaps you nice readers are saying to yourselves, "Oh, come on, Jason. You can't have such a thing happening without someone noticing over time!" Though I am not yet an official student of human nature, it seems to me that there are plenty of examples of uncomfortable realities being ignored all the time. Take movie stars for example.

You have likely noticed that the typical movie star has an effective popularity of about ten years. They get "discovered" as teens or young adults, shoot to super-stardom, find themselves featured in every fifth movie and magazine cover, and, just as suddenly as they appeared, they are gone. If lucky, they get to play evil people in afternoon "specials" on low-budget cable channels, and if they are not so lucky, they only get noticed by tabloid photographers while ducking into drug rehabilitation centers. Apparently, fame can only burn brightly for a short time and then regular people are only left to exclaim "I thought they had died."

Beauty queens must have a lot in common with movie stars. They certainly seem to have the same shelf life. If one is not in the spotlight anymore, they may as well be as good as dead to the people who follow such things, which begs the question: "If the starlet dies quietly on the birthing table and no one is paying attention, did she ever live?" When faced with the question "Whatever happened to Lady So-and-So?", it is just as easy to say that she is living out her autumn years as the small ruler of a obscure fishing household on the outskirts somewhere, contentedly looking over her collection of tiaras from the "glory days". That is a far more pleasant thing to say than that she was poisoned by a midwife after giving birth to her third non-girl at the age of twenty-two and therefore didn't bother to show up at the preliminaries to pursue another title. Which would be the story that the Convocation would be likely to circulate, especially when the tabloids are all owned by the Queen?

So, the untimely death of Princess Yvette would get officially buried if it got mentioned at all. As it turns out, nothing is said about this killing just like the other two that happened this week. The up-and-coming Ladies, fresh from school and their investment parties are not going to waste time wondering about who had previously occupied the households that they are given. There are contests to be prepared for, there is stardom to achieve, and there is a system that requires fresh faces at a regular rate to take the place of "old" "has-beens". Who wants to devote any thought to washed-up beauty queens when there is a nubile new girl ready to capture all the attention? Isn't it easier to just let the supposedly "worn-out" quietly disappear from Firsthome rather than have to develop some existential pension plan for them?

It is hard to say if Mulls is really prepared to go to these depths of thought at the moment. She is upset enough over being drawn into the murder of a Lady to really give much attention to the larger social ramifications of collective blindness to the sins of the Convocation. She has simply witnessed the "cull" of a twenty-one year old girl that was deemed unproductive to the system and is injecting herself into the other woman's fashionable pumps. It is not a detached cultural study for her as it might be for me and you tenacious readers: she is facing the prospect of being dead herself in just a few short years.

However, there is a ray of hope just as welcoming as the sunlight now pouring onto Mulls face: the genetic lottery could fall the other way and she could spend her life as a barren dame. There are plenty of older dames - the Convocation school alone is literally bursting with them along with every household. The ratio of dames to Ladies is often more than ten to one and if she was back at her dorm room, she would be flanked all the time by at least three that serve her personally if she wasn't kindly dismissing them from their duties all the time. I mean it is unthinkable that a girl with the prospect of being a Lady would now dream of becoming a lowly serving dame, but faced with the new-found reality that she would likely enjoy a much longer and more pleasant life out of the limelight, the idea suddenly became very, very tempting.

As with a crack of thunder, Mullicynda's thoughts are interrupted because a noise much different than the scuttling rats is reaching her ears and her first reflex, to disappear into the chair somehow, is already lost. Someone rushes into the room, stumbles in a patch of shadow that hides a waste-paper basket, and gets pitched into the sunlight practically in Mulls' lap. Both people are startled to find anyone else in the rare book section, but only one recognizes the other: Mullicynda is shocked to once again encounter the scrawny little consort from The Stable who the rest of us know well enough as Daavor.

Under most circumstances, a consort would be as dismissive of a commoner, woman or not, as a Lady would be. Although no man enjoys any particular status in the Convocation, the mere fact that a man is exempt from fishing so as to become some flouncy girl's daily human handbag and nightly body pillow will allow a certain contempt for his less fortunate fellows. It is obvious in this case that this peculiar consort looks into the eyes of someone that he doesn't consider low at all.

"Pardon me!" the young man exclaims breathlessly. He has been running recently and we can excuse him, on several counts, for being a bit flustered. Daavor narrows his eyes. "Have we met before?"

Mulls pulls back into herself instinctively, given the fact that such as herself should not be in such a place. "I...I don't know what you mean..."

The man was still looking up into her eyes in a slightly dreamy way. Ragged clothing and dirt as make-up aside, the woman was still strikingly beautiful. "This is usually a good place to hide," he said through the distraction. He managed to get back on his feet, though he was now favoring a sore leg. "Are you all right?" He was having issues keeping his eyes off of her and something was nagging at his mind in relation to her, but things were not connecting in his present state.

"Oh, I am well enough." Mulls pulled the traditional common woman's hood a bit tighter to cover her face a little. "I also come here to hide."

Daavor let forth a goofy grin just to know that he had a little in common with such a beauty. He likely would have given up what few perks the star brand on his hand seemed to afford him for the chance to spend more time with a girl such as this. However, like another thunderclap, the sound of another person clattering into the room was upsetting more potential moments. "Great," the man sighed.

He turned about just in time to face the all-too-familiar Matron in yellow, stumbling on her regularly ridiculous high heels as opposed to any particular hidden obstacle. She was wearing the same stewardess outfit that had graced the shipwreck beach, but she replaced with pillbox and bobbie-pins for a floppy sunhat. With her hair worn long, she was actually quite fetching to look upon if one could manage to ignore her clumsiness and sour demeanor. She glared at the man. "What do you think you are doing?" she hissed.

Daavor shrugged innocently enough. "Out for a morning stroll."

"You were running!" Canary spat back. "I could hardly keep up with you!" She was still heaving with the exertion of making her ensemble substitute for a track suit, which I hope you enlightened readers realize is quite a herculean feat and raises my estimation of this silly Matron. "What are you up to?" she said suspiciously.

That is a leading question for those of us that have only had a few encounters with our Daavor. Perhaps he is even more of a rascal than circumstances have shown so far. The Matron is looking about as if there may be some hidden stash of something that the man is dealing in, some contraband to which the rare book section provides a perfect hiding place.

"Do you have a girl in here?" The Matron unwittingly hit a little too close of a wild shot for Daavor's comfort. "Is this is a little rendezvous? A secret tryst?"

In response, Daavor moves quickly to a place behind the tall-backed chair where Mulls is pressing herself even harder into the cushion. Canary's attention is instantly drawn to a bookshelf that is now behind the man, as he is obviously trying to hide something among the books, and she moves toward it such that the tall back of the chair blocks her view of the disguised Miss. As the fevered Matron pulls volumes off the offending shelf, Daavor peeks around the chair and motions the wide-eyed girl toward an exit. Even though Daavor doesn't recognize in this commoner the schoolgirl he had flirted with in the recent past, he is quite willing to make good her escape. It is just as well, as Canary might have the presence of mind to recall that this was the very woman she entrusted to deliver poison to Princess Yvette, which might make for a sticky situation. Beyond that, we are seeing that even if Daavor is a bit of a rascal, he looks to be a rather noble one, making him all the more interesting and endearing to our young Mulls.

Of course, the Matron has no clue what she is looking for as she flings books to and fro, but it is plenty enough of a racket to cover the retreat of the future Lady or perhaps now dame. Daavor is having a bit of fun flinching occasionally as if Canary is about to uncover his totally non-existent secret and he keeps her busy for a few moments longer than what would be absolutely necessary, just because it is hilarious to watch. When it becomes obvious that the man is playing the Matron for a fool, the woman rounds on him with a threatening finger. "I have my eye on you, Daavor. I know you are up to something!"

Daavor just giggled as he was wont to do. This was nothing more than another diversion in his very strange existence. He was up to nothing but a seemingly unpremeditated stroll, just as he had said, but you readers and I know that perhaps God is stirring the pot still for what is gradually becoming a future couple. Canary escorts her charge out of the room and back to his alleged life.

Coryn Fishes For A Position

This was the same room that Coryn and Mullicynda had shared for two years, but now it was much different. Barren, if I can give it a word.

Mulls had always been a bit sparse for a school-girl, especially against the backdrop of Coryn's audacious grandeur. Besides the custom cabinet of trophy tiaras that was mentioned a while back, there had been the ornate dressing table and stool, the massive collection of hair and skin products, and long wardrobe of both cute and glamorous outfits. Now, all of these things were gone and the room seemed practically empty. All that was left was Mull's bit of a writing desk, a rather industrial bookshelf with a few knick-knacks that any girl tends to collect over the years, and a modest bed. The strangest thing of all, at least to my eyes, is that even though the older girl's trappings had disappeared, Coryn herself was still there.

"That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard," the older girl said in a voice that sounded like her former self with all the air let out. After a contemptible moment, she added, "Miss."

Coryn had stopped brushing Mulls' hair. Where this had once been a sharing time, two peers talking about, well, Coryn's conquests and sharing their, or rather Mulls', souls over grooming one another, things had become a bit different. Now, it was an assigned servant doing an assigned task to a future Lady. There was no more exchanges on the events of the school day, but only the jockeying for favors or consideration from an resentful underling to one that might be generous and have the status to grant.

Now that her servants and nicer clothes were gone, Coryn was stripped of her ability to keep up appearances. She had always left the low tasks of hair care and make-up application to her dames and now her lack of understanding on any of these fronts was starting to show. As she went about the tasks assigned to her by the dorm Matron, she would see the occasional girl walking the halls of the school wearing one of her former outfits and she would have to bite her tongue very, very hard. Some harsh twist of fate had dumped her right back into school after her failure of the last test, dressed in the coarse brown uniform of a lowly dame which didn't even fit her correctly. In the matter of a few days, she had gone from the belle of the ball to the scullery maid and, to add insult to injury, she had been assigned to be a personal maid to her former arch-nemesis, or rather, best friend.

Not that their relationship had changed all that much.

Mullicynda sighed out her frustration. "But do you think there is some way to just choose to be a dame rather than a Lady?"

Coryn gritted her teeth and brushed her Miss's hair a bit more roughly, failing still to mask her own pain at losing her own potential Lady status. "I have no idea why you would even think such a thing. It is every girl's dream to be a Lady!" She was gnawing her lip hard enough to nearly draw blood and her voice was getting higher in pitch. "You just don't know what it's like to be a dame!"

"I have known plenty of dames," Mulls retorted innocently enough. "Most of them don't seem to mind their station."

"Oh, yeah!" The older girl came around before her old friend and shook the brush in her face. "Well, I don't like it! Seeing girls who couldn't win a contest to save their lives being invested and me cleaning chamber pots and mopping floors for posturing little peacocks." She put a hand on her hip and a finger to her chin. "'Dame, pick up that paper for me.' 'Dame, clean my mess for me.' 'Dame, wipe my bottom...'"

"Okay," Mulls interrupted. "I get your point."

Coryn wasn't finished yet, unfortunately. "And rub it in a little harder, you want to have my job! What I wouldn't give to trade places with you this instant and let you have a life of manual labor and servitude!" She closed her eyes and spun about. "To be on the stage, wearing a tiara, winning a fine mansion, waited on hand and foot..."

Mulls bit her lip, tempted to tell her former friend of the atrocities she had recently witnessed upon the blessed Ladies, but only managing a feeble "..., being pregnant all the time,..."

Coryn rounded on her and arched her brow. "Oh, better than I am, are we? Just because you can have babies and I can't? Well, that isn't the only service someone can give to the Convocation that is appreciated! I am going to be a High Matron someday, maybe even Matriarch to the Queen herself!"

That was Coryn, all right. No matter what life threw at her, she was going to twist it into an opportunity to be the absolute best and highest. You can take the status away from a woman easily enough, which happens every day around the Convocation school, but it takes years of mediocrity to finally kill off the determined haughtiness of a former beauty queen.

A picture of the calculating Symantha popped into Mulls' mind which she tried to shake away, upsetting her former roommates fevered brushing. "I think I would rather find a quiet place to be," The younger woman breathed. "A small fishing household, perhaps. Far from the larger matters."

The servant harrumphed but the dorm Matron passed by the room and popped her head in the doorway to check on the newly-minted dame. "Of course, Miss," Coryn replied a little too sweetly, but the Matron was satisfied and moved on.

"Perhaps you should concentrate more on your next contest," the older girl offered between brushing strokes. "I would hate to see you lose your standing." It seemed very much a contrived statement, but Mulls didn't seem to notice.

The school-girl pursed her lips. "My standing."

Coryn's face turned up in disgust, but as distasteful as the action was to the former star, her ego demanded what was to follow. "If you work at it, Mulls, you could be a Lady of high rank with everything your heart desires. You have all the traits and with my help..."

"You will help me?" Mulls face was glowing as she twisted to fix her appreciation on her friend. "You think I can do it?"

Swallowing back the bile of her hatred, Coryn offered up a kindly-enough-looking smile. "With my help, of course we can!"

Mulls' smile deepened as she turned back about and her maid rolled her eyes in contempt. That was far too easy. She was going to add that the girl needed to put aside the foolishness of wishing for the stupidity of becoming a dame, but there seemed no need. It was better to let the centuries-old Convocation system do what it did best: draw every thought into selfish aspiration. Mullicynda had every chance of being a very successful Lady and that would keep her on the ordained course far better than anything else.

"I will be the Matron of your house," Coryn crooned, "and together we will bring ourselves to the royal palace itself!" The servant closed her eyes in exaltation, not of her friend's place on a throne, but of her own ascent to be the power behind that throne. Of course, Coryn was too busy dreaming of her personal power-grab to notice that the small hairs on the back of the younger girl's neck stiffened in premonition. The royal palace was going to be in the futures of both women, but not in the way Coryn planned.

For the sake of her former roommate's feelings, Mulls was giving a fine show. There may be a bit of disappointment when the younger girl found some way to make good her dame-ly plan, but Coryn would latch herself and her aspirations to another rising Convocation starlet easily enough. For now, she hoped it was kindly to keep the older girl's spirits up as Mulls had always done so many times for so many other dames.

The strange thing was that Mulls still considered Coryn a friend. Although it would be easy to say that the partnership was very lop-sided toward the older girl's needs, Mulls got something she needed out of the arrangement that made all the manipulation ultimately worthwhile, at least to her. It wasn't just some twisted companionship or someone to talk to, it seemed to be a deep-set need to have someone to look after, to be concerned about, perhaps someone to be able to point to and say "I care more about how she feels than I worry about myself". In saying that now, I feel the small hairs on the back of my neck rise, for this is certainly also a portent of something larger to come.

"Okay." Mulls' words resigned themselves again to putting the needs of Coryn ahead of her own. "I will be the Lady and you will be my Matron."

The older girl pumped her arm in victory, as she always seemed to do when she got her way.

The Fertility Test

Finally, the fateful day arrived. Not for a rabbit, however.

Sometimes, you get the impression that some classes in school are simply designed to take up time that children would otherwise use toward plotting global domination or getting hooked on drugs. Sadly, it seems that as more years pass from the time when it was decided that mathematics and science would be "important" subjects and that such things as "ethics", "current events", and "economics" would not be taught at all, the ratio of "filler" time to actual learning time has skewed harder and harder toward simply keeping a pupil busy as opposed to informed.

I don't know when the schools I went to instituted the idea of "home room", which I suppose was the place you were supposed to run to if there was a nuclear blast or some such thing. For most, it just ended up being an excuse for fooling around for an hour, which is exactly what I chose to do with the time. As part of high school, in addition to home room, I also had a "study hall" hour, which was where I quietly began working on the ideas that would become this story. I liked doing this so much that I gave up my home room hour to devote two periods to my "great novel". I also found that there was a third hour to be had in the name of "Texas History", which gave a coach some needed instructional time to keep his much more important job of winning football matches. I learned a lot in school, especially how to create free time in order to pursue far more worthy endeavors than "education".

For Mullicynda, the "filler" class was something called "History of the Alaed". Most intelligent girls knew it was a filler class, even in comparison to "Introductory Gossip" and "Balancing a Book on Your Head 201", because it was always from this particular history class that final year girls were called out to take the "fertility test". This will happen to Mulls in a few minutes.

