Riposte. Chapter 1

by D'Artagnon


The thrust came in low, spearing, aiming for my groin. I barely managed to bat it away and step back before the next attack came sailing in. I hopped back and parried to secunde at the same time. As my feet touched ground, I switched my parry from two to eight (its all in the wrist) and brought my opponent's blade up and around hooking it, circling it in a textbook parry in quarte. I stepped back with a flourish and released my blade from the engagement, smiling. I'd escaped my opponent's trap and looked past the point of my blade at him. Just as he was contemplating the next move, I stepped inside his defense, catching his blade's inner third with the same point on mine, croised towards our opposite shoulders. We were nearly corps a corps and I decided to make it even tougher for him to win this point.

So I kissed him. Just a quick peck on the lips, nothing too fancy. But it kinda surprised him.

"Halt play!" a loud voice bellowed off to my right. My opponent and I backed off, lowering our points to the ground. "Robby, you will not be able to kiss your opponent during the Olympic trials. If you can't focus on the contest at hand then you wont make the cut."

"I know, Mitch. Sorry."

"Hey, it worked," Kenny spoke up. "It sure distracted me!"

"Okay, why don't we take a break? We've been practicing for three hours anyways." My fencing instructor announced. He turned and walked onto the back porch of his house, bringing a steaming cup of coffee up to his face. I stabbed my practice foil into the soft ground to the right of the piste. My fencing partner did the same and we dropped to the grass, relaxing.

For the better part of a month I had been adjusting to my dual existence as a changeling. I didn't often attend the fancy court events, only on festival days and such. My rank and status within the society of changelings was mostly something based on my skills with a blade and my defense of the local monarchs. Others might believe that I have more ambition, or even a desire for a little piece of the empire to call my own, but I don't. I was just happy being me, and not having to involve myself in the court intrigues.

Besides, after slaying a dragon, I guess I'd earned a rest and a little respect.

I glanced over at Kenny, thinking to myself that life was just about perfect again, in both of my realities. I'd nearly lost him for good. Only through the most powerful and arcane of changeling magics (which I still have only a little idea how to control) was I able to bring him back from the very precipice of changeling final death. To immortals such as we, that ultimate Undoing, that fading forever into the Winterlands of oblivion is the most horrid fate imaginable.

So, I guess I was getting kind of complacent, relaxed, letting the world and its events slip by around me. Here I was, on the back yard of my boyfriend's house while his father was just stepping inside, my boyfriend just a small space away across the grass and I was having some, well, let's just call them less than PG-13 thoughts about what the two of us could do. No, let's go ahead and say it; I wanted to jump his bones and make him rattle and hum under me, moanin' and groanin' like only a boy who's making love with his one true love can. Yeah, that's pretty much what I had in mind, along with a long make out session in advance.

Hey, I'm a Satyr. Sex is life for me. And sex with Kenny, or his fae self, Kay Neth the Steel-Eyed, well that's a full lifetime each and every time.

So just as I'm reaching over to take his hand, a slight scampering sound, followed by the drift of several repeating tones carried on the wind greeted my ears. Kenny and I looked over at the same time to see one of my unicorns, a half grown, dappled mare, materialize before me, bearing a rider. Which can only mean that the rider is meant for me, since the unicorns only accept me as their master and will only bear those loyal to me. Kenny and I exchanged brief looks and then stood to go meet the rider, knowing that something must be up.

The rider was a kitt. For those unfamiliar, a kitt is a small race of creatures, no larger than a 10 year old, with feline and canine features, fur in a wide variety of colors and very animated facial expressions. Kinda cartoony looking little guys. This kitt was mostly doggish, looking like a cream colored poodle, even bearing on himself a short French style rapier and the blue tunic of a musketeer. It was a Shrek 2 moment to be certain. However, this tunic bore the argent unicorn rampant on a field of blue as a house crest. My house crest. Clearly, this was someone sent by one of my thanes or sent specifically to find me. Oh, and kitts are summoned from the Dreaming with just a simple thought, to act as messengers and then fade back into the Dreaming again. They are more or less the changeling version of text messages on cell phones.

