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[Lore] The Technocrat War: Machinations


Babbling Loonie
Stratics Veteran
Stratics Legend
Re: [Lore] The Technocrat War: Machinations.

The Technocrat War: Masquerade
Austin Andrews

Chapter 1: The Viper of Levanto

Under a lavish, tropical starscape, the knight Montenegro stood motionless among the ramshackle boardwalks of Port Levanto. A windblown cloak swathed him in black wool, allowing only glimpses of the steel armor he wore underneath. His hand rested on the hilt of his sword. His eyes blended into the darkness of midnight.

The buccaneer town was a boneyard of driftwood and dead ships and stooped palm trees. Cracked, rickety houses slouched against the grit of the ocean wind. Mounds of sand and splashes of moonlight glazed the port with a wan, skeletal pallor. The surf rolled and slobbered at the shore. Unclean scents and sounds gathered in leeward hollows, where things that washed up from the sea lurked or rotted, unmolested by the town's inhabitants. A consortium of rangy cats stalked the gloom.

Starry candle flames gleamed in a scattering of windows. The restless, rancid air flustered with tiny noises, like the sounds of distant revelry or of swift, muffled murders.

Montenegro's back was to the harbor, where the dark water reflected the lanterns of many tall ships. Furtive silhouettes creaked past him on the boardwalk, but the knight paid them little heed. His gaze was fixed on the dilapidated hall in front of him. The sign over the door pictured two tumbling dice. The clamor of a casino spilled out from unshuttered windows.

A figure appeared beside him. The brown-skinned man wore a full coat in the buccaneer style and a plumed hat on his head. He smelled of exotic spices. A long feline shape lounged across his shoulders.
Montenegro murmured, "Is it done?"

The sailor nodded. "You're sure he's in there?"

The knight glanced at the door of the casino. A tiny geometric symbol had been carved into the top corner. "I am absolutely sure."

The sailor fingered his cat's ears. "Good, 'cause I want this to go quick. My crew and I are dead men if we haven't set sail inside of an hour."

"Don't worry, Bawdewyn. I don't intend to tarry." He turned a somber glance on the man. "Relax, Captain. You serve the Virtue of Justice tonight. And if that is not currency enough for your troubled soul, your pardons and letters of marque are waiting for you at Vesper."

"I trust your word, Montenegro. I only hope I'm alive to collect them, hey?"

Montenegro twitched a momentary grin. "To die with Honor is to die with glory. The end is not unwelcome if you walk the path of Virtue. Don't you agree?"

Bawdewyn grimaced. "That's something you don't hear much on this island. And yeah, I do agree. Now shut up and let's do this. Annis is anxious to get to sea."

The oversize cat rumbled at its name.

The knight's grin vanished. He flexed the fingers of his sword hand. His metal gauntlet clicked at the motion. "Right. Move your people in."

The door to the casino rasped in complaint as Montenegro pulled it open. A tumble of pipe smoke spilled out. His nose wrinkled at the miasma of odors, of sweat and stale tobacco and cheap liquor. The room was warm with haze and body heat. Then the cool sea wind rushed past him and into the gambling hall, swirling his cloak and flickering lamps and candles. Thirty disheveled men and women looked up from their cards and coins. At the sight of Montenegro, they fell silent. In the corner, a one-eyed musician nudged his lute into a wooden chest, where it might evade harm.

Montenegro scanned the room. The man he sought was not difficult to find. In the far corner, at a table near an open window, sat the largest person in the hall. Scarves fluttered across his loose, exotic clothing. The Juka's skin was the color of kelp. His long face was cold and rugged. The squat horns on his brow had been shaved to a fine point. His tiny eyes glinted like a knife.

Around his neck he wore a silver pendant, in the shape of a wriggling snake.

Montenegro's gut churned at the sight. His mouth was dry as he growled, "I seek the Viper of Levanto. I am here for Justice."

The Juka opened a chilling smile. "Montenegro! It's about time you tracked me down again. But you came without a platoon of knights? Not even a sorcerer to back you up?"

