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"Oh, I don't know," purred Triana, running her finger along the arm of her gladiator. "Some of us like to play with soldiers." The slave blushed from the top of his head to well past his waist.

"On what grounds did they deny you?" Tennith asked, and Aelmarkin wondered if he detected a certain malicious enjoy­ment in Tennith's tone. Tennith might not be a lord in his own right, but he outranked Aelmarkin, and he wasn't above flaunt­ing that fact and embarrassing Aelmarkin at the same time.

But Tennith would find out for himself what the Council had said if he simply bothered to ask his father. Aelmarkin's best protection lay in pretending the decision meant very little to him. "They did a very tiresome thing; they had the production records from the estate for the last fifty years brought out, and nothing there shows that cousin Kyrtian is neglecting his estate or his duties. They decided that he isn't unbalanced, merely ec­centric, and that eccentricity is hardly grounds for taking his in­heritance and giving it to the next male heir."

"Next male heir?" Triana asked significantly, with a little frown. "Isn't his mother still alive? Wouldn't she be the appro­priate heir even if he was disinherited on the grounds of insan­ity?" That was Triana's interest; anything that barred another female from inheriting could eventually be used against her.

"His mother is not my sister," Aelmarkin replied. "She's not the next heir of blood-descent, as you so clearly were for clan Falcion. If Kyrtian were removed, the estate would come to me, naturally and legally."

"She's probably the one running things, then," Tennith pointed out. "If she doesn't want to be sent back to live in her

father's household, she has to make it look as if your cousin is competent."

"That may be, but I've no hope of proving it," Aelmarkin growled, wishing that Lady Lydiell had resembled the child at his feet rather than the clever creature she was. He recalled his intended pose, and forced a laugh. "Well, I suppose the Council had to rule the way that they did. Lord Jaspireth told me rather tartly that if fitness to hold title and property was to be judged on the basis of unusual hobbies, half the Council would lose their seats."

"Half?" Tennith laughed. "More like three-quarters! Looked at in that light, it's obvious you are a victim of necessity."

Aelmarkin signaled to his wench to refill his goblet, and sipped at the vintage with deliberation. "Much as I would like to see the lands of my clan administered properly, I suspect they will come to me in time, anyway. Kyrtian shows no sign of mar­rying, which in itself ought to prove his unfitness, and it's en­tirely possible he'll manage to break his neck, or do something equally foolish to himself, as he careens around the countryside."

"Break his neck?" queried the second lady, looking puzzled, as did her escort. "I'm afraid I'm rather lost, Aelmarkin. I don't know anything about your cousin. Who is he? Is he doing something dangerous?"

That triggered laughter among some of the others, who were more familiar with Aelmarkin's cousin than she was. Triana took pity on her—probably because the lady's escort was nei­ther clever nor outstandingly handsome—and explained.

"We've been discussing Kyrtian V'dyll Lord Prastaran," Tri­ana said, giving Aelmarkin's cousin his full name and title. "Surely you've heard something about him?"

The lady shook her head. "Not really," she confessed, then realized that Triana was patronizing her, and put on a cool air as she tried to save the situation. "But I don't pay much attention to the provincials."

Aelmarkin snorted. "He's certainly provincial, I'll grant you that, Lady Brynnire. He never leaves the estate unless he ab­solutely has to. He could get a seat on the Great Council if he only worked at it, but he won't even try! Instead, he spends all

of his time collecting books and studying—of all the nonsensi­cal subjects—military tactics!"

"Military tactics!" Triana erupted in peals of laughter. "Oh, Aelmarkin, even if he is serious and not seriously unbalanced, just who does he think he's going to use military tactics on? Everyone knows the humans and the halfbloods don't have real armies! They don't fight proper battles! And as for the Young Lords—"

She stopped, because it was entirely possible that this was a touchy subject for some of Aelmarkin's other guests. But Tennith, whose father was highly placed in the Great Council and thus was the highest-ranked Elvenlord present, finished her sentence for her.

"The Young Lords are a disorganized pack of rabble," he said loftily. "Once a solution is found that negates their ability to nullify magic, they'll dissolve and come crawling back to their fathers, begging forgiveness. In the meantime, it is impossible to use tactics against someone who doesn't know what the word means."

"Oh, that isn't the best of it," gloated Lord Pratherin. "He not only studies this nonsense, he practices it! Personally, I think he's never gotten over playing in the nursery with toy soldiers; he just does it now on a grander scale." When Brynnire still looked confused, he leaned over the couch in her direction and explained. "He makes up two opposing armies out of slaves, my dear, and personally leads one army into battle against the other, if you can believe it! Not to settle a grievance or for any other reasonable purpose, not even for the entertainment of watching them slaughter each other! No, he does this just to see how strategies work out with living subjects!"

As the others chortled, howled, or simply looked smug, ac­cording to their natures, Lady Brynnire looked startled, then shocked, then amused. "Aelmarkin! If I didn't know you, I'd be tempted to think you were making this up!"

"Sadly, my dear, I am not," Aelmarkin replied, and looked to Tennith, who nodded in confirmation.

"Really!" Brynnire giggled, a little nervously. "Well, eccen­tric is not what I would call him!"

"He takes after his father, dear lady," said Tennith smoothly. "Which might be said to demonstrate that, sadly, madness is in­herited in his family. Surely you recall that poor demented fel­low who vanished several years ago, out hunting some obscure relics of Evelon?"

"Yes!" Brynnire replied, brightening. "Ancestors! You don't mean to tell me that was Kyrtian's father?"

"The same," Aelmarkin told her, with a heavy sigh. "A sad case indeed. And it should have been obvious to the Great Council from that fiasco that the estate should not have been put in the hands of his son."

"I should say not." Lady Brynnire nodded her head, after ex­changing a look with her escort. "At least, I would not have."

"Nor anyone else with any sense." Aelmarkin thought it more than time to change the subject, and signaled for the dancers.

The musicians, who had been playing soothing, quiet back­ground music until this moment, abruptly changed mood and tempo, startling the guests with a thunder of percussion.

The lights dimmed, and a mist arose from the censers, a scented, cool mist that relaxed and yet stimulated the senses, even as it obscured the couches and their occupants. Only the space in the middle of the couches remained clear, lit from some invisible source.

The dancers ran in from all directions, dressed in the merest scraps of animal-hide, paint, beads, and feathers, and meant to represent wild humans. Not that any of Aelmarkin's guests had ever seen wild humans—nor had Aelmarkin himself, for that matter—but that would hardly matter. Most entertainments fea­tured dancers mimicking the graceful and ethereal dances of their masters, or dancers changed to resemble animated flow­ers, birds, or flames. Aelmarkin wanted to startle his guests with something different.