"Ho! Dragonslayer! Master of the SkyFire! I bring you tidings and news!"

"I am he you seek," I answered. I really didn't like being reminded about my accomplishments, since like any other good, well behaved computer geek, I'd have preferred to remain in the background instead of having so much prestige and responsibility. Still, there were millennia old obligations I had to honor.

"Milord Robyn the Blue, Heir of Cerulean, Keeper of the Tear, and Lord Protector of the Kingdom of Apples, I send to thee greetings from her Excellency, the Countess Donna Trag."

"Just get on with your message, kitt," Kenny commanded from my side. As my herald and Lord Chancellor, it was his duty to speak up for me, and even to perform certain matters of state in my stead.

"T'will it please my lords, you are summoned before the Countess' court on the eve of the next full moon. A matter of such urgency as to require your presence has come to the Countess' attention and she would fain have thee to council, in thy capacities as Heir of Cerulean and Lord Protector. Upon such an occasion, Queen Mab shall be seated before the court, and thus you are called to serve." So saying, the kitt presented a roll of parchment, wrapped about the middle in a single band of colored silk almost tie dyed in dark, rich tones, a perfectly intact seal in red wax holding the roll together and ensuring that none but Kay or myself should see its contents after the final pen stroke had dried. The silk and seal were both authentication that the message was genuine and from Donna Trag.

"Tell your good mistress, the Countess, that Lord Robyn shall be present upon that date. And bid her good health in the days between." I took the parchment roll from the kitt and it bowed deeply. I turned as the kitt swung back to the unicorn and both faded into a short space of musical tones, drifting on the breeze.

"I don't like it," Kenny said, watching as 'corn and rider vanished. "The last time Mab commanded you to court we had to go fight a dragon. What is so important that she couldn't trust a kitt with the message other than to say, 'come to supper'?"

"I dunno, Kay. Whatever it is, we better at least give Caspian a heads up." Looking down to the roll in my hands, I felt a slight shiver down my spine. I was tempted to open it up right then and there, but thoughts of how the Dreaming was intruding back onto my mundane world again made me wonder if I should. Nothing so elaborate is without meaning in the Dreaming. It took walking into some rather stoopid social and physical walls in that other slice of reality for me to realize that. And I have the scars to prove it.

"Should we call Capricus and Croaker as well?"

"Sure, let's make it a family affair. We'll rope in Elzbeth and Yoseph if we can as well." I sat back in the grass, reaching out to run the back of my fingers against Kenny's cheek. His sweat was causing his skin to gleam, and his suntan glistened, beckoning to me. I sat, leaned back and Kenny seemed to get the idea, leaning over me. As he moved in for a kiss, a loud "Ahem!" followed by much coughing and hacking caught both of our attention.

"Juan," Kenny whispered, sighing above me. He closed his awesome eyes for a moment, nodding slightly with this slight smile. Kenny had so many subtle and ironic habits, and lately I had begun to notice them more.

"If it is him, I'll break his Latino neck for interrupting us," I whispered. But I knew that Kenny was right. He usually is. He tilted his head a little above me, sort of twitching his eyebrows up in the center. His subtle way of asking if we should find out what Juan wanted or ignore him completely. Of course the answer to that is no, but I choose to answer with a quick peck on Kenny's lips, which was my way of saying that there's more where that came from later. Kenny smiled and helped me stand up. Not that I needed his help, but I wasn't about to throw off an offer of assistance from my Kenny that also included some direct skin contact with him, even if only with his sweet hands.

We turned and found Juan and Bethany standing on the porch. Kenny's father and all of our fencing coach, Mitch, was there as well, reading through the morning edition of our town newspaper. Kenny and I chased down the light rise to the porch, grabbing our foils along the way. It was a matter of a few moments for us to arrive, a little upset at having been interrupted, but happy to see Juan just the same.

