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The Wizard of Karres: Chapter Twenty Three

       Last updated: Saturday, July 31, 2004 12:38 EDT



    Of course, the Sedmons were not made into cage-sweepers. They would have been entirely useless at the job, for one thing. They were accustomed to having people following them about, picking up what they absent-mindedly dropped, not cleaning up other creatures’ messes. Old habits are too hard to break. Much as Pausert would have enjoyed watching the Sedmons try to cope, even he had to admit that.

    No, as Hulik had suggested, the Sedmons got a mentalist act; it was easy enough for them to do, and a good talker made up for their inexperience.

    They also got a make-work job as Dame Ethulassia’s assistants in wardrobe. Not that they were any good at sewing and the like, but they could at least check in the costumes that needed repairs and cleaning, and check out the ones to replace them. “Wardrobe” covered, not only the thespians, but the entire company, so there was enough work to make them look busy, at least.

    The Sedmons had agreed initially to the plan not to leave until every last mael had been milked from the miners, simply to resolve the initial situation. But they had always assumed they could, eventually, persuade the Showmaster otherwise.

    They were wrong. Absolutely and completely wrong. No argument, no persuasion, not all of the Sedmons’ diplomatic experience served. Himbo Petey was not going to budge from this planet as long as there was money to be made there, and no matter what the Sedmons said to him, he was adamant on that score. It seemed—the Sedmons were quite astonished, actually—that the man took his ridiculous “showboat principles” in deadly earnest. It was like dealing with a religious zealot!

    The Sedmons were left with the depressing feeling that receipts were never going to drop off, that the Petey B would be here forever. They had to get out of here! Somewhere out there the Nanite plague had started, they were sure of it. Too many things were going wrong out there, and it chafed at the Sedmons that although the other four had the best information services in the galaxy at their disposal, there just was not enough information coming in. Why else would Karres have disappeared again? They had to leave, and yet, it seemed that Himbo Petey’s people would never want to.

    And, for a while, it looked as if their worst fears might be right. Miners continued to pack the stalls, the Big Top, and the theater, and accolades continued to come in. Hulik was the recipient of quite a few of those, especially when she played Juliet or Helene.

    And that was another source of fretting, for the Daal. When that happened, when the gifts and inevitable marriage proposals appeared backstage... The emotions stirred up were something the Sedmons were ill-equipped to handle.

    But Hulik always sent the same answer to the proposals, a politely, even kindly-worded refusal, and the Sedmons relaxed. There was time, apparently.

    Time, yes—and now time spent in Hulik’s company. The experience only confirmed what had sent them across the galaxy in the first place. It hadn’t been the danger of the Nanite plague. Not really.

    The Sedmons were in love. Hulik do Eldel was, impossibly enough, the most important person in the universe to them, as important as any one of their six selves.

    Maybe more.

    The only problem was, they hadn’t the faintest idea what to do about it.

    How could they propose any sort of alliance with a woman, any woman? What sort of woman would consider such a thing? What had always seemed to be their greatest strength, their very nature, now seemed to be the greatest of curses.

    Nevertheless, they could not, would not leave. Aside from any other considerations, this mad longing for her kept them at her side.

    Surely, with enough time, they would think of something.

    Or Hulik would accept one of those proposals.

    Or they would fall out of love. Such things could happen...however unlikely it seemed.

    And it seemed more and more unlikely with every passing day. Before long, the Sedmons were in a perpetual agony of indecision. What to do? What to do?



    After two weeks, however, audiences for the Sideshow acts finally began to drop down to more normal levels, and some acts stopped getting any attention at all. The exotic dancers—in fact, any act featuring a pretty female—remained popular, but some of the rest began to cut back or close. It was obvious why it was happening, of course; you could only watch a comedic escapism act so many times before you got tired of it.

    But the theater stayed packed, and Cravan made up for the drop-off in attendance at the Sideshows by putting all four of the old plays back into production. Those who had closed their Sideshow acts quickly found places to fill there. Even the Sedmons were recruited for non-speaking roles.

