Category Archives: short fiction

Wisdom for Three Emperors

Copyright 2019 Douglas Daniel.

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On a certain summer’s day, in the fourth year of the War of the Kingdoms, Topaz drowsed on a bench before his cottage.  The sun shone through the cedars; it was good to sit there and soak up the warmth.  At his age, Topaz always appreciated a sunny day.

“Master!”  It was Orphan, running up the trail toward the cottage.  “Master!”

“Boy, stop yelling,” Topaz said, opening his eyes.  “I heard you coming minutes ago.  What’s the trouble?”

Orphan stopped, panting.  “General…Foxglove…he’s coming.  With a…lot of his…soldiers.”

“Of course,” Topaz said.  He sighed; he never seemed to get to enjoy the sunshine very long.  He stood, leaning on his cane, his knees creaking.  “Orphan, listen to me.  Go find Cassia– she’s out by the pond.  Take her up to the hut by the falls.  A young girl like her will be a temptation to soldiers.”  Especially, perhaps, these soldiers, but Topaz did not speak the thought aloud.  “Both of you hide until…well, until you’re sure it’s safe.”

Orphan stared at him.  “What about you, master?  Will you be safe?”

“Well, maybe,” Topaz said.  “I mean, I don’t think very many of the soldiers will be interested in me– I’m rather past my best days, you know….”

“Master!” Orphan sputtered, exasperated.

“We shall see,” Topaz said firmly.  “If I am wrong, well, death is always sitting by the hearth anyway, at my age.  But both you youngsters are in danger.  Get Cassia up to the falls.”  Topaz started to turn away, but stopped.  “You know,” he told Orphan, “it occurs to me I should finally give you a proper name.  I’ve been calling you Orphan all this time, but you’re nearly a man grown.  Dahlia used to tell me it wasn’t proper and she was right.”

Orphan blinked in surprise.  “Is this the time, master…?”

“There might not be a chance later,” Topaz said.  He studied the younger man for a moment.  “I name you Arrow– for surely you are as swift and true as a good arrow.  Yes, you are Arrow.”

The younger man looked close to tears.  “Master, can’t you come with us?”

“Oh, no, no,” Topaz said.  “Someone has to greet our guests.  Now go.”

Arrow stared at Topaz for another moment, and then ran.

Topaz stepped forward a few yards, so no one coming into the clearing in front of his hut could miss him.  He leaned on his cane and waited.  The sun shifted and warmed him again and he was thankful.

The jingle of harness, the tread of boots– through the trees Topaz glimpsed the riders first and then the foot soldiers coming behind.  The company, perhaps fifty men all told, wound their way up the trail.  Topaz waited, despite his foot starting to ache.  He wished Dahlia were here.

The column entered the clearing.  The riders pulled up short at the sight of him.  At their head was a big man.  He wore armor and carried two swords, as if he had ridden to battle, instead of a hermit’s cottage.  Suspicious eyes looked Topaz over, out of a scarred face.

Topaz bowed over his cane.  “I greet you, Lord Foxglove, General of the Five Lands, conqueror of Darran and Sarmania.  You do honor to my humble house.”

If anything, Foxglove looked all the more suspicious.  “Are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” he asked, his voice rough.

Topaz bowed again.  “Some call me that.  My name is Topaz.”

“You know my name,” Foxglove said.  “So you probably know how I became Lord General of the Five Lands.”

“Indeed,” Topaz said.  “The fame, and dread, of your name has long preceded you, my lord.  But I greet you in peace, as a guest.  If it please you, there is tea and bread within.”

Foxglove squinted at Topaz.  One of the general’s officers, a thin, sharp man with a livid scar across his forehead, turned in his saddle and gestured.  Two of the foot-soldiers broke ranks and hurried forward, past Topaz and into the cottage.  Topaz waited.

The two re-emerged in a moment.  “It’s empty, my Lord General,” one of them said.  “Just a poor hut.”

Foxglove grunted and dismounted.  So did his officers.  The foot-soldiers spread out in a perimeter around the house– a movement precisely executed, although no order had been given.  Topaz turned and led the way into the cottage.

He was thankful Arrow had built a fire this morning– the kettle was hot and the tea steeping.  Foxglove and his officers crowded in, but no one sat in the two chairs.  Topaz noticed Foxglove’s gaze immediately falling on the small silver casket on the table, close by the plate of bread.  The casket was old and battered, but it was easily the brightest object in the room.

“I heard you were a man of wisdom,” Foxglove said, as Topaz poured tea for them into chipped cups.  Two of the officers took cups, but Foxglove did not.  Topaz thought that a shame; it was very good tea.  “I heard you live simply.  Yet you have that.”  He pointed to the casket.

“An heirloom of only sentimental value,” Topaz said.  “Believe me, it contains nothing of worth.”

Foxglove loomed up.  A big man outside the house, he seemed even bigger inside.  “They say that no man becomes Emperor of the Five Lands without speaking to the Hermit of Blackfalls.”

“People do say that,” Topaz said.  “Considering there has been no Emperor in two hundred years, it’s not really been put to the test lately, has it?  Do you wish to be Emperor?”

Foxglove smiled.  Topaz shuddered.  “I shall be Emperor.  The throne is mine by right of conquest.  There is no other beside me.  I want the Empire and I will take it.  I take everything I want.”

“I have heard that,” Topaz said.

Foxglove stood even taller, drawing himself up.  Topaz began to wonder if they were going to run out of space in the little room.  “You heard right.  I conquered Cisman in a day and burned it to the ground.  I overran Karsara and all the nobility came crawling on their knees to beg for mercy.  I threw down and slew the steward of Venaland and took his rod of office from his bloody hand.  Yes, old man, I take what I want.”

“So it seems,” Topaz said, with a solemn face.

“So, old man,” Foxglove said.  “I am here, speaking to you.  What wisdom do you have that will make me Emperor?  I will reward you well.”

Topaz sighed.  “My lord, I am sorry, but if I have wisdom, it is merely the sort that comes from living a very long time.  I’ve seen folly and pain.  I’ve even caused some of both myself.  If I were to try to impart any wisdom to you, I would say be careful what you want– and to remember that just because we want something, doesn’t mean it is good to have.”