We'd been gone a week at the sectional fencing championships, where Kenny and I both placed high enough to qualify for regionals in two weapons each. Kenny took second place in foil and third in epee, while I gathered third in foil and second in saber. Much to the surprise of the fencing community in America, we'd had so little tournament experience between us that they were shocked at how well we did. Kenny was actually ranked as third best fencer in the under 18 category in the country. I was somewhat further down the list, but Mitch told me that I'd only improve that rating by winning titles and defeating higher placed fencers. After all, I'd only been fencing in this lifetime for about 7 weeks.

"Hey guys," Kenny greeted as we sat down, dangerously close to each other. As if by some subtle agreement, Kenny and I were pressing our outer thighs together as we sat at the picnic bench. It had become a custom with us of late, touching publicly in innocent seeming ways, while basically being just a few prying eyes from pawing each other openly. Not that I'd mind if people watch, but I just don't like stopping to notice being noticed. Besides, some things should be private.

"We heard how well you guys did at the tournament," Bethany said grinning. "Congratulations!" She, too, was a changeling, and a very much treasured part of our motley. Her kith, the Sidhe (pronounced Shee) were the traditional rulers of the changelings. The automatic noble born, with abilities as Elzbeth, that the rest of us more warrior-types lacked and a court savvy that would pale most higher ranked nobles. And while she was not as skilled with the blade as the rest of us, her accuracy and power with a bow were beyond any denial. She and Croaker, Juan's alter ego, were an odd couple, to be certain, but they were so devoted to each other, so quickly, it startled many in both realities. But if u saw them together, just they way they looked at each other, you'd know, they were perfect for each other.

They sat opposite us. We chatted for a bit, mostly just catching each other up on the events of the last week. Just sharing the gift of gab, you know? Mitch would chime in from time to time as we recounted our time at the tourney. Not really important stuff, just the sort of things that matter most when you're telling stories to you best friends. We were all pretty much laughing and finishing sentences for one another. You'd never know that this group only had been close for less than two months.

"We have some news," Kenny said, at length. It was just the way he spoke that made even Mitch, as stoic as he could be at times, like when his newspaper beckoned, forget his concerns and take notice. "Mab has summoned Robby to court on the next full moon." The implications began to sink in as Kenny quickly relayed the brief meeting with the kitt.

"Wonder what she's got on her mind?" Juan offered. Mitch's face held no motion at all, in that damned stony expressionlessness that only a Troll can master. I could see his blue face below his human seeming (or above rather, Trolls are freakin' tall!), and Caspian was carefully keeping worry from his countenance, despite the calculations I could see brewing behind his eyes.

"I haven't heard anything," Bethany said, guessing my question.

"Next full moon is in two days," Kenny said, checking his cell phone. "Looks like she wants some action taken soon, especially if she's coming down here from Caer Palisades." Geographically, Caer Palisades matches up with Manhattan.

"Whatever it is, it's important enough that she's given me sufficient time to prepare. I think we should make good use of it. Caspian, we could use Capricus and Yoseph on this one. I'm not totally sure what the matter is, but it would be wise, I think, to have all of our resources available." Yeah, I know. Even I have a hard time believing how easily this leader stuff just comes out of me.

"We'll load up and go visit Yoseph after lunch," Mitch agreed. As Caspian, he was my Reeve and chief thane. If you need to know what all that means, get a dictionary and look it up. Either that or go back and read my first memoirs of all these strange events.

"Mind if we tag along?" Juan asked. "It's been a while since I've seen Joey and I don't think that Bethany's been into the Umbra before."

"The what?"

"The spirit world, babe," Juan answered, kissing her hand. "It's like no place you've ever seen or imagined."

"Just don't trip over the spider webs," Kenny joked. "Capricus wont be hard to find either. I think he has a boat tied up in Newburyport. We could stop their first and contact him before we go over to Salisbury Beach Center to find Joey."

"I'll call ahead before we leave, maybe we can all meet someplace," Mitch said, laying a cell phone on the table.

"Do we have any idea what this could be about?" Beth asked. I think we were all thinking it, but she put voice to it. It's a trait of hers that we would come to appreciate many, many times, her ability to look into the heart of a problem from the diplomatic, governing point of view that the Sidhe are bred to. "If Mab has something just for you in mind, I'm sure she'd give you your own heads-up. And I doubt Donna Trag would let you go into something blind. You live in her realm, you defend her subjects and vassals. If nothing else, she owes you respect and a fair deal of trust."