Long ago, any devotion that Mulls would have put toward learning the history of her society in school had lost its allure, although she found the subject of the past very, very exciting. Though there was no textbook for the "Alaed" class per se, she had found one of her own, which happened to contradict everything she was being so dutifully taught by the Convocation version of a football coach. Her real teacher was one of those books that she had taken from the rare books collection of the old library where we have tramped about earlier. Also, it was very definitely one of those books that, if anyone had found its hiding place under the floorboards beneath her bed and reported it to an authority, she would have disappeared immediately and forever. It was one of those books because it spoke at length about a forgotten time before there was a Convocation and a school, when people conducted themselves very differently and in ways more of their own choosing, and when there was a being called "God" that blessed good people and who had sent the Mariner among them to explain what "good" actually meant. As far as the "History of the Alaed" was concerned, the world was created by the Convocation and it was the duty of the world and everything in it to serve its creator. However, the record that Mulls possessed made it quite clear that a harlot named Sabra had fashioned the Convocation and there was absolutely nothing "good" about either her or her creation. So even though the "History of the Alaed" class was nothing more than filler time for girls who wait for the most final exam, it is also, in the mind of one informed girl, a pack of lies.

So, it was with a glad though apprehensive heart that Mullicynda was one of three girls that were being called out of class, to the peculiar silence that every schoolgirl understands intuitively, to face the "fertility test". Four sets of shoes worked their way down the fateful hall, one the sensible flats of a Matron connected to a clipboard, two sets of black pumps that were standard issue for schoolgirls, and one pair of stilettos for a posturing but rather short yet hopeful pre-Lady that always wanted to be a few inches taller. Unfortunately, it is a cruel statistical likelihood that, by tomorrow, all will be wearing sensible flats because the "fertility test" really has nothing to do with testing a schoolgirl's ability to have children, but has everything to do with taking such ability away from those who the Matriarchal Council had not picked to be Ladies. At the end of this hall is the nexus of the Convocation's blackest secret and most wicked act: the sterilization of all high-born women except a seemingly random yet "blessed" few who would graduate to become Ladies.

Of course, Mulls has no way of knowing this, as the book she treasures most ends its record only a few years after the creation of the Convocation and wasn't really written to reveal its secrets. What Mullicynda does have are those peculiar feelings that cause the hair on the back of her neck to stand up and she has become quite trusting of those feelings over time. Long experience has taught her to follow premonitions that come into her heart that provide direction in times when she has vital choices to make. Right now, as these four women leave the hall and enter a small room, Mulls is feeling the first hints of a coming premonition.

The Matron is good-natured enough, instructing the girls to make various measurements on each other, things like bust size and hip size, the length of the torso, how many fingers each has (I am kidding about that one), and various other things. She records everything dutifully on the paper attached to the clipboard. At moments, the Matron stays dormant in concentration as she makes calculations and then a new burst of measuring begins again. It is a dizzying list of things being collected and Mullicynda, for the life of her, can't figure out exactly what determination this could all be leading to.

It was about a third of the way though the whole measuring process that Mulls took an interest in the marks on the clipboard, sneaking peeks as things progressed. The paper was arranged in a grid, with each girl's name on the left and rows and rows of check-boxes and blanks to the right, some partly filled in. What interested her the most was the fact that there was a letter to the left of each name, in a decidedly different hand, that must have been put there before they were even summoned to the final exam. The other girls had a "D" before their names, but Mulls had an "L". There was no thought required in ferreting out what the letter meant - that afternoon, it would be Lady Mullicynda and other girls would be referred to as dames.

Now, other realizations take a bit more time to come to, and it took Mulls a few minutes of giggly measuring on her neighbor to figure out that this measuring had about as much to do with the final exam as the "History of the Alaed" course had to do with the truth. It looked as if it was just so much filler, a complicated procedure to soften the blow of a fate that had been determined before any of them had entered the room. This whole thing was just a show!

Once all the measuring was completed, each girl took a turn going into a curtained-off corner of the room with the testing Matron. The other two girls went behind the curtain first and shortly returned to the main part of the room, looking no worse for wear. When Mulls went behind the curtain with the Matron, the feeling of premonition dropped over her as the curtain fell closed. The door to the room opened from the other side of the curtain and someone called out the Matron's name, so she excused herself.

Besides the sound of the Matron and the one who called to her exiting the room and shutting the door, Mulls was left to herself in the curtained enclosure. She could hear the other two girls whispering to themselves, but she couldn't make out the words. Probably by accident, what was also left within the curtained area was the Matron's clipboard and its record of the results of the testing. Mulls looked at it, looked around to see again that she was alone, and the short hairs practically jumped off the back of her neck. Almost instinctively, she snatched the pen off the clipboard and deftly turned the "L" before her name into a "D". It wasn't a few seconds after she put the pen back in it place that the door opened again and the curtain was pulled away.

"Have you already taken the elixir?" It was another Matron entirely, obviously pulled in at the last moment to complete the test. The first two girls were giving up small burps already and quickly nodded. Then the severe-looking Matron turned her eye toward Mulls.

Mullicynda was a very well-mannered young woman, as I have said before. She knew how to conduct herself in any circumstance and was never uncouth. That was why it was so incredible to everyone, including herself, when, without saying a word or making any gesture, she let out a rather loud belch.

"Well, I would have to say that you have taken your elixir as well!" The new Dame snatched up the clipboard beside Mulls. "Very well, girls. Follow me."

And that, dear friends, is how Mullicynda managed to become the first girl to change her circumstances, become a dame, manage it without consciously doing so and, more importantly, without also becoming sterilized by the fertility elixir. And you will not find any of this taught in some "History of the Alaed" class.

Being Relentless

If one opens their mind far enough, scenes of the past can be envisioned.

In especially ancient places, such as the grass-covered ruins called Jarlshof near the village of Sumburgh on the southern tip of mainland Shetland, these visions seem to swirl about a willing person like moths to the flame. Jarlshof had been inhabited by one group or another for over four thousand years, so there are innumerable scenarios that people can find themselves pulled into, if one's mind is allowed to go in such directions.

Around the tall round broch are several other structures, also often roundish and likely so shaped to accommodate the relentless winds that still wipe the surface of Shetland clean to this day. Everything is under the ground these days, swallowed up by time and deposit, but it was a vibrant and living place up until only a few hundred years ago and if you curious readers would allow, you could find yourself lost in the midst of the lives and doings of the people who lived there.

To our eyes, the days and weeks and years of countless residents might have seemed an endless and somewhat monotonous string of hard labor in pulling the essentials of life from such a remote and seemingly inhospitable place. It looks stark enough now and though interesting to tour these days, I would imagine most visitors are quite glad to board some tour bus afterwards, get back to Lerwick, and find some comfortable bath or other luxury for the evening. For myself, I can imagine a time when, after a hard day's labor in the field or at the net, the dezins of Jarlshof would come home to enjoy the things that they saw as luxurious. Perhaps it was a comfortable chair by a fragrant fire fed by peat hauled down from the highlands or a pleasant evening spent gaming and drinking among friends in the secure broch.

I am impressed with the people of the islands of Shetland, both in the past and in the present. To find people in such a remote place is impressive and to think that, for some thousands of years, they chose and still choose to remain there is even more impressive. There is evidence of a lively trade between the iron-age smithy of Jarlshof and the tin mines of Cornwall, for instance, as well as many reasonably accurate maps of the Romans and other seafarers from the Mediterranean that show not just legends of Shetland and their people, but visits made to those shores and surveys done in-situ. Any unhappy Shetlander could have easily jumped aboard a visiting ship and let themselves be taken to more sunny and southerly shores but there has yet to be some massive emigration that abandoned the place. It may seem incredible to many, but apparently some thousands of people actually like it on the islands and despite millenia of opportunity to leave, they chose not to.

What a gloriously and consciously relentless people. May I say that they are worthy of some emulation.

I can also put myself in the shoes of you wonderful readers and imagine that you are already weary enough with all the references to God's intervention in the lives of Mulls and Daavor. I would not be surprised in the least if any number of you were saying "Enough already! I get it!" and hoping that I would just give any further writing of God a miss. I likely would if it were in any way possible.

I have already revealed that it is Mullicynda and Daavor who are major characters in this story, which we are really just still beginning and that will extend into probably two more books. If you observant readers had not noticed previously, God Himself is likely the most prominent character of all in these proceedings and is the thread that ties the entirety of the story together; an entirety that you readers have yet to scratch the surface. I will shortly make a somewhat pompous statement that, in a small way, compares this story to the Holy Bible and I can only defend that comparison preemptively by saying that God is the subject that also ties together the lives and stories in that volume. Beyond Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses, Job, Isaiah, Peter, James, and John, the Bible is the story of God and his dealings with people. Beyond Mullicynda and Coryn, Daavor, Symantha, and a host of others that will be introduced later on, this story of Navigiary is a story about God and his dealings with them. I would stop pointing these things out, but how can one do it if God Himself is the central character of the tale?

If there is anything to learn from reading this story, I would hope that you readers would see that God loves his children, who are all of us. Though we are only at this point exploring the realms of inspiration and what could be called a "gentle nudging" at this point, God's influence and demands upon our characters will expand as the story progresses because, as is always the case, once one puts their lot in with God, one can hardly avoid His continued attention. It seems that if you are willing to walk a few yards with God, He will continue at your side for a hundred miles. If you acknowledge your place as His child and display even a small willingness to honor Him, He will rain down blessings on you, most often as inspirations and risings of the small hairs on the back of the neck that can change our lives in unforeseen and amazing ways. You readers will likely find, as I have, that God can be positively relentless.

Just as much as God and I and the noble Shetlanders over the years are relentlessly about our labors, I trust that you readers will display enough of the same attribute to soldier on through the seemingly endless mention of God and his relentless interventions. In the end, those interventions are the story.

Among The Commoners

Very few people notice the doings of the tiny mouse. Naturally evasive of loud noises, sudden movements, and well lit rooms, the mouse is rarely seen or heard (except for its droppings) and so its doings are counted of little consequence, if they are counted at all. However, because of the very nature and behavior of the mouse, it can be a ubiquitous thing, breeding prodigiously, moving through (or rather beneath) otherwise closed doors, making its nest in any quiet corner, fending for itself upon the refuse of others, capable of doing stealthy acts that larger and more "powerful" creatures would never dare attempt. Although rather diminutive in every way, there is much to be learned concerning many subjects from the humble mouse.

Any commoner in the world of the Convocation could find a special kinship with a mouse. You won't find commoners walking on the same streets as Ladies and Matrons, preferring to frequent areas around working docks and the unkempt edges of the lands of their "betters". In this way, they are not as readily noticed and therefore not considered a threat to those who "matter". For instance, Ladies take no notice of commoners because such people have nothing to do with beauty contests, besides watching them as a diversion. Also, as long as the commoners are providing the required labor and products to feed the requirements of the Convocation, the Matrons are content to basically leave them alone, even tolerating common political aspirations enough to have their Matriarch occasionally preside over an elected Assembly of the Commons that governs much of the lives of these lowly folk. The commoners feed, govern, and manage themselves, as far as Convocation women are concerned, and inasmuch as their presence causes no inconvenience, they are appeased and more often ignored, which suits a common woman or man just fine.

"Here," Mullicynda blurts in haste to Daavor, handing him a blanket. "Hold this."

Now, as one of my somewhat loyal readers, you may be asking yourself how Mulls and Daavor have suddenly appeared in the story together. I am sure they were supposed to be brought together by some strange twists of fate, which is what happened as you may recall, but the actual event that led to their now partnership was quite uneventful. I cannot really get into it this second because this is the time in the birthing process when things move rather quickly.

While Daavor is holding the receiving blanket, Mulls the midwife apprentice is gently and slowly stretching the perineum with the help of the baby's crowning head. The mother is taking orders today from the automated systems of her body, a spectator of sorts as her abdominal muscles do their work of pushing a new life into the world. The flabbergasted father stands by with nothing to do and feeling rather wretched about the things that the laboring woman has just shouted about him, but knowing that he would get a worse tongue-lashing if he fled, he chooses to remain. Daavor's job seemed to include holding things for Mullicynda and helping the father feel some companionship in utter worthlessness at these moments.

"Almost there..." Mulls has learned that her purpose in all of this is to basically be reassuring and to do it often. Being a midwife is the perfect job for a play-by-play commentator with a very smooth voice, mostly watching the miracle unfold before them and reassuring everyone that everything proceeds as it always has in the past. They can do little things to ease the path, if they have a mind to, but it ends up being the mother coming to terms with her commanding body and simply getting the job done. "Just a little more..."

Daavor is the most passive spectator in all of this, not even really knowing this couple who is having a child. He has certainly never seen so much pain and anguish etched in the face of anyone quite like this. Fortunately for everyone, this is the mother's third time at this and her body is relatively accustomed to the procedure. The urge to push washes over the woman once again and she tenses up in obedience, willing ever muscle in her control and every ounce of strength to the command. Never in all his young life has Daavor ever seen anyone put forth this much effort to anything and it immediately demands fear and respect. This would definitely not be the time to have a discussion about the balance of the workload in a household, for the poor man would be slaving away every day of his life just to make up for this solitary act of a woman. He also notices that the father is leaning against him, ready either to faint or to be sick, which acts would still pale in comparison.

Mulls cocks her head, more at something she has only seen a few times as an apprentice. "Okay. One more push should do it." Though she is concentrating on the crowned head, she is waiting for the mother to gather her strength before her body electrifies her to make another effort. I suppose any modern "labor and delivery" room, thoughtless sometimes of nature and sterile as they are, much like a Convocation Lady's birthing experience, would be forcing the issue, trying to get the mother to quicken things up so some golf game can be resumed, but Mullicynda is not that type. These things will happen when they happen.

Suddenly, the head is through the birth canal and the midwife is busy about clearing mouth and nostrils so the tiny new life can manage a breath. "The head is here!" is called in exultation and a growing expectation to the mother that the trauma of childbirth is about to end and she can take a very deserved rest. "Daavor, the blanket!" One last shock for the mother and just as suddenly as the head came forth, the rest of the body moves out and into the blanketed hands of the midwife. All has gone quite well in Mulls' estimation as she hands off the child to the pale and wide-eyed father for cleaning and she is left to handle the last details of the afterbirth. In a moment or two, the father gratefully hands the baby off to its waiting mother, who suckles away heartily at the breast and the deed is basically done.

Daavor is silent in the face of the bringing forth of life. I suppose it still doesn't matter that this is a natural thing and happens all around us on a very regular basis, not just among people but even among the lowly mice. It is still quite humbling to see. Humbler still is a comparison with the mouse. Common women and Convocation Ladies have only one child, perhaps two or three, to struggle through, where the little mouse mother births over and over again, blindly answering the urges of her swollen body to push out children time and again until they are all gone, anywhere from one to twenty! Well, Daavor doesn't know any of this, just as a Lady or Matron doesn't know many of the ways of a commoner. The mouse does her birthing in a hidden nest and, for all practical purposes, a common woman has her children far from the notice or caring of the Convocation.

"Thank you," Mulls whispers as she puts a hand on the young Daavor's arm as they walk slowly down a dusty lane while the last rays of the sun color the sky red and orange. From any standpoint and perspective, this is an exceedingly nice evening. Now that the concentration of birthing is over for a time, we can finally explore just how Mulls and Daavor actually got together and began this ritual of attending to common maternity duties.

I have not been shy in the past concerning coincidences and how it is my belief that God uses such convenient devices to move along his purposes. It is easy to pass such things off because, as little people that have a lot in common with mice, we often are unaware of the machinations of God. For instance, somewhere in her schoolgirl past, Mullicynda had acquired a certain text from the rare book section of the forgotten library that has been mentioned before. In her spare time between the study of the proper use of cosmetics and examination of tawdry poetry, the leather bound book revealed itself as a history of sorts, telling of times and people that were before the Convocation was. As I have said before, it gives insight into a character called the Mariner and is simply titled The Mariner's Log. Over time, this journal has become Mulls' most precious possession and decadent secret, held in reserve for her most private and cherished moments. It was upon one of these extremely private moments that a typically ignored, mouse-like consort-slave found himself as he was adding oil to the lamps in the private quarters of a dame in the household of the Second Countess of Midwifery.

