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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Twenty Two

       Last updated: Friday, July 16, 2004 00:53 EDT



    Sir Richard had debated long and hard about which of the new plays to present first. Romeo and Juliet had a strong story, of course, and was full of both action and pathos. The Scottish Play—odd, how even Pausert now could hardly bring himself to even think of it by its proper title—had plenty of fighting too, nor to mention the added attraction of the magic and all those murders. Twelfth Night, on the other hand, though a “comedy,” wasn’t really all that funny. Of the four, it was probably the one least likely for a new audience to appreciate, which was why Cravan had added it into the repertoire last. A Midsummer Night’s Dream was a lot funnier, even if you didn’t altogether understand the language, and there was that ladies’ mud-wrestling scene…

    In the end, that was what had decided Cravan. Of all of the plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream was probably the most accessible. And with the mining population heavily weighted in favor of men, the mud-wrestling, much though he abhorred it himself, was probably going to please even the densest of them.

    The miners proved just as pleasantly intelligent and appreciative as had been suggested. They laughed at most of the right places, ooo’d and ah’d at the fairy-lights provided by the Leewit and Goth; and, yes, were very enthusiastic about the mud-wrestling scene. Enough so that when the curtain came down and the cast came out for final bows, there was a pleasant pattering of those little knots of gold-dust on the stage at Hulik’s feet and that of her co-star.

    Dame Ethulassia got a share of them, too, interestingly enough. Pausert had to admit that she was a regal figure in the Elven Queen’s elaborate costume, and if she was more than a few years Hulik’s senior, the exaggerated makeup that went with the costume went a fair way to hiding that. Mostly, though, Pausert suspected that it was The Incredible Bosom which did the trick.

    Even Hantis got a knot or two. Under other circumstances, Pausert would have been the first to suggest staying to find out just how much had been collected. Not tonight, though. Hulik managed to put on a veneer of graceful modesty when Cravan asked if wanted to stay on with the company accountant and shook her head. “If I can’t trust you and Himbo Petey to deal fairly with us all, I doubt my being there in person would make much difference. Besides, it’s been a very long day, and there are going to be a lot more of them ahead of us! I’d rather stare at the inside of my eyelids than an accounting page.”

    “And speaking of accounting,” Pausert said in a low voice, as they all hurried towards the Venture, “I for one would like to find out just why our bank account was frozen. If it hadn’t been for that, we might be at our destination right now!”

    “I’m sure he’ll have a good explanation,” Hulik said, though she sounded uncertain.

    “I clumping well hope so,” the Leewit said ominously. “Or it just might be Sedmon of the Five Lives pretty soon.”

    The Daal of Uldune chose that moment to step out from the Venture’s airlock—just in time to hear that pint-sized bloodcurdling threat. He smiled serenely. “Please, Little Wisdom, have mercy. That ploy was never meant to do more than create a day or two’s delay, in order that we could catch up with you. You were all in grave danger, and heading into still more.”

    From her scowl, the Leewit was not much mollified. Neither was Pausert. “Well, by the time the trouble your ‘delaying tactic’ caused us was over,” he said with some heat, “we’d been shot at, thrown into prison, kidnapped, shot at again, sunk into ferroplast, shot at some more, and were running short on air and fuel. With ‘help’ like that, who needs enemies?”

    “I can explain,” said the Sedmon smoothly. He gestured regally, inviting them to enter their spaceship as if it was his own palace. Oddly... he managed to pull it off—even after introducing his twin, once they reached the ship’s salon.

    Hulik looked a little smug. More than little, in fact.


    “You are not entirely surprised, I gather?” one of the Sedmons asked her, cocking his head. His twin’s head was also cocked, although in the opposite direction. To Pausert, the look both of them were giving the do Eldel seemed oddly intense.

    “No, not really.” Hulik looked back and forth from one to the other. “I was always curious about that ‘of the Six Lives’ business and did a little discreet investigation on my own. The timing of your public appearances is not, I’m afraid, always up to professional standards. Quite good, mind you, for a monarch. But from my vantage point, a bit on the sloppy side. There have been occasional reports of these odd overlaps. Not many, and I doubt if anyone except me has ever really put it together. Perhaps, in the future... a little expert advice...”