"I have Truth on my side," said Montenegro, "and this." From his scabbard he withdrew a black longsword. The blade rang like a faraway bell. Its steel gleamed like obsidian. The room tensed. "You know this sword and you know why I've brought it. Make your peace with whatever power you serve. I shall meet you outside or I shall tear down this casino around you. I give you that choice, Pikas of Logosia."

A younger, smaller human was sitting at the table beside the Juka. His blond hair and white silk clothes were unusually clean compared to his fellow patrons. With unflinching ease the man interjected, "Sir Gabriel Montenegro, isn't it? My name is Mister Chase. I am a representative of the guild that runs this island." He bowed his head cordially. "You must have eliminated my guards outside, or you would not be standing in that doorway. That distresses me."

The knight smiled. "Captain Bawdewyn gave your henchmen the night off."

Chase squinted. "Bawdewyn and his crew did that?"

Behind Montenegro, the tall buccaneer stepped into the casino. In the glow of the room his wildcat Annis raised her spotted hackles. "Believe it," said the sailor. "I can show you proof, but there are ladies present."

The blond man leaned back in his chair. "I see. Interesting. Then you have subscribed to your own death, Captain. But that is a matter for another day. Pikas, I believe you must go with this knight."

The Juka chuckled and furrowed his brow. "No, I don't. He can't touch me here. I answer to no one but Anzo, just like you, Chase. Why are you humoring him?"

Montenegro stepped closer. "Because I'm here to avenge the murder of Lord Valente, one year ago tonight."

"An assassination," Mister Chase added, "which you undertook before Anzo hired you as his enforcer, Pikas. Since you killed Valente without guild sanction, I'm afraid we can't help you. Do try to face the consequences with some dignity." He nodded to Montenegro. "I wondered if you would play this hand, sir. Your cunning does credit to your courage."

The knight snorted. "I don't want your praise. I want him."

"He is yours, if you can take him."

Pikas glowered at Chase. "You know I'm not a man you want to upset."

The blond human nodded briefly. "I have accounted for that, of course." A soft clack leapt through the air. In Chase's grip rested a hand weapon consisting of levers and springs. Montenegro recognized it as a Technocrat bolt-thrower. The point of a crossbow quarrel jutted from the tip, aimed at the Juka's face. "Please conclude your business with this knight. If you are still alive afterward, you and I can review our working relationship, mmm?"

In a burst of motion Pikas kicked over the table and leapt for the window.

Montenegro was charging forward even before he registered what had occurred. The force of the Juka's movement had knocked Chase backward over his chair. As Montenegro sprang across the fallen table, he passed through a ribbon of blood slung by Pikas's quickly drawn blade. From the corner of his eye the knight spotted the Technocrat bolt-thrower tumbling through the air. Chase's severed fist still clung to the unfired weapon.

Montenegro thrust his sword at Pikas. The black steel hurtled forward like a war hound on a leash. The Jukan assassin had perched in the open window, facing out; with a snarl he somersaulted backward and over Montenegro's strike. He landed in a handstand and flipped toward the center of the room.

The knight's black sword slammed against the window frame. Brittle wood snapped and splintered. Outside the window he saw a formation of sailors brandishing spears: Bawdewyn's crewmen, deployed to keep Pikas from escaping. Pikemen surrounded the building, securing every window and door. Montenegro flashed them an approving look before he wheeled to face the casino again.

The gambling hall was in chaos. Loose coins and cards spilled across the boardwalk floor. Sweaty patrons clambered into corners and behind tables. Their cries resounded in the cramped space. Captain Bawdewyn warned them back with a wave of his scoop-hilted cutlass.

Montenegro saw Pikas dart for the farthest window, halting at a wall of speartips outside. The assassin cursed and jumped atop a bar made of old shipping crates, which groaned under his weight. His glare was that of a caged predator.

The knight stroked the air with his ebon sword. "The famous Viper of Levanto fears a single knight! But every warrior knows that assassins drink the finest vintage of cowardice."