    Two weeks became four. The Sedmons still had not thought of a way to approach Hulik.

    They began to think that they never would. And in all of their lives, they could not remember feeling such despair.

    They actually indulged in daydreams, imagining scenarios in which they rescued Hulik and her companions from thugs of varying design. The costumes changed, though the scenes remained pretty much the same. They even dreamed such things at night, and in fact, almost came to long for such a thing to happen. At least it would give an opportunity to speak!

    It became worse when new ships arrived, bearing new miners. Would one of them win Hulik’s heart? Or had it already been given? Perhaps to one of the thespians?

    That last thought was the worst of all.



    Pausert went through his limbering exercises as he had done so many times, although by now he was no longer nervous about that part of his role as Mercutio. His body knew every choreographed movement so thoroughly that he could have done his fight-scenes blindfolded or drunk. So all that mattered was his own preparation, warming up his muscles so that he wouldn’t injure himself.

    Himbo Petey had confided to the thespians that it was getting to be time to move along, he knew the signs, and Cravan agreed with him. The advertisements would go out tonight: Last four days onplanet! See your favorites again for the final time! There were several potential problems, not the least of which was the possibility of developing jealousy between those whose acts had lasted past the novelty stage, and those whose acts had not.

    But even the thespians were beginning to see signs of the contempt bred by familiarity. Early in the run, the audiences had been forgiving. But now, if someone fumbled a line or a prop, there was a subtle grumbling; even, on occasion, outright raspberries.

    So there it was. Time to go. The announcement of last days would bring a final influx of customers and cash, and then they would lift. And now they would be heading in the direction where they needed to go. Hubwards. Towards the Empress, to deliver their message. And what then? Pausert only wished he knew. He could not imagine how even the Empress could do anything about the Nanite plague, but who was he to assume he knew anything at all?

    He heard the start of the music for Act 3, and swaggered onto the stage as the curtain rose.

    Benvolio fanned himself with his hand, and spoke the first lines of Act 3. “I pray thee, good Mercutio, let’s retire: The day is hot, the Capulets abroad, and, if we meet, we shall not scape a brawl; for now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring.”

    Pausert made a face and waggled his finger in Benvolio’s face. “Thou art like one of those fellows that when he enters the confines of a tavern claps me his sword upon the table and says ‘God send me no need of thee!’ and by the operation of the second cup draws it on the drawer, when indeed there is no need.” He raised his eyes heavenward, as if asking for patience.

    They traded jibes until Tybalt entered, Vonard Kleesp playing the role with his usual swaggering panache. Benvolio exclaimed: “By my head, here come the Capulets!” He flung himself down on the steps of a prop-fountain, right in their way. “By my heel, I care not.”

    And that was when Pausert relled vatch.

    Not that Silver-eyes hadn’t been around, quite faithfully. It was just that the vatch hadn’t made its presence known during one of the plays for quite some time. It had been quite scrupulous, in fact, about not making itself a nuisance.

    Suddenly, from the aura the vatch was emitting, Pausert realized that Silver-eyes had not come here in play or jest.

    Trouble! Trouble! Trouble! shrilled the vatch.

    A sudden commotion erupted backstage.

    Vonard Kleesp’s eyes narrowed.



    There is one sound that no fencer every forgets, if he’s heard it once. It is the sudden snap of the protected tip of a fencing blade being broken off. It is the sound that says: someone has a deadly blade in his hands now, a length of steel that can kill you.

    It was the sound that Pausert—and everyone else—heard at that moment.

    “Move, and you die,” said Kleesp softly.

    So, of course, Pausert moved.

    He rolled out of immediate striking distance, desperately trying to get his own blade free at the same time. It got tangled up in his cloak, though, and as he shot to his feet, he saw Kleesp coming at him and he thought it was all over—

    But like a miracle—vatch-style miracle, he realized—the cloak flung itself off his blade, wrapped itself around his free hand, giving him a “shield” of the sort that street-fencers would use.