At some point in antiquity, The Mariner's Log had been illuminated by a quite compelling artist and it was to a colorful illustration on the page that Mulls was studying that Daavor's eye was drawn. Of course, the text itself meant nothing to the common man, who couldn't read to save his life, but the depiction of armies in battle, a thing he had never seen in his lifetime, captivated him as nothing before had and his assigned work was forgotten. So while the quiet yet beautiful dame was enthralled in reading the words, the lowly mouse of a consort secretly looked over her shoulder at the pictures.

Anyone can tell you that the close proximity of another person can always be detected, even if they are not in your vision. My oldest daughter, as a very young girl, used this fact in very disturbing ways and very early on a number of mornings. I would be startled awake by her large eyes staring at me quietly, like some expectant vulture patiently waiting for my demise. The first times that this happened, I nearly died of fright and chastised her for scaring me awake, but over several occurrences, I grew accustomed to the way my little girl got my attention of a morning. The fact that someone can actually stare you awake is actually a common phenomenon, as it was in this scene of Mullicynda's and Daavor's budding relationship.

Although Mulls was totally engaged in her reading, which was one of her defining characteristics, it didn't take long for the sensation of someone looking over her shoulder to extract her from her pleasant preoccupation. The girl jerked about to see who the invader was, the young man flinched at the realization of what he had done, and the book snapped shut. She stared at him in guilt in being caught doing forbidden things and he stared at her in expectation of what she would choose to do to him. Of course, both were quite safe, for Daavor had no clue that this young woman was a very gentle and kindly sort, and for Mulls, it was the realization that she was seeing this interesting yet compelling fellow yet again and she found herself pleasantly surprised at yet another hair-raising on the back of the neck. It was an electric moment as the girl's eyes sparkled at him and she smiled broadly instead of jumping with a start and screaming for help.

They could have just moved on as they had so many times before, without comment, but it was the mouse Daavor who found it irresistible to say "Are there any more pictures in that book, ma'am?" Being a kindly-disposed woman, Mulls looked around her quarters to see if any other unexpected visitors had invaded her privacy, reopened the book, and motioned the young man to sit beside her. Very simply, that is how the companionship of Mullicynda and Daavor finally began.

As God continued to quietly weave their lives together through these seeming coincidences, between their various duties, there were more meetings between the generous Mulls and the inquisitive Daavor, more pictures from The Mariner's Log, and even more secrets quietly shared, including the young dame's propensity for practicing her growing midwifery skills secretly for the benefit of common mothers. As they left this latest of their bonding exercises, talking softly to each other, it was Mulls that reached out a hand and took his, as she had seen the commoners do on the streets by the old library.

Daavor was electrified with fear and exhilaration, shaken to the very core. I mean, he was a bit of a Casanova in his heart, but it had never really led anywhere before. I would record what conversation they had at that moment, but nothing verbal passed between them. The young man looked about to see who might notice the forbidden proximity of a Convocation dame with an unconventional consort, but no one of any consequence seemed to notice and they both were deceivingly dressed as any common couple would be. After many more steps with hands continuing to be held, Daavor finally began to relax and simply enjoyed her touch, whatever it meant to the woman beside him.

"Thank you for being with me." Mullicynda breathed it into the man's ear and started all the mixed feelings stirring all over again.

So, like two mice, unnoticed by the greater beings that planned and plotted and primped not far away, this woman and man held onto each other and their God was very pleased.

Fighting Unlikely Gladiators

On occasions, I have had encounters with bears.

The first time that I recall, it was on a hiking trip with my oldest daughter. We were rounding a turn and entering a bit of a meadow and, at the far end, some few hundred yards before us, there was the hunched rump of a cinnamon-colored bear. It seemed to sense our watching or perhaps hear our entry into its proximity, for it rose up on its hind legs and turned to look about. I have been told that bears are quite tall and it seemed that this one was not so high as had been reported, but it was still thrilling to see such a creature in the flesh and happily at a safe distance. It seemed to look about, sniff the air with a nose that is esteemed to be far better than its eyes, and chose to move off and away from us. We had cameras, but not the presence of mind to snap off a picture. As quickly as we had stumbled upon the circumstance, it was gone.

The other encounter was at a mountain camp with a bunch of girls. There had been reports of bears that were coming down off the peaks and getting into trash and tents looking for snacks. The girls all imagined themselves as potential meals, but that seemed patently silly unless they chose to dip themselves in chocolate fudge or something equally appetizing. As predicted, after nightfall, we heard the snuffling and scrapping of claws on ground and equipment, along with the shouts and screams of innumerable females. I was set, along with the handful of other men present in the camp, to "guarding" things, although I personally had no clue what I was supposed to do if the bear decided to come back and make mischief. I think sensibility overcame hunger for the poor bear, as no mere creature would probably endure the racket that a hundred or so frightened girls were willing to offer up. There was some physical evidence that the bear had ambled past, but I never saw it.

Unlike the bear, the consorts of the Convocation, branded as they were to give them status above their more common brethren, were not a basically shy sort. They dressed and exercised and moved about their duties in a very conspicuous way. How else, besides bribing influential Matrons with chocolates or sexual favors, would they be invited into the bedrooms of the Ladies?

Nature abhors a vacuum, bears abhor unexplored snacking opportunities, and Ladies abhor an empty bed, so the Convocation insists that there are more consorts in the world of the Alaed than there are ornate beds to conduct romps upon. It wouldn't do for a Lady to be put into a position of having to accept whatever boy-toy there could be found at the end of the day: each needed a good choice of men. What I am laboring here to say is that there is a surplus of consorts in this place and this happens by design.

There is one thing that all consorts have in common with bears, even the rather pathetic Daavor: testosterone. The activity of hanging about The Stable and working out their expected sexual frustrations on weight equipment as they hope to be chosen for the evening pleasure of an influential woman are good things to occupy the restless hormonal male. Those are not in themselves sufficient outlets of masculinity to keep a bunch of muscled bear-men from cruising about Port Trechiva and tearing down buildings as unfulfilled hoodlums will do. The Convocation must provide a better activities for its excess manliness and dutifully does so in the name of "sport-fighting."

In a culture that eschews war and insists that the feminine desires hold sway over the land, there must be a way for the necessarily virile men to perform their required acts of shouting, grandstanding, and general violence. Women wisely build arenas for them, throw some blunted weapons into the center, and watch with baited breath as their scantily-clad surplus stablemen lay into each other with bear-like joy and abandon. After a hard week of labor at fishing or whatever other task their Matrons set them to, the commoners, when not gawking at beauty contests, flock to the various arenas to watch unrequited consorts battle each other and dedicate their gladiatorial efforts to various Ladies that watch from ornate boxes in the arena stands. It is so successful and popular among all the classes that whole households are devoted to the support of these arenas and the training up of the consorts to engage in battle. The Lady who ostensibly rules over such activities is styled the "Duchess of Sport", a very high and lucrative title in the Convocation.

There might be more than one Lady present today that lusts for the honor of ruling over all the sport-fighting houses and being flush with attendance receipts and brawny, glistening men, but a particularly keen one sits in a somewhat less ornate box in one of the less reputable sections of the arena. She is still quite young at nineteen but has already won contests sufficient to head a somewhat prominent house that engages in the more humble task of midwifery. It is a skilled trade, it can be granted, but has nothing of the prestige of a sport-fighting house. The poor girl is surrounded by a terribly quiet group of women who are as restrained as cloistered nuns and there are practically no men about the place at all. Frankly, the Lady wants some action and color in her life and she certainly gets very little of it in her current circumstances.

There is a bit of color about her manor-house, though the Countess of Midwifery is loathe to find any pleasure in it. The Matron of her house chooses to dress in a manner so incongruous to her function that the Countess wouldn't be surprised if she were already a laughing-stock among the Ladies. All the more reason to work a bit harder at her runway poise and get herself a different title, any title at all, that gets her away from the somber world of midwifery. What she would not give or do to win the title to a sport-fighting manor!

I apologize that, while I have been here rambling on and on, the games have already begun for this day. This is not the largest arena on the lands of the Alaed, but the stands are filled as if it were. The gladiators that have been featured in the advertisements leading up to this event are not the best that the Convocation has to offer, but they seem good enough to draw the needed crowd. My description of things rode right over the preliminary activities down on the arena floor - the processional, the heralding of each consort's prowess and achievements, the traditional comedic mock-battles among men dressed as rabbits and cows. You patient readers have even missed the first few authentic battles, though I daresay that the elegant women among their servants in the most favored seats are not particularly paying much attention either, as the real men and real battles worth watching are yet to come.

While we wait together, now may be a good time to ponder a matter that bothers me and those of you readers that might be very attentive to cultural details. I speak of the matter of Daavor, for our jaunty little chappie of an unlikely consort is also here at the arena today. If you are concerned for him, you need not be as he is not scheduled to participate in the games themselves. I imagine that, even among the uncaring ranks of the Matrons, there is still a bit of sensibility to be observed in not pitting a pale, wimpy excuse for a consort against some bronzed bear-god. Daavor's responsibility here seems to be service as a water-boy, taking an oaken bucket and a largish iron ladle around to various corners where combatants rest between their staged battles. It seems like everywhere we go, Daavor is nearby and visible in some lowly capacity that doesn't really honor the star branded on his hand.

For their part, the other consorts have quite the spelled-out existence - troubadour, Adonis, Casanova. In the case of our Daavor, it is as if some unseen hand specifically keeps him from these roles, whether it is God who denied the man physically or a Convocation that prevents him environmentally. It is more difficult to tell exactly who is pulling the strings upon the labors that our youngish man is put toward and what logic, if any, is being employed in his roles of bored fisherman, forgetful butler (which we will not see in the story), and now earnest gladiatorial refreshment technician. Beyond these un-consort-ish responsibilities, why is the attention of a full Matron, albeit the pathetic Canary, employed to keep tabs on the unassuming Daavor? There are a world of dames that could be put to such watch-keeping and not even these are employed to look after the most profitable gladiators, much less our embarrassingly unimpressive boy. What is so special about him and who would put forth the resources to protect him? I can only say that the woman who secretly keeps Daavor is here at the arena, sitting in the place set aside for the absent Grand Duchess, and is notably bored by the spectacle presenting itself in the center ring.

Symantha doesn't relish the times when she is pressed into taking her Lady's place at functions. Being a leader in the Matriarchal Council, second only to the senile Matriarch, she has far better and more appropriate things to do with her time, not the least of which is the practical administration of the Convocation as a whole from her shadowy place behind the Queen, Grand Duchess, and the rest of the Ducal Court. It is important to the system that royalty appear to be ruling, but I think everyone, upon any kind of examination of any government, understands that the "advisers" to the leader constitute the real power and everyone, Queen included, will do as instructed by those who are actually "in charge". Yes, the Queen and Grand Duchess fear Symantha and her rather imperious presence, sensing rather than knowing that this high Matron wields life and death in her hands and that crossing her might have even royal Ladies convulsing in the death-throes on an ornate birthing table. The Matron just presents that sort of aura, even when she is bored and lounging on a cushioned arena seat.

Rank pales to power as the Baroness of Midwifery looks again at Symantha and hopes to catch her eye in a positive way while seeming not to. The young Lady is vociferously chastising her colorfully flamboyant Matron and Symantha does glance in the direction of the disturbance. This is not the first time a pathetic Lady tried to attract the Matron's eye, as if it would instigate anything besides ire and disdain, and Symantha did nothing more than stare at it blandly. She would have been much more deeply interested had she noticed the raven-haired and similarly bored young trainee midwife within the silly Lady's entourage in the stands. Instead, the high Matron let her gaze move off in the direction of a more interesting fly that buzzed out of the dust-hazed arena floor.

From that cloud of dust stumbles a dazed gladiator, his fine leather breastplate scarred by several blunted blows from his current opponent. He is not faring well at all, a fact that must escape the crowd as they cheer some supposed action that really cannot even be clearly seen for all the dirt that is thrown up in the air. The bear-man slumps down on a stool and throws his head back to better suck in more oxygen. Unfairly, he hits his head against the stone edge of the ring which cruelly causes him to suck in a bit too much and get all sorts of dust in his lungs. This brings on a coughing fit and seems to attract a figure from the dirty gloom. Reflexively, the gladiator pulls up his blunted sword to deflect what is likely an attack from his current opponent, but he relaxes and lets the weapon flop to the ground: the dust is settling and it is only Daavor.

The smaller man darts up with bucket and ladle, knowing that a moment or two is all there is for watering the lagging combatant before he must defend himself further. Daavor has done this enough to work rather smoothly, dipping the ladle in the bucket and dragging the water to the thirsty man's lips without dripping. The man breaths the drink down gratefully, clearing some of the dust of battle from his throat as the smaller man dips again. Perhaps three ladles full might be managed before the scrawny consort must race away from the returning fray.

Such hopes are dashed as a billow of dust explodes just before the tired gladiator and his water-boy and the outline of another bear-ish hulk with club upraised emerges. There is a deep bellow and no time for the men to do anything but throw up whatever they have to hand in order to ward off the blow. The dazed gladiator scrambles for his sword, but Daavor is first to deflect the assault with a swing of his heavy oaken bucket. Water sprays everywhere about them and helps settle the dust so that the whole crowd can see. The attacker seems too absorbed in the heat of battle to realize that this chosen opponent, in attempting to get his sword, has just rolled onto the ground and the skinny man he is now fighting bears only an iron ladle as a weapon. The crowd has become very aware of this and is both cheering and laughing at what is in the ring to be seen. Instead of wisely running away as fast as he can, our young Daavor is narrowing his eyes and crouching down into a fighting stance, ladle in one hand, bucket in the other.

The overhead swing diverted, the attacker pulls the club around to take out his victim's legs, but the smaller man is fast and swings the bucket up into his now opponent's chin, causing him to stumble back. The crowd cheers this incredible feat and one voice, shouting the water-boy's name, is distinct in the noise and Daavor looks up to see the exuberant Mullicynda. It was distraction enough that the attacker recovered himself and swung his club across and sent the bucket out of the younger man's grasp and crashing into the ring wall.

The nearly-rabid bear-man lost his grip on his club, which followed the unfortunate bucket, and gave Daavor the one chance of surviving this whole scenario, which he didn't hesitate to take. Now wielding the iron ladle with two hands, he aimed as many blows at his opponent's head as physics would allow, causing the man to stumble back again and throw up his arms to ineffectively ward off the effort. The crowd when wild at the splendid nonsense that was on display below, laughing and pointing at the large gladiator being bested by the water-boy. Mulls was hopping up and down and clapping for her man. Other gladiators, who waited in the wings for their chance to enter the fray, even chuckled at the comedy of the thing and reminded themselves to stay on the water-boy's good side. However, the Matron who presided at this event was singularly unamused.

Canary was a few boxes over from her superior in the stands. Her ridiculous parasol was easy to pick out from the generally bland colors of the crowd around her and Symantha had no trouble finding her pathetic protege. The yellow-clad woman was already looking her way, half laughing and half wondering what she was supposed to do. The high Matron made a commanding move with arm and hand toward the ring, causing the sillier Matron to harrumph and move toward the arena floor. She obviously still favored her high heels as she stumbled her way through the crowd and managed finally to reach the outside of the ring.

The gladiator had finally flung Daavor off of his chest and was obviously flushed and hot for some kind of revenge on the impudent water-boy who had made him a laughing-stock. The smaller man was wisely trying to scramble away and find some sort of defense, but there seemed to be none immediately to hand. The bear was up and charging toward him, weaponless except for his rage. Daavor threw up his own arms and cowered on the dusty ground as his somewhat short life flashed before his eyes as the gladiator grabbed him and was picking him up, perhaps to fling the worm of a water-boy out of the ring entirely.

Out of the corner of her eye, Symantha first caught the obnoxious clash of color that was the Matron of the Baroness of Midwifery as she flinched at the events playing out below. The high matron's attention then fell on the habited form of a woman a foot or two away from the colorful eyesore that was on her feet and shouting her concern for the what might be the death of her water-boy. She even shouted out his name. It was enough of an incongruous reaction that Symantha made note of it, wondering why a simple midwife would have anything to do or any particular feelings for the carefully anonymous arena servant, much less know him well enough to call out his name. She would need to have this investigated. At the very least, she would have to have the consort annoyingly moved to another house yet again.