Pikas bared his teeth. A scimitar glinted in his grasp. "Drop that hellish blade and I'll drink the wine straight from your veins!"

The knight smirked and shook his head. "I have no control over the sword's enchantment. Starfell wants to avenge Lord Valente almost as much as I do. I'm afraid neither it nor I shall listen to reason in this matter."

The assassin leapt like an attacking animal. Something in his off hand spat flames. Montenegro swung the longsword named Starfell to smash the fiery object out of the air. It was a crystal lantern, which shattered and set its fuel ablaze. The knight was drenched with flames. Then the Juka's whirling kick bashed him in the chest. Montenegro flew backward. Rickety boards cracked when he slammed against the wall.

He dared to glance down. Burning oil licked his hip and his leg. An instant later he whirled Starfell in the path of Pikas's oncoming scimitar. The assassin's loose scarves swam in a dazzling flurry. Montenegro rang out a sequence of five parries in the span of a single breath. He slashed a riposte. They traded cuts and blocks, pounding the hall with a harsh metallic clamor. Then he felt an overextension. He had time only to wince.

Pikas hacked at a seam in the plate armor under Montenegro's arm. The blow felt like a hammer. He knew the artery was severed. Spikes of pain lanced the knight's torso. He heard himself growl as he threw a punch into the assassin's gut, then followed with a snap kick that shoved the Juka away.

The spray of blood from Montenegro's wound doused the sputtering flames on his leg.

He ground his teeth. "That was your one shot, murderer. You had best hope it's fatal." Ignoring the cold horror of the cut, he pushed his weight into another charge.

Pikas sprang backward in a tumbling dodge. Montenegro carved the air with elaborate strokes as the assassin ducked and contorted. The Juka's scimitar crashed against the knight's armor in several places. Montenegro barely felt the blows. Fury drove him onward. When Pikas kicked off the wall to leap away from a strike, the knight lashed out with such vigor that Starfell plowed through the weathered boards in a cascade of splinters, then chopped into a support post. One corner of the casino roof lurched down several feet.

The huddled onlookers protested as roof slates shattered around them. Bawdewyn hunched under the wide brim of his hat.

Montenegro flung back his swirling cape and extended a long, quick thrust. Pikas blocked it, but had no answer for the knight's return stroke. Starfell caught the assassin's abdomen, peeled open the leather armor under his shirt and sliced a groove in the Juka's flesh. Montenegro closed with a pirouette and jammed his swordpoint into Pikas's gut.

The world exploded. Montenegro felt himself falling on his back. He tasted blood and realized that the assassin had kicked or punched him. Pain knifed through his face. His jaw had been crushed.

Staggering, Pikas clutched one hand to a savaged belly as he raised his scimitar for a blow Montenegro could not avoid. Then the Juka howled and fell abruptly to his knees. A crossbow quarrel jutted from his neck.

In the corner stood Mister Chase, holding the bolt-thrower in his single hand. A frightened woman was bandaging his sundered wrist. Chase's white silk clothes were stained crimson.

"I am sorry if I upset you, Pikas," said the young man, his face agleam with sweat.

The Juka hissed as he jumped straight up and scrambled across a ceiling beam.

Montenegro kicked his legs to stand. His head pounded like a drum. For an instant he was blind, yet he wheeled Starfell overhead in the Juka's direction. The sword connected with the wooden rafter and sheared it in half. Just as Montenegro's eyesight returned, the roof of the decrepit gambling hall collapsed.

The casino patrons shrieked and clamored. With a grunt Montenegro tossed away the heavy debris that covered him. He was now standing outside, in the midst of a matchstick pile of broken wood and slate shingles. Fires started to smolder around him.

A few dozen of Bawdewyn's crewmen were scrambling around the boardwalk. Montenegro opened his mouth to shout a command, but his shattered jaw mangled the words. With a snarl he fished a glass vial from a bag at his waist. Painfully he slurped the tangy contents. Warm pressure pulsed through his flesh. In seconds the healing potion stitched together his jawbone and relieved the frosty ache from the wound under his arm. Strength returned to his limbs.