    And there was a lot more noise going on backstage. Pausert didn’t have time to think much about it, but his initial assumption that Vonard Kleesp had simply gone mad due to the effects of his alcoholism vanished. This was foul play of some sort, not lunacy.

    Kleesp lunged. The tip ripped cloth on his hose and Pausert felt warm wetness on his thigh. Then the blade licked across his upper arm. Penetrating, and being pulled free.

    The captain tried to get into the most sensible position which a man with a buttoned foil can take when facing a murderer with a naked blade. That position was somewhere a long way off.

    Unfortunately, short of jumping into the audience, Pausert had run out of space to go to. So, he parried the next lunge, wishing desperately it was really as easy to convert a foil into a live blade as the three-v made it out to be. It wasn’t, or there would have been a lot of dead fencers every year. Kleesp had obviously prepared his sword ahead of time. Pausert had no such advantage. Standing on the tip and giving it a sharp jerk upwards was a futile pastime—unless you had a handy metal vice under your shoes. The soft rubber sole on the buskins he was wearing certainly wouldn’t do the job.

    So he did what the sword could do—parry. He managed to force Kleesp’s blade up, so he could grapple the man. Pausert dropped the foil, and, snatching at the base of the naked blade with his cloaked hand, clung to Kleesp’s shirtfront with the other.

    It was the last thing the murderous actor had expected.

    “What in the name of Patham’s seventh hell are you playing at, damn you?” Pausert hissed into his ear. “Drop the sword and back off.”

    Kleesp wrestled with manic strength. “I’m going to kill you and be a wealthy man, Pausert,” he hissed back. “The Agandar’s fortune belongs to me, since I was his lieutenant. You think I spent this much time tracking it down and setting my trap just to walk away? Not a chance.”

    He managed to wrench his blade free, but he was still too close to use it effectively. And before he could back away, Pausert had him in a bear-hug. Whatever else, the captain wasn’t letting his armed opponent go.

    Kleesp tried to headbutt the captain, but Pausert had been in too many brawls as a junior naval officer. He met the headbutt with one of his own—harder and better placed. Kleesp grunted softly and, for a moment, seemed to weaken. Off-balance, they stumbled against the one of the prop pillars at the edge of the stage. The prop, never intended to withstand such impact, promptly collapsed.

    They fell to the floor together. Kleesp’s foil was jarred out of his hand when they hit the stage, skittering a few feet away.

    Pausert felt a momentary surge of elation. Then—somehow—Kleesp managed to break the captain’s bear-hug and roll clear. The actor-assassin scrabbled for his foil and came back to his feet, weapon in hand. He lunged at Pausert in a single smooth motion. Pausert dove out of the way and landed, painfully, on another foil. He’d barely managed to take it in hand before Kleesp was onto him again.

    The captain parried successfully and took a step back. And then he learned the lesson all good actors do: If you are retreating, don’t do so towards the edge of the stage.

    He tumbled over and fell against the front row seats.

    With a leap, Kleesp followed him. “Give them space!” yelled someone. “Move the chairs!”

    To Pausert’s astonishment, the audience was cheering wildly. This was entertainment! They thought the play was still on!

    The cheers grew to a deafening roar, as the captain’s sword and Kleesp’s clashed in a flurry of thrusts and parries. Alas, not all the chairs had been moved out of the way. Pausert stumbled over one, bringing it down in his fall.

    Luckily, Kleesp fell also. The captain’s sudden fall caused his lunge to miss wildly and the assassin lost his balance. Pausert snatched up the chair he’d fallen over and slammed it down on Kleesp’s back. Unfortunately, it was one of the flimsy folding chairs used for the front seats of overflow crowds. It couldn’t do any real damage—though it bought Pausert enough time to vault back onto the stage.

    Kleesp followed relentlessly. “You’ll pay for that,” he snarled. Another flurry of lunges and parries—alas, all lunges by Kleesp and parries by Pausert. What else could he do with a tipped sword?

    Steadily, the captain was forced back toward the wings. He stumbled over the fallen prop pillar again, and rolled backstage under the curtains.

