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God and Mind - Volume III - Freedom
By Dark

Presented by: Xenogears: God and Mind

Chapter 34
A Butler’s Mission


     Bart yawned and stretched languorously, turning slightly on his side so that the cooling breeze could gently massage his naked chest. “This’s the life eh Sig?  -----  Sun, sea and a chance to catch some rays.” The prince pursed his lips thoughtfully.  “All I need now is a cocktail or two ---- yeah I know --- ” Bart waved one slimly muscled arm carelessly. “---- We’re on strict rationing ---- but cocktails should be first on our priorities list.”
     Sigurd scowled, leaning back in his folding canvas chair and fixing the sun bathing prince with a piercing sapphire glower.  “We’ve got more pressing problems than lack of cocktails young master.”
     “You’re absolutely right, Sig.”  Bart turned over and propped his head on one elbow, rakish face serious beneath it’s cap of disordered blonde hair.
     “You think so young master?” Sigurd was almost physically shocked.  Nervously he stood and started pacing the flat metal surface of the deck, his white hair gleaming in the sun.
     “Of course.  I’m not tanning fast enough --- know any good brands of lotion?”
     Sigurd sighed mournfully, folding his arms across the blue t-shirt with its pattern of white and red triangles he wore. “Bart please be serious for once ---- we’ve got problems.”
     The young prince sprang upwards in one athletic bound, and stood, hands on hips, naked except for a pair of dark red shorts.  “Get! Your priorities sorted out man! --- My tan level is dangerously!! Low! If it drops any more I’ll have to resign my post as world’s most handsome man!” Bart’s first mate laughed broadly.
     “Your incorrigible!”
     Bart grinned ghoulishly.  “Well it’s a good thing your here to encourage me, Sig.”
     The young prince slapped his body back down on the canvass couch, gazing up into the highly blue sky with its scattering of puffy white clouds.  “Call the guys up here Sig and we’ll see what we can do.”
     Bart listened to Sigurd’s footsteps echoing away across the deck. The sun was warm and the breeze was gentle and fresh with the spice of salt. Bart stretched again, feeling the sun smooth and soft on his skin, soothing his tired muscles like the hands of a masseur.
     It had been a hard few days, damn hard. Somehow, when he had sat on the bridge of the sea ship ---the ship he was already thinking of as the Yggdrasil II - he had thought everything would be easy. But it had taken hours of dull backbreaking labour, clearing and salvaging the sand ship for anything remotely useful, then transferring it by hand to the floating Yggdrasil II.  Not to mention the painstaking, slow drag of repair after repair, control consoles, lights, even door opening circuits, everything on the second Yggdrasil had to be manually connected up. Thank God the engine and main control functions had been intact, Bart thought sourly.  Whoever had abandoned the Yggdrasil II could have at least abandoned it in one piece.
     Then had been Gears, hours of re-welding, soldering, oiling, replacing and hammering.  The prince sighed and closed one eye.
     Even now everything wasn’t finished, electrical leads still circled around cabins like snakes, and though the missiles were in perfect working order, the huge bulbous shapes of the Yggdrasil II’s depth charges were still far from completely operational.
     But things could be worse ---- at least they were out of that cave --- things could also be a lot better, they could have some cocktails on board for one. The prince smiled secretly. Sig wouldn’t like that --- but they did need a rest.
     “Bart?”
     The pirate leader turned over to one side and once more propped his head on one elbow, golden hair out of its ponytail falling around his now completely functional wrist.
     Sigurd, Franz, Jerico and the chief medical officer sat in a loose semicircle on folding chairs planted firmly on the swaying metal deck. Behind them the sun reflected harshly from the undulating plain of turquoise water, which stretched away to the dim line of the horizon
     “Right then ---- time for business.” Bart’s tone was more abrupt than his lazy posture. “Franz, how’s the ship?”
