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ian's Agent, who handled all the affairs of the estate that needed to be conducted outside the walls of the estate.

Kyrtian and his mother were as dependent on Pelenal's good will as he was on theirs, but he had never given them even a moment of unease. Pelenal bought new slaves, negotiated con­tracts, and haggled to get the best prices for the foodstuffs pro­duced by this most fertile of estates. Pelenal was one of those most despised of creatures, an Elvenlord with so little magic he might just as well have had none at all. Despite the fact that there could not possibly have been a better Agent in all of the estates, Pelenal would never have attained that position of power in the service of anyone other than Kyrtian's family. He knew that; saw Elves with more magic than he groveling for crumbs at the tables of greater Elvenlords, and demonstrated his gratitude in the most tangible of terms on a regular basis.

That was just as well, because where real power, the political power of the Council of the Great Lords was concerned, Kyrt­ian had none. His only power was economic, and that was in no small part due to Pelenal's clever management.

Still, that power could be formidable.

As servants swarmed over him, stripping him to the skin as they propelled him towards the bathing room, he allowed him­self the luxury of feeling just a little smug. Political power came and went—even magic power could fade with time, or be lost to further generations—but economic power was a much more dependable, if underrated force. His grandfather had un­derstood that, even if his father hadn't—but his father had the services of Tenebrinth to ensure that the estate's prosperity con­tinued. Pelenal had simply built on that foundation.

The bathing-room, of green-veined marble with shining sil­ver fixtures, featured a sunken tub longer than Kyrtian was tall, and deep enough for him to sink in up to his chin. Just now it was so full of steam it was difficult to see across it. Kyrtian stepped into the tub carefully. When father vanished, things could have been very bad, if mother hadn't had the good sense to ask Tenebrinth if he knew someone he could trust to become our outside Agent. Kyrtian eased himself down into the hot,

juniper-scented water of his bath, thinking as he did so that his Mother was almost as remarkable in her way as his Grandfather had been. The more he learned about running this estate, the more amazing it was to him that nothing had gone wrong. Thanks to Tenebrinth and Pelenal, who studied the demands of the other estates and the resources of their own with the fierce dedication of a warrior for his craft, Kyrtian's estate was so prosperous that even his worst enemies would never dream of forcing a confrontation with him.

He closed his eyes and fragrant steam rose up and filled the room further with scented fog. No one Lord would ever dare challenge me, he thought contentedly. And probably not two or three together. Not that they 're likely to, since I don't meddle in politics, but they still wouldn't dare. Not when these lands feed and clothe a third of them. Not when the fruits of our labors are served up on their tables, when our wines are the choicest, our silks the fairest.

Granted, an Elvenlord with powerful magic could transform water and ashes into the finest wine and choicest meals—but it was still water and ashes, and wouldn't nourish any better. It took a great deal of magic to create such illusions, magic which could be put to better use. Illusory gold had no commercial worth—but the gold in Kyrtian's treasury was real enough.

No, no one is ever going to try any political games with us, he told himself, as the heat of the bath warmed and soothed all of his tired, strained muscles. They wouldn't dare. Pelenal wouldn 't sell to them, and then where would they be ? Half the stuff that goes to feed their slaves comes from here; most of them don't bother growing grain anymore, or raising sheep for wool and flax for linen.

As often as he asked Tenebrinth if there was anything the Seneschal wanted as a reward for all his good service, Tene­brinth had never asked for anything but the most trivial of fa­vors. Lord Tenebrinth often seemed to Kyrtian the most contented of beings; he had a wife who adored him, and the freedom to manage the estate as he saw fit. Tenebrinth's chief pleasure outside of his family came from trying out little theo-

ries of management. Over the decades, he had weeded out all the ones that didn't work at all, or didn't work well, and now he was in the process of fine-tuning and balancing everything. The one thing that Tenebrinth would have wanted that Kyrtian couldn't give him was a child.

And if I could, I would. I think we pay for our long lives in our lack of children. It was sad, really, for if there was ever an Elven lady born to be a mother, it was Tenebrinth's wife, Lady Seryana.

And of course, it would be so much easier on all of us if they just had a daughter. It wouldn't have mattered how young the girl was; Kyrtian would be more than willing to wait for her to grow up. After all, he had all the time in the world before him; Elves did age and die eventually, but "eventually" was several centuries away.

Maybe what he ought to do would be to investigate those ru­mors that some Elvenlords had discovered ways to enhance their fertility with magic. If that were true, and he could find a way to purchase the services of such a magician—

That would solve everyone's problem, wouldn't it?

It was an easy solution on the surface, but like deep water, such a "solution" could cover more than was immediately ap­parent.

The favor might cost more than I'm willing to give. What if the mage wanted slaves? How could I send off any of my peo­ple into real slavery? What if he wanted some of my fighters? What if he wanted Gel?

Even if that difficulty never came up, there was the imagi­nary girl to consider. She might not like me. She might like me, but not enough. She might fall in love with someone elseeven Pelenal. He winced away from the idea of forcing a maiden to wed because she'd been betrothed to him in her cradle. How could any good come out of such a bad bargain?

Gel is right. I should leave it up to mother, he decided, with a slight sinking of his heart and a contradictory feeling of relief. I'll tell her so at dinner. That should make her so happy she'll let us besiege her very bower if we want!

4

As Lynder replenished the goblet of cool water at Kyrtian's right hand, the young lord soaked until the aches in his tired, sore muscles eased. He'd have remained in the bath until he was in danger of falling asleep, if not for two factors. His stomach complained that it hadn't gotten anything but wa­ter for some time, and he knew his mother was waiting for him to have dinner with her and out of politeness would not touch a morsel until he appeared. Servants sent off for a platter of finger-foods would have taken care of the hunger, but he was not going to be rude to his mother!

It isn 't wise to be rude to one's mother. She knows everything about your childhood that is potentially embarrassing.

Reluctantly, he stepped up out of the water, dripping onto the marble floor, and waved off another attentive servant, taking the soft, snowy towel the lad held out to him. Wrapping the towel around himself, he returned to his bedroom to find clothing laid out over a stand and waiting for him to don. This clothing had been selected by Lynder to complement whatever his mother was wearing for dinner. It was a small gesture, but one that his mother appreciated, and it only cost a little extra attention on the part of the servants; such attention was no burden to them, for she was as beloved to her staff as she was to her son.