The little man was hanging in the air when the sharp command from the Canary came and caused the well-trained gladiator to freeze in mid-throw. He was commanded to put the little man down and Daavor took the opportunity to wriggle out of the iron grip and run as fast as he could to the shelter of his watering station. Canary scolded the gladiator with ridiculous venom and the large bear-man simply took it with the inbred humility that the Convocation required of him. Everything was cooling down in the arena, to the disappointment of the crowd who had not seen such unscripted entertainment in a long time.

I hope you readers are not surprised that the planned events really pale in comparison to what had just happened and that I see no reason to describe subsequent activities. Daavor has been excused from the rest of his watering chores for the event and is being escorted out of the arena by Canary, of course. The audience is still trying to wipe its eyes and blow its collective nose after the surprisingly funny turn of the day's program. Not even the advertised main events could possibly compare and the gladiators are letting forth their bear-like growls over this. Their prestige has been upstaged by the most unlikely consort in the whole Convocation and they ultimately want blood.

Symantha breathed out a sigh of relief that her little consort, so carefully protected from any real danger all of these years, had not accidentally met his end. She also noted that the nondescript midwife was also reacting similarly.

A Meal Among Matrons

The act of making a lot of generalizations in print is socially unacceptable in most cases, but it is such an enjoyable thing to do that I can hardly resist the urge.

When there is something of a break-up, there are a whole range of emotions to go through. I have heard tell that the ending of a relationship has many things in common with death, strangely enough. It is almost as if the relationship itself has a life of its own and the kind of loss one feels at the ending of a relationship is comparable to the death of a friend or a loved one, though no one dies at a break-up. It just confirms my thought that some people (women), instead of loving the person they are married to, may simply be in love with the idea of being married and it doesn't immediately matter to them what partner happens by and consents to the union. It is interesting to watch the wedding of someone who loves marriage, as the poor groom is simply another floral arrangement, albeit a necessary one, to make the bride's wedding day look perfect. Sadly, these can be pretty painful relationships for people who come into them not understanding their real role as a fashion accessory.

Fortunately, this is not the case with the relationship between Mullicynda and Daavor, one built on mutual reciprocity in service of the other's needs. It is not so much "love at first sight", but a growing trust that builds toward companionship and then love. As in our couple's case, it doesn't really take very long to forge a bond when the conditions are right and both people are suited toward commitment. Unfortunately, the short time doesn't really ease the pain when the seemingly inevitable break-up happens and all those wonderful by-products of loving companionship are gone. While the sort of people who love being married or, in this case, having a cohort in intrigues, can simply pick up another partner and hardly lose a beat, Daavor brought unexpected joy to Mulls' now rather lowly existence and Mulls did her best to reciprocate. Now that this wonderful arrangement is soon to be gone, there will be a much more specific hole in the heart and not just anyone or anything can come along and fill it.

So both of our characters will go through the various stages of hurt, grief, betrayal, and a lengthy list of other "mourning" emotions at the coming loss of both each other and that nebulous third entity, their relationship together. As pain would have it, the break-up will not really be the fault of either of the three parties involved, as we are accustomed in generalizations toward placing blame. Daavor doesn't reveal Mulls' secrets or break her trust; Mulls doesn't turn on her not-quite-paramour and betray him to the Matrons; and their relationship still seems very much on track to continue to broaden and deepen with their increasing time and activity together. The cause of the break-up will be a whole other person that neither character has formally met, though someone you readers and I have certainly run into before.

We find ourselves once again down a dark alley in the warehouse district in the wrong part of Port Trechiva. The room is large, there is the twittering of small birds, and a greasy and darkened window is placed high in a wall and forgotten. An oil lamp is lit and sitting atop a wooden table and two figures in dresses are seated upon stools, for all appearances, eating dinner.

"So, what news?" This was managed, none too clearly, through the chewing of some poultry meat by the older woman in a deep red dress.

The other woman, dressed in a roughly patched yet still decent yellow dress, spit something unpleasant on the floor. "Nothing much to report."

The red dress looked down her nose at the other and her actions like some schoolmarm and paused for effect. "Didn't the school teach you any manners?"

"None that I bothered with," Canary snorted loudly. As if to make her point even more plain, she reached down awkwardly beneath the table, scrabbled around like an idiot with one hand while the other stuffed a biscuit into her mouth. Finally managing to slap a bright yellow pair of stilettos on the table next to her plate, she blurted out, "Those were killing me."

Red wiped the half-chewed bits of food that Canary had spewed with her pronouncement calmly off of her bodice with a cloth napkin and quietly ground her teeth. She was about to say something but stopped herself. She was about to say something else, but dutifully continued to grind away instead. Finally, she told herself that she had specifically elevated this particular woman to the rank of Matron for a purpose. Unfortunately, the purpose now completely eluded her.

"Oh," Canary spat out. "Arrangements are in place to move that skinny consort for you, Symantha, though I don't know why you bother..."

A great sigh escaped the ruby lips of the older woman. "You fail to realize his value."

The younger women shook her head at her superior. "His value? He is a scrawny, pathetic thing. I can't even remember his name." There was some labored chewing, perhaps on some stringy bit, and another spit to the floor.

"His name is Daavor," Symantha mentioned evenly, "and I am hoping that you will clean the floor around you when you are finished."

Canary barked with laughter, as if this was some joke, but the Red was not joining in. She might have spit out another bit at that point, thought again, and decided to swallow it down with a wince. "What is so important about this Daavor that Matrons like us should take any notice of him, much less care which household he works in?" The high Matron flinched darkly at the other's supposition that they were on some sort of common footing and were therefore worthy of being familiars. "I don't get why you keep having me shuffle him around."

"As I have said before, Daavor is a double-sire and he is an important part of my work."

There was a bout of chewing and Symantha hoped that it signaled the end of this conversation, but it did not. "I really don't get the whole 'double-sire' thing."

In response, the older woman simply took another dainty bite of food and chewed it quietly. The Canary rarely "got" anything.

"Okay, so he was born of a Lady", she spat out something on the floor again, "which happens to make me a bit sick..."

Red raised an eyebrow. "I can see that."

"...and he is the only boy after a long string of baby girls..."

"Yes." The signal to stop speaking and eating like some wild animal went unheeded.

"...and the consort he was conceived upon was just like him."

Red let out a sigh. "That's right."

Canary offered an incredulous look. "Why does this matter?"

Symantha bit her lip, not wanting to say more than she already had on other occasions on such matters. "If you spent your time on more useful pursuits than dirtying up this room, you might attempt a logic leap and see the possibilities."

After some ponderous chewing, which was likely the deepest thought Canary could manage, and another disgusting spit, the young women frowned. "I don't get it."

It was at that precise moment that the red-dressed Lady recalled exactly why she had chosen this pathetic excuse of a woman for this work. Like the fluttering birds in the darkness beyond the lamplight, Symantha would have no compunctions at all at poisoning this Canary when her usefulness ran out. As I labored to explain earlier, some relationships are a mere convenience and replacing the silly Matron would be nothing more than a increasingly minor inconvenience. "I had Daavor moved before he spent himself over some midwife. The whole point is to couple him with a Lady, a certain kind of Lady."

At this point, Symantha lost her senses, which seems out of character except that she was so passionate and invigorated by her own brilliance that she just couldn't resist. "When we put together the perfect sire and the perfect Lady, surely the blessed day will dawn," she was standing up now, head held high, "and the dream of our first Matriarch Sabra will finally come true!" The red woman had arms splayed and eyes sparkling, as if she were some rock star that had just finished her triumphal last set and awaited roaring applause.

Canary stared at her superior, slack-jawed, food dropping from her mouth into her lap. She didn't pause to compose herself. "Are you okay?"

Another great sigh burst forth and Symantha slumped back onto her stool. She picked up her fork and pushed a bite of food into her mouth, none too daintily. There was some very furious chewing. Canary stared at her for a moment longer and finally shrugged and returned to her own food.

They ate in silence, one generalizing that the other was crazy and the other generalizing that the one was an imbecile. To their credit, they were both correct, if I might generalize upon their generalizations.

After the blissful quiet of the rest of the meal, it was the superior that spoke next. "On the matter of this perfect Lady..."

"I know," the younger woman sighed. "Find her." She took up the plates and dropped them into a bag and began to leave the room for the alley beyond.

"One more thing," Red mentioned.

Canary halted at the door, not bothering to turn around. "What else do you want from me?"

"Don't forget your stupid shoes."

One Last Birthing

"You are being given a great honor here, so do well and your prospects will rise."

The older and more experienced midwife was making the final preparations in an antechamber to the birthing suite of the royal palace. The honor that she speaks of to Mullicynda is to be an attendant upon a birthing to the Grand Duchess. "I won't let you down."

The older woman sniffed. "See that you don't. There will be several important women at this birthing and this could make or break your career." She neglected to mention that this would also be her own chance to rise in prestige as well and get that place on the Matriarchal Council that she had always relished. "You have made a fine name for yourself in so short a time as my apprentice," which was high praise from this woman, "so don't screw it up now."

"Yes, ma'am."

Just then, Daavor moved into view, carrying a stack of blankets. Indicating the young man, she exclaimed with a hiss, "Keep that slave out of view! I don't care how helpful he is to you, it's indecent to have him at a royal birthing!"

"Yes, ma'am," was again the only respectable reply.

If you will indulge me, I will remind you bright readers that the hope of every Lady with any aspirations at all is to one day step over the defeated carcasses of her rivals and have that jeweled tiara of the Grand Duchess set upon her head as the most beautiful, poised, and intelligent Lady in all the realm. Of all the titles and honors a Lady can win, this is the one that, once finally earned, is "for keeps" until the Queen's royal crown itself replaces it.

The present Grand Duchess, already strapped down to the birthing table in the next room, is certainly not looking like her amazing and regal self, which is understandable given her huffing and puffing and straining over the prolonged labor of childbirth. Anyone who desires to be someone in the Convocation has connived a reason to be present to witness this birth, for it is a common belief that, primitive genetics being what they are, the offspring of Grand Duchesses are very likely to become future Grand Duchesses and therefore future Queens. Of course, you and I know that the child, if it is a girl at all, will be whisked off to Nursery and has a better than good chance of becoming a simple Dame and supervising the gutting of fish rather than the crowning of royalty, but it is always best to keep up appearances for the crowd of Ladies who don't know any better.

Around the writhing woman on the slab is a rather richly dressed assortment of Ladies and Matrons, gossiping none too quietly among themselves, all somewhat bored until the event they have come together to see finally reaches its climax. The largest cluster of chattering surrounds a rather youngish looking woman with the tall crown on her head. The Queen herself, always an example of what is Lady-like, is six months along in her own latest pregnancy and the sight of the birthing table is always a cruel reminder that the life of a Lady, even if she is Queen, is often somewhat short and painful. As you will recall, today's Queen bears no love or concern for the miserable wretch in the straps and finds herself more interested in the sorted talk about her. The gossip is quieted as the Lady on the table screams in her anguish and a bustle of midwives enters the room for the birthing.

Although Mullicynda has been developing her own more humane form of child-birthing while working among the commoners, the more traditional methods of midwifery hold sway in this case and she is left to look mournfully on as the more experienced and trusted midwives prepare the birth canal for its function and the young woman on the table receives no consideration for her rank, as forgotten as the most lowly Lady. Mulls feels as if she is inside of a bubble, looking out upon the scene that is swirling around her, but to which she is only an observer. The whispering of the cluster of women who are eager to see the birthing of potential new royalty is subdued, almost a buzzing in the young Dame's ears. But, it seems that there is yet another seemingly detached woman in the room and she is watching Mulls curiously.

It is one of those now often-repeated facts that if a person is being stared at, the one being watched can practically feel the watching, as I have mentioned before. I don't know if this was the high Matron Symantha's intent, to be noticed by Mullicynda, but in the midst of the hub-bub and the wails of a Duchess' travail, Mulls turned to see the red-dressed high Matron that she had seen before through the dirty window in a dark alley, and what was both somewhat surprising and worse feeling, Symantha looked at her with something of recognition as well.

There was no time for the young Dame to give much thought to why a highly placed Matron would even take notice of her, let alone stare at her with a mild form of disturbance, but that is what was happening. The bubble that Mulls had been floating in, only vaguely aware of what was going on about her, was broken and she was pulled back into the affairs of the moment and her duties. Having something to do was of little comfort to the growing feeling that things were changing again for her, though this was not the "small-hairs-at-the-neck" sort of sensation that she had always equated with God, but another, more ominous feeling of dread. As if just to confirm that her suspicions were correct, she took another opportunity to peek in the direction of the high Matron and indeed, the older woman was watching her, even while giving something of instructions to the far more familiar Matron in her silly yellow dress that had just hove into view. Both Matrons then turned in her direction and, to dispel any further confusion on what was being discussed, the Canary pointed straight at Mullicynda. The higher Matron angrily slapped the pointing finger away from its target and rolled her eyes in continued consternation at her incompetent underling. Then the affairs of the birthing rose in tempo and the attention of Mulls was taken up by more immediate matters.

Symantha was apparently present as the chief deputy of the Matriarch, for the responsibility of determining the newborn's "health" was in her hands. The Matron was upset enough at seeing one of her potential experiments bustling around as a midwife, but it was some final dagger in the belly as she viewed the baby and made her determination: the "girl" was sickly. To this news, there was a barely-feigned sense of exultation from many of the assembled Ladies. Although they dabbed elegant tissues to somewhat dry eyes, the competition among the crowd was happy to see that the "perfect" Lady was not as perfect as custom supposed and that a sickly baby often meant that circumstances would be changing, even among the royal courts. This fact was overshadowed by Symantha's discovery of the coddled but lost schoolgirl that she had long ago identified as the "perfect" Lady for her breeding experiments.

Of course, once the baby was declared anything less than perfect, it was handed off to underlings to be secretly disposed of. By some strange twist of fate or more likely a sense of genuine concern for life that few others seemed to share, the child ended up in the hands of Mullicynda. As dame and baby moved out of the room, it could be seen that Symantha, with a bland look, administered an elixir to the Grand Duchess herself. Of course, the bottle that contained the elixir was marked with a blue ribbon and Mulls needed no more indication of what had been determined and what was about to happen next in the birthing suite.

"What have you got there?" In her rush to get out of the palace altogether, Mulls had nearly forgotten that Daavor awaited her in the antechamber.

The midwife's apprentice rushed on, pulling her more-than-friend into her wake. "The baby."

The young man's eyes flashed large. "How did you...?"

There was no time for talk as they moved quickly through corridors, Mulls was breathing hard and looking for open air. There was no point in examining the child, for she knew from the wiggling within the blankets that the baby was perfectly healthy, but simply of the wrong gender for the tastes of the Convocation. She wasn't prepared to reveal this fact to her Daavor as yet, because she didn't want to have to deal with the dumbfoundedness that had nearly paralyzed her when she first discovered how the Convocation kept the Ladies "pure".

Not far away, there was a common couple, still mourning the stillborn boy that they had lost just the night before. This little one, the totally unwanted son of the probably-now-late Grand Duchess, could ease the suffering parents' grief and provide both sustenance and a loving home for the child. Insofar as Mulls was concerned, this was a very convenient circumstance for everyone concerned, except the Grand Duchess, but she could not deny the prickling at her neck, the sensation that she had not had in the birthing suite when Symantha had recognized her, the sign that God was moving in the life of this young child, giving him a chance at life that he would have never had otherwise.

The house they entered was small but warmly lit by a fire in the hearth. They had not as yet paid Mulls for her services of the day before and that seemed to buy her and Daavor passage through the door. The baby was already beginning to whimper for want of food and the grieving mother of the house almost reflexively took the bundle from the midwife's hands and pressed it to her swollen breast, comforting both. It was at this point that Daavor saw the truth and was thankfully stunned into a dumb sort of silence.

"He's beautiful," the mother cooed, as if the boy had come from her own womb.

There would be no bonding problems here, Mulls thought. "What will you call him?"

The woman looked up at her man, who exchanged glances with her and offered a shrug of acquiescence. Apparently, the name in the mother's mind was the same one chosen for the child they lost and the father was bowing to the woman's original choice. "His name is Lanolylc."

Mulls nodded, in spite of the premonitions that seemed to be swirling about her, and set about making sure the baby was whole and well-situated. Daavor was still in something of a stupor when the pair excused themselves from the now much-happier home and moved out onto the street and a freshening rain. The cool water on his face seemed to bring the man to himself. "Odd name that. Lanolylc."