"Kenny, what's that scroll say?" I asked. Maybe Donna Trag did send us some info. The kitt would have delivered the message commanding us to appear in court, without fail. She didn't need to hand over written orders to appear as well, although with Sidhe, a paper trail was just a way to assure that orders were maintained and followed to the letter.

Kenny presented the scroll and began to unroll it. The seal cracked open with a slight spark and a puff of smoke. Had anyone other than Kenny or myself opened it, it's very likely something unpleasant would have occurred. Sidhe documents have tighter document security than Bill Gates can even dream of. He unrolled the document carefully, leaving the center mostly open an smoothing back the corners which tried to roll back up again, as if denying us a peek at it's insides.

Now, to any normal mortal or anyone that hasn't been blessed with the Enchanting Stroke, or just plain not gifted enough to actually perceive the various layers of reality, the document appeared as no more than just a rolled up page of newsprint from yesterday's Canterbury Tribune, with some added splotches of paint on it like someone was spray painting a barstool or a lamp and didn't want to get the floor covered. That's what the unenchanted, unenlightened and unimaginative would see. Which is fine. We changelings prefer to keep our secrets even as we spy out yours.

However, to the awakened eye, there unfolded in the newsprint a map. Two in fact. The first map was of the Kingdom of Apples. You would know it better as everything south of the St. Lawrence Seaway to Washington DC following the coast, basically all of New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Delaware (just don't let Delaware know we claim them, it's kinda embarrassing). It's a big territory. And I'm, technically speaking, Lord Protector of it all. Actually, the local barons and nobles that are under Queen Mab's banner are the real protectors of the realm; I just get the fancy title and the job of hunting down renegades, dragons and other threats. The fact that I don't want the job doesn't mean I can just hand it off to anyone else, though.

Back to the maps, ornately drawn with fancy calligraphy and depictions of sea serpents and a dragon as the south wind, integrated into a compass done in fine filigree. As I said, the first one showed the kingdom as it stands now, with areas of shaded colors marking the various baronies, counties, dukedoms, territories and the other political crap that goes into it. I could tell you how it all interacts, but in all honesty, I'm not much for politics. It's bad enough I'm an enforcer for Mab's rule.

Also listed on the map were several spots marked with numbers and a listing of the numbers to the side. The corresponding list made no sense to me at first, until I traced a path between the numbers like connecting the dots. Then I re-read the header over the list and suddenly the list and the tallies presented there made sense. The header read, in ornately scrolled red ink, Under Cold Iron, and some of the notations had the phrase "Undone" next to them. This was a map showing the path of a killing spree.

"Oh my, someone's been a busy little bee," Mitch said, coming to the same conclusions as we did. "If this is accurate, then over 40 changelings have gone into oblivion." For immortals like we changelings, final death is the worst of all possible fates. The loss of dreams, the loss existence, the loss of any hope of returning to Arcadia, it's an affront to the Dreaming itself. It is the most heinous crime that one changeling can do to another, the ultimate act of hatred, the Undoing of another kithain. Horror itself.

"It could mean that there were incidents involving these changelings. Not necessarily murders, or deaths," Beth asserted. "I find it hard to believe that so many or our kithain could be harmed maliciously in so short a span of time. The times between these events is rather short, in some cases a matter of only hours, but the distances are so far apart."

"No matter how you slice it," Kenny said, "it means a lot of trouble. If it's one of ours causing all of this…."

"Then it falls to Robyn to end it," Juan said. Which earned him a cross glance from me.

"Actually," Beth said, sighing as she lay her head on Juan's shoulder, "it would be Robyn's responsibility anyways, as Lord Protector. It's his duty."

"I'm really beginning to hate all of this changeling lordship business," I sulked (yeah, sulked; got a problem with it?!). "Just when I try to get out, they keep pulling me back in!" I said, trying my best Godfather voice. But the seriousness of the moment overcame whatever humor that failed attempt could have injected.