Foxglove glowered at him, half-angry, half-confused.  “What is this?  Why shouldn’t I take what I want?  If I’m strong enough….”

“Strength is no justification for taking,” Topaz said, “and taking without right always ends badly.”

Foxglove said nothing for a moment.  His officers stirred uneasily.  Topaz merely watched the general and waited.

“This is a waste of my time,” Foxglove said.  “I thought you would pass on some secret of the Old Times, something useful.”

“I have no secrets that would aid conquest,” Topaz said.

“Is there a spell or enchantment…?” Foxglove said.

“None that will give a man that sort of power,” Topaz said.

Foxglove snorted, his face dark.  “You’re nothing but a weak, old man.”

“I am certainly weak and old,” Topaz said.  “Some mornings my sciatica is terrible….”

“Enough,” Foxglove said.  “I have a mind to gut you, hermit, but that would probably set the peasants down in the valley to revolt.  This has been a waste of my time.”  He glanced at the casket, then leaned over, scooped it up, and tucked it under one arm.  He sneered at Topaz.  “A little recompense.  You have anything to say about it, old man?”

Topaz spread his hands.  “You may take anything you want, my lord.  I am not attached enough to anything here to make much of a fuss.  I greeted you in peace, I say farewell in peace.  But,” he raised a finger, “while my lord may take that casket, I would caution you against opening it.”

“Opening it?” Foxglove said.  “Why shouldn’t I open it?”

“I don’t think you would be very pleased with the contents.”

Foxglove growled.  “I should kill you just for insolence.  Come, let’s leave this old fool.”

He and his officers stepped out, back into the sunshine. The soldiers, with precise movements, folded their perimeter back into a column for marching.  A soldier held the bridal of Foxglove’s horse; some of the officers mounted their own animals.

Topaz stayed where he was, waiting.  Through the open door he watched as Foxglove, still on the ground, stopped.  He fumbled with the latch of the casket and threw it open.

The sun disappeared; ink-thick blackness swirled all around.  Topaz could see nothing, but he could hear screams, howling, and the sound of rending flesh.  He felt it— the ravening hunger.  The human screams faded.  Topaz felt the hunger turn on him.

He stood straight.  His walking stick glowed in the darkness, forcing the hunger back.  You have fed, he told it.  Now, back to your prison, thing.  Leave the world of the living to the living.

The hunger fought him, but it could not resist the light.  The light grew and grew, while the hunger shrank and howled and shrank yet again.

The sun shone; the birds sang in the tops of the pines.  Topaz breathed a deep breath.  Leaning on his cane, he went outside.  He stooped, creaking, and picked up the casket.  He shut the lid against the swirling darkness constrained within and snapped the latch shut.  In the clearing there was no sign of Foxglove, nor of his men, nor of their horses, save their footprints.

“Some people just won’t listen,” Topaz said, sighing.  He went back inside to his tea.

 

Three years later, just days after Cassia and Arrow married– a quiet joining, with a few people come up from the village, at which Topaz had a little too much punch and a few too many almond-cakes– another party came riding up the trail.  These travellers were fifteen splendidly dressed men, splendidly mounted on strong, big horses.  The man who rode at their head was tall, proud and clear-eyed.  He wore a coronet on his brow and rode straight-backed, controlling his mount with nearly negligent movements of the reins.

They rode into the yard.  Sunlight sparkled off the leader’s coronet and the gold thread woven into his robes and those of his companions.  As the leader reined his horse to a stop, one of his followers leapt from his horse to hold the reins of the leader’s mount.  Another hastened to come forward and throw himself down on all fours.  Dismounting, the leader stepped down to the ground, using his follower as a stepstool.  Topaz watched from his doorway; the only change in his expression was his raised eyebrows.

“Old man,” the leader said, looking down his nose at Topaz, “where is the Hermit of Blackfalls?  I have come to receive his blessing, for I am Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands.”

“Oh, I see,” Topaz said.  He bowed.  “Your pardon, lord, for not greeting you with more ceremony.  I am the Hermit of Blackfalls.  Welcome to my home.”

“You?” Birch said, haughtily surprised.  “Surely not.”

Surely not?” Topaz echoed.  He considered this.  “Well, nobody’s ever said surely not.  I mean, I usually don’t call myself that, certainly, but everybody else does, so I just assumed everybody knew what they were talking about….”

“Are you Topaz the Wise?” Birch demanded, glaring.

“Oh, yes, yes,” Topaz said, “that’s what my mother always called me, and I suppose she would have known.  Maybe not the Wise part, but Topaz, yes, indeed.”

Birch looked as if he were restraining a gathering anger.  “I have come,” he said, measuring out his words with great precision, “to seek your blessing on my ascension.”

“Have you indeed?” Topaz said, looking impressed.  “That’s quite an honor.  But, since I am not a priest, and even less a god, I cannot bless you, my lord.”

Birch turned purple.  Topaz, in all his long life, had never seen anyone turn that particular shade.  He found it fascinating.

“They told me,” Birch snarled, “that no man becomes Emperor without the blessing of the Hermit of Blackfalls!”

Topaz sighed.  “‘Blessing’ is the wrong word, my lord.  It is tradition that the prospective Emperor of the Five Lands seek out the Hermit of Blackfalls—whoever that happens to be at the moment—but it is not for a blessing, or even less, validation of their rule.  You rule because you command hosts and the loyalty of powerful lords who bend the knee to you.  You earned that loyalty by winning battles in the War.  You don’t need the approval of some old fellow in the hills of Daran for that.”

If anything, Birch looked more haughtily offended.  “Then I’ve wasted my time!”

“I’m sorry if you think so, my lord,” Topaz said.  “The tradition is that the Emperor-to-be comes seeking the wisdom of the Hermit.  Such wisdom as I have is yours.”

“Wisdom?” Birch said, towering over Topaz.  “What sort of wisdom could you give me?”

“You might be surprised, my lord,” Topaz said.  He hesitated.  “If I may ask, do you usually dismount from your horse in that manner?”

“What do you…Sir Belfore?” Birch said.  He glanced back at the young noble, who stood beside Birch’s horse with a bowed head.  “Ah—his father dared offend me, earning my enmity.  As a lesson to others, I have degraded him and his family in every way and will do so until it pleases me to stop.”