     The short feathery demi-human clacked its green beak and ruffled its sleek black pinions. “Well Sir --- ” Franz’s voice was a harsh high quack. “In terms of hardware, we’re doing fine. All sensor equipment and diagnostics are fully functional, and engines are fine. As to speed and manoeuvrability ---- I think this baby’s even faster than the original Yggdrasil.”
     “Well of course --- less friction on water.” Bart stared around at the bemused looks on the faces of his crew. “What? ---- I’m not completely dim you know.”
     “No Bart.” Sigurd muttered dryly, but the prince ignored him, and fixed Jerico with his sapphire eye. “How’s about weapons?”
     Jerico frowned, hands folded across his belly. Like all the crew, he was only wearing an oil splattered red shirt and his uniform trousers.  “Missiles at 80% efficiency, ---- we still need to fix the heat gdence system on the warheads ---- ”
     “---- What kinda warheads have we got Jerico?” Bart interrupted, his voice eager as a child with a new toy.
     “Basic chemical explosive. They’re only anti-aircraft missiles.”
     Bart leaned back on his sunbed, grinning hugely. “That shows this ship was built by my family --- we hate dirty weapons like nuclear and biological.”  He sat up again to glower at his Weapons Officer sternly. “--- You get that guidance fixed right away ---- top priority.”
     “I don’t think that’s a good idea ---- ” Sigurd growled.
     “We shouldn’t just concentrate on one area, the depth charges are still slow to respond and detonate ---“
     “So?” Bart waved an airy bronze hand, his voice derisive. “Who cares? Shakhan doesn’t have any Subs, just battle ships and aerial forces.”
     “As you like Bart.”  Sigurd subsided, his amber face worried.
     Bart clicked his fingers sharply, sending an abrupt whip crack out across the flat grey plane of the Yggdrasil’s deck. “That’s hardware. Now --- what’re we going to do?”
     Sigurd sighed gustily.  “We need supplies ---- badly.”
     “That’s easy” Bart scoffed. “We’re pirates remember. Let’s go find some big fat merchant ship and pow!!”
     “Erm --- with respect sir --- I don’t think that’s possible.”
     “Hey?”  Bart stared at Jerico. His Weapons officer stared back steadily, arms folded.
     “My brother used to be in the navy ---- the sea navy that is sir. Back when your father was king, Kislev started attacking Merchant ships. When Shakhan took over Aveh started doing the same, so now no ship goes anywhere with out several destroyers in tow --- ”  The brown haired weapons officer spread his oil stained palms in a gesture of helplessness. “Even the Yggdrasil would have trouble coping with several destroyers at once --- not to mention their gears.”
      “Well that’s okay --- ”  Bart’s voice was casual. “We just stroll up the river Nisan and join Margie and the nuns for one big humongous feast.”
     Sigurd shook his head decisively, white hair blowing in the salt laden wind.  “Not a good idea --- come and see.”
     Bart stood, mystified and padded behind Sigurd and the others towards the hatch that lead down to the bridge.
     “Here, Young Master.” Before he could enter the hatch, Maison, dressed in blue trousers tie and a short-sleeved formal shirt, caught up with him, handing the prince a black cotton kimono with a yellow dragon embroidered on the back. 
     “Thanks.”  Without stopping, Bart pulled it on and followed Sigurd’s retreating back into the cool shaded bridge, where the weak light from monitors and instruments  competed inadequately with the strong flood of golden sunlight coming in through the panoramic windows. “Franz, bring up that Aveh TV broadcast we intercepted this morning”
     “Okay.”
     Franz’s wing brushed across a bank of switches, and a heavy martial drumbeat echoed through the speakers. After a few bars, a swirling fanfare began, flute and trumpet playing a heroic rising melody in unison. Then, the rest of the orchestra started a heavy four-four beat with the fanfare rising several semitones every bar.
     On the screen, Bart saw several regiments of guards assembled outside Fatima Castle in Bledavik, dust puffing in little plumes from beneath their marching feet. There were some olive green uniforms of the Aveh guards, but others wore a dead pan brilliant white outfit that Bart knew was the main uniform of the foot soldiers of Gebler.