    Kleesp followed instantly, sensing the kill, using his free hand to thrust aside the curtains. He arrive backstage so quickly that the captain was just getting back onto his feet. Kleesp lunged at Pausert. Hard.

    Knowing it was useless, Pausert tried to hold him off with the foil, but Kleesp’s blade struck the captain neatly on the middle of the left breast.

    His powerful lunge also carried Kleesp forward with his full weight pressed against Pausert’s foil, which the captain had held up stiffly in that last futile gesture.

    The buttoned tip bent, as intended.

    The other blade, carefully weakened with an acute-angled cut so it would snap to a sharp point, did not bend at all. It slid with sickening ease right through the ribs and into the chest cavity.

    Kleesp looked down, gaping. Blood suddenly gushed out of his open mouth. “You’ve killed me!” he coughed. The words were spoken more in chagrin than anger.

    That was quite understandable, Pausert thought wildly. He didn’t know much about the mentality involved, but he was quite sure that dying because you’d grabbed the wrong blade... was not going to make for bragging rights in whatever afterlife pirates enjoyed.

    Or didn’t.

    Another cough; another gush of blood. It was obvious the sword had pierced the assassin’s heart. Kleesp clawed at the blade, but his eyes were already rolling. Horrified, Pausert released the hilt of the sword.

    Some strange last surge of effort kept Kleesp on his feet for a few stumbling backward steps—just long enough for him to collapse through the curtains and back onto the stage. His impromptu and quite unplanned re-entrance produced a veritable hurricane of applause.

    Pausert shook his head. And then realized that his troubles were far from over. Something hard and narrow was now pressing into his lower spine. The way something presses which is being made to do so.

    “That’s an M9 blaster you’re feeling,” growled a voice in his ear. “Now move—slowly—back onto the stage.”

    Seeing no alternative, Pausert obeyed.



    As soon as he came through the curtains, Pausert realized that his earlier premonition was quite correct—Kleesp had been no madman, suddenly unhinged. He’d planned everything as part of a coordinated effort. There were three men standing on the stage who constituted no part of the thespian troupe. The captain vaguely recognized two of them—some of the locals hired on by the showboat during its stop at Tornam, the same planet where Vonard Kleesp had joined the company. Four men, in all, counting the one still prodding Pausert forward. And all of them were armed with M9s. Not a handgun any military force would favor, due to its short range, but one that was quite in demand in criminal circles. Whatever that model blaster lacked in range, it made up for in destructive power.

    The actors were also on the stage, but they all had their hands raised. And it wasn’t just the actors, either. However they’d managed it, Kleesp’s cohorts had rounded up Vezzarn as well—along with one of the Sedmons.

    “No funny stuff, Pausert,” growled the voice in his ear, “or we’ll kill all the actors. Starting with the women. Don’t think we won’t. We’re the Agandar’s pirates and you know our reputation. Now. We need those two kids also, and then we’re all out of here. You figure out how to get them, or we start the killing.”

    In the odd way that one notices details at this sort of time, Pausert’s eyes fell on one of the blaster-holding men on the stage. The one nearest to him, except for the one at his back that he still hadn’t seen. Something about the man’s stance made it clear that he was now the one in charge. The burly pirate grinned sardonically. “You might have killed the boss, but I guess that just means more money for the rest of us once we get our hands on the Agandar’s account. So where are the two witch kids?”

    “I really have no idea,” said Pausert slowly. His arm was now beginning to hurt. He needed time to think.

    He wasn’t going to get it.

    The pirate turned to one of his associates, and pointed at Hulik. “Shoot her in the head. It’ll help his memory.”

    And then things started happening very fast, and all at once.

    Somebody kicked the backstage door off its hinges.

    A flat came hissing down onto one of the assassins, knocking him off his feet. Unseen hands—or vatch ones—had apparently untied a rope.

    A whistle like a punch on the jaw felled another, the pirate leader.