“I see, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And degradation of another human being aids you, how?”

Birch started to turn purple again.  “I am the supreme lord of the Five Lands—I will not allow anyone to forget that!”

“There are better ways to remind people of who you are, my lord,” Topaz said.  “And an honor that touchy is often offended.”

“How dare you!” Birch snarled.

“It is my office to offer such advice to anyone who wishes to be Emperor,” Topaz said.  “You cannot sustain a state by assuaging your hurt feelings, my lord.”

“You dodderer!” Birch said.  “I’ve killed men for less!”.

“You may do as you please here, my lord,” Topaz said.  He waited.  The moment stretched.

“You’re not worth the effort,” Birch said at last, freezing the air between himself and Topaz with his disdain.  “This has been a fool’s errand.”

“I am sorry you feel that way, my lord,” Topaz said.  “But before you go,” he reached into his robes, “I would like to give you a parting gift.”

Birch, already turning away, stopped.  Topaz pulled his hand from his robes and held out to him a trinket— a small, red stone, intricately carved into the shape of a pomegranate, on a silver chain.  It gleamed in the sunshine.

“What is this?” Birch demanded.

“A small charm,” Topaz said.  “Its power is quite subtle, but it will help you to speak the truth and sway multitudes.”

“Hm!” Birch said.  “As if I cannot do that on my own!  Still…”  He turned and snatched the stone and chain from Topaz’s palm.  “A small enough reward for my trouble, old man.”

He turned and strode away.  Remounting his horse with the renewed aid of Sir Belfore, Birch rode away from Topaz’s cottage, with all his splendid followers in tow.  Topaz never saw him again.

Months later, however, Topaz did hear of Birch, one more time.  Apparently it came to pass that, after a victorious battle, Birch had cause to address the citizens of the city of White Cloud in their great square; and because he happened that day to be carrying the stone pomegranate in his purse, he told the citizens everything he actually thought about them, in the most honest and forthright terms.  He kept on telling them, despite trying to stuff his mouth with his own gloves and to choke off his voice with his own hands, until the citizens rose up in a mass and stormed the dais on which he stood.  When the mob receded, or so Topaz was told, all that was left of Birch, son of the Gilded Lord, grandson of the Reaping King, General of the High Army, true and only claimant to the title of Emperor of the Five Lands, was a stain on the stone.

“Hm,” Topaz said to Arrow and Cassia.  “You have to be careful with the truth.  Should have mentioned that, I suppose.”

 

Four more years passed.  Even in the valley the people heard the tales of the wider world and how the War went on and on.  With each passing month the tales grew darker.  The distant suffering seemed to echo along the valley itself.

One sunny morning a man came riding up the hill.  He came unarmed, with but one companion, a young man with haunted eyes.  Neither wore armor– just old uniforms of the Venaland Guards.  The leader was as dark-haired as Foxglove had been, but lean and tall.

Topaz was seated beside the cottage’s front door when the man rode into the yard.  He had taken to dozing in the sun more and more lately; Arrow, who had built a hut for himself and Cassia behind Topaz’, had hired a hand from the village to help with the chores.  He and Cassia themselves kept busy with their own child.

Topaz woke with a start when the man’s horse clopped to a stop.  He looked up and met a gaze that seemed at once weary and curious and frightened.  It was so many emotions tied up in one bundle that Topaz was worried the fellow might split open.  “I’m sorry, grandfather, but– are you the Hermit of Blackfalls?” the man asked.

“Well, people call me that,” Topaz said.  “Considering that I am the only hermit in the neighborhood of Blackfalls, I suppose that qualifies me.”

The man smiled.  “Oh, good.  I was worried.”

“You have the advantage of me, I’m afraid,” Topaz said, arching his eyebrows.

“Ah– your pardon.”  The man dismounted.  “I am Hart.  This is Galagan.”  The young man with the haunted eyes bowed, hesitantly, over his saddlebow.

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “I’ve been expecting you, my lord.  You are both welcome.”

He tried to stand, but had trouble getting up.  That was happening more and more these days.  Hart quickly stepped forward and took Topaz by the elbow and helped him stand.  “Oh, thank you,” Topaz said.  “Not quite as quick on my feet as I was seventy years ago, so it’s good to have a little help now and then.”

“Don’t you have anyone here to help you?” Hart asked

“Oh, yes,” Topaz said.  “They’re around, but busy with other things, I suppose.”

He led them into the cottage.  Once again there was tea and bread ready.  Topaz and the two soldiers sat at the table.  Topaz served them with his own hands.  Galagan, at first, seemed suspicious and fearful.  He peered about, as if expecting to spy ambushers in every corner of the cottage.  “You needn’t worry, young fellow,” Topaz told him.  “You and your master are quite safe here.”

“Yes, please stop, Galagan,” Hart said, irritated.  “You’re embarrassing me and offending our host.”

Topaz held up a hand.  “I am not offended, my lord.  I understand the young man’s caution.  You have both been through some hard times.”

“It’s nothing,” Hart said, “to what the Five Lands have suffered.”

“Yes,” Topaz said, “although this valley is a sanctuary, even here we have heard of all the troubles.”

“Forgive me, grandfather,” Galagan said, “but it’s not just that.  We know what happened to Foxglove and Birch when they came calling.”

“Nothing happened to them they didn’t bring on themselves,” Topaz said.  He meant it as a reassurance, but Galagan turned pale, his eyes wide.

“Galagan,” Hart said, “please stop making faces, or I’ll have you go out and stand by the horses.”

“Sorry, my lord,” Galagan said, hanging his head.

“Forgive him,” Hart told Topaz.  “We have seen a lot.  We both have to learn to trust people again.”

Topaz studied Hart.  “If I were to ask you why it was important to trust people, what would you say?”

Hart gave him a sharp look.  “How else can you build a society, except on trust?  This war has gone on so long no one trusts anyone anymore.”

“Ah,” Topaz said.

A shriek; both soldiers sat up straight with surprise.  Galagan half rose from his chair, almost as if he were about to fling himself between Hart and whatever danger was about to appear.