     As the music swelled the regiments began a display, weaving back and forth in precise military patterns like olive green and white threads pulled by the needles of discipline.
     Then, as the music reached a four note crescendo of strings brass and vibrant bells, the troops wheeled smartly, pulled out their guns in unison and fired.
     “Hey!” The prince’s voice was full of outrage; his lips drew together in a line of royal displeasure. “That’s my anthem.”
     “No ---- that’s the national anthem of Aveh --- and right now, Aveh belongs to Shakhan.”
     Bart growled, gripping the belt of his Kimono with white knuckles, his face a mask of rage.
     On the screen, as a harp struck a seventh cord, the regiments peeled back like curtains and Shakhan waddled forward, expansive and wide, sun glinting on the gold braid of his heavy red robes.
     “Good people of Aveh --- ” The prime minister’s voice was thick and fatherly. Behind him the music had begun a swirling three-four melody of flute strings and a rippling harp in the background. Shakhan smiled glowingly. “The past few days have been trying for our nation. The treacherous rebellion by the sand pirate and his subversive conspiracy to destroy our government was a grave trial. As you know, most of the pirates forces were destroyed by Prince Ramsus and the noble battalions of our Gebler allies several days ago --- ”
     “How come Ramsus gets to be a prince and I don’t?”
     “I believe it is what is known as propaganda, Master Bartholomew.”
     Bart nodded distractedly at his butler but continued to watch the prime minister of Aveh with the single-minded intensity of a hungry wolf watching unprotected prey.
     “---- As well as the main military forces, I regret to say that a number of dangerous spies are at large among the general populace of this --- our great country. From voluntary confessions by some of the fowl Sand Pirate’s own troops --- ”
     “Voluntary my foot!” Sigurd growled.
     On the screen Shakhan’s moon like face took on a sad disapproving expression, a father reprimanding a naughty child. In keeping, with his expression, he slowly shook his balding pate from side to side, sighing intermittently. “----  We learn that many of these dangerous criminals have gone to ground in Nisan. We therefore urge the people of Nisan to cooperate with the Gebler forces in their investigation of these --- terrorists! Anyone with any information about these subversives please inform the Gebler troops in the regions of Nisan.  Oh people of Aveh --- this is a difficult time for our glorious nation and  so we ask –“
     Sigurd reached forward and chopped the dictator off in mid platitude.
     “Sig!” Bart’s voice was horse, his newly tanned skin paled.
     “What’s going on? If they’re searching Nisan ---- Margie’s there, and --- the unit of mock Kislev gears, what happened to them? And Fei!”
     “One thing at a time Bart.” Sigurd turned to face the prince, hands on hips. His patterned T-shirt no longer seemed summer bright, but like red flames flying through a blue cloudy sky. “First, we can’t know what happened to the mock Kislev units. We couldn’t get any transmissions in that cave we were in because of the rock --- anyway it’d be dangerous using our radios, Gebler’s bound to be listening and if they captured some of our people they’ll know our codes.”

     Bart sank down onto one of the Bridge’s benches, running his hands through his disorderly mop of gold hair. “Right Sig.  So radio is out --- what about Margie?”

     Sigurd frowned, sinking himself into a seat, hands folded in his lap. “Well --- the Nuns will try to protect her, and I don’t think Shakhan’s in a sure enough position yet with the public to risk offending the Nisan order. ---- But Nisan isn’t safe for her right now.”

     “Yeah ---- we need to get Margie outta there --- and what about Fei?”
     Jerico grinned brown eyes shining a worried face. “I don’t think we need worry too much about him, Sir.”
     “What!” Bart’s voice was dangerous.
     Hastily, the Yggdrasil’s weapons officer moved to the communications console and began pushing switches.