    One Sedmon came through the door he’d just kicked in. The other, the one already on the stage, dove at the pirate who was bringing his blaster to bear on Hulik. He never would have made it in time, except that something—a pen? Pausert couldn’t quite tell—went sailing from Vezzarn’s hand and struck the assassin. Whatever it was, it was sharp enough to gash the man’s face and completely distract him. An instant later, the Sedmon’s tackle had the pirate on the floor and the two of them fell to wrestling for control of the weapon.

    That left the still-unseen man holding the blaster against Pausert’s spine. Old naval training came back to the captain. Holding a weapon pressed directly against a trained fighter is the trick of an amateur—or a thug grown overconfident. A quick twist and an elbow strike knocked the weapon aside. The same elbow came back up in a forearm smash to the jaw that drove the man backward. The captain followed, raising his hand for a very nasty strike at the throat.

    The strike never landed. The fellow, already staggering, flipped onto his back as if he’d tripped over something unseen. The unseen something emitted a very Goth-like “Ow!” and the assassin’s head made an even louder “thunk!” as it smashed against the floor of the stage.

    Pausert pounced on him. He hit the man once, with his fist. A nasty temple smash. But he did so more out of anger and general principle than from any real need. The fellow had obviously been knocked cold from the impact of his head against the stage.

    The captain pried the blaster out of a limp hand and rose to his feet, ready to use it. But—

    There was no need.

    Vezzarn had apparently joined the Sedmon’s tackle on the man who started to shoot Hulik. Between the two of them... especially since Vezzarn had retrieved whatever missile he’d thrown so accurately and had then used it to...

    Pausert winced. He winced again when he caught sight of the pirate who’d been floored by the falling flat. In and of itself, the flat hadn’t done much more than knock the man down. What had kept him down thereafter was Pul’s jaws, clamped on his leg.

    Well. At one time, clamped on his leg. Right now the leg itself was no longer attached. Mentally, the captain shrugged. If the thug didn’t bleed to death before medical help arrived, modern prosthetics were quite miraculous. And although Pausert wasn’t any more familiar with the ethos of maximum security prisons than he was of the pecking order in the pirate afterworld, he suspected that “Stumpy” was a better monicker than “the Goof Who Picked Up The Wrong Sword.”

    Not that he cared anyway. Live by the growl, die by the growl. So be it.

    Besides, Pausert had other problems that were far more pressing.

    First, the applause from the audience was so deafening he could hardly think. The exuberant miners still thought it was all part of the act. Apparently, they ascribed such minor details as a severed leg and several quarts of spilled blood to “smoke and mirrors.”

    Secondly, the accolades now showering the stage—no, raining on it—were a positive menace. Gold is heavy, even in small pouches. Pausert found himself wondering for a moment if he and his fellow thespians were about to undergo an ancient form of death by torture. “Stoning,” he thought it was called.

    Then he spotted the person he was looking for, off in a corner, and forgot about everything else. Pausert felt almost dizzy with relief. Goth was holding the Leewit, both of the sisters shaking a little in the aftermath of using a lot of klatha power. They’d need to be fed, a lot, and quickly.

    But he’d deal with that later. Goth had been looking for him also, and the moment his eyes fell on that expressionless face he knew she would be okay for a while. Something in her eyes told him so. He wasn’t sure what it was, but he didn’t doubt the knowledge.

    Deal with the rest first, then. He saw that Dame Ethulassia was binding up a bleeding gash on Vezzarn’s forehead. Hantis and Pul were mounting guard on the pirate whom the Sedmon and Vezzarn had grappled. The man looked to be badly beaten up, but he was not unconscious. It hardly mattered. His gaze was flicking back and forth from his cohort’s severed leg to the instrument which had severed it. Pul in Full Gape Mode was... an utterly paralyzing sight.

    As for Hulik, who’d almost been killed—

    Hulik was cradling one of the Sedmons in her lap, while the other hovered over her. “Sedmon! Sedmon! Speak to me!” she was pleading.

    Why is she doing that, Big Real Thing? There is nothing wrong with the Divided Thing.