Instead of a monster or a horde of assassins, however, what appeared was Cassia’s daughter, Cowslip, bursting into the cottage through the back door.  “No, no!” she cried, making Topaz’ ears ring, “I don’t wanna take a bath!”  She tried to flee through the front door, with her grubby shift, muddy feet and begrimed face all unaltered– but her mother, wise to her tricks, had circled around the cottage and caught her in the doorway. Cassia scooped the struggling child up in her arms.

“Nooo!” the child wailed, as if facing her ultimate doom.

Topaz glanced at Hart and Galagan.  The younger soldier looked relieved beyond words.  Hart, though, wore a smile, first of relief, but then of genuine pleasure.  Something in his look told Topaz Hart was more than a little sympathetic to the little girl’s plight.

Cassia, holding the squirming child, looked chagrined.  “Master, my lord, I am so sorry!” she exclaimed.  “We didn’t mean to interrupt!”

“It’s alright,” Hart said, still smiling.

Topaz looked from him to Cowslip.  “Cowslip,” he said, “listen to me.”

“Gran Topaz, I don’t wanna a bath!” the girl cried.

“Listen to me, sweetling,” Topaz persisted.

The little girl stopped struggling in her mother’s arms.  Instead, she regarded Topaz with suddenly solemn eyes, although her mouth was still threatening a pout.

“Be good for your mother,” he said, “and accept your bath without complaining.  Even I have to take baths.”

“But you’re old,” Cowslip said.

“Cowslip!” Cassia cried.

Topaz merely smiled; and, in the corner of his eye, he caught Hart’s smile broadening.  “Young or old, dear little girl,” he told Cowslip, “we all have to do things we don’t like sometimes.  Now, be good for your mother and we’ll see if there aren’t sparklies after dinner.”

“Yes, sparklies, yes!” Cowslip cried, her mood changed in a moment.  Cassia bowed to Hart and carried her mollified daughter away.

Topaz faced his guests with a bemused look.  “I probably shouldn’t bribe her like that,” he said.

“Sometimes,” Hart said, “you can’t avoid it.  It takes some coaxing to get my son Brand to do his lessons, at times.”

Topaz, pleased, hid his pleasure with a sip of tea.  “So, my lord,” he said, “you want to be Emperor?”

Hart looked startled.  “No,” he said at once.  “Who would?”

“You’d be surprised,” Topaz murmured.  “So why are you here?”

Hart did not answer immediately.  He seemed to be studying some internal map only he could see.  “Everyone tells me,” he said slowly, “that I’m the only hope for the Five Lands.  The one person who can unite all the factions and end the War.  I have the loyalty of the Army and I have the right blood, although I was raised the son of a glassblower, and had to earn everything.  It’s just…it’s so much, much more than leading an army.  Where do I begin?”

“Here,” Topaz said, “at the beginning.  Or a new beginning, perhaps.  As I told that little girl,” he smiled at Hart, “sometimes you have to do what you don’t want to do.”

 

They talked through supper and into the night.  They talked after everyone else, even Galagan, had fallen asleep.  They talked of many things, of rulership and peace, of hunger and harvests, of fears and hopes.  By morning Topaz was satisfied.

“I have a parting gift for you, my lord,” Topaz told Hart, as he and Galagan prepared to leave in the middle morning.  “Three, in fact, if you will have them from my hand.”

“What are they, sir?” Hart asked.

Topaz stepped into the cottage and led Arrow, Cassia and Cowslip, in Cassia’s arms, out into the sunshine.  All three were dressed for traveling and Arrow carried a backpack.

Hart looked at them with interest, and then at Topaz.  “Gifts?”

Topaz placed his hand on Arrow’s shoulder.  “This is my apprentice, Arrow, who has studied under me for many years.  His knowledge and powers are yours to command.”

Topaz took Cassia’s hand.  “You’ve met his wife, Cassia.  She has made her own studies and is deep into the lore of the Maranonians.  This is only proper, as she descends directly from the ancient priestesses of that race.”

“Ah!” Hart said in surprise, for the Maranonians were widely supposed to be extinct.

“You’ve also met Cowslip,” Topaz said.  He laid a hand on the little girl’s head and she giggled.  “It is yet to be revealed what her skills may be, except in the accumulation of mud on her feet.”  Cowslip giggled again.  “But I sense in her great potentialities.”  He faced Hart.  “They stand ready to serve you, my lord, in your great labor.”

“They…they are welcome, if they wish to serve,” Hart said.  He sounded a little overwhelmed.  “But…”

“What troubles my lord?” Topaz said.

“I had thought…I mean, to come here from time to time….”

Topaz stepped close.  “My lord,” he whispered to Hart, “I am nearly a hundred years old.  My time is very short.  I waited a long time for a new Emperor and had to go through some notable scrubs to get to you.  Please the gods, may the years be long before your son needs the wisdom of the Hermit of Blackfalls, but, long or short as the time may be, I will not be here.  There will doubtless be some other hermit by then.  In the interim, my lord,” Topaz took a breath, “you’re going to need all the help you can get.”

 

Topaz said farewell to Arrow and Cassia and kissed Cowslip goodbye.  He bowed to Hart and watched them all go down the trail.  Somehow, leaning on his walking stick, he managed the trick of feeling all at once the loss of his young friends and the consolation of having completed an important task.  It was an odd sensation.

“I think he’ll do,” said the elderly woman beside him.

“I think so, too,” Topaz said.  He turned toward her, smiling.  “I was hoping you would come, Dahlia.”

“Beloved, how could I not?” Dahlia said.  “Are you ready?”

“Almost,” Topaz said.  “One good cup of tea for the journey and we can be off.”

They took one another’s hand and walked to the cottage.

 

 

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Recursions

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for September 8, 2019— two hundred words inspired by this image–

l.l.jones-selfie_49
Photo courtesy of LL Jones

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“Amanda…”

“Just a little further, Peter.”

“Amanda, no!  The displacement operator device can take only so many recursions.”

“And we’re already past your theoretical limit.”

“I’m serious, stop!  We don’t know what the consequences will be….”

“I’m head of the project,” Amanda said.  She didn’t the take her eyes off the growing chain of glowing reproductions of her own face.  “I will take responsibility.”