     “--- Out here we can get transmissions from Kislev as well as Aveh, and we picked up this one on Kislev national television about an hour ago.”
     The speakers began to pump again, with a washing four-four rhythm of strings and brass and a dissonant tune whistling over the top.  On the screen a flashing lue and white news logo appeared, the sun symbol of Kislev rotating in the background behind it.
     “Oh no --- not more propaganda!”
     Jerico shook his head, neat brown hair catching the sun in autumnal glints. 
     “No sir.  This is a sports transmission --- battling to be exact.”
     “Battling?” Bart looked puzzled, his eye narrowing and deepening to indigo like a sky at evening.
     “Yes sir --- Battling. Alexander from Kislev told me that apparently the Kislevian empire has a mock gear battling tournament among it’s prisoners.  The winner gets freed.”
     Bart groaned, throwing his head back.  “Oh don’t say we have to rescue Fei from Kiselv now?”
     But as the roaring music faded, the form of a news caster dressed in a grey formal suit appeared smilingly on the screen.  “The news at 1 o’clock, brought to you direct from Nortune. I’m Robin Heltz.  Our top story today is the unexpected defeat of three year long Battling Champion Ricardo Banderas by a first time competitor, Fei Fong Wong  --- the highlights of this epic match --- ”
     But Bart was no longer listening. His eye zeroed in on the screen like a laser beam, watching as shots of a purple black gear danced over a mock battleground beneath a swirling sky.
     “That Gear he’s fighting looks really mean.”
     On the screen, the purple black shape of Weltall charged forward, hand extending to strike the heavy green cylinder atop the three-year champion’s ugly machine.
     Bart clapped, grinning widely. “Hey! Nice one Fei! Right in the noggin! --- ” The prince stood and started athletically mock punching the air, the voluminous sleeves of the kimono billowing around him.
     Sigurd swept back from the exuberant thrashing. “Yes, Fei did well to win that fight.”
     Bart abruptly stopped shadow boxing the air and turned to his white haired teacher.
     “But how the hell did Fei wind up in Kislev! --- Any idea what happened with the boarder fleet?”
     Sigurd pursed his lips. “Hmm, I don’t know for certain ---- but I didn’t see Vanderkaum anywhere around during that speech of Shakhan’s, --- which isn’t like him. Plus if the boarder fleet had defeated Maitreya and Fei, Shakhan would certainly have mentioned it.”
     Bart stopped shadow boxing and frowned intensely. “So, Fei and Maitreya stick it to Vanderkaum, then a load of Kislev boys turn up and take-em prisoner?”
     “We can’t even know that ---” Sigurd began pacing the floor like a caged tiger.
     “Maitreya’s unit could have been captured along with Fei, or they could be in Nisan. All we know for certain is that Fei’s in Kislev --- and my guess is that Hyuga’s with him --- ”
     For a second Sigurd’s eye grew dim and distant, and Bart wondered whether his lieutenant was reliving some dramatic battle in the dark streets of Solaris.  “--- Hyuga’s a good friend”
     “So --- ” Bart snapped his fingers, breaking the mood like a whip crack.
     “---  Fei and Doc’ll head straight for Nisan right?”
     Sigurd nodded gloomily. “Yes  --- and run right into a trap”
     “Shit!” Bart slammed a fist against the wall, sending a meaty thud echoing across the sun spotted bridge.
     “Young! Master! --- I have told you before about using such language! --- Your father would --- ”
     “Yeah, yeah.”  Bart waved a hand airily at his spluttering butler. “I know, I know.  But even you gotta admit that things are looking pretty bad.”
     The old butler frowned, pushing his steel rimmed spectacles further up his nose and glowering through them disapprovingly at the prince. “Hardly drastic young master, there is after all one solution which could be the solving of all our problems.”
     Bart leaned backwards, throwing his long willowy arms upwards in exasperation, the kimono blowing about him like dark infuriated wings. “Then! Spit it out, Maison!!!”