"What is the second map?" Mitch asked, getting us focused back on the task at hand. Kenny let the top map roll up under one hand and revealed to us the contents of the second. This map was somewhat more arcane. It had astrology markings on it, circles inside of circles attached to other circles with triangular and rectangular geometric figures linking the various lines. The whole thing looked as if it were inked with a brush. Parts of it had arrows that might indicate direction of movement along some of the spherical tracks. Some of the notations had numerical marks that at first looked like times to me, except for the few of them that looked like temperature readings. There were subtle changes in the ink color and if you looked closely enough some of the inner circles and notations seemed to move. I swear I saw a 3 change to a 4 on one of the notations. There were words I didn't recognize outright on there as well: anchorhead, tesseract, realm nexus, deep void, maelstrom. Okay, I recognized the words enough that I could pronounce them, but as far as their meaning on this enchanted parchment was concerned, I was totally baffled.

"Oh-kay. Any clues?" I asked?

"Looks like an astrological chart of some kind. Perhaps some sort of reminder from Mab and Donna Trag to appear at a certain time?" Beth offered.

"That's not Mab's style. I think there may be another meaning behind this," Mitch supplied, stroking his chin thoughtfully. "Although astronomic and astrological symbols appear throughout this map, I cannot make heads or tails of what it may lead to or even any references as to any places within the kingdom that it might match up with."

"I'm afraid, my lord, we may need to find some one with a little more information to help us out here. The attention to detail is almost Nocker in its obsessiveness. But the mystical symbology is clearly either Eshu or Sluagh. And not only is there mystical information on the map, but it's been heavily Glamoured as well." One look to Kenny was enough to tell me that he couldn't pierce the veil of its mystery using his kith's secret messages and codes. A subtle shake of his head and the intentness of his gaze at the bizarre symbols told me that this was beyond his experience, which was enough to let me know he was now deeply intrigued. And nothing keeps an Eshu's attention more than a mystery or a puzzle. It's like throwing kerosene on a campfire, just causes more curiosity than a cat can lay claim to.

"Great, a murder map and a treasure map that no one an read. This keeps getting more and more interesting," Juan supplied, his acerbic nature coming out.

"I'm afraid we need a map expert for this one," Kenny said, a small measure of his pride burning away with that admission. Still, I think he'd rather know for certain than have to guess and be wrong. "Or to find a Nocker or Sluagh who can fill in the blanks."

"Sluagh!" Beth shuddered. "I'd hate to think what this might truly be if the Whisperers are involved."

"At least if it's a Nocker's work we'll only have an eccentric, egotistical, over-excitable perfectionist to deal with," Kenny smiled. Still, the levity in his voice wasn't enough to keep Beth from rolling into Juan's chest for comfort. Something else was clearly working her fears as well.

For those of you going "uh, D'ah, what'd he say?" about Nockers and Sluagh, I'll explain it briefly. To keep it simple, there are many varied kith of changelings. Separate breeds and races, if you will, but all fae. All exiles from the Arcadia realm. As you've probably guessed so far, Trolls (such as Caspian/Mitch) are freakin' huge, powerful and, well, blue. Sidhe (like Beth) are unearthly beautiful and natural leaders. Juan/Croaker is a member of the Redcap kith, with their relentless grinding teeth and tendency to bite first and ask questions after burping. My Kenny/Kay Neth belongs to the enigmatic and always adventuresome Eshu, the wayfarers and troubadours of the fae, always willing to seek out trouble and find the right path back out of it. My kith are the Satyrs of legend, with all that implies; as wild with music and song and, well, other sensual pleasures as we are dangerous to cross. If you read the little story that leads into this one (apply shameless plug hook here!) you've got at least a flimsy grasp of that much of changeling society. There are a few gaps however.

You see, our kith and your cultural legends and folktales merge. The one inspires the other. That's just how my kind have spent the last 15,000 plus years keeping your kind's dreams burning bright. We were at Atlantis before the pyramids were some wily pharos mad pipedream. Back when your ancestors were still painting on cave walls and chasing mammoths over cliffs for food, we were part of your collective subconscious, inspiring your powerful yet fragile imaginations. So when you wonder why so much of our reality matches with your race's fantasy worlds, guess why?