Peter turned from her to the pale-faced assistant standing by.  “Evacuate the building.  Get everybody out.”  The assistant ran from the lab.

“If you’re afraid, Peter,” Amanda said, “then you leave, too.”

Peter shook his head.  “We started this together.  I’m sticking with you.”

Amanda hardly heard him.  She still watched the ever-growing recursions.  They kept expanding out and out, deeper and deeper, unhindered, unstoppable.

“I can see it!” Amanda cried.  “I can see it!  Oh, my God!”

“It can’t be!” Peter shouted over the wind that suddenly filled the room.  Behind the wind came light—white light, purer than any light humans had ever seen.

When the light faded, the other scientists cautiously re-entered the lab.  They found nothing but the displacement device, lying on the floor, and a faint, lingering scent of roses.

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS, as seen from the Kitharan Compact, 3468 AB

ASPECTS OF CULTURE AND SOCIAL INTERACTION AMONG HUMANS

Compiled by the Xeno-ethnology Department of the Compact of Kithar Institute of Advanced Studies, Tikiria Prime, 3468 AB.

Note: this list has been compiled in the hopes that our first contact with the dangerous and violent human species, which is impending, will be peaceful and not result in any Kitharans getting eaten, enslaved, or turned into sexual playthings.  Unless, of course, they are into that sort of thing.   

  1. On Earth, humans regularly battle giant reptiles, giant apes, giant birds, giant turtles, giant insects, giant this and that, which explains why they are so hardened and violent.  Several of these giants have returned again and again, especially ‘gohdzyllla’ and ‘kingghong’, thus demonstrating the implacable assault humans have to live with.   
  2. Humans also battle one another, sometimes small-scale with swords before cheering crowds, and sometimes with vast tribes battling one another over huge portions of the planet.  Some scholars think the two kinds of fighting are both preparations for interstellar war. The fact that human contenders often turn from fighting one another to make common cause against an alien foe is seen as supporting this view.   
  3. Earth has been invaded over and over again by extraterrestrial species.  As a consequence, humans have destroyed any number of alien races. The fact that no one in the galaxy recognizes any of these races is taken to mean that the humans destroyed them before they could make contact with the greater galactic community.
  4. Earth appears to have been the victim of several dark ages, short-term ice ages and nuclear holocausts, including some collapses in which disease makes the afflicted look like dead people.
  5. Humanity engages in all manner of ritualized combat, including ‘bassbohl’, in which participants use various skills to avoid being killed or maimed by a small, white projectile, and ‘golph’, in which players wield vicious, skull-cleaving clubs while engaged in a cross-country death march.
  6. Another ritual combat is called ‘fudbohl’.  The rules of this combat are obscure– such is its vicious nature that some scholars believe it is chiefly a means of culling weaker individuals from the gene pool.
  7. Humanity chooses its leaders by having candidates spin a wheel and try to spell out words.  Those who fail these tests are executed, chiefly by hanging.
  8. Human women often must fight for mates, in arenas, observed by the whole planet.  These women are called ‘mohckingjahys’. The reference is obscure.   
  9. Humans execute traitors with creatures called ‘draagons’, which breathe fire– doubtless an indication of humanity’s advanced genetic engineering capabilities.
  10. Humans have enslaved both sentient and non-sentient species, including ‘dogghs’, ‘caats’, ‘whalsss’, ‘moskuitoes’, ‘farh-annts’, ‘draagons’ and ‘monsteer truuks’.  The last are particularly used to further cull the genetic pool in another form of ritualized combat, known alternately as ‘road rage’ or ‘the daily commute’.       
  11. Humanity has a supreme leader who appears all in black, and whose hissing breath chokes the life out of people. 
  12. Many races fear humanity possesses a giant, planet-destroying ray.  
  13. Humans have a disintegrating/reintegrating machine, which transports (hence its name, ‘transporter’) people from their home planet and reconstitutes them as slaves with no will of their own.  This is particularly effective in securing mates in reference to item number 14.
  14. Humans are horny.  They will do it any time, anywhere, with any number of partners of different genders or species, as evidenced by such instructional videos as Debbie Does Deimos and Naughty Nymphets of Neptune, Number 347.  This is seen by scholars as desperate attempts to repopulate their planet after all the monsters, disasters, societal collapses and alien invasions.

It is hoped that this brief description will aid anyone who comes into contact with this dangerous species.  Rumors of the advance of humans toward Kitharan space have been rampant in the last several felenhara, and it is only a matter of time before they make their presence known.  We beseech the gods to protect the Kitharan people, and ask that anyone who might be contacted by humans to remain peaceful and calm, and keep this list handy.  As well as a good supply of condoms.     

The Cavalry– Flash Fiction for Sunday, May 5, 2019

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for May 5, 2019— two hundred words related to this image–

192-02-february-19th-2017
© A Mixed Bag

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“That’s silly,” Pamela said.

“It’s what Gran told us.”  At ten I was stubborn.

“Gran was a little off,” Pamela said.  “Remember when she thought the vacuum cleaner was Cousin Frank?”

“Well,” I told her, “there is a family resemblance.”

“Har, har.  You’re so funny.”

“Look,” I told my sister, “kidding aside, we need help.  They’re going to break through soon.  You can hear them, Pam.  Aren’t you willing to even try?”

“We need something more practical than rattling some old toy and mumbling some words.  Like the 82nd Airborne.”

“Well, they’re not here,” I said.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“Gran said the eldest of the family has to do it.  That’s you, I’m sorry to say.”

“Watch your mouth, kid,” Pamela said.  Sighing, she seized the horizontal stick and manipulated the little toy up and down three times, so that its wooden wings flapped.

“Drake, fire and claw,” she said, “drake, fire and claw.  To your own in need now return.  Drake, fire and claw.”

She let go of the toy, made a face at me.  “See?  Nothi….”

Her words were interrupted by a massive roar, and the sound of a great, armored body landing on our roof.

FLASH FICTION– “A MATTER OF DISCRETION”

My response to a flash-fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig, to write 1500 words of space opera in honor of May the Fourth.  It so happens I love space opera, although I’ve seen very few good examples of the genre lately (I have been dodging The Last Jedi like a healthy man dodges plague victims).  My little piece below is based on an (as yet) unpublished space opera universe I’ve had rolling around in my head for decades.  If I ever get the Divine Lotus series finished (and that is a long, sad tale) I might just turn to the universe of the Consortium, Shareholders, and the Perimeter.