"Which way?" he bellowed to Captain Bawdewyn, just as he saw the answer for himself. A string of corpses marked the path where sailors had intercepted the fleeing assassin. Montenegro followed bloody footprints to an open trapdoor underneath the boardwalk, through which Pikas had ducked.

A small, geometric symbol was carved on a plank beside the opening. As the knight peered into the rancid gloom, Bawdewyn leaned over him. His overcoat was calico with dirt and sand from the casino roof. "I see your accomplice won't let him get away," he muttered with an irate edge.

Montenegro braced himself to confront the stench heaving up from the trapdoor. He brushed his thumb over the carved symbol. "She is the only reason I found him here."

"I hope she can do more than just track the man, 'cause I can't help you anymore. The lads from the Blackjack and the Scarlet Lady are headed this way and they ain't coming to play cards. I'm pulling back to my ship before any more of my people die. You want to come, too?"

"Not when I'm this close. Didn't you notice? Chase's bolt was poisoned. This ends tonight."

The buccaneer slapped Montenegro on the shoulder, then stood and cradled his wildcat in one arm. "You just remember what they say about cornered animals, hey? If I don't see you tonight, I'll see you in Vesper. Go with Virtue, Sir Gabriel."

Montenegro nodded, though he did not turn away from the trapdoor. Instead, he sucked in a deep breath and jumped down the hole, into a blackness as rotten as it was opaque.

His boots sank into a vile sludge that burped rancid smells at the disturbance. The cool mud came almost to his knees. Though he could see nothing in the dark, Montenegro knew he was standing in a bog that spanned the breadth of Port Levanto's boardwalks, like a foul shadow. The muck was a foamy stew of sewage, decomposing fish, stagnant water and whatever garbage and corpses the sea regurgitated onto the shore. Sickly waves slurped the filth not far from where Montenegro had landed. As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could almost make out the spumy breakers.

Something was moving among them.

"The pirosohmoi are skittish tonight," said a voice from farther ashore. Montenegro lunged to the side and searched for a glimpse of Pikas. He had not brought a torch with him, as it would have given the assassin a clear target; but he wished now for a light to fling in the direction of his enemy.

He crouched and squinted. Seeing nothing, he answered, "Pirosohmoi don't come on land or I would have left you to them."

"Who says they don't? You haven't met the tribe that lives in these waters. They'll crawl through this muck to get their hands on you. Nasty creatures. They even have shamans."

Montenegro could not pinpoint the Juka's voice. It seemed to roll through the blackness like the soft thunder of waves. He shook his head, flinched at the sour air. "I have heard the legends. But you're not a man of words, Pikas. This conversation reveals your weakness. Has Chase's poison turned your body to lead?"

A snort rang out. "Britannian poisons. They don't deserve to be called that. Come to Logosia and I'll show you what real poisons do."

The knight stepped away from the water. Something underfoot grabbed his ankle. He tensed, then freed his boot from the clinging muck. "Don't try to bluff. If you had the strength to kill me, I'd be dead right now."

"Nah, I'm just waiting for a friend."

Montenegro strained his ears for any revealing sound. Somewhere ahead, he imagined cautious footsteps. "I think you lost your only friend in the casino. You're a walking corpse at the Den now."

"I was finished with Anzo anyway. I got a better offer."

Then the darkness tore apart in a fiery blaze. Montenegro arched aside as a pillar of flame roared at him. He sprawled in the calf-deep slime and choked when it slopped over his face. Muck steamed from the heat.

The flame vanished in a twist of smoke.

Twenty yards away, within a globe of unearthly red light, stood a corpulent man wearing a long robe. His thick beard was braided into multiple strands. Atop his head perched a wide-brimmed hat, decorated with a horse's tail. A satchel draped over his shoulder. A smoking staff in his hand radiated the magical light.

His eyes seethed like hot metal.

From the darkness Pikas called out, "You missed him, Grynholt! I told you, he's not as slow as the other knights."