Anyways, there's still four kiths you haven't really met yet. There's the Boggans, first off. Think of them as like gnomes or hobbits. Little guys that generally are good at things around the house, the ultimate home improvement types. Awesome cooks too. But I doubt that they'd have anything to do with the map, though. Boggan mystical abilities are more along the fix it, clean it, spice it, fresh coat of paint it kinda stuff. Not big into adventures. Not unless shoes are involved. Or gossip.

Next come the Pooka. Yeah, I know, I had to ask twice when I heard the name too. Think of the Pooka as shapeshifting, animalistic tricksters that have to lie or deceive once in a while or else they just don't feel right. If this was a Pooka artifact, the map would have more of the artists personality to it, probably lots of riddles and hidden images, too. This scroll was cold logic and mystic knowledge, though. So chances are, it wasn't one of the prankster's little ploy-toys, or if it was it was one hell of a good example of playing against type.

Which leaves two forces that aren't to be taken lightly in changeling society. Nockers….well how do I describe what a Nocker is. Imagine a really pissed off perfectionist with overly long arms and almost a clownish pale face done up with "beauty marks" to complete the clown look. They are never satisfied with any of their creations, either from an artistic or mechanical perspective. But if you want something built or rendered, or some sort of artsy thing done, a Nocker is the way. Unfortunately, they have a reputation, much deservedly, of being pessimistic, anal and totally punk-ass bitches about things. Never satisfied with their own work, even if you yourself are blown away. And they swear like an art form; we're talking Oscar winning performances with profanity here. A Nocker could very easily have drawn this map, although usually they tend more towards more concrete designs. The abstract and arcane nature involved didn't quite say Nocker, even if the detail and precision of the map itself did.

Which leaves the Sluagh, the whisperers. Think Russian royalty, Victorian English gentry, landed Austrian aristocrats and such when you consider what these kith look like. Usually they never talk above a whisper, it's said because the voices in their heads don't let them. They have some sort of connection to the spirit realms, but not to the spirits of the living. These are the Edgar Allan Poe types, the creepy-crawly aristocrat types that have more secrets in their shoes than most people have in a whole house full of closets. If there's something deep and dark, chances are they've either heard of it or invented it. One word fits some of them to a tee – macabre. Although their stuff usually has this dark cast to it, very Addam's Family. There was no Victorian haughtiness to the writing on the map, no doom and gloom poetic verses in iambic pentameter to make one consider choking the life out of the nearest English Lit teacher.

Clear as mud? Well, you try compressing about fifteen millennium of changeling kith history into a few paragraphs. Suffice it to say, there was a lot going on here and not all of it fit into easily definable parameters. Welcome to my world.

Anyways, I wasn't the only one to notice Beth's aversion to the Whisperers. I would have thought if the angelic, elvish transcendence of Elzbeth could stand and fall in love with the wild gothic warrior look of Croaker, surely the slightly archaic and musty look of the Sluagh wouldn't give her any further trouble than the average changeling. Mitch's eyes narrowed slightly at her reaction, something that I knew meant he was now worried as well. You learn to look for the little signs when you trust people so deeply.

"Travelers and seamen know maps best," Kenny said at length, breaking the tension starting to flood the deck. "If I can't see this as an Eshu artifact, perhaps it's something that either Capricus or Joey know about. We were planning a trip to visit them anyways," he said, shrugging and dropping his simple grin. I looked over and once again was ensnared in the depth of his awesome gray eyes.

"Robby?" Juan said, as if he were repeating my name to catch my attention again. I must have pulled a double take looking over at him, breaking the spell that Kenny's eyes always holds on me. I probably blushed a bit as well. I was having…..thoughts.


"I said, do you think you guys will still finish high enough at regionals to make it to nationals?"

"You doubting our skill, Juan, or just our luck?" I smiled back.

"Little of both maybe," he returned, lifting his nose towards the piste just up the rise in the back yard. "You got any spare pokers?"

"Better!" Kenny said, standing up. "You game, Bethy?"