    “Indeed,” said both of the Sedmons simultaneously, almost eagerly.

    The Leewit interrupted. She was almost cross-eyed, staring at them. “You mean you’re—you’re--?” She gave her older sister an exasperated glance. “What’s the word, Goth?”

    “Sextuplets. But I don’t think that’s it. Here, I mean. I think they’re clones.”

    The Sedmons nodded, again simultaneously. “That is correct. Although, even that does not fully encompass the reality. The witches of Karres are not the only ones who have delved into the mysteries of klatha.”

    Hantis nodded. “You were birthed by the Hospitalers of Ghrauth, then.” She made a face. “Risky business, dealing with them.”

    Pausert had never heard of “the Hospitalers of Ghrauth.” But he noticed that both Goth and the Leewit’s eyes were wider than they had been.

    “Clumping crazy,” muttered the Leewit.

    The Sedmons shrugged. “It is an old arrangement,” said one of them, “dating back through the last four Daals of Uldune. A bit dangerous, I suppose, but... let us say that my forefathers not only paid extremely well but had certain methods of ensuring that the Hospitalers stuck to their side of the bargain.”

    Goth seemed to suppress a snort. “No fooling! Burn their moonlet down to bedrock.”

    “Well, yes, that too,” said the other Sedmon modestly. “Though, of course, that would only be an inconvenience to the monsters. But the Daals have other longstanding arrangements, you know. The Hospitalers have always been considerably more impressed by our friendly relations with the Nemode Cluster.”

    So was Goth, from the way her eyes kept widening. The Leewit’s eyes bore a fair resemblance to saucers. “Clumping insane!” she choked.

    Hulik, on the other hand, simply looked intrigued. Very intrigued.

    Pausert cleared his throat forcefully. He didn’t understand anything they were talking about, and had more pressing concerns anyway.

    “You were going to explain why you had our account frozen...”



    The Sedmons knew about the Nanite plague. They had known about the Agandar’s fleet and the ISS being in pursuit of the Venture and its crew. This, according to the two that were here, was why they had put a hold—”a hold only, and then only with the instructions to verify with us before authorizing payment”—on the account with the Daal’s bank on Uldune.

    “The hold was on the account,” the right-hand Sedmon said crossly. “It wasn’t an order to hold the captain who tried to use it! All that was supposed to happen was that the person verifying the information was supposed to call us, and we would release the account. It seemed a perfectly reasonable and quiet way to find out where you were without sending out messages that would have revealed you, and us, to enemies! Our instructions were not carried out, and we are most aggrieved.”

    “Hmph. Not half as aggrieved as we were,” Pausert replied, but he was privately feeling a lot less angry. When Sedmon of the Six Lives was “most aggrieved,” heads usually began to roll.

    “Your instructions may have been subverted and contaminated, Excellency,” said Hantis. “When the ISS fails to honor a safe-conduct in the Empress’ own hand, such a thing is not unlikely.”

    Both Sedmons nodded somberly, like a pair of souvenir bobble-heads. “All the more reason to be aggrieved,” the left-hand one said, this time very grimly indeed. Pausert could practically hear the echo of a falling ax behind his words. “And our sources give us three reasons why such things could have happened to you and to us. One—that someone high in the Empress’ government has been infected with the plague, or is jockeying to make himself Regent or Emperor. We think the former is the more likely possibility, otherwise why try to stop you? You only bring word of the Nanite plague—this could not help or harm someone who is merely engaging in cut-throat politics, so there would be no reason to try to intercept you.”

    Pausert nodded, and so did the Nartheby Sprite.

    “Two—someone high in the ISS is the infected entity.”

    “We thought of both of those ourselves,” said Goth evenly.

    Unlike the Leewit, she was not scowling—had not scowled once, in fact—but there was always something rather unsettling about that expressionless face on a girl who was still only twelve standard years old. For a moment, the Sedmons almost seemed to flinch a little.

    “Ah, but there is a third possibility.” The right-hand Sedmon raised a finger. “The Agandar’s followers pursue you, under the assumption that you have the Agandar’s treasure, or at least, the key to it.”

    “I don’t—” Pausert began with some heat, but the Sedmons both waved him to silence. He might not have obeyed, except that seeing both of them move and act as one was oddly compelling and a bit creepy.