Copyright 2018 Douglas Daniel

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“Damn Shareholder,” Rong muttered.  He leaned against a tree trunk and wiped sweat from his face.  

“Shut your mouth,” Teal told him.  He was drenched in sweat, as well; this world reminded him strongly of Novo Brasil.  “He hired us, he gets to set the agenda.”

“Indeed, Citizen Xiang,” the Shareholder said, from twenty meters away.  He spoke without turning around or looking up from the ruined wall he was examining with a sensordoc.  “I beg your patience—this will not take long.”

Teal gave Rong a sidelong glance.  “Enhanced genetics, tooler. Don’t forget it.”  Rong glowered, but clamped his lips tight.

Maria appeared over the rise beyond the wall, pushing aside vines and creepers.  “Shareholder Mann, there’s more ruins on the other side.”

“No matter,” Mann said.  He snapped the sensordoc shut.  “I’m picking up no ipinsotic traces at all.  Nothing. This location’s a waste of time.”

Teal resisted the urge to calculate the cost of the fuel they had burned getting here.  “Your orders, sir?”

“We go on to Mackason IV,” Mann said at once, with asperity.  “The reports can’t all be wrong.”  He seemed as if he were about to say more, but he stopped himself.  “I want to lift as quickly as possible.”

“We’ll be in the air five minutes after we close the hatches, Shareholder,” Teal said.

 

It wasn’t until they were well on trajectory for the jump radius that Mann sought Teal out.  They were alone in the Pleasant Virgin’s cockpit, with holographic readouts flickering around them.  Mann settled himself into the chair at the astrogator’s station and regarded Teal.  “All in order, Captain Xiang?” he said.

“We’re fifteen hours to jump,” Teal said, “and the ship is operating normally.”

“Good,” Mann said.  His regard of Teal sharpened.  “But not all of your crew appear to be happy.”

“Well, Shareholder,” Teal said, “with all due respect, I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about human nature.  We’ve hit eighteen worlds in fifteen systems in the last month, and so far every one of them has been a dry hole.  For whatever it is you’re looking for. Frustration’s bound to show itself in this sort of situation.”

Mann said nothing for a moment.  “You knew that the exact nature of this mission would remain confidential, captain.”

“Indeed, Shareholder, it was made very clear to me,” Teal said.

“And we Purcells hired you and your crew precisely because you have a reputation for keeping secrets.”

“It’s a point of pride with us,” Teal said.

“Well, then, captain, I would appreciate it if you had a word with your people,” Mann said.  “The House of Purcell needs your discretion, and your very fast ship, to complete a task of some urgency.  To help us complete that task, we are paying you a handsome sum. Surely enough to quell any ennui you and your people may feel.”

“Yes, Shareholder,” Teal said.  “I will speak to them.”

 

“Pilkin’ bastard,” Maria said, running a hand over Teal’s bare chest.  “Never was a Shareholder worth the skin holding ‘em together.”

“That may be,” Teal said.  He enjoyed her touch; their lovemaking always put him into drowsy contentment.  “But he is paying the bills, and without this job we might be scratching for a commission.  Things are hard at the moment.”

“In this quadrant,” Maria said.  “T’other side of the Volume, there’s plenty of opportunities.”

“I’ve heard it all already, pretty puss,” Teal said.  “And maybe once our coffers are full, we’ll head that way.  But we have to finish this job first.”

Maria raised herself up on her hands, looked down on Teal.  “D’you have any idea what he’s looking for?”

“No,” Teal said, fim, “and I don’t want to know.  It is not our business. We were hired to haul him about and keep our mouths shut.  As long as I’m captain, that’s what we’ll do.”

Maria stared at him, solemn.  “So be it, then,” she said.  

 

Mackason IV, from a descent trajectory, looked much like many another Earth-type world—ocean blues overlayed with white clouds, green-brown landmasses here and there.  A cyclonic storm occupied a quadrant of the main ocean, but it was too far away to affect their chosen landing site. Teal took the Virgin in fast, not caring if they left a prominent re-entry trail.

They landed on a rocky plain, in a level area between jagged hills.  Even coming in they could see the ruins that covered the land between the high ground; as they landed Teal saw broad roads and the bases of broken towers.  Mann, leaning over his shoulder to stare at the displays, gave off a palpable air of excitement. “This is more extensive than anything I have ever seen before,” he said, transfixed.

They all hit dirt, Rong, Maria, Chris, Mann and Teal.  Mann had his sensordoc out at once. Even from several feet away, Teal could tell the readout was exploding with data.  

“This is incredible!” Mann exclaimed.  “The readings are off the scale! This is what we’ve been looking for!”

“Rong, Maria, fetch the containment vessel,” Teal said.  The two of them hurried back into the ship.

Mann led Chris and Teal through a broken archway, and down a flight of steps.  At the bottom was a sort of small amphitheater; scattered in the dust that coated the amphitheater’s floor were scattered lumps and shapes, most of which were hard to make out.

At the foot of one pillar, however, something glowed ochre.  Mann approached it; it glowed more brightly, while the sensordoc’s readout became even more fevered.

“There!” Mann cried, pointing.  “An active device! It’s what I’ve been looking for.”

“Doesn’t seem much,” Chris said.  The femman knelt down, extend a hand.

“Don’t!” Mann yelled.  

The warning came too late.  Chris touch the device. There was a flash of light, and then a scream.  Teal, squinting past a hand raised against the light, glimpsed Chris afire, screaming.  In the next instant, the femman was simply gone.

“The fool!” Mann cried.  “The utter fool!”   

 

They got the device in the containment vessel using hand-grav tools.  They sealed the vessel; then, with a smug Mann leading the way, they secured it in the Virgin’s front cargo bay.  “We are all rich now,” Mann told them.

They lifted ship at once, with Mann in the crew mess preparing a report to his superiors.  Teal was happy to retreat to the cockpit to put the Virgin on a trajectory for the jump radius.  He still didn’t know what they had found, and he wanted to know even less than before.   