"Sure. Why should I let you guys have all the fun? Besides, I could use some practice."

"Pop?" Kenny asked, as if he didn't need to ask the full question.

"Might as well, who knows where this may take us," Mitch said, standing up and going inside. "It will at least loosen you all up in case we get into trouble. Knowing you four, trouble is your middle name."

Kenny followed his father inside, bringing our foils inside. Moments later Kenny stepped outside tossing my blue lightsabre to my hand and Juan his red one. A green one slipped across the table to Beth, but before I could see if she picked it up or not, I had to pull a back roll over the railing of the deck as Juan came in fast, sailing his blade in at my head. In a word, it was on!

I took three steps up the hill, turned and slashed blind, hearing Juan coming up the hill close behind me. He parried in step and stepped back as I counter-slashed, ground to sky. We both came set and stared at each other across our blades, about four inches from an engagement. The blade felt good in my hands. It had been a week since I'd been able to use the lightsabres and to be honest, I really liked fighting with them rather than the foils. Using traditional tournament weapons was more a rules based sport. With our sabers, though, it was like the fighting spirit of my fae soul could relax and just let out the worry and have fun. Yeah, I know, its kinda weird how fighting is fun, especially with my geekness such a recently dropped thing.

I dropped into a two-handed stance facing my left side to Juan, blade held low from near my belly, elevated to point at his throat, grinning like an idiot. Juan switched footing too, facing straight on, his blade held low beside his hip, his shoulders and head held low so his grin seemed wider, nastier, like he was thinking about biting first instead of swordplay. It was a boldfaced attempt at intimidating me. And had I not trusted Juan with my life, having a Redcap grin at me like that would have tied my stomach up in knots of worry.

But just because he was my friend was no reason for me to make it easy on him. I wiggled my eyebrows at him and stepped in, raising my right arm high away from my body, preparing to do some complex two-handed slashing. Coming in high like that with the back hand was a sure fire give away that I had some sort of diagonal slash and hack attack in mind, which was just what I wanted him to think. I pounced up, bringing my blade around in a shallow cut that lacked all the movement that my right arm implied, but Juan fell for it anyways. He went into a forward blade position intending to parry my initial slash. I slipped my blade just a fraction of a centimeter to the outside of his parry, hooked my blade under his, lifted and thrust at the same time, basically pushing his blade well out of line and sliding my point close enough to him to actually feel his shirt snag as he stepped back suddenly, whipping his blade down to beat mine aside. His grin came back to his face as he saw me settling into my more normal stance.

"Nearly caught me with that one," he admitted, whipping his blade through the space between us to loosen his wrist up more. "I'll have to remember who I'm sparring with."

"If I don't teach you something from time to time, you'll think I'm going soft."

"Never, my lord. As Kay Neth reports, the only time you go soft is for meal breaks."

"He's just bragging," I grinned back. And that moment of self pride was all Juan needed to distract me enough to come in, low, fast and spearing, trying to coupe to the inside of my left calf muscle. I dropped into a septime parry, stepping back and away, slashing up and inside to try to retake center. But Juan was as much a student of the sword as I, and he quickly reasserted his attack in the higher line, going after my chest again, forcing me onto my back foot. I had to scramble and backpedal as he came in time and again, my blade switching from quarte to quinte to sexte, down to prime, back up to quinte and then down to a very weak octave before I managed to flick my blade up level with his throat.

Juan stepped back, arching his back wildly and parrying tierce to prevent my point from touching him. I slipped forward in a backhand turn, hoping to gather some strength and speed in a slash through his middle that would be tough for him to parry while he was regaining his balance. But he surprised me by not only parrying my slash, but counter-parrying it, forcing my blade to continue through its arc, way out of line. It would have made me completely open for a slash if I didn't grab the pommel of his blade with my left hand and try to take his sword away. He backed up enough to snatch his sword hand free of my, admittedly, weak grip. And he walked almost right into my point as I tried to bring it back into line. He sat down quickly, rolling on his back and popping back up onto his feet, his blade in a traditionally en garde position. We both stopped, tense but ready to move at full speed in an instant.