     “Well young master --- ” Maison shoved his hands into the pockets of his blue trousers, like a business man preparing for a hard hour of negotiation. “When mister Jerico spoke of his naval brother earlier, it occurred to me that there is one kind of ship, which does not carry an escort of destroyers --- the Hospital ships the Nisan order used to send out for the relief of war casualties.  Not even Shakhan would dare to attack such a vessel.”
     Sigurd frowned, his amber face creasing into deep thoughtful lines.  “So the Nisan order could stock a hospital ship with everything we need – and crew it  with our  people from Nisan --- including Miss Margie?”
     “Such was the essence of my plan, mister Sigurd.”
     “Great plan Maison, old buddy --- “ Bart clapped his long tanned hands slowly a few times, sending dull thuds echoing around the sunny bridge. “Great plan --- only one teeny-weeny little problem --- We ain’t! Got telepathic! Powers!”
     Maison sighed, rolling his eyes heavenwards as if searching for the divine answer to flippant princes.  “If the young master would please desist his sarcasm, I will explain.”
     “Okay, okay.” Bart plumped himself down on one of the bridge’s jump seats, the  skirts of his Kimono flapping around his ankles.
     “If my memory serves me correct, when we embarked upon this vessel we transferred all our equipment to it --- ” Sigurd nodded, grunting an ascent.  “Well, were there not several sand bikes among our supplies?”
     “Yes.” Sigurd pursed his lips and tapped one amber finger thoughtfully on the side of his nose.
     “Well --- surely there is a deserted coast reasonably close to Nisan?”
     “Hold on, Maison, old pal --- I see where your going with this, but there’s a problem --- ”
     Maison and Sigurd both started glaring at Bart from beneath lowered eyebrows, like three separate lasers trained on the pirate leader.
     Bart spread his palms in a gesture of defence, as if warding off his guardians accusing stares. “No really! I think there is! A problem --- seriously this time!”
     Sigurd grinned and nodded Bart to continue. The young prince leaned forward, his unbound hair falling about his shoulders in straggling sunny ripples.
     “See if Shakhan managed to capture some of our people and get information out of them --- he’ll be on the look out for us right?”
     Maison coughed delicately, raising one polite hand to his mouth. “Well, young master, there is perhaps one person currently on this vessel who is beyond suspicion --- A person who’s obvious age and wisdom –-- ”  Maison’s voice trailed off like a messenger   getting irretrievably lost in mid journey. For some reason the old butler began a minute examination of the ceiling just above Bart’s head.
     “But Sig’d be recognized before --- ”
     “No! Bart!” The Ex-Gebler officer’s voice was extremely firm. “I don’t think Maison would count 25 as age and wisdom.”
     “With all due respect --- no sir.”
     Bart’s rakish face slowly filled with a look of dawning comprehension, his single eye widening like a summer lake hit by a stone. “Maison ---- you don’t mean?”
     “I do.”  The Butler’s often prissy old voice overflowed with conviction.
     “But --- but --- but --- !” Bart glanced helplessly from his Butler to his butler to his white haired Lieutenant. “There’ll be guards!”  Bart imagined a gang of brutal faced men  surrounding his old Butler, pulling weapons from beneath shadowy clothes --- no!  Not to Maison!
     “Young Master.” Maison stood in front of Bart, steel rimmed spectacles pointing down at the young prince, a lecturing note entering his voice. “One must learn that different people have different strengths and weaknesses.  You, mister Jerico and master Fei are skilled in Combat. Mister Sigurd and the Good Doctor Uzuki excel in strategy and tactics. I however --- ” The old retainer struck his formally shirted chest with one wrinkled hand. “I, Young master, am a champion at going unseen.”
     “You?”  Bart screwed up his mind, trying to imagine his old Butler as a black clad scout, illusive and wraith like in black combat gear, somehow the image wouldn’t come.
     “Well not in the sense of avoiding the gaze of one’s enemies --- but a lifetime in service does teach one the art of unobtrusiveness.”