He had just finished setting the jump coordinates when he heard a muffled thump.  The sound was strange to him.  Then the security display popped up a flashing alert, weapon discharge- crew mess.

“What the hell?” Teal said.  He climbed over the seats and slid down the ladder to the crew level.

He burst into the mess and was confronted by a scene of blood.  Mann lay on his back on the middle deck, his eyes staring sightlessly at the overhead.  Rong stood over him, a slug-thrower in his hand.

“Had to do it!” he yelled at Teal.  “The Sheffields– they’re offering a million!  A whole million! The Purcells are nothing compared to the Sheffields.”

Teal yelled in rage and threw himself at Rong.  The man had no time to bring his weapon to bear on Teal before the captain was on him.  He fired another shot, but it missed Teal and caroomed off one of the bulkheads.

Old training kicked in for Teal; without thinking he batted the gun out of Rong’s hand, then drove punches into the man that first stole his wind, and then his life.  Rong’s body fell over Mann’s and lay still.

Teal, panting, sensed rather than saw Maria in the mess’ open hatch.  “He’s ruined us!” he said, his hands clenched in unspent fury. “Ruined us!”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Maria said, “it probably depends on your point of view.”

Something slammed into Teal.  It threw him into the bulkhead.  He slid down, slumped against the compartment wall.  He couldn’t move; the stink of burnt flesh rose up into his nostrils.

“What…?” he gasped.

Maria came amd loomed over him, the quantifier in her hands crackling with residual heat.  “The Sheffields– what a joke. The Voronovs will pay far more. And it will all be mine.” Maria lifted the quantifier.

 

Maria reset the jump destination.  It would take a week to reach the Voronov base where she was to meet her contact– a long ride in an empty ship.  To top it off, she found she was actually sorry that Teal would not have understood why she had to do this. It would have been better with the two of them.

However, three million Consortiums bought a lot of consolation.  

Maria sat back in the command chair, contemplating her future.  She smiled. It was indeed time to examine opportunities on the far side of the Volume.   

SUNDAY PHOTO FICTION – September 3rd, 2017- A WRONG TURN

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for September 3rd, 2017— two hundred words based on this image–

210-09-september-3rd-2017

Copyright 2017 Douglas A. Daniel

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“Let me see the map.”

“Darling, I told you, we should have turned left, not right.  We’re supposed to be on Dover Five, not Dover Six.”

“Oh, crap, how did we manage that?”

“Well, I told you we should have brought the Sherman.  You go to the trouble of installing a GPS system and then you don’t use it….”

“And what did I say?  We needed better mileage for this trip, and the Sherman just burns gas like there’s no tomorrow.”

“Sweetie, you’re supposed to be a mechanical genius, can’t you do something about that?”

“Oh, yeah, in my ample spare time, sure.  Could you lay off me, please?”

“I’m not making any judgments, I’m just saying…..”

“Okay, never mind, let’s just get turned around….”

“KRAKEN!”

“I see it!  Get in the gunner’s seat!”

“Traversing!”

“It’s a big one!”

“On target!”

“Loading…you’re up!”

“Firing!”

“You got it, honey!  Look at it go!”

“I would too, with everybody in the harbour shooting at me.”

“It’s gone.”

“Thank God.”

“I love you, honey.”

“I love you, dear.”

“Okay, let’s get turned around.  With luck the ferry will be delayed pending the all-clear.”

“….we still should have brought the Sherman….”

Sunday Photo Fiction – August 13th 2017- Memento

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction flash challenge for August 13th 2017– 200 words based on this image–

208-08-august-13th-2017

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“He needs to grow up,” Jason’s step-father said, finishing off his eggs.

“It’s only been six months, William,” Jason’s mother said.

“And he keeps carrying that stupid toy around, Amanda,” William said.

“His father gave it to him,” Amanda said.

“Still, sooner or later he needs to man-up.”  William said.  He stood, draped his suit jacket over his arm and picked up his briefcase.  “Shareholder briefing today, don’t wait dinner for me.”

“All right.”

Jason heard the front-door close behind William.  Neither of them had seen him.  He was getting good at not being seen.

He went upstairs.  September sunshine shone in his room—school would start soon.  He lay down on his bed.

He opened his hand and stared at the little blue TARDIS in his palm.  He remembered—a crisply cold winter’s night, the Milky Way an arch of diamonds stretching across the sky above them.

“There, son, there’s Pleiades, and next to it is Taurus the Bull—see the two horns?—and there, see those three stars in a row?  That’s the belt of Orion the Hunter.  Find Orion’s belt and you can find your way around the whole sky.”

Jason closed his hand on the TARDIS.

Sunday Photo Fiction – July 30th 2017- Talking Heads

A response to the Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for July 30th 2017– two hundred words based on this image–

207-07-july-30th-2017
© A Mixed Bag 2009

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It is poorly preserved,” Dr. Angg said.  “The slackness of the jaw, the orange tinge of the skin— you’d think even a hundred years ago the curators could have done better.”

I said nothing.  Angg was the Imperium’s leading expert in xenobiology and off-world artifacts.  We had found the alien head in among old displays in the museum’s archive.  There were many relics of humanity’s early, freebooting days in interstellar space in the vaults.  There were alien weapons, and strange religious artifacts, and more than a few trophies of the vicious wars of that era.  Angg and I had already examined a collection of Te’measkini scalps, gathered by the members of the Fifth Punitive Expedition.  It was gruesome stuff, and offensive to modern sensibilities.  Inclusion of multitudinous species was now Imperial policy, and we had been charged with cleaning out the collection.

“How do you think it died?” I asked Angg.

“Probably a victim of the Rilhalan War,” Angg said.  “The species looks correct.  Huge beings, they were—doubtless the head was taken as a trophy, and the body left to rot.”

“A lot you know, buddy,” the head said, as it sprouted spidery legs and scuttled off.

Sunday Photo Fiction – March 12th 2017- The Suit

The Sunday Photo Fiction challenge for March 12th 2017— 200 words inspired by this image–

spacesuit
© A Mixed Bag 2012

Copyright 2017 Douglas Daniel

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“It’s all old junk,” Clark said.  “The museum stores it here.”