The midwife's apprentice said nothing in response, though at the mention of the baby's given name, the hairs on the back of her neck rose again and a deeper sense of premonition warmed her. It was not just the feeling that God's concern was on a tiny new-born, but that there was something in the future that this baby boy would do to further the purposes of God.

However, I will leave that sensation for now and also leave any further mention of Lanolylc for a later point in the story.

Daavor's Day Off

As a younger man, I got a job working at sea. Once I got over the initial month of sea-sickness, I found I enjoyed my time afloat immensely, sometimes more than being on land, the desire for which seems to be a common enough occurrence that there is an actual term for it: "sea-longing". I had night duty on a steam across the Atlantic Ocean, which mostly required me to make one or two checks of our equipment to see if it was secure and left me copious amounts of time to do whatever I wanted. I would spend the blissfully cool nights on the top deck, enjoying the wonderful breezes and winds and gazing up in wonder at the explosion of stars. The boat I worked on was large enough that the the seas rarely pounded upon it harshly, yet small enough that the surrounding swells would produce a gentle rocking that lulled me to sleep as nothing else can. It was heavenly and one could only credit God with such blessed circumstances.

Daavor is also one bitten by the sea-longing from his vantage of fishing. The sea is like a farm you don't have to plow or plant but will provide an almost endless harvest to those willing to brave the storms and take it. One learns a healthy respect for the bigness and power of nature, fleeing conditions that can break one apart with the slightest touch and send one to a watery grave. Sometimes, there are whole days and weeks when conditions aren't favorable for fishing and a ignorant fool with an attitude of braving the sea anyway, a peculiar form of prideful madness, will most likely get someone killed. The wisest and therefore oldest fishers were simply the most unwilling to foolishly challenge the elements that many land-lubbers would stupidly consider as a test of one's "mettle".

Fortunately, today was a fine day for fishing, but Daavor's heart wasn't in it. He was pining for some girl and his oldish companion knew it. "I'm sorry," the old man croaked as they pulled up on the net and drew in the fish. "Da women can be cruel sometimes. Just like the sea."

Daavor could only manage to nod as he absentmindedly heaved to his work.

"Yep, women are like the sea, you know, young Daa." The old man looked out on the somewhat calm waters even as he labored over pulling the net. "One day, living with 'em is smooth and glassy, ne'ery a care in the world and as pleasant as they come. Then, a foul wind blows up, some misspoke word or misread'n of a glance, and there's a churn and a roil and in the drink ye go, or worse, gone for good. A tempestuous mistress the sea is and so is da woman."

Daavor turned to the old man and just stared at him. It wasn't a look of anger or rancor, but rather a mindless sort of a stare, as if all the feeling and emotion and perhaps even the will to live itself had been sucked out of the young man. "I was nowhere near her when they came for me. She even gave me a kiss on the cheek at our last meeting." His hand brushed his face at the pleasant memory.

The old fisherman only managed to look back with some obnoxiously knowing look. "Yer a poor lost soul, my lad," he managed with a shake of the head. "Da smart one just works on the sea, but don't fall in love with 'er." He breathed in with a bit of a rattle in the chest, as if it might be his last. "Pretty enough to look at, but keep 'er at a distance is my policy with those Ladies."

Daavor rolled his eyes and let out a sigh. "She wasn't a Lady, if you must know. She was a dame."

It wasn't readily apparent if the reaction that this information brought forth from the old man was a bark of laughter or an asthmatic cough. "Rubbin' up against a boss, eh?" He managed a wink. "I bet she had you a'runnin' for days a'for she gave you that kiss, hey!"

The fish were surfacing, so the banter paused long enough to negotiate their prizes into the boat and cast the net in again. The old man, in a fit of bravado perhaps, snatched up a flopping fish and took a great bite out of its belly. He chewed upon the nasty mess in his mouth as the wide-eyed fish went limp. Then, he spat the wad out into the water and sent the dead carcass spinning after it. "Eat ya just like that, kiddie!" His eyes were wild.

There was an even look on Daavor's face, as if he could not be fazed. "You know nothing about her," he repied flatly.

A cackle arose from deep within the old fisherman's gut and gradually emerged as a rolling chuckle. "Yer tangled in 'er net but good, young Daa!" He picked up another fish and eviscerated it just as before. "She's eatin' well!"

"Not any more."

Things fell silent again as concentration was again needed to wheetle out the smaller fish that were released back to the waters. I can't say that Daavor was doing a very good job as his mind was still wandering back a few days in the past and some miles off, if just to get his thoughts off of the blood-stained and vaguely maniacal face of the voyage's partner who was still cackling and mumbling to himself while he went about his sorting.

The afternoon was wearing on, as they always seem to do regardless of what your task is or who shows up as your chance companion. Daavor had the misfortune of having arrived late to the docks, after most of the others had already set out upon the water, and only the old man had presented himself as his one potential boat-mate instead of the customary three. Although they had fished together in the past, the old man never remembered this, insisted upon calling him "Daa", and never offered up a minute's peace from his laughing or his inane "wisdom". By this time, which was about mid-afternoon, the younger man was quite ready to murder the older one.

However, fortune is smiling upon the old fisherman, for a storm was blowing up from the southwest, as if it were just another fishing boat making its way out of Trechiva harbor. The old man noticed the darkening skies and thrust a finger into the rising wind. "We're not agoin' back from where we came..."

Daavor was raising the sail as fast as he could, hoping to catch this wind and make it back at least to the eastern coast of Firsthome, even if it would be miles north of their intended port. It wouldn't be too bad, there was always a friendly house and a hot meal available in exchange for part of a fishing boat's haul, so neither man seemed very put out by any consequences of the coming storm. Unfortunately, they were on the far east side of the wide channel and the storm would surely overtake them before making land. "Best make for the Nortlynd shore," the old fisherman advised. As if to punctuate the idea, the wind began to take on a more westerly aspect and all other options were effectively eliminated.

I know it is a bit wearisome for me to tell it again and again, but I will persist in reminding you that such circumstances, especially ones that involve natural forces, are an example of things that can be manipulated by God. In our own times of antiquity, forces of the sea that are beyond our control were attributed to a god named Poseidon, who was likely to smile on you as a seaman if properly appeased, or to kill you in some maritime incident if you crossed him. As far as I'm aware, though the actual legends may have been farcical, the basic concept of a larger power that can intervene in our behalf, especially in response to appeals for help, constitutes at least the beginnings of faith in God. It is on occasions like this, when things turn badly, that even the most agnostic reaches out for some positive divine intervention.

"Oh, Great Mariner," the old man shouted to the storm. "Ye can have all these fish back if you'll just let us live!"

Of course, God occasionally manipulates things to accomplish his purposes, but sometimes you may not be the object of his purpose. You can ask for a storm to be stilled, but that storm may be accomplishing something far away from you or your circumstances that really needs doing, such as watering some deserving man's farm. In this particular case, the storm is here to again show Daavor something he really needs to see and know. I say "again" because a previous storm that the young man encountered, the one that shipwrecked him on the beach where we found him in the beginning of the story, had been blown up to accomplish basically the same thing. It seems that God is not above using repetition to get a point across. Apparently, Daavor is among those who needs repetition in order to catch the point at all.

With the wind blowing things due east, our intrepid fishermen angled themselves to the northeast, still letting the sail catch the edge while moving them further away from grazing the side of destruction. "Nice move, my lad!" the old man shouted approvingly over the din. Daavor had never had a simple fishing boat move so fast and he was worrying that the mast would break under the force of air or that the flow of water passing the hull would tear planks away. The older man was just leaning out over the side, as if he intended to use his face as a side rudder, a crazed yet joyful face carved in his features, hooting and barking like some Sheltie panting out the window of a hundred-kph car. "Whoooo-hoooo!"

It was already getting toward dusk, which wasn't obvious because the tail of the storm blotted out the sun anyway, neither condition improving the younger fisherman's ability to see. Seeing nothing ahead in the darkness, Daavor took the opportunity to turn back to where the wild man was howling toward the stern and begin to shout something to his psychotic companion about sanity. He never really got the chance as the flat-bottomed boat flew right up the shallows, skittered across the short beach, and tore right into a grove of trees. The boat didn't hit anything, but you would think it had as the old man's expressions of pleasure transformed into one long howl of fear.

"Hey, are you all right?" Daavor had taken a tumble on the deck but seemed undamaged. The older man wasn't anywhere to be seen. "Hello?!"

There was a rustling from the trees and another yowl. "Whoooo-wheeeee!" Crazy eyes appeared just peering over the gun-wail. "Ye sure know'd howta show a feller a good time!"

There is really no point in going into the intricacies of gathering wood, getting a fire going, cooking up some fish, eating their meal, and collapsing into sleep in the forest. I don't think it occurred to Daavor that there could be any animals much wilder than the old man that had accompanied him, and no such animals happened by where the duo laid for their slumber. The crashing of the waves on the shore didn't seem to rouse them, nor the rising of the sun on the next day. The one thing that did finally startle Daavor awake was the sound of voices.

"What on earth is this?" It was the voice of a woman.

A man's voice responded. "It appears to be a boat."

"But," the woman retorted with incredulity, "how did it get here?"

"It appears that it was pushed here."

There was a pause. "You don't have to be so factual, Nigel. What do you think happened?"

There was no response that Daavor could hear.

Much louder, the woman was calling out. "Is anyone there? Does anyone need help?"

Daavor looked over at his companion, who was interleaving snoring with his rattling chest. The young man stared at the base of a tree nearby and remained silent.

A new voice, quieter and deeper, was heard. "It is no concern of yours."

"But," the woman anguished. "It isn't right to just walk away from someone in need..."

The first man spoke next. "He says that it is no concern of ours."

"Oh, shut up, Nigel! If you can't contribute to the discussion, just be still!"

There was another pause.

"It is time that you were on your way." This was the deep voiced man.

"But...," was all that the woman could manage.

There was another silence, perhaps a bit of tension that Daavor couldn't see from his vantage point on toward the far end of the boat.

The quiet voice, though deep, was quite mild. "It is time for you to take the path."

"We must get on the path now," the man called Nigel offered.

The woman was quite animated in her voice as the sound of them moving away diminished. "I heard him the first time, Nigel. I'm not stupid you know..."

Daavor simply waited. It wasn't because he was frightened or felt in peril. Perhaps he just didn't want to get on about the day quite yet and was enjoying a bit of solitude that the Convocation rarely afforded anyone. I know that I enjoy such times when I can grab them.

Although it felt as if hours had passed since the others moved off, it was more like ten minutes. Daavor got up from his place, stretched out the various pains and cricks that a "roughing it" night away from a comfortable bed always brings on, and made the first tentative steps toward the stern of the boat and into the sunshine of the beach beyond it.

There was a boat anchored out in the channel, a much larger boat than he had ever seen before. He was accustomed to the smallish single masted fishing vessels, most just like the one he was moving alongside of, that were just about the only maritime vehicles that the people of Firsthome had managed to come up with so far. This great ship was longer than perhaps ten fishing boats run stem to stern and it stood higher in the water than any building he had ever seen on land. It was intimidating enough that Daavor stopped while still in the shadows of the trees, gawking at its greatness. Where the storm that he and his companion had scarcely avoided could have easily destroyed their small craft, the young man doubted that it would have even set up a rocking on the multi-masted ship he ogled.

A much smaller boat, propelled by men on oars, was already away from the shore and working its way back to the master vessel. Although he could make out the figures toiling, he could not see their faces. It gave him sufficient courage to come out of the trees and look up and down the beach, which was abandoned except for himself.

Most people are familiar with the concept of de-ja-vu, which is the sense that one has been in the present circumstance previously. What Daavor was feeling at this moment isn't exactly like that but it was strangely familiar. He had been here in this place once before, as we all have been in at the beginning of this book. He had been laid out by similar circumstances upon this beach, found and revived by people who had come out of the forest behind him through a path marked by a curious stone post. Reflexively, as the thought came to him, Daavor turned and there, stuck in the sand, just as he vaguely remembered it from his half-conscious past experience, was the marker with the carving that you readers have seen displayed on the cover of this volume.

I won't bother to tell you about the significance of the carving at this point in the story. All that matters as far as this volume is concerned is that the stone post exists, and that Daavor has seen it twice. This time he even approached it and rubbed his fingers across the deeply carved symbols that he did not understand. With this second and much more lucid visit to this stretch of beach, he will make his way back to Firsthome under his own power and be capable of finding this spot and the trail that leads away from it into the forest at some future time. These facts are important at this particular point in the story and if you have not already guessed why, my continued writing of this book will do its best to reveal the reason that you fine readers and I are here standing invisibly beside Daavor on a vacant beach. If I may be so bold, I will reveal that we all will find ourselves here at least one more time in not-too-many chapters. Also, we will all feel that strange feeling of having been here before.

"Whoa!" The old fisherman spoke as he came up beside his fellow and nearly made him leap out of his skin. "Did I miss som'thin'?"

Daavor looked at the great ship which the old man had almost missed. It was weighing anchor and unfurling its massive sails. There was a lone still figure amid the swirl of the crew on deck, looking like specks from this distance. Daavor raised his hand as if to wave to someone he knew and, surprisingly, the figure made the same signal in return.

"Hey now," the old man said in reverence. "That be the Salvation, that is. They say that be the Mariner's ship, the one what brung Alaedeus and Cassandra to Firsthome a million ago!"

Surely enough, the word "Salvation" was lettered ornately toward the fore-deck of the ship. Although the younger man couldn't read per se, he had seen the word often enough in the pictures he and Mulls had shared from The Mariner's Log. Daavor thought on this for a moment. "If that is true, we must be dreaming."

The old fisherman let out a deep breath and wiped his brow dramatically. "That be a good thing, young Daa. I surely don't want to be 'wake when ye get that boat of yorn out of them trees!"

Symantha Tells All

In my experience, "playing possum" is a remarkably decent way to look like you are asleep when you really aren't. I think I got into the habit of faking sleep when I was a child because my parents were so pointed about it. My brother and I, especially when we were younger and shared a room together, never went to sleep when told to. It seemed to work out well enough for our parents that we were quiet and in bed and the lights were out. Of course, boys being boys, we were going to be talking and jostling and basically failing completely to go to sleep, but when you heard footsteps approaching, whatever mischief we were doing was abandoned and we could be found curled into balls in our covers, "snoring". Sometimes, the bothered parent would feel the need to make some comment, but as time passed, it became pointless as just the act of walking about close to our bedroom door was enough to get the desired effect. I think perhaps my father pursued money and success just to earn himself a bedroom at the far end of the house so he needn't be disturbed by our nocturnal antics.

I found my nighttime experiences as a child served me well in my early years of marriage, as I discovered that my wife typically needed about double the amount of sleep I was accustomed to getting, especially when childbearing came along. She would be busy snoring while I sat there in bed, staring at the ceiling, my semi-creative mind chugging along with a thousand and one ideas, including elements of this story. It really gives a whole new meaning to the word "over-wrought". But, whenever one of our own children awoke in the night, I am embarrassed to reveal that I fell into my childhood habit of "playing possum" when I was very much awake but just didn't want to get up and do anything about it. It didn't really work as I found out that I had sleep apnea later on and that my even breathing in fake sleep never fooled my wife for a minute.

In Mulls' case, however, "playing possum" was going to win her a cornucopia of heretofore unknown information. Although she was a woman who seemed to have a potion for nearly every need, Symantha gave every indication of being the type that was loathe to use the things unnecessarily, as if they were difficult to make and therefore precious and only used in extreme need. The high matron had instead used a more accessible powder that must have been mixed into the wax of a candle that was set beside the girl's bed as she slept the night before. Though Mulls was groggy when she was secretly stolen away in the wee hours, she was conscious and aware of what was happening around her.

Symantha also was a little overconfident of herself and babbled a bit when she thought she was essentially alone. "How did she manage it, or did those fools at the school slip up?" She looked down at Mulls, playing with her hair as the girl's head rested in her lap. "I shall deal with them as soon as I am done fixing this mess."

It was hard enough for Mulls to stay awake, what with the hypnotic swaying of the boat they were in, the lingering effects of the drugged candle, the restful feeling of having her hair stroked, and the fact that she was faking her own unconsciousness. "To think that a perfectly fertile girl like you would end up as some midwife's assistant. Ironic for you and lucky for me."