     “He has a point ---” Sigurd scratched his chin thoughtfully, his expression distant.
     “No one’d suspect old Maison of anything --- much less of belonging to any underground organization like this.”
     The butler nodded his neatly-combed grey head in assent. “Indeed master Sigurd”
     “Well --- ”  For a second something young and vulnerable flashed in Bart’s expression, something not unlike the golden light in  Fei’s brown eyes whenever he thought of Lahan. “I’d hate anything to happen to you Maison.” Suddenly Bart shook himself, the folds of dark cotton cloth rippling as he shrugged his shoulders, a wave passing across the yellow-gold dragon on the back. “Who’d iron my jacket if anything happened to you?”
     Maison’s eyes briefly glowed beneath his spectacles, like a pair of crinkled coins beneath the surface of the pond. “I have completed all the ironing for this week, and God willing I shall return before it becomes necessary to do any more --- ”  The old servant wrinkled his nose as if at a bad scent invading the small sunny space of the bridge. “I should hate to see what kind of damage you could wreak with an iron, young Master Bartholomew.”
     “Well you better come back, cause I like my jacket the way it is.”  Bart stood and crossed abruptly to the controls beside Jerico, bare feet slapping on the sun warmed metal of the bridge’s floor. “Okay, We’ll set a course for the coast.” Bart’s strong hands began moving with easy  competence through the maze of buttons and switches that thronged the control board of the Yggdrasil, his single blue eye scanning the board like a hawk looking for it’s prey. “We’ll rendezvous with the Nisan ship at --- 23_84 latitude, 33_92 longitude --- just out of he Aquavv area.”
     The old butler nodded, dipping one hand into a trouser pocket for a pad and pencil, and scrawling down the numbers with the fixed intense expression of someone learning something by wrote. “Got it young master.”
     “Right.” Bart’s voice was clipped almost cold, his blonde head bent over the controls, hands busy. “And tell the nuns to send Fei and Doc on down to Aquavy if they get there --- okay?”
     “Such was my intention, young master.” The old butler stood, his wrinkled and lined face set. With quiet steps he moved to the door, sunlight and shadow exploding over his blue and white shirt in patches.
     “Maison!”
     The old man turned, to see his young Charge’s face looking intently back at him, from over his black-clad shoulder. “Be careful.”

*  *  *  *  *  

     Sunset in the desert is a beautiful sight. The sun is a brilliant orb of orange, sinking into the lion colored sea of grit and dust like a flood of liquid ruby. The shadows soften from the heat of the day, and in the west, the sky washes slowly into black, where a few intensely clear stars pierce dagger like through the still rock scented air.
     But people who live in deserts rarely appreciate the beauties of the landscape --- particularly when those people are soldiers, and even more particularly when those soldiers are coming to the end of their shift of guard duty.
     “Got a fag corporal?”
     “Hmph!” The corporal dug big calloused fingers into the breast-pocket of his olive battle dress and pulled out a small crumpled white cylinder with brown flakes falling from its squashed end like the scales of a moulting lizard. “Don’t see why I should give it to you --- it’s my last one.”
     The private made a pleading face, his night-stubbled chin and protruding nose making him resemble a friendly dog begging for a treat. “Oh go on ---- swap for  the last bit of Coffee?” The private reached behind him to a ledge on the stone wall against which both soldiers leaned and pulled out a battered steel thermos, stained and fire lit by the setting sun. He shook it convincingly, making the last dregs of liquid inside slosh against the sides with a sound like the distant sea.
     “Cold!”   The corporal gave the thermos a distrustful look, he was a small, sharp featured man --- handsome beneath his scrubby brown beard. “Besides, canteen coffee always tastes like mud even if it’s hot.”