    The vatch was sorely puzzled, and Pausert didn’t blame it. The captain was quite sure there was nothing seriously wrong with the Sedmon, beyond a few bruises. He wasn’t breathing the way someone would if he was knocked out. Nor—the real tip-off—was his clone acting at all anxious. In fact, he seemed immensely pleased.

    “Please, Sedmon!” Hulik whimpered. “Please!”

    Slowly, theatrically, the Sedmon opened his eyes. “What—happened?” he asked, putting on such an act of being dazed and confused that Pausert had to fight down a laugh.

    “You saved us, Sedmon! Both of you, you saved us all!”

    “Hey!” the Leewit interjected from the corner, annoyed enough to come out of her own shock. “Other people had something to do with that too!”

    Hulik ignored her. “You were amazing!” she said. “Can you move?”

    “I don’t know,” said the Sedmon, who started to sit up, then groaned. “My head!”

    “Here, I’ll get you both back to your ship,” said Hulik tenderly, helping the prone one to his feet. “I’ll take care of you until you feel better.”

    “Oh—thank you, lovely lady,” the Sedmon breathed.

    She blushed. Hulik blushed. Pausert could see Vezzarn’s jaw sagging. His own jaw was pretty loose, too.

    “We need to get you both lying down,” she told them. “You might have gotten hurt somewhere else—”

    Pausert felt a gentle tug on his sleeve. “Come over here, Captain, and we’ll see to that,” said Dame Ethulassia, tugging on his good elbow and pointing to the wound on his other arm. “I realize that the do Eldel is normally your ship’s medic. But—ha! No use trying to get her attention right now.”

    She coaxed Pausert over to sit down beside Vezzarn, and began cutting his shirtsleeve away. He yelled as she pulled the cloth out of the wound. She ignored him just as resolutely as she ignored the corpse of her former paramour Vonard Kleesp.

    “Here, Captain,” said someone—Richard Cravan, from the rich-sounding voice—handing him a cup of something. He drank it, and felt a pleasant numbness begin immediately.

    “What—” he asked, thickly, “What happened to Hulik?”

    “Remember that I said she was in love, but hadn’t realized it yet?” asked Ethulassia. “Well, she just realized it. So did he. They, I mean. Hence the act.” One corner of her mouth came up in a sardonic little smile. “I’m glad we never gave either man a speaking role—I’ve never seen such a terrible bit of overacting.”

    Pausert blinked. He’d already deduced as much himself, but now that he really thought about it...

    “Hulik? But—” his mind grappled feebly with the ramifications involved. “There’s six of them!”

    Ethulassia raised her eyebrow. “Sextuplets? Must be clones, I think. Either way...” Her other eyebrow raised. “Adventurous lass!”

    “And one of her. And that’s not our problem, Captain,” said Vezzarn. “Somehow, I doubt it’s much of a problem for her, either.”

    “Besides,” rolled the rich tones of Cravan’s voice, sounding enthusiastic, “think of the dramatic possibilities for future thespians! A modern update on the venerable Hindu epic, the Mahabharata—whose heroine Draupati, I’m sure I needn’t remind you, married all five of the Pandava brothers.”

    Pausert has never heard of the Mahaba—whatever it was called. He mumbled as much.

    “How unstudied of you, Captain,” reproved Cravan. “You really should, you know. Draupati and her husbands had such a lot of adventures. Oh, volumes and volumes and volumes worth.”

    Speaking of volumes...

    Pausert looked for Goth, and saw that other members of the cast were now providing she and the Leewit with something to eat. A lot of something to eat. He didn’t know where they’d found so much food on such short notice, but he wasn’t really surprised. Thespians, he’d come to learn, were nothing if not adaptable and expert at improvisation. Especially with the Leewit’s scolds to spur them on.

    Nothing left to worry about, then. The drug Cravan had given him was definitely taking effect. The audience’s applause now sounded like a waterfall, heard dimly at a distance. The pitterpat of the accolades still showering the stage, like a gentle rain.

    “I think I’d like to lie down and sleep,” Pausert said weakly. And did.

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