If the girl had known that the life of a dame was getting jerked around from place to place, manipulated by Matrons that had not a care for personal preferences or desires, she would have thought a little longer before changing some letter on some clipboard. Mind you, she had secretly learned lately how the Matrons also played with the lives of Ladies like so many chess pieces in some listless game and Mulls might have made her original fertility test choice without the need of God jostling her arm at all.

"My precious girl," the matron cooed. "You will be my crowning achievement. The girl that births only Ladies!" She gently stroked a curl of hair way from Mulls' face. "Beautiful and graceful, yet easy to manipulate. The perfect Lady to mold as I choose..."

Well, the girl thought to herself, she got two right.

"...and your daughters..." Symantha let out an ecstatic sigh. "...your daughters will be the first generation of perfection. Ladies bred for docility to their matrons. The other Ladies will be eliminated in time, but you will be the mother of a new and greater Convocation." She drew in an excited breath. "The dream of Sabra will finally be realized and I myself shall have done it!"

Mullicynda's eyes would have widened if she wasn't working hard to keep them closed. Her old leather book had spoken of the seductress Sabra as the destroyer of the righteous few among Alaed and now she was apparently in the hands of one of this destroyer's disciples. She tried to calm herself so that the high Matron, still stroking her hair, wouldn't be alerted to her wakefulness and her revulsion: Symantha was proving herself an enemy to all that the girl held dear and to the Mariner that she had recently come to revere.

The older woman lapsed into silence, considering. There was the quiet chatter of the men on the fore-deck, obviously moving the boat in stealth, but if the girl concentrated, she could make out called orders through the heavy curtains that enclosed the tiny boat's cabin. There were also other voices off to starboard, from a distance, as if another party approached along the near shore or perhaps aboard another boat. "Our other guest has arrived," Symantha breathed.

It must have been another boat, for Mulls didn't notice any evidence of docking on a pier. There were bumps and scrapings on the starboard side, more muffled orders given, and the thump of something being dropped on the deck. The other boat must have moved away as the larger bumps were silenced and the movement of Symantha's boat smoothed to its normal sway. "I have procured for you a very special gift, dear girl, the secret ingredient that we lacked all those other times. He and you will create a new world!" The older woman's ecstasy was twisting Mulls' stomach, one's triumph sounding much like her personal slavery and the death of everything she might have hoped for. But there was also that raising of the hairs on the back of her neck that revealed that all was not lost, for God was here and working.

For the poor man dumped on the deck, there had been no special incense to drowse him for transport. A simple blow to the head and popping in a heavy burlap sack was his introduction to this venture. Whether the hit on the head damaged his brain or not was quite inconsequential to the plans of the high Matron that had orchestrated this union.

Now, Symantha is not going to be talking anymore about her plans, but I have no compunctions about doing so. Of course, Mullicynda will have to remain in the dark about such details, but you fine readers will not.

As the high Matron who is second only to the Matriarch, Symantha is privy to a lot of information that was passed on to her from the previous holder of that second position, which got her information from the previous one, and so forth. It is therefore hard to say exactly when all these poisonous elixirs, sleeping powders, and nefarious schemes had their beginning. Symantha doesn't have any true answer for that either, just blindly accepting that she is carrying on a long-standing, secret, and very important work that gives her an undeniable sense of power.

Besides her role as the provider of potions and such, she also heads a secret breeding program involving the Ladies, which we heard reference to about a moment ago. She learned of it from her predecessor not too long before Symantha used her newly acquired knowledge of elixirs to eliminate her teacher, which is actually something of the traditional if unspoken thing for second high Matrons to do. It has taken many generations of trial and error to arrive at the supposedly perfect mix of feminine attributes that were desirable, the abilities that the Matriarchal Council wanted to eliminate from the Ladies, like free will, determination, and the birthing of sons, and finally create a girl that seemed to have the right combination for duplication.

You must understand, through all we have learned so far, that Mulls really isn't a good candidate for the perfect Lady. Although she is beautiful and graceful, she has been hiding her true nature from view. In fact, Mullicynda is precisely the wrong girl for Symantha's purposes. She will prove a willing instrument in the hands of God for the purpose of destroying the Convocation itself rather than become a docile slave to it. I suppose that makes the girl very lucky to be in her present condition and the Matron very unlucky to have been blabbing everything. Of course, neither knows what events are stirring and the realization of any of this is still a bit in the future of our story, but I felt the need to tell you kindly readers of this so you might understand a few of the present movements of God.

The boat continues along its course that Symantha is happy to have put into motion, completely unaware that the underlying current is firmly in the hands of a higher power with his own undeniable agenda, which you, my most fortunate reader, will get to see played out over the coming chapters of this tale.

An Unexpected Reunion

I love my wife very much and I am certain that she will not be enamored toward the writing style I have chosen to employ in this book. I anticipate that she will say that I jump between events far too abruptly, that I totally ignore the kind of descriptive detail that typical readers of novels expect and like, that I skip over parts of the story that she would like to hear more about, and that I spend far too much time philosophizing. In honor of the woman I love and legions of other avid novel-readers that hopefully have made it this far, I humbly offer yet another stylistic departure from what I have done previously.

For your information, I didn't start this chapter with an obscure philosophical statement. Nor did I bother much with proper syntax, but that is not really much of a change.

The guest bedroom of the Baroness of Herring is an interesting study in the various ways one can combine the colors violet, black, and a sort of turquoise blue-green. All the furniture is obviously finely-crafted and richly adorned, speaking of the affluence of their present owner, but nothing seems to match well with anything else and strikes me as being a bit gaudy. Although it is into the afternoon and there is a window set conveniently into the west wall that would have let the sun's rays illuminate the room, the drapes are pulled shut, as if to show off the black embroidery upon the black velvet curtain that one really didn't notice until one came very, very close. Of course, if one came very, very close to see the stitching, one couldn't appreciate the scene being depicted on the drape, which was of the glorious Baroness herself being worshiped on bended knees by five men. Seeing how the marvelously wonderful picture was sewn into the black drape with black thread, it really loses much of its aesthetic appeal and any ability to actually be seen, but that's totally lost on Mullicynda, who pulled the drapes open almost immediately upon being escorted into the room by a rather homely dame.

With the richly worked but totally unappreciated drapes out of the way, the glaring sun did do a bit toward washing out the wretchedly dark color scheme of the room, while also making the place intolerably hot almost immediately. Mulls was still dressed in the plain dame dress that marked her status before the late night abduction, but it was becoming sweat-stained in some very un-glamorous places. Now that she was back to being a prospective Lady, she was simply glistening as opposed to sweating like the lower classes, and a finely tailored pink party dress and heels had been laid out on the bed to make the final point that her status had recently changed. The bedspread sadly was also black like the drapes, the dress and shoes standing out starkly against it, and outlined in black stitch-work upon it was the glorious contest moment when the Baroness had won her current title, though again this could not readily be seen from any vantage point. Mullicynda sighed, knowing that pink was not even close to her most flattering color. She would have done better on all accounts to tear up the drapes and the bedspread to fashion a gown a little more becoming for herself. Unfortunately, abducted women are usually unaccompanied by their sewing kits and the girl would just have to make do with whatever the Baroness had to hand.

To break up most of the fabrics in the room, which continued the trend of being black with expensive black embroidery that no one could really see or appreciate, the walls were blissfully done in an antiqued sort of turquoise, complete with veins of other colors and textures, as if the room had been chiseled from the namesake mineral itself. The southeast corner gave the impression that some mold had not only taken up residence there, but had established a fine culture that was beginning to spread across the adjoining walls. Mulls took the further step of actually approaching the budding civilization and was relieved to discover that it was only a very intricate bit of painting and plaster-work and not something fated to kill her in her sleep.

The floor was carpeted from wall to wall in a deep violet that was mirrored in the ceiling color, both textured in large swirling patterns that utterly failed to match anything else in the room, but were obviously done with great skill and at great expense, as everything else in the room seemed to be. It was as if the decorator of the room, who had no sense of style at all, had stumbled upon a partial text regarding interior design, taken what she read to heart, and spared no expense to make the most well-appointed atrocity to decorating that Firsthome would ever know. The ultimate problem was that Mullicynda had to live here and stomach the tutelage of the designer, her most gaudy Baroness of Herring.

Like everything else, the pink dress proved to be made of the best materials, but ultimately a study in exactly how not to tailor a garment. In spite of Mulls' inherent beauty and grace and uncanny ability to make even common clothes look good, she was up against overwhelming odds with a dress that worked hard to appear as if the girl were engulfed in pink fire. It was tapered at the hem, nearly coming to a point at her calves, widening at the hips, practically exploding up her bodice in pointy tongues, and finally ended in cones of fabric that jutted skyward from her shoulders. She had the misfortune of seeing a mirror before she was adequately prepared and frightened herself at what she saw in it. Of course, it in no way interfered with her beauty, but she looked as if she were some sort of clown in a tragic play and her gorgeous face was not looking very pleased with its fate.

Mulls dealt with her situation by weeping, which any intelligent girl would do in her place.

Fortunately, two burly men burst into the room, distracting her from the horrifying decor, caring in the large bundle of burlap Mullicynda had first been "introduced" to on her abduction ship, doing their best to bow and honor their new Miss. The bundle was scrumptiously dumped on the floor and, with further bows and obvious aversions of eyes, probably before the men could burst out laughing over the ridiculous dress the poor girl was modelling, they happily exited the visually assaulting room.

Everything else blissfully forgotten for the moment, the girl concentrated on opening the package that contained what Symantha had called a "guest". Whatever it was, it was wrapped quite well in several layers of covering and, as Mulls had no knife or other useful implement at hand to quicken the work, she set to work unwinding what seemed like an endless roll of coarse fabric. After a time and lots of rolling the parcel about, arms and legs emerged from the burlap that infused the girl with a sense of urgency that the occupant wouldn't suffocate or succumb to extreme claustrophobia, even though the man inside was obviously unconscious and didn't react at all to being pushed about. It certainly wasn't a very well-kept man, appearing quite dirty and smelling quite bad, as if he had been stolen and baled up right out of working in some fishing hold.

Whomever had done the wrapping had apparently wished the bundled man to remain unknown until the very last, for the final wraps hid the man's face alone. The body was thin and a bit scrawny, so plastered with the slime of fish that Mulls had to peal off the innermost layers and cringe at the putrid odor of rot that had begun to set in. Perhaps the man was already dead and moldering here, but the young Miss was determined to know who this man was, if only to keep her mind off of her appalling surroundings. The last fold peeled away and in excitement, she embraced the limp figure.

"Daavor!"

As if to stave off any fears of his death, the disgusting figure gasped for breath and coughed out a dirty rag that had been shoved into his mouth before his premature mummification had been attempted. He wasn't really coherent yet, which was good for Mulls as she wrestled and rolled the man roughly across the now stained violet carpeting, through an adjoining bathroom door, and heaved him into a turquoise colored bathtub with a violet rim around it. She carefully rinsed off his entire form, forgetting for the moment that this was the first time she had seen the man naked, starting with his now misshapen-ed head from the blow he took from his abductors and working down to the feet that had been wading in fish guts ever since he had last seen her. By the time she had finished the job, Daavor had his eyes open and was looking about with that kind of sleepy, lolling half-consciousness that people with head injuries will display.

Although Daavor was reasonably clean for the first time in a number of days, the obnoxious dress was now stained with the things that had come off the man, to Mullicynda's complete indifference. It would have been a happy thought, if it had occurred to her, that she would be given a different dress as the Baroness would likely order this one burned. It was also likely that the Baroness would recoil with horror at the slimy mess on her fine carpeting, which might blessedly require its removal and replacement. With any luck at all, the new carpeting wouldn't match the decorating taste of the good Baroness and the entire room itself, furnishings and all, would have to be redone. Further good fortune would likely result in Mulls' evacuation to temporary quarters that would probably be some Dame's room that would be much more plain and unadorned and probably be far less assaulting to anyone's taste, except for the Baroness. If I could, I would like to chalk all of this up to a generous God once again, providing for the small, unspoken, and even un-thought-of desires of a young woman's heart.

All Mullicynda could do was hold and kiss her Daavor and thank the God of the Mariner that she had him back.

The Investment Party

I will admit that it is a bit strange to piece together a book from the fragmentary record of God's dealings with people you barely know and may be struggling to care about, but it has been done before. Maddening though this book may be to people expecting a novel, I do have a bit of precedence for using a style that focuses on people's encounters with the divine. In case you aren't catching on, something akin to this style is used in a rather obscure text called the Holy Bible. As a money-making venture, I am personally quite heartened with the fact that no other book has sold as many copies so voluntarily to so many as the scripture of Jew and Christian. If this book performs even fractionally as well as the Bible, I will feel extremely vindicated as an author.

Others who also have opportunity for vindication will shortly include our friends Mullicynda and Daavor, who are even now preparing for the ultimate event in a young woman's life: her investment as a Lady. Mulls is putting on a very nice dress, obviously purchased without the input of the Baroness of Herring. This pulls over the top of a much more comfortable camisole and silken capris, right in front of her former conspirator and now supposed consort Daavor. This would be indecent in most cultures, especially among Ladies of the Convocation, but I remind you that she is already fully covered before pulling on the fine gown, as if she is planning to do something on short notice that is incompatible with a dress. You fine readers and I will just have to wait and see what "short notice" plans justify such foundation garments.

If you readers are feeling infuriated yet again because you think I am intentionally keeping information from you that the characters in the story are privy to, one would be feeling upset for no good reason. Mulls may appear to have some plan because she is wearing more useful clothes under her formal dress, but I assure you that she is simply following a bit of a hunch. As a person with some experience dealing with God, I can further assure you that divinity enjoys testing faith by having his servants do things that don't immediately make much sense, such as wearing pants under a skirt at a fancy occasion. All Mullicynda knows is that this is the impression that has come to her and she has learned over time that such impressions are wise to follow. As for the rest, she must trust that further inspiration will arrive as she needs it.

The occasion of Mullicynda's sixteenth birthday and ascension into the ranks of the Ladies is a good cause for a traditional celebration, complete with feasting, wine-sipping, and the giving of gifts. It is the one moment in the life of a Convocation Lady when a young woman can feel like a princess without first having bested a field of competitors. She can just stand in the glory of her best dress, be presented her school graduation certificate, and receive her accolades, but only this once.

An investment party is a big deal, not just in the life of one sixteen-year-old girl, but for everyone involved. It is at these parties that Ladies have their best chance of sizing up their competition away from actual contests. A Lady can get so wrapped up in her beauty regime, spend entire days memorizing clever poetry and speeches on one subject or another, or practice her runway walk so fervently that she never even comes up for air during the entire contest season. It ends up being at some girl's investment party that the other Ladies get a comparatively stress-free opportunity to focus on the shortcomings of others rather than their own.

So, in a rented ballroom, the tables are spread to overflowing with food enough to feed an army, a crowd of dresses and jewels wandering around them like so many grazing cattle, each eyeing everyone else with alternating looks of disgust and disdain while saying kindly things with their lips. As the new Lady Mullicynda enters the hall, glowing in a shimmering silver dress, the assemblage quiets in traditional homage, but also some loathing of the new and very imposing competitor.

Others are wandering about as well in sections of the hall designated for those that attend the Ladies. One large area is marked for Matrons and dames, who wear dresses just as elegantly as the Ladies but work their part of the hall with much more practical purpose. As the Ladies are sizing each other up as competitors, The Matrons are assembled into clusters, speaking in serious tones among themselves about the larger issues of managing the affairs of the Convocation. Occasionally, one or two are called away to attend to the petty desires of their assigned Ladies, but these matters are quickly parceled out to underling dames or to the line of men that lean against the west or "masculine" wall. Ladies are also occasionally beckoning to their consorts to show them off to their envious friends and/or rivals. It is all a very convivial and somewhat noisy affair but generally goodnatured and festive ... at least to a point.

The hall quiets for a moment as a herald announces the entry of the honored guest, Lady Mullicynda, escorted by her consort, Daavor. It is obvious that the man is uncomfortable in his party clothes, which includes tight stockings on the legs, a wide ruffle of collar at the neck, and puffy fabric covering his privates and his arms. He looks absolutely ridiculous, but is heartened by the fact that every other Lady's man in the hall looks just as ridiculous as he does. As is customary, Daavor kisses his Lady's hand and moves quickly to the masculine wall where he will be looked down upon by the other consorts and Ladies alike. The only comforting thing he could manage to find was a piece of chicken to gnaw upon while averting his eyes from everyone else.