The sorcerer barked, "Shut your frog hole! I know how to do my job."

"I'm not good at long waits, petalskin."

Montenegro grimaced as he labored to sneak through the filth. He had not anticipated Pikas allying with a spellcaster. All evidence had suggested that the Logosian was afraid of sorcery. Montenegro quickly reconsidered his tactics. Though this Grynholt appeared to be a skilled fire mage, the knight had in his career defeated wizards whose mastery was renowned. He knew he could still win. Unfortunately, it might be a lot more painful than he had expected.

The chill slime tugged at his legs again. This time he could not seem to pull free. When his knee exploded with pain he knew a pirosohmo had crawled ashore and clawed him with some jagged weapon. Despite himself he cried out in pain, then sliced the dark air with Starfell. The magic blade split a scaly, unseen arm. The merman bleated an inhuman shriek and let go. Its fins slapped the mud as it squirmed back to the waterline.

Then a scarlet light enveloped Montenegro. In a flash his steel armor glowed hot. His soggy cloak threw off steam and smoke. Where his skin touched metal it screamed burning agony. He bellowed fiercely and whirled to face Grynholt, whose sorcery gushed from his fingertips in roiling, smoky streams.

"Enough!" barked the knight as he slogged forward, despite his tortured flesh. He was a glowing spectre plunging through the murk. But his knee failed where the pirosohmo had cut him. He dropped onto all fours. His earlier healing potion had not entirely repaired the damage he had sustained in the casino. Now he was fast losing his grip on consciousness. Quickly he plunged beneath the cold, wet muck and snatched a heartbeat's respite from the pain. Then he gathered his legs under him and rose to try again.

His armor abruptly cooled when fierce white light crackled underneath the boardwalk. A silhouette in a rippling skirt stood tall among the high crossbeams, ejecting a bolt of lightning from a stout metal device. In a curl of smoke the woman blasted Grynholt, whose spells wavered as he shouted a surprised curse. After several seconds the burly wizard fell. Then the bright lightning was gone, and so was the woman.

Montenegro felt a smile cross his face. He pushed forward in the direction of Grynholt's toppled, glowing staff.

"Dammit, sister!" snapped Pikas from the gloom. "You're wearing a miner's monocle, aren't you? I'm going to enjoy killing you for it!"

Then the wizard's light blinked out. The pit under the boardwalks slumped into coal darkness once more.

Quiet settled heavily, but for the surf lapping the mud with its frothy tongue. Montenegro knelt and caught his breath. His skin continued to burn from its wounds. He mashed shut his eyes and tried to subsume the pain.

Something brushed against his cheek. He shot upright and whipped Starfell to a guard position. Then he paused. A small hand had caressed him.

A nearby whisper shushed him. "They're gone. You need to leave, too. The pirates will come down here soon."

Montenegro heaved a tired sigh, then hissed at a streak of pain under his chestplate. "I would berate you for not helping sooner, Raveka, but I don't feel I can criticize your timing."

The woman's voice answered, "You cannot, of course. I had limited fuel for my static scourge. I believe I employed it judiciously."

"So you did. Who the hell was that fire mage?"

"I don't know, but he saved Pikas's skin. You were right. Pikas was bluffing. Between your blows and Mister Chase's poison, he was in agony. It took all his strength to haul that barrel of a wizard out of here."

"You could see them in this murk?"

"I'm wearing a miner's monocle. It is another of Blackthorn's devices, which your sorcerers find more foul than this bog."

He clenched his gauntleted fist. "Then why didn't you follow them? Pikas is nearly down!"

"Pikas had an excellent escape route. Besides, I would not want to rob you of the killing stroke, hey?"

Montenegro pursed his lips. From the tone of Raveka's words, he knew that she had a logical reason. He also knew that she would not divulge it. But he trusted her decision, despite his disappointment.
He opened his hand and reached through the darkness. "As long as you're able to see in the dark, help me out of this pit."

"Captain Bawdewyn's got a bath and a healer on board the Menagerie. Seek your solace there. Hurry and you might catch him."