    “Whether you do or not is irrelevant,” the left-hand Sedmon said. “The point is, that they believe that you do. And so, perhaps, does someone in the ISS.”

    “Eh?” said Pausert, and “Oh!” said Goth and the Leewit together. The older sister’s face now had an expression, and the Leewit had left off scowling.

    “Captain! Someone in the ISS might be looking to make himself rich on the Agandar’s treasure,” said the Leewit. “And that’s a lot of treasure.”

    Hantis and Pul stared at each other. “Reason enough,” Pul agreed. “Even for ignoring the Empress’ safe-conduct.”

    “Personally, of all three reasons, this is the one that is the most likely, we think,” the right-hand Sedmon said. “Greed is a more reliable motivator than anything else.”

    Pausert didn’t agree with him, although he wished he did. The Daal’s third alternative was the least frightening. A corrupt ISS official was somehow easier to deal with in his mind than someone who—well—wasn’t “himself” anymore. That just made the hair on the back of his neck stand up, and worse, made him want to shut himself in his stateroom and weld the door shut.

    “Now, we have unlocked your account, but it may not be safe to use it,” the left-hand Sedmon continued. “Clearly, someone has a watch on it. We underwent some difficulties ourselves in the course of finding you, that lead us to believe that our own safeguards off Uldune are not as secure as we had thought. We have access to other accounts to pay off your ship and refuel it, of course, but it might be best not to touch them until you have lost pursuit. So—it may be that this is your best and safest means of travel for some time.”

    “But the Petey B won’t be going anywhere near the core worlds,” Pausert protested.

    Both Sedmons raised their eyebrows. “Oh?” said the right-hand one. “The ship goes where the profit is, does it not? And if the Daal’s Bank on Uldune elects to sponsor this ship on a goodwill cultural tour spiraling towards the core?”

    “There might even be some profit in it,” the left-hand Sedmon added, thoughtfully. “These old-Yarthian plays are strangely compelling. Especially the one with the mud-wrestling scene—”

    “Sponsoring the showboat would certainly guarantee that it went where you wanted,” Pausert interjected hastily. “But Sedmon—uh, or is it ‘Sedmons’?—you aren’t dealing with some back-country yokel here. Himbo Petey is shrewd. So are Richard Cravan and Dame Ethulassia—and Himbo won’t do anything like this without consulting with then. They’re all going to be curious about why the Daal’s Bank is suddenly sponsoring cultural tours, and they probably won’t stop looking for an answer until they find one.”

    “And in the process, they may reveal us to more than just the cast and crew of the showboat,” Hulik cautioned.

    The Sedmons pursed their lips. “Just ‘Sedmon,’ please, whichever of us you are addressing—or however many at once,” murmured the one on the right. A moment later, his clone said, a bit reluctantly, “In that case, I believe we are going to have to tell them the truth. Most of it, at least. My identity will have to be fudged, of course, beyond what’s needed to make the offer of payment believable. But I think we can leave the specific details regarding the Nanite plague on the vague side. As well as your exact identities, beyond being agents for the Empress. I see no reason to mention Karres at all.”

    The proposal should have made Pausert very unhappy. In fact, it did the opposite. Logic and cunning maneuver be damned. His instincts told him that Himbo Petey, Richard Cravan, and Dame Ethulassia were to be trusted in a matter of this sort. Besides, the duplicity they had been engaged in was chafing at him more and more. “I’m for it,” he said immediately.

    Hulik sighed. “It goes entirely against all my training,” she said, “But I feel the same.”

    Hantis shrugged. “At this point, there is danger either way. But Himbo might order us off his ship, and keep ours!”

    “This is a mining world,” retorted the left-hand Sedmon. “If we cannot buy an old freighter, I would be very much surprised.”

    Pausert winced. He had grown very attached to the Venture. “Well, we could probably buy our way off, though that much activity might alert the people we’re trying to hide from.”

    “I don’t think he’ll dump us,” the Leewit said suddenly. “Himbo Petey, I mean. And I’d feel better telling him too.”

    Goth nodded, Vezzarn shrugged, and the grik-dog simply grunted.

    “It seems unanimous,” said the right-hand Sedmon. “I suggest, then, that you tell him. Now, if possible.”