The Lady Mullicynda was stunning. Compared to the colors and shapes around her, she was a glittering diamond set against cut glass. No one in the hall had any problem picking her out from the crowd, which she moved into gracefully, doing her duty as the evening's starlet. The other Ladies thinly veiled their feelings of hatred and envy with pretty smiles and pleasant chit-chat, hugs of greeting and curtsies of mock honor. However, no amount of decorum could silence the whispering that followed behind the new Lady like ripples. This was a frightening opponent to be sure and quiet discussion of how to destroy her was already beginning even in the first movements of the brilliant star through the hall. Any other new Lady would be just as busy sizing up the other women in the hall, but if we have learned anything about Mullicynda in the time that we have known her, she has other things on her mind. Of course, her own grace demanded that she be the perfect model of a Lady, even though her thoughts were wandering very far away.

In a particularly large cluster of Matrons, Symantha was holding a bit of a meeting. A few moments before, she drew great satisfaction from the obvious stir that Mulls' entry had caused. She also noted that her gift to the new Lady, the scrawny Daavor, was properly attired and filling his role, hopefully in more than just escorting his Lady into the hall. She was not shy in letting the others around her of the high Matrons know that this girl and her man were creatures of her creation and that this fact, among many others, should vault her to the position of Matriarch. Although there were a number of obvious descenters who were loyal to the present Matriarch, a slightly larger number of the high Matrons seemed very impressed with the things that Symantha was reporting. Her "show" smile was augmented by her exultation that this would be the night that a few of her carefully laid plans, worked over years of posturing and positioning, would come to fruition.

This was the prelude to the coming ceremony of the Investment itself. Groups of women and men, about their private and not-too-private purposes, from winning the next beauty contest, to plotting toward positions of power, to glutting oneself at the feasting tables. It seems that this last purpose is how Coryn was dealing with her own disappointments. Once the lithe and hopeful future Lady, she now looked to be working hard to become the stereo-typically portly and disgruntled dame of which every household seemed to have at least twenty. She would look often enough at the luminous Mullicynda and mumble some dark comment as she shoved something else in her mouth. No word had come that Coryn would be Mulls' Matron, which plan would have surely been worked out before the Investment, so now the manipulated friendship they had enjoyed previously had soured to a festering hatred of being jilted. While Coryn still wore a very nice dress, she no longer looked or behaved nicely while wearing it and people were avoiding her.

Fashionably late as she was ever expected to be, the Queen and her entourage finally entered through the great doors at the south end of the hall. All the men dropped to their knees and bowed low to the floor, all the Matrons and Dames knelt, spreading their hems wide and bowing their heads, and all the Ladies curtsied respectfully as royalty entered the room and made its way slowly to the stage at the north end. First came two artfully dressed young girls, chosen for this honor from the Convocation school, spreading rose petals for the royal to walk upon. Then, the young Queen herself, escorted by the tall and handsome former consort of the Grand Duchess, and followed by four ornamented men that carried her train.

Under normal circumstances, the Grand Duchess would have followed close behind the Queen, but everyone knows that the poor girl had recently died in the birthing of a sickly girl. As if to highlight the vacancy in the royal entourage, the traditional two thrones on the dais were present, though one would sit empty for these proceeding. This meant that the hall was especially filled this night, as every Lady on Firsthome was in attendance to see if the Queen would announce the date of the contest that would fill the empty throne beside where she was settling herself. The room fairly buzzed with talk on the whole situation and who were the best contenders.

Following the Queen, the stern-faced and elderly Matriarch marched with a regalness fitting of those ahead of her in the procession. Behind her were the households of the Queen and the absent Grand Duchess, arranged by their ranks and stations. It was noteworthy that as the fallen royal's Matron, Symantha was anticipated to be just behind the Matriarch in the parade, which she managed to step into from her early campaigning in a bit of a breach of protocol. The mere fact that she felt confident enough with herself to violate social etiquette was another factor in impressing the other high Matrons when the moment came to challenge the Queen's Matriarch directly. The group moved forward to arrange itself appropriately around the two thrones on the dais and finally, at a signal from the Queen, everyone on the dais was seated and the formal ceremony began.

The first half of the Investment almost seems like some sort of trial, where notable people from the past of the new Lady give evidence of her fitness to join the Convocation. In another way, it is like a funeral, because everyone is expected to say wonderful things about the girl in question, even if she was a rotten scoundrel. In this case, there were a handful of instructors at the school that gave glowing reports of Mulls' studiousness and scholastic ability, although at the time the girl was attending their classes, most had vague resignations about permitting her to proceed, mostly on the basis that she just didn't seem to fit in properly. Of course, none of that matters now, especially when the pressure of Symantha's machinations kept her progressing onward through school and to this very moment. There was the testimony of two Ladies to which Mulls had been lent during her school years for customary apprenticeships, which, according to their glowing words, she handled with strength of character and uncommon grace. In both cases, she actually spent the bulk of her time in her quarters, reading from her "Mariner's Log" book in secret, and getting all "dreamy" as Daavor came to call it, but truth really has no place in such things as Investment ceremonies. The last witness of all was the Baroness of Herring, who did a much better job of speaking in glowing terms of Mulls as if they had known each other for years than she did at interior decorating. It sounded as if the two weeks of ignoring that Mulls had spent in her household was more like sixteen years of watching a girl grow up and molding her into the vision that she was this day. One would expect the Baroness' speech from a mother or close kin, but since the Convocation didn't keep children with their mothers, it was an accepted role that the last Lady to which a girl was apprenticed should stand in the place of a loving mentor and, sadly, foot the bill for this entire affair. It is a status symbol that Symantha herself, through many hands and contrivances, is using to influence the Baroness among others. No price is too high, it seems, to pull Mullicynda permanently into the world of the Convocation Ladies and, more importantly, into her life of bearing the "super" Ladies of the future.

Even now, the high Matron is examining the honored girl most closely. It is expected that most girls are already pregnant when attending their own Investment party, which is the point of bringing a Miss together with her first consort during that crucial last apprenticeship. It would be too early for Mulls to actually be "showing" her delicate state as yet, but it appeared that she had a few of the "tell-tale" signs, such as looking a little bulkier than usual during that initial "eating-for-two" phase. Of course, that would actually be those extra clothes under the dress, but Symantha can draw whatever conclusions she likes. Also, the girl is looking a bit out-of-sorts, which is normal for someone coming to grips with losing all control of their body in pregnancy, but which is also very consistent with a person who has given up some control of her immediate circumstances and is putting things in God's hands. Again, if Symantha is supposing that all signs point to a triumphant birth in the near future, as opposed to being thwarted by a supreme being, that is her affair, all appearances aside.

With the formalities now done, Mullicynda herself is kneeling before the Queen, who is now saying the words that she traditionally says while placing a thin and rather plain silver coronet on the girl's brow. The words spoken are meaningless to mention here and the coronet itself is of so little consequence that many of them are melted down into commemorative coins or simply sold off to defer expenses. The tiara nicely matches Mulls' dress, which was very considerate of the Queen to accommodate for, as her own preference is for gold jewelry. With the formal ceremony over, the Queen and her retinue have vacated the stage, leaving only the new Lady, her anxious consort, and her red-haired Matron who was presented to her by the Baroness of Herring. There they will have to stand for the next few hours as a stream of posturing households present themselves and certain gifts to Mullicynda's new household.

Well, to call what Mullicynda will have after this is all over a "household" is a bit of a stretch. She and her few servants will continue on at the house of the Baroness of Herring until Mulls has won a contest for which one of the prizes is a manor. Therefore, it becomes very important to the status of a Lady to win a title quickly so that she may actually have her own house. Along with the household misnomer, the entire idea of a "gift" is something more than just a stretch and can imply something given with several very weighty strings attached to it.

Most of the "gifts" being given are just trinkets stolen off someone's mantle. Each lady in attendance at an Investment party is expected to provide at least one gift to the honored girl, though there are no rules on how tacky the gift can be. I believe the record for the worst Investment gift ever given was a mounted ram's rack that was presented to a girl whose best friend was trampled by a herd of crazed sheep just a week earlier. The sad part of it in the eyes of other Ladies was that it was just simply a stupid and thoughtless gift, as opposed to one meant to increase the girl's sense of loss just before a contest the giver hopes the receiving girl will lose. The giver in that case got no "bonus points" for being a conniving competitor, for only the densest Lady would give a gift without an agenda.

Now, there are the better gifts that have a deeper purpose, either to impress a rising star or to buy a new Lady's affection. For instance, now that the household of the departed Grand Duchess are before Mulls, attentive Ladies are somewhat taken aback by the gift being given: a finely carved golden plate with the royal Convocation seal at its center. It was an expensive gift by any standard and Symnatha, who had chosen it, simply acted very, very innocent. Surely favors would be required later for such an offering, though Mulls' could only fathom what they might be, except that it was something Symantha would definitely twist to her purposes. It seemed like everyone within any distance of Symantha owed her something and knew prudence always anticipated the day when this large group would be doing things at Symantha's bidding. Although there were plenty of Ladies and their gifts who wanted Mullicynda to simply know their name and speak well of them when Mulls' prospects rose, this "gift" from Symantha's departed Lady was probably designed to buy the young Lady's loyalty to the Matron running the palace.

It is an indication of Symantha's misunderstanding of her creature that Mulls felt absolutely no desire to give her allegiance to anyone, particularly any Lady or Matron in the hall that evening.

Besides the junk gifts and the ones intended to serve their givers, the bulk of the gifts followed the tradition of being of the housewarming and expectant mother varieties. There were an inordinate number of spoons to be found in the growing pile behind Mulls, along with a nice selection of lingerie for the seventh month of pregnancy that the new Lady cooed over and accepted with a hug. In fact, the piles of gifts of all sorts traditionally became so sizable that hired men were already at work stowing it aboard a "treasure boat" as such was often called, moored on a river quay just to the west of the hall. All of this gift-giving is somewhat of a show, for if quiet custom stands, the Baroness that will be housing Mulls and her tiny entourage will be selling most of these things back to the gift merchants to recompense herself for her troubles in hosting the Investment party in the first place. Some of these gifts have seen dozens of Investment parties and will see dozens more, bringing real pleasure only to the handful of households that specialize in the Investment gift trade. If it sounds like something of a racket, I can assure you that most things in life end up being this way, both upon Firsthome and in our world.

The hours pass and Mullicynda is getting sore in uncomfortable places with all the accepting and shuffling of gifts and hugging, Daavor has become bored and is helping the hired hands move the gifts to the treasure boat, and everyone is beginning to look a little weary of the whole thing. The better placed Ladies and their households have long since left the hall and now only the most pathetic Ladies with gifts too embarrassing to bring out in front of a crowd are making their way toward the dais. Mullicynda has even caught herself yawning once or twice, but is hard work to be kind and gracious, even to the lowliest of her new sisters of the Convocation. A bowl of plastic fruit. A painting of a solitary flower in a pot. A collection of fruity-smelling soaps. A conglomeration of latex that probably is meant to assist in a dangerous activity of perversion. All are accepted with a gentle smile and a gracious hug. On and on and on. But then...

"You witch!"

Everyone froze at the exclamation, which was so out of character here. I mean, a lot of women thought such things at Investment parties, but they had the foresight to keep it to themselves. The somewhat plump Lady trying to present her gift was just as surprised as Mulls and turned to the source of the outburst. The gifting Lady's Matron was wide-eyed as well at this outrage. One of the junior dames of this household, bursting out of her old school dress, had nothing but venom in her eyes as she spoke again. "You don't deserve a gift, you cheat!"

There was a gasp among the dame's household and it moved quickly throughout the people still left in the hall. "Coryn," Mullicynda breathed out.

"You promised that I would be your Matron!" She gave a nasty look and accusing finger at the red-headed and now red-faced young woman to Mulls' left. "Is this what you dumped me for?"

The new Lady tried to say something in response. "I couldn't find you. The Baroness suggested..."

Coryn, not bothering to listen, had a crazed look. "You lied to me! You aren't fit to be a Lady!" Instead of leaping at Mulls, which would have probably gotten the wayward dame euthanize like an animal, she sprung at the red-haired Matron with nails flying.

The Matron over Coryn had the presence of mind to motion in a couple of men to restrain her atrocious dame before serious damage could be done. The Lady was already making apologies for the conduct of her staff in the midst of Mulls' pleading to her old friend. "I am sorry! I really was trying!" Coryn's only response was to behave like a stung wildcat between the two men that struggled to drag her away.

The gift was temporarily forgotten as the giver Lady and her Matron whispered quickly over the fate of Coryn. Mulls turned to the care and consolation of her own Matron that wasn't expecting to be noticed, much less attacked. Everyone soon gained back composure and the gift was finally given, a cheap chafing dish. As before, this was gratefully accepted with a hug, though the faint ravings of Coryn could still be heard from two blocks away. Though Symantha herself was long since gone from the hall, her Canary was still grazing liberally at what food was left on the tables and witnessed the whole encounter.

Fortunately, this was the only outburst that would darken the mood of the hall for the rest of the waning party.

At long last, the gift-giving was over and it was social hour again and the refreshment tables were replenished. Several Ladies who had left the hall earlier were now returning, especially ones that were basically here for the food and sadly looked it. In defense of the Convocation, I will report that it does vaguely sponsor contests and prizes for the more-rotund Ladies who have succumbed to party feasts and therefore have little chance of winning the more traditional contests. Such kindness is tempered though, as the prizes are small at best and the titles are quite derogatory, as you would not normally expect from beauty queens.

Mulls was engaged in a very uninteresting conversation with a Lady a few years her senior that talked incessantly of the tedious reptile trade that her household was trying to fashion into a larger market. It was not a sign of respectability to engage in business best left to Matrons and dames, but what is a Lady to do that has lost her last six contests? The poor woman was about to say as much, but the new Lady was suddenly gone. The peculiar Lady looked around a bit, as many people wander away from her conversations, hoping to find Mulls and pick things back up, but it looked as if the girl had completely vanished. She only shrugged and confronted another Lady that looked as if she had little prospect of escaping and began the snake talk yet again.

Outside, Daavor was moving a particularly large table around on the deck of the treasure boat, trying to find the right place so that it would not force the boat to list to one side or the other. He had called over another man with a rope to make the furniture fast for the journey across the estuary to the house of the Baroness on the far side. Suddenly, a female voice called out from the quay. "Where is your Lady?"

The other man looked first and averted his eyes, hitting Daavor and pointing the woman out. It was hard to determine how a man should respond to any woman in a nice dress, so one defaulted to treating her well. He managed a bow. "Were you talking to me, Lady?"

Symantha ignored the mistake. "Of course I am talking to you!" she snapped. "I am looking for your Lady Mullicynda. You are her consort, yes?"

The whole concept of actually being a consort was still strange to Daavor and he still didn't feel like one, as Mulls had not permitted him to share her bed as of yet. "Uh, yeah. I mean, yes, my Lady."

"You will fetch her straight-away." She turned and looked back at the hall, knowing that to engage too much with a Lady's consort in public would be uncouth and raise questions.

Daavor immediately left the tying down of the table and began to make his way to the gangplank in search of Mulls, as he had been nominally trained to obey all women. If he would have had any presence of mind, the man would have remembered how bizarre it was for a woman attached to a different albeit royal household to be ordering him about, instead of working through a lower Matron or dame of his own household as was proper. If he had known that his Lady was being summoned by a Matron, it would have seemed even more unbelievable, but the poor man had no clue and Symantha was growing too anxious and suspicious to bother with protocol.

On his way to the gangplank, however, another voice came to his ears. "Don't leave the boat." It was a familiar voice, more familiar than Symantha's, but also female. "Tell the others that Lady Mullicynda has their pay in the hall and make sure everyone is off." She would be obeyed just as readily as any other woman who was likely in charge of things on the treasure boat.

Daavor nodded and moved off to the others on the boat, relaying the message of the last woman he heard.

"What is this?" Symantha had glanced back to see if her order was being carried out and saw the consort about other things. "Did you not understand me?"