"You warmed up yet?" I asked. His grin was such an evil thing I had to remind myself that he is my friend.

"Yeah, I'm good. We safe here?"

"Perfectly. You feeling full contact?" My implied question was if he wanted to use our full changeling powers while we sparred.

"Nah, save it for later."

"Boys!" Mitch called from the deck. We all looked over. Beth and Kenny were laughing, going through a slow speed imitation of me and Juan's duel. Kenny was actually giving her sword technique pointers. "Let's just go out to see if we can find Caspian's boat. You kids can try to take each other's heads off later." Juan tapped his blade on mine, a fencer's version of a high-five.

"Next time I wont be so easy on you, milord," he said as we started back toward the porch.

We piled into Mitch's SUV, after making appropriate phone calls (I still don't know how Bethy got her parents to let her go to the beach with her Hispanic boyfriend in the car of a strange adult; you'd have to realize how overprotective, conservative and racist her parents can be to understand that, they're so paranoid it's frightening), and headed to the beach. Now telling you this part of how we traveled is just to give you an idea of how serious we were now taking things. Before we left, all three of us guys went downstairs into Kenny's room and spent a moment to get girded up for war. I know, seems weird to be putting on a cup under street clothes, but if you've ever been sacked, racked or smacked in the pills you know that it's not fun. And while we were all feeling kinda bouncy and relaxed, we'd been informed that changelings were being slaughtered and that I was expected to do something about it. A little precaution was called for, I think.

But in the back of my mind, I had to keep another thought focused. Something no one else had mentioned yet, but we were probably already thinking. I already had a major bad-ass enemy out there, a truly nasty one that wasn't above slashing any random changeling, prodigal or mortal just for the fun of it or to get my attention. One with a cruel streak wider than an eight lane highway, and Juan's mortal father.

The current clan head of the Redcap unseelie rebels, Lord Korbesh. He had gone rogue from the local courts, and tried to kill me twice. Even the unseelie courts (let's not get into that one just yet, I'll explain later if I think you deserve to know) were publicly decrying his actions. He was in hiding, underground as it were, and could strike out from the darkness at any time. So as far we were concerned, any protection was just another advantage. We also packed our lightsabres in the back of the SUV, along with a gift for Capricus. In my own mind, all these killings could be attributed to Korbesh and his followers.

Which meant the war was on again. And we were taking it seriously.

Now this probably sounds to you (yeah, you, the guy in the back making rude comments, just shut up and watch the movie, pal!) like I'm probably all self important and bigger than life and like I'm better than you. That my status as a changeling noble and enforcer makes me superior. Brother, if you want this stress, come and take the job. I'll show you what to do and let you just run with it. The only thing about being who I am that I would change is the responsibilities and duties that millennia of service and honor have dumped on me.

Don't get me wrong. I love the Glamour stuff, what you mortals probably can best understand as magic. I'm kinda of mixed reviews about the immortality thing of the changeling way. Living forever sounds good as long as you don't add in that your immortality is only based on a series of reincarnations. You know, you have to grow old, let your mortal seeming die and your soul travels to a new mortal shell. The baggage you carry between rebirths isn't always a welcome thing.

Best thing about it though, and I'll go to oblivion saying this, is my Kenny, my Kay Neth the Steel-Eyed. Immortal love is the greatest comfort and joy in my eternal life. Nothing else even comes close. And I'm not talking about sex, mind you. Sex is awesome. It's like an endurance sport with me. But for true happiness, love is better than sex. Love is everything you do, not just sex, but a thousand, billion things. It's having someone to not be lonely with. It's….well, indescribable. But being without it is like being less than half of who you are. Not everyone finds true love, I know that. And not everyone finds eternal love. Even finding love for just a short while, that's precious. That's what we all live for.

Wow, I keep getting off topic here. Really stinks having to drop all the exposition for the new readers. If this is all still clear as mud to you, go read my first memoirs, Coupe. Otherwise, keep up with the rest of the class and save your questions for the end, like the rest of us. Anyways, to make a long chapter short, we took off and headed for Newburyport, looking to hook up with Capricus. And with any luck he'd have some help for us about the map.

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