I saw shapes in the darkness— a LEM mockup, dead animatronic dinosaurs, empty helium cylinders, a spacesuit.

“They have to keep the exhibits fresh,” Clark said.  “Kids like flash and bang.  Their parents want to see something new, or they won’t spring for a membership.”

“That’s a real spacesuit,” I said.

Clark looked.  “Yeah– we got a couple of those surplus.  Time for lunch.”

“Can I stay for a second?” I asked.

“Okay– just don’t mess with anything.”

He left.  I stepped closer to the suit.  Now or never.

The suit was on a standing rack.  I unzipped the main closure.  I wriggled my feet and butt inside, then angled my head into the helmet.  I slipped my arms into the sleeves.  I closed the zipper.

The inside of the suit smelled like a locker-room in need of disinfectant.  No matter.

I waited.  For a moment I thought I had miscalculated.

My stomach lurched.  I floated in blackness. I spun; stars and then Saturn came into view.  I looked down on the rings from about nine hundred thousand kilometers.

“Agent Fifteen-Q-zed,” I called.  “Ready for retrieval.”

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: RANDOM PHOTO EXERCISE — Memories by fire and moon

A flash fiction challenge from Chuck Wendig– 1000 words based on a random photo from Flickr.  After spinning through a considerable number of pictures, I found this one, by leogln7

Sea snake skeleton

It took me far, far away….

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“The dragons,” the guide said, “were foolish.  As powerful as they were, there were too few of them to rule humanity.  The last battle was fought here.”  He pointed at the vast skeleton, lying in the shallows of the placid lake.  “That’s old Thoronongrom, the king of the dragons.  He fell here with a thousand arrows in him, shredded by cannon, but it still took him three days to die.  The corpse was a generation decaying.”

“How horrible!” gasped the Marchioness of Tre.  She held her scented fan to her face.  “I can almost smell the rotting flesh!”

The dandy at her elbow laughed.  “Come, dearest, it’s been two centuries.”  His fingers fondled the hilt of the jeweled sword at his hip.  “These bones are bleached clean.”

“Roderick, must you spoil everything?” the Marchioness pouted.

The group stood on the lake shore, gawping at the skeleton, as the guide went on about the battle and its great slaughter.  The lords and ladies, with jewels and fine silks, had thought it diverting to come down to the shore for a while, before the evening’s feast and fireworks to celebrate the anniversary of the victory.  They whispered and laughed among themselves as the fellow went on.

“Probably expects tips in direct proportion to how loquacious he can be,” Jason, Baron of Rogen, whispered in Clara’s ear.  Clara wished he wouldn’t do that—she was trying to listen.

“In the end,” the guide said, “although not all the dragons fell here, their power was broken.  The Battle of Silent Lake ended their rule over humanity, and since we have ruled ourselves, to our own greater glory.”

“Hear, hear,” said Duke Coram, and the crowd applauded.

Clara did not join in.  Glory—she found it an ironic word.  Of course, this fellow, making a living off showing fancy folk the bones of legends, wasn’t going to suggest to any of them that their ‘glory’ came at a high price.

The crowd went back up to the mansion overlooking the lake, as the sun set.  There were aperitifs before the meal, and the high-born enjoyed them as they watched the sunset.  Then, by the light of huge lanterns the nobles danced to swiftly-played music, before sitting down to the meal, which was served by silent servants.

Clara, relegated to the outer tables, got up as the fireworks began.  Great balls of crimson and green fire burst high in the air, reflecting in the face of the lake, but she ignored them as she went down the steps to the lower terrace.  Her path was one she would follow to obey a call of nature.  Before she could reach the porticos, however, Jason intercepted her.  “Where are you going?” he demanded.

“My dear baron,” Clara said, “even ladies of the first rank have to relieve themselves from time-to-time, not to mention the daughters of country squires.”

Jason smiled and leaned against a balustrade.  “You are such a queer little thing.  You were really intent on what that fellow had to say this afternoon.”

“Why not?” Clara said.  “Have you no interest in history, my lord?”

“I’ve told you before, call me Jason.”

“I don’t wish to imply an intimacy to which I have no right,” Clara said.  Not yet—and, with any luck, never.

“It’s just a matter of time,” Jason said.  “But, to answer your question, not particularly.  It’s all dead and gone.  Particularly the dragons.  Ancient business that has no meaning now.”

“No?” Clara said.  “I think we are the children of history, and everything in the past lives in us.”  She hesitated.  “My lord, do you believe the tales that not all the dragons died?  That some took human form and that their descendants live among us?”

Jason’s insouciant smile faded.  “That’s not legend, little Clara,” he said.  “That’s dangerous.  The sort of loose talk that puts one in the company of the secret police.”

“Forgive me, then, my lord,” Clara said.  “I spoke out of turn, and foolishly.  Now, please excuse me—I do not wish to have an accident.”

He let her go.  She went through the porticos, but instead of going to the privies she went down to the beach again.  The fireworks continued, even as the Bone Moon rose above them.

She walked out into the water, careless of her shoes and gown, until she stood right under and within the skeleton of Thoronongrom.  She stood there and found it hard to catch her breath, as she tried to imagine what it had been like, on that day, when the old realm had been thrown down, and the new—a regime that needed secret police—was born.  She laid a hand on the giant, weathered rib beside her, and tried to imagine what Thoronongrom had been like, alive, and dealing out death and justice.

I have seen you in my dreams.

She waded to the skull.  The great jaws were agape, as they were in that final moment of death, two centuries before.  Clara tried to picture what sort of agony it was for this great creature to spend three days a-dying, and found she could not.  Her eyes filled with tears.

Music echoed from the terrace above, as the fireworks went on.  Clara was sure she could hear laughter.  The revelries would now move into their terminal, drunken phase, she supposed.

She reached up, to touch one of the great fangs in the upper jaw.  Almost without intending to, she broke off its tip.  It was easier than she thought—the skeleton was so weathered it was well on its way to becoming chalk.

She stared at the tip in her hand.  She closed her fist about it.  She gripped it hard, until the point bit into her palm, until blood flowed.

When the blood struck the water, it sizzled.

She looked up at the mansion, and knew that fire danced in the depths of her eyes.

Rest well, Grandfather, she thought.  They will pay yet.