The voice of a common-looking woman under a cloak and hood called out a response as she walked along with a gifted painting between herself and Symantha. "Someone else has 'ready been sent to the 'all to find 'er Ladyship for ye." She remembered herself and added with a small curtsy, "beg pardon, Lady."

Symantha was perturbed and looked it. She accosted a man moving toward the hall to get his paycheck and sent him to look for Mulls as well. She had come to the quay to insure that her new creature was properly installed in her new station and would not be misplaced again. "Are you certain she has not been this way?" This she called back to the woman on the boat.

"I canna say, Lady. I've been loadin' the boat for awhile. Didna see her about."

There was an exasperated sigh from the Matron but she wasn't moving off. The commoner put the painting she was carrying down, gave it a look as if it just didn't fit among the surrounding things, took it back up, and moved toward the bow and out of Symantha's vision.

It seemed that Daavor was now the only man left on the boat. With all of his nautical experience, he could feel that something was wrong here. The fore end was moving slowly away from the quay and the gangplank was moving around amidships. The boat was not moored. The fisherman instinct took over and the man ran to the aft tie-down and saw that the stern was moving away from the quay as well. What he did not see was the common woman, who had spoken with Symantha, pushing the boat away from the quay with an oar.

"Wait!" Symantha called out. "You idiot!" This was to Daavor, which was quite accustomed to being called that by women. "You are leaving some of your Lady's gifts behind!"

The rope that should have been secured to the tie-down was hanging loose, attached to nothing, which was very odd. The man took it up and prepared to pull on it and bring the boat back to the quay, but another female voice intervened. "Cast off!" The voice called out again but was somewhat obscured by the sound of the gangplank falling into the water as the distance between quay and craft increased. Daavor stood there, the rope that was the last connection to the quay slipping out through his confused hands, not knowing which voice of command to follow.

"Get back here, you silly man!" Symantha was shouting and running as best she could along the quay as the receding tide began to drag the boat toward the sea. "Your Lady will be very angry!" At this, Daavor clenched onto the line and the movement of the water pivoted the boat back into the direction of the quay.

The other female voice came again and it was running fast to the conflicted man. "No, Daavor! Let go of the rope!" The cape and hood were gone and it was the plain-dressed Mullicynda on the deck with him. "It is time to leave!" She didn't bother mentioning the rising of the hairs on the back of her neck and other indications that the timing of the tide, the efforts of God, and other factors that were wanting to put them out to sea.

Symantha suddenly realized what was happening. "You little strumpet!" Suddenly, she turned frantically back to Daavor as a crowd of women and men began to come out of the hall and see the commotion. "Daavor, haul that boat in and you will be in a Ducal bed within a week! I can make it happen!"

The man with the rope in his hand got a stunned look. Just weeks ago, he was the lowliest of fisherman, only lunatics willing to be his crew. Now, he was being offered one of the highest positions a man can have in the Convocation and the offer was coming from the one Matron that could pull it off. It was impossibly tempting.

Just then, Mulls reached him and grabbed his arm. If she didn't get away now, Symantha would never let her out of sight again and the girl would be some Matron's lab rat forever. "Don't listen to her, Daavor," she breathed into his ear. The boat was swinging closer to the quay and men were already waiting to catch it, sealing her doom. She didn't know what to say to turn his attention from the ultimate lure of the Convocation.

Honestly, what would you readers do in this situation? Would you appeal to the man's desire for freedom from an oppressive life? Or perhaps you could point out that Symantha would be very likely not to keep her word once she got what she wanted. Finally, I went to the ultimate authority short of God for the answer: my wonderful wife. And it just so happens that she came up with exactly the same solution that God put into Mullicynda's head. I always knew I had married an inspired woman.

There was a very loud ringing sound, a muffled thud, a cry of "No!" and then the boat began to drift back out into the estuary and toward the sea.

It was Symantha calling out "No!", not just once but over and over again as she ran as best she could on her heels further down the quay. She was even picking up the odd dropped gift and flinging them at the receding vessel, which neither aswaged her anger nor forced the boat back to the shore, thus making her actions worthless on the whole.

Mullicynda simply looked back to the group now assembling on the quay and waved. She did not wave so much with her hand as she did with a golden plate that she grasped, a plate that was now slightly bent but still bore the insignia of the royal house. Mulls didn't appear particularly gleeful at the high Matron's misfortune, but she did call out a final statement to her. "Thanks for the plate!"

Daavor was not really involved in any of this, as his unconscious body was splayed out on the deck of the boat not far from Mulls. The rope that he had been previously gripping had fallen from his hands and was now just about played out into the water. He now sported a fine swelling knot on his head that his new Lady had just administered, not far from another now fading knot that had been provided a few weeks ago by the minions of Symantha. If the man ever recovered his full faculties, perhaps he would have grounds to sue any number of people, provided they didn't bash him in the head again when he tried.

The boat was now out in the river's current and moving faster toward the sea. Mullicynda dropped her plate, jerked a rope free that unfurled the sail, ran to the stern of the boat, and snatched up the tiller, just in time before the boat twisted itself to enter the open channel broadside. She could still faintly hear shouting from behind and glanced back to see the Queen's Matriarch laugh at her rival's troubles. The breeding experiment, at least as it concerned Mulls, had just ended and Symantha's failure would not bring the boost of support that her power grab depended upon. It was a sad thing, but Mullicynda was not going to let anything get her down on her sixteenth birthday.

The girl, who would not make much of a Lady after all, pondered how long she should wait until reviving her "consort". Although she didn't know it yet, it was Daavor who knew what course to sail, now that they had a boat of their own and provisioning and most importantly of all, he knew where to find the monument that bore the symbol of The Mariner's Log and the community of Waykeep beyond it. He would recover presently enough and Mulls figured that there was plenty of time to beg her best friend's apology for forcing him into another one of her hair-raising intrigues.

And if he has any problems with receiving that apology, he can always take it up with God.

A Dismissal and An Ascension

As far as I am aware of, the real trick to being evil is finding the right time to let one's true feelings out to play. An amateur will just lash out at the first sign of betrayal, but a true professional will mask their emotions until the moment that their expression will have the maximum effect. However, I have to say that I am not evil and I tend to be a pretty "up-front" person, as I have no capacity for guile, so my intimate knowledge of the ways of evil are practically non-existent.

Symantha, on the other hand, has been an important practitioner of evil for a very long time now. To look at her, you would not know that all of the plans and activities she has been managing for years have recently come crashing down upon her. She had been watching Mullicynda for about three years, ever since that moment she had grown from a gawky kid into the raving beauty that was just a little odd and wonderfully naive. Symantha had been manipulating our Daavor since the day she pulled him from the birth canal of a marked Lady. Now, they both had disappeared in such a complete way that it was stunning. To look at this high Matron, working on some more potions for upcoming births in her warehouse laboratory, you would think that nothing at all had happened to affect her life. In a word, she was "good" at being evil.

To be sure, the woman that aspired to the post of Matriarch had other plans that she has been working on. She wouldn't be worthy of attention if she only had a scheme or two in her life. The weeks after Mulls' treasure boat had left the estuary for the open channel beyond had been full of searches by various agents and calling in dozens of favors that were all in vain: as far as Symantha could tell, her chosen couple was neither in Port Trechiva or upon the island of Firsthome. For all practical purposes, they had simply vanished from the lands of the Alaed. But as far as I can observe from her typical deftness in work, she was non-plussed by this. It seems as though she was able to let go of the pair easily enough and get back to other personal projects.

Outside the main room, out in the entry corridor most likely, a familiar stumbling and cursing could be heard. Symantha didn't even stop what she was doing to look up as her protege tripped into view. The Canary was back in the stewardess outfit that she had worn on the distant beach on the far side of the channel in the very first chapters of this book. The tight dress had been repaired well enough, but the woman had been binge-eating ever since Mull's investment party, probably to deal with the terrible stress that the expected punishment for losing Daavor should have elicited from her superior. The fact that Symantha had remained very even about the whole matter in their regular meetings actually intensified the silly woman's stress, for though the Canary was quite horrible at being evil, she did recognize that the high Matron was not. The younger Matron was stretching the seams of her dress and gulping air as she leaned on the doorway and stripped off her bright yellow and high-heeled shoes.

"I got the reports of the last two people you wanted me to contact." She was having trouble breathing as her dress had grown more constricting. "No sign of Mullicynda or Daavor."

Symantha had her back to the doorway and there was no sign that she had even acknowledged the entry of her subordinate, much less heard her report.

"Hey!" The Canary was feeling a little indignant. "No one knows where they are!" She slid down the door-frame in a most unflattering way until her bottom hit the floor, which caused that peculiar sound of fabric tearing. This elicited a quiet curse and set the woman to bending her legs enough to rub her feet. "That treasure boat must have sunk somewhere and they drowned," she offered more to herself than anyone else. "I was tired of keeping tabs on that Daavor anyway."

The high Matron kept up her work as before even while hearing a few more rips coming from her protege's dress. Finally, she spoke. "I have our dinner ready."

The Canary rolled about a bit and managed to get onto her knees. As her body was becoming accustomed to her unrestrained feeding habits of late, the woman's stomach pushed her forward, famished. No words were spoken as the younger Matron reached the table, slammed down her stilettos on a convenient part of the table-top, and went after the plate before her with abandon. As Symantha was aware of her junior's anxious habit, she had prepared a double-portion of food for them both.

In not too many minutes, the plate before the gluttonous woman was licked clean. "You aren't eating? Do you mind?" The words came out a little muffled with the last food she was still chewing, but the older woman simply kept about her work without a reply. Shrugging, the other Matron must have taken a lack of response as an opportunity and pulled her superior's plate closer to her gaping maw. "Don't mind if I do," she whispered through added bites.

"Did you invite the dame as I instructed?" It was snapped out a little more shortly than her even manner would have liked and Symantha clutched her hand for a few seconds to regain what little composure she had lost.

It was difficult but the Canary managed to speak between large bites. "Yeah." Chew, chew, chew. "She should be here shortly."

The high Matron nodded curtly. She figured that the timing would work out adequately. She would also finish her work on the next batch of vials about the time that the food in front of the Canary gave out - also adequate timing.

By the light of the small lantern on the table and somewhat masked by the twittering of innumerable birds in their cages, Symantha's other plans began to be accomplished.

The Canary was just stuffing a last spoonful into her mouth when her face contorted uncomfortably. The other woman was putting the blue and pink ribbons on her completed vials at that moment and didn't notice. The younger Matron looked as if she wanted to burp, but found that she could not. There was a bit of a gurgle toward the Canary's abdomen that caused her to double over, but Symantha wasn't really paying attention. Further seams ripped as the silly Matron heaved as if to vomit, but found that she could not. A few seconds later, she was huffing about strangely as if breathing was getting more difficult and she tried to draw a decent breath, but found that she could not.

If you readers ever wondered why I didn't bother giving the yellow canary matron a proper name, you must understand that I knew this would happen. I seemed pointless to bother naming a person that wasn't going to last.

"Hello?" It was a bit of a plaintive call from the direction of the entry corridor. "Is anyone there?" The voice of the girl was a little shaky, but she had sense enough to have a lamp of her own and missed the obvious obstacles that the Canary always seemed to run into. "I saw the light in the window above. I am meeting someone here."

The young woman attached to the voice stepped into the doorway and came up short with a gasp. The tiny lamp she was previously holding crashed to the floor in a spray of ceramic and oil.

The Matron of the household of the Grand Duchess was facing the girl. "Please come in." Behind the Matron was a bit of a dining table with plates and vials, and beyond that was the splayed body of a woman which was terribly bloated and looking quite dead. "I am expecting you."

A wide-eyed Coryn walked tentatively toward the table. "I was told you had something to offer me." The girl decided it was wise not to mention that the dead woman on the other side of the table had been the messenger.

"An opening has become available for a Matron. I was told that you had recently expressed a desire to become such." Left unsaid was that the dead woman in the room was the one who had done the telling and whose expiration had created the opening. "Would you be interested in the position I am offering?"

Coryn was a little confused and a lot repulsed, but she had never been one to let small matters stop her from taking an opportunity for advancement. She looked squarely in the high Matron's eyes. "I would be very interested," she spoke evenly.

Symantha smiled and nodded. "Excellent." She turned about and took the vials from the table and offered them to the new young Matron. "I need these delivered to the high Matron of the Duchess of Culture." Perhaps to be reassuring, the older Matron patted her new protege on the arm. "I hope I can trust you not to break them."

The girl nodded. "Of course." She was already beginning to turn back toward the doorway to conceal a worried lump in her throat.

"Oh," the high Matron mentioned innocently enough, "before you go," she motioned at the general table area, encompassing the dirty plates and the swollen whale of a former woman nearby. "Would you mind tidying up?"

Coryn swallowed hard. "Of course," she nodded.

Mullicynda Gets Her Chance

At the beginning of this book, I spoke of babies and how circumstances change when such things as babies enter our lives. This is all part of our own growth and learning, courtesy of the God who is the father of us all. I revealed a bit about my wife and mine's travails in moving from being a rather self-absorbed couple into being a mother and a father for what turned out to be our six children. Further, I also revealed a little about Alaedeus and Cassandra, the ancestors of our Mullicynda and Daavor, who were brought to Firsthome by the Mariner and bore the children who would become the nation of the Alaed. In each case, a change came and an opportunity was taken up to do something greater and put aside thoughts of the moment and think more upon the possibilities of a more joyous future.

Of course, it is hard to ponder on future happiness when one is retching on a rough-hewn table in the middle of a make-shift hut that is shaking in the winds of a stormy beach. Mullicynda's travail, as her swollen belly is about to burst, is not made any more pleasant as thunder cracks the sky and jolts her yet again and the rain is dripping on her through a poor roof that Daavor had no business attempting to fashion. She could only manage to cry out as she clutched the edges of the rickety table and hunched herself in another effort to push out the life that squirmed within her.

Daavor is wide-eyed and just as useless as he had always been when helping his now-wife attend to a birth. Fortunately, the hut he had no business building stands on the beach not far from the stone marker with its curious carving of The Mariner's Log that marks the path that leads to Waykeep. The young woman who had once tended Daavor as he was washed upon this very shore is present for this birth, moving and working like a person who knows far more about such things as childbirth, building tables and huts, and practically everything else, than Daavor does. Tessreen has fortunately also brought her own husband Enis along, who consoles the expectant father by being practically as useless at the moment.

The sky cracks again. The hut shakes precariously. Mulls trembles like a leaf from exposure and labor. Tess takes gentle command as well as any Convocation midwife. The men continue to resolutely stand by in horror. I imagine that God is here as well, lending a hand where divinity can best serve, as he has been doing for so long and will continue to do for a long time to come. Tessreen motions to her husband and mentions something about getting a wrap to warm the mother-to-be and the men produce what looks to be a very ornate tablecloth from Mulls' investment party. It seems woefully inadequate and out-of-place in such a scene, but it is placed over the expectant mother's shoulders nonetheless and the effort continues.

Nothing is right in the hut, what with its eclectic combination of furniture built from driftwood and elegantly expensive nick-knacks from Mulls' investment party strewn about and being incessantly dripped upon. However, in a deeper sense, everything is as it should be. There are no rows of midwives come to honor the birth of a new Lady. There are no elixirs sent to deal out life or death to the mother. No matron is here ready to whisk the child away to some nursery or some gutter. Here, there is only a humble wife and husband, cringing at the incredible forces that hold them and clutching to new-found friends that offer what help they can. God brought them to this place and circumstance and, as much as they can, they are making themselves equal to the moment.

There is another crash of thunder, one last scream of pain from Mullicynda, and a crying child comes into the world, the first child to come from the culture of the Convocation with a real mother and a real father, joined in the commitment of marriage and now, parenthood. Mullicynda and Daavor, the pair brought together by Symantha's plan to produce the perfect Convocation Lady, have instead brought forth, with the help of their God, a child who will be the Convocation's doom.

This baby will change everything for the nation of the Alaed. This baby will free the slaves of the Convocation. This baby will help bring a renewed understanding of God, that knowledge and hope that Alaedeus and Cassandra acted upon, to the people of Firsthome and perhaps to you endurant readers. However, these facts and the stories around them are the subjects of future books and it is time to bring this particular volume to a close.

And, as a fitting piece of irony, the baby is uncompromisingly a boy.

Babies change everything.

-- Jason Nemrow - 2012

Topic revision: r1 - 2019-07-25 - JasonNemrow
 
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