"A Technocrat's compassion, cold and functional as a machine. But you have two halves, Sister Raveka, a Technocrat and a Britannian woman. There's more of New Britannia in your blood than you want to believe. You should come back to Cove with me."

Her smile was audible. "You might be surprised what I want to believe, Gabriel Montenegro."

The knight considered a grin. "And what now for you? Will you pick up the trail of the Viper again tomorrow?"

"I do have other business besides plotting your revenge. The Juka Clans are invading my lands. It is time I returned home for a while."

"New Britannia is allied with the Clans. I would be unhappy to hear that you harmed any of my people."

A warm fingertip pressed against his lips. "Hush, or the pirates will hear."

Montenegro eased Starfell forward. The point nudged against what he presumed was her chest. "I could take you with me by force. I'd be a hero in the Senate if I captured a Technocrat spy."

She laughed. The motion shook the tip of the sword. "Beza rhem," she murmured. Then she vanished, a shadow in the dark.

He lifted Starfell unseen before his face. His voice lowered to a sonorous pitch. "And so the pursuit of Justice continues, my lord." He spoke to the memory of Lord Valente, the noble leader of the House of the Lion whom Pikas had slain a year earlier. Montenegro owed much to the murdered nobleman. Valente had championed him when the rest of New Britannia clamored to throw him into prison. The knight could do no less than to wield Starfell, Valente's enchanted sword, on the path of the Virtue of Justice. He would slay the assassin or die from the effort.

Generations ago the Lost King had defined the eight Virtues as ethical beacons for the people of Britannia: Honor, Justice, Sacrifice, Compassion, Humility, Honesty, Spirituality and Valor. In the eighty-eight years since the Cataclysm tore the world apart, the Virtues had assumed even greater importance. Montenegro's grandfather, the legendary Sir Lazaro, had achieved the highest degree of respect for his adherence to those ideals. But the Cataclysm took his life, even as it did the Lost King himself. Sir Gabriel Montenegro intended to recapture the glory of his honored name. The Virtues showed the only path to that destiny, a fact that Lord Valente's murder had revealed to him.

Presently Sister Raveka was the greatest benefactor of his enlightenment. Indeed, it was she who had enabled Pikas to assassinate Valente in the first place, but in the time since the deed she had worked with Montenegro in secret to hunt down the renegade Logosian. The knight's instincts told him she was sincere in her quest for atonement. He wanted to believe his instincts. So he applied the Virtue of Compassion to her case.

He was, after all, the last person to deny someone a chance for redemption. Besides, there would be time enough for Raveka's punishment once Pikas was dead.

He found the ladder and climbed up to the trapdoor. Fresh air was nectar on his tongue. As he stumbled past the flaming cinders of the gambling hall, bystanders and angry pirates avoided the man whose cloak and hood were caked with filth. A bank of dinghies was moored to a low pier. He took one and began to row in the direction of the barquentine Menagerie, which was gently gliding out to sea. Other tall ships were unfurling their great sails, in preparation for pursuit.

On the ramshackle boardwalks of Port Levanto, a one-eyed musician sat on a post plucking his lute, while tall flames capered to the lively tune.

The lurch of the sea made constellations sway in the dark skies of early morning. Montenegro steadied himself on the baroque frame of a large window that dominated the ship's cabin. The narrow bedroom displayed rich appointments of silk and gold and lush tapestry, crowding every inch of space. Clove incense tinged the humid air. The rolling creak of the Menagerie sounded like a chorus of wooden frogs.

The knight stared at two lights blinking in the distance.

Captain Bawdewyn reclined in a velvet chair, his tall boots propped on a desk. A ledger lay open under the half-furled rolltop. The wildcat Annis stretched across the hutch and stared with enormous eyes at a tawny dog under the sailor's chair. Bawdewyn leaned down to pinch one of the dog's pointed ears. The animal squealed and nipped back.

The captain grimaced. "Come away from that window, Montenegro. You're making Kiye skittish."