     “Yeah.”  The private agreed dispersedly, reluctantly placing the sloshing jug back on the wall behind him as the corporal replaced the squashed cigarette back into his pocket, a tradesman packing up his w wears. “Gebler gets all the best ----”
     “Shh!”  The corporal’s grey eyes widened, flashing like mirrors in the sun.  “You should whatch what you say about Gebler ---”
     “Why?” The private frowned derisively, wiping a hand across his mouth in an   unconsciously nervous gesture.
     “Because --- ” the corporal’s voice dropped to a whisper, so that the private had to lean forward, directing his ear towards the corporal’s mouth like a grimy satellite dish.

“People disappear. Remember Sergeant Glass? --- What he said when he was drunk? ---- Where is he now?”
     The private took a step backwards his long nose twitching, sand hissing beneath his boots like suddenly disturbed snakes. “But they can’t --- ”
     “Shh!”
     A speck had appeared in the desert, a small black moving dot, weaving erratically between the pillars of rock, like a drunken bird.
     As it came closer, the two soldiers stiffened like live electric wires. Each un-slung a heavy rifle from his back, tucking the bulky stock under one arm pit and gripping the long black muzzle with the other hand.
     As the speck came closer both soldiers relaxed, leaning their backsides against the still warm stone surface of the wall --- such an old man couldn’t be dangerous.
     The sand bike whooshed to a halt in front of the two soldiers, puffing diamonds of grit into the air as the wide tires ground down into the desert.
     The old man dismounted stiffly, his knee joints making an audible crack in the still evening air. He was neatly dressed in a long brown overcoat, which looked strangely formal --- or was it just that his steel rimmed spectacles and lined face gave him the severe yet kindly look of the headmaster of a small peaceful school. “Tell me good sirs --- is this the gate to the county of Nisan?” He nodded his grey head at the iron barred gate a few paces along the warn stone wall from where the two soldiers were resting.
     “That’s the gate alright --- but you can’t go in now, it’s curfew.” The private’s voice was thick and solid with authority.
     The corporal unslung his rifle and let a dangle at his back like an ungainly rucksack. “Curfew’s not for a few minutes yet ---” The corporal surveyed the old man critically, his narrow blue eyes sharp as his face.  “What’re you going to Nisan for, Grandpa? --- It’s still under martial law, you know?”
     “Well, Corporal sir, I’m on my way to visit my daughter who has the good fortune to be a member of the Nisan order. But if it is permitted to ask what is this about martial law?”
     The corporal thrust both hands into his pockets, his stubbly face breaking into the warm absorbing smile of the true extravert. “‘Ell, you probably heard on the news how a lot of those spies for the sand pirate went to ground in Nisan. We’re supposed to keep the city limits secure while Gebler  works along with the townsfolk to try and stamp out all the pirate’s supporters.  They’re bad news from what I hear --- killers every one of them.”
     The old man shook his head slowly from side to side, clicking his tong sympathetically. “I was not aware conditions here were so drastic. I must go quickly to my dear Falicia --- she will be most distressed by such unpleasant happenings.”
     “I shouldn’t worry about her.  Gebler searched the Cathedral a few days ago and since then we’ve left the order alone.” The corporal leaned forward, spreading a cloud of pungent smelling cigarette smoke around him like poisonous gas. “Between you and me, we’ve got orders to transfer out of here tomorrow --- they say they’ve arrested all the spies in Nisan --- so they’ll be lifting the curfew pretty --- ”
     “If you want to get in before curfew you better move it.”  The private’s voice was a growl. The big man stepped from foot to foot, nose poking out aggressively towards the silver haired man like some weird triangular cannon.
     The old man bowed, a long surprisingly graceful motion --- as if long practiced. “Of course, I must be taking up your valuable time. Please forgive me.”  With a quick flash of brown, the old man hopped to his sand bike like a spry frog, and then dust puffed from beneath the wide tyres as the little machine whirred up to speed and was swallowed up by the iron jaws of the gate.
     It wasn’t till the diamond dust began to settle, that the corporal realized he had never asked the old man’s name --- but it didn’t matter --- what harm could one old man do?

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