    “Me?” Pausert asked. “What about you?”

    “It seems prudent that we remain an unknown,” the Sedmons said together. “In fact,” added the left-hand one, “we intend to send one of us back to our own ship to remain there for the duration. It is not a wise idea for us both to be seen at the same time.”

    “It didn’t ever occur to you to pass yourself off as perfectly ordinary twins, did it?” Goth asked, sardonically. “I don’t know, sometimes. All that supposed intelligence—”

    The Sedmons looked stricken. “Twins?” they said together. “But do twins—”

    “Sort of,” said Vezzarn thoughtfully, tapping his finger against his glass. “Not a real psionic bond, like the Hospitalers seem to have given you. But twins sometimes do act together, talk together—know when each other’s in trouble. Why, I remember a couple of girls in a social-club back on Nardis that—”

    Hulik coughed; Vezzarn flushed, and cut off whatever he was going to say.

    “Very well, then,” the Sedmons said. “We will come with you—but not as ourselves. Agents for the bank, perhaps.”

    “I don’t care how you come,” said Pausert flatly, “so long as you have some way of proving to Himbo Petey that you have access to enough money to commission his ship for this ‘cultural cruise.’ Because if you can’t do that, you might as well unlock our account so we can cut loose and take our chances.”

    “That,” said the Sedmons, “would be a bad idea.”



    Himbo Petey looked from Hantis to Pausert and back again, his eyes narrowed. Pausert expected an explosion, but he wasn’t getting one. He wasn’t sure whether to be relieved or more worried.

    “Well,” Petey said at last. “If that doesn’t beat anything I’ve ever heard.”

    “But it certainly explains some otherwise inexplicable things, Himbo,” said Richard Cravan thoughtfully. “Mind you, I am less than pleased with their lack of candor up to this point. On the other hand, I can understand why they prevaricated.”

    “Sure, so can I,” growled Petey, “But I still don’t like it, not one bit. ‘Gainst my showboat principles.”

    “You have to admit that not knowing hasn’t harmed you or the showboat,” Hulik pointed out reasonably.

    “And you’re serious about paying the Petey B to go on this inner-system tour, are you?” Himbo Petey licked his lips. “I dunno. I just don’t know. It’d mean guaranteed pay, no matter what the box-office took in, and that’s not to be sneezed at. But I dunno...”

    “Himbie!” cried Ethulassia, seizing his arm urgently and drawing him close. “I like the idea!” She and Cravan exchanged a quick glance, and Ethulassia nodded slightly. As she did so—the Dame was no mean magician herself—The Incredible Bosom seemed to expand still further.

    “Himbo,” Cravan said, his eyes taking on something of an unholy glow. “You know how my one dream has been to take my company and these plays to the central worlds. You know how sure I’ve been that we could hold our own against any other theatrical company there. This is our chance! This is our chance to prove what we can do, who we are, and at no risk at all to you, financial or otherwise. Please, Himbo! Please! I have never truly begged you for anything before this, but I am begging you now—please let us do this!”

    Himbo Petey looked from Ethulassia to Cravan, then to Pausert, then the Sedmons, then back to Cravan. “Well—”

    Cravan seized his hand and pumped it. “Thank you, Himbo! Thank you! You are making my dream come true!”

    Petey hemmed and hawed a little, looking pleased but embarrassed. “But we don’t leave here until we’ve earned everything there is to earn here,” he added hastily. “Damned if I will! Showboat principles are showboat principles.”

    “We do not disagree,” said the right-hand Sedmon earnestly. “It would seem odd if we did. And ah—er—” he coughed. “Our own disguise—perhaps ‘bona fides’ is a more salubrious term—needs to be established. We think perhaps our ship should be added to the frame, and a job found for us. Temporarily, of course.”

    “Of course,” Himbo agreed. He cocked an eyebrow at Pausert and Hulik. “Suggestions?”

    “Mentalist act,” said Hulik instantly.

    “Cage-sweeper,” said Pausert, just as quickly.

    The Sedmons gave the captain a look which did not bode well for Pausert’s fate and fortune, should he ever find himself back on Uldune again. But he couldn’t pass up the opportunity. Once in a lifetime, that was. Besides, he was still a little peeved about the episode on Pidoon.

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