"Then you shouldn't keep feral pets."

"They ain't feral. Feral is like an alleycat. Annis here is an ocelot and Kiye is a coyote. They're wild animals."

Montenegro rolled his eyes. "Ah, the subtleties of nondomestication. It's truly a shame you're leaving piracy, you know. You have a gift for civilized barbarity."

"Ha! I've had enough of Anzo's barbarity, I can tell you that. 'Pirate King,' my hind-end. He's nothing but a very enterprising extortionist." The sailor waved a long-fingered hand. "Now come sit down. Those galleons ain't gonna catch us. Square-riggers can't make half our speed sailing into the wind. Pour yourself some rum and relax."

"I don't drink."

Bawdewyn pinched his eyebrows together. "Sit down anyway. You and me have got to talk about something."

The knight darkened his expression as he turned away from the window. "What's on your mind, Captain?"

"That Technocrat woman you deal with."

"What about her?"

"She's using you as a pawn."

Montenegro eased into an intricately carved chair. "Of course she is."

"I can tell by your face, she's trying to seduce you."


"And you're walking right into her net? Why? Did you forget she's on the enemy's side?"

"Your concern is touching, but I know exactly what I am getting into. Right now she and I want the same thing. Pikas of Enclave. On that score I can trust her without reservation. Can you say the same about your fellow buccaneers?"

The captain spat a derisive sound as he poured rum into a mug. "That was a cheap shot."

"No, it wasn't. Trust is a precious thing, Captain. It's an essential component of Spirituality -- trust in the Virtues and in yourself. It's not something I often make light of."

"Okay, you want to talk about trusting that Technocrat? I've got another question and you won't want to answer it."

"I'm listening."

"If this woman is so good at what she does, how come you've cornered the Viper three times in the past year and never taken him down? Her traps don't seem to close quick enough."

The knight frowned. "Because Pikas is good at what he does. You saw him. It's like trying to catch a fish with your bare hands."

"Yeah. Or maybe this Technocrat ain't as trustworthy as you think she is."

He paused before saying, "You're wrong. Time will prove that. See if you can refrain from talking about her in the meantime, Captain Bawdewyn. I agreed to this arrangement because I was led to believe I could rely on your discretion."

The captain swallowed a tongue of liquor. "Don't get like that. I walk with Honor, the same as you. I just don't want to see a decent fellow stick his head in a noose."

Montenegro steepled his fingers. "She plays her cards and I shall play mine. When it's over we'll see which one trumps the other."

"Uh-huh. But I say you should stick to training with those war masters from Jukaran. You can trust them. Leave the Logosians in Logosia."

"You can't trust all Jukan masters. Believe me." The knight smirked. "In point of fact, I might visit Logosia myself soon. I've got fifty knights who would break down their stalls for a chance to fight the Technocrat army toe-to-toe. I'm thinking of taking them to Garron as a strike force."

"I thought you said you lost your command."

"I did. We won't be sanctioned by the Senate. Rather call us mercenaries whose fee is paid in glory and experience."

"And if you're successful, maybe General Nathaniel will give you a real command, hey?"

Montenegro smiled. "I'll have more knowledge of Blackthorn's war machines than any other New Britannian."

The captain raised his eyebrows. "And let me guess -- your Technocrat lady is going back to Logosia, too, ain't she?"

The knight glanced away for a fraction of a second.

Bawdewyn opened a wide grin and chanted:

Gabriel was a fearsome rapscallion,
Wild and free as a Ravenmoor stallion
Hitched up his reins to a fair maiden's skirt
And lived out his life dragging plows through the dirt!

His laugh shook the timbers of the cabin. Then he raised his mug to the languid wildcat. "You and me are going to be privateers, Annis! Here's to the yoke of legitimacy." He tipped back the remainder of his rum, then blew a sharp breath at the ocelot. She squinted and flattened her ears.

The knight played an ironic smile over his lips, but it did not look entirely natural.

Marcus Aurelius

Where did you get all this Ultima stuff. pretty cool .