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She squeezed my hand. "Never will I again! The error lay in my not realizing that you are American. I don't know America, not the way Rufo does. If Rufo had been present—But he wasn't; he was wenching in the kitchen. I suppose I assumed, when you were offered table and root and bed, that you would behave as a Frenchman would. I never dreamed that you would refuse it. Had I known, I could have spun a thousand excuses for you. An oath taken. A holy day in your religion. Jock would have been disappointed but not hurt; he is a man of honor."

"But—Damn it, I still don't see why he wants to shoot me for not doing something I would expect, back home, that he might snoot me for doing. In this country, is a plan forced to accept any proposition a gal makes? And why did she run and complain? Why didn't she keep it secret? Hell, she didn't even try. She dragged in her daughters."

"But, darling, it was never a secret. He asked you publicly and publicly you accepted. How would you feel if your bride, on your wedding night, kicked you out of the bedroom? ‘Table, and roof, and bed.' You accepted."

" ‘Bed.' Star, in America beds are multiple-purpose furniture. Sometimes we sleep in them. Just sleep. I didn't dig it."

"I know now. You didn't know the idiom. My fault. But do you now see why he was completely—and publicly—humiliated?"

"Well, yes, but he brought it on himself. He asked me in public. It would have been worse if I had said No then."

"Not at all. You didn't have to accept. You could have refused graciously. Perhaps the most graceful way, even though it be a white lie, is for the hero to protest his tragic inability—temporary or permanent—from wounds received in the very battle that proved him a hero."

"I'll remember that. But I still don't see why he was so astoundingly generous in the first place."

She turned and looked at me. "My darling, is it all right for me to say that you have astounded me every time I have talked with you? And I had thought I had passed beyond all surprises, years ago."

"It's mutual. You always astound me. However, I like it—except one time."

"My lord Hero, how often do you think a simple country squire has a chance to gain for his family a Hero's son, and raise it as his own? Can you not feel his gall-bitter disappointment at what you snatched from him after he thought you had promised this boon? His shame? His wrath?"

I considered it. "Well, I'll be dogged. It happens in America, too. But they don't boast about it."

"Other countries, other customs. At the very least, he had thought that he had the honor of a hero treating him as a brother. And with luck he expected the get of a hero for house Doral."

"Wait a minute! Is that why he sent me three? To improve the odds?"

"Oscar, he would eagerly have sent you thirty...if you had hinted that you felt heroic enough to attempt it. As it was, he sent his chief wife and his two favorite daughters." She hesitated. "What I still don't understand—" She stopped and asked me a blunt question.

"Hell, no!" I protested, blushing. "Not since I was fifteen. But one thing that put me off was that mere child. She's one. I think."

Star shrugged. "She may be. But she is not a child; in Nevia she is a woman. And even if she is unbroached as yet, I'll wager she's a mother in another twelvemonth. But if you were loath to tap her, why didn't you shoo her out and take her older sister? That quaint hasn't been virgin since she's had breasts, to my certain knowledge—and I hear that Muri is ‘some dish,' if that is the American idiom."

I muttered. I had been thinking the same thing. But I didn't want to discuss it with Star.

She said, "Pardonne-moi, mon cher? Tu as dit?"

"I said I had given up sex crimes for Lent!"

She looked puzzled. "But Lent is over, even on Earth. And it is not, here, at all."


"Still I'm pleased that you didn't pick Muri over Letva; Muri would have been unbearably stuck-up with her mother after such a thing. But I do understand that you will repair this, if I can straighten it out?" She added, "It makes great difference in how I handle the diplomacies."

(Star, Star—you are the one I want to bed!) "This is what you wish...my darling?"

"Oh, how much it would help!"

"Okay. You're the doctor. One...three...thirty—I'll die trying. But no little kids!" "No problem. Let me think. If the Doral lets me get in just five words—" She fell silent. Her hand was pleasantly warm.

I did some thinking, too. These strange customs had ramifications, some of which I had still shied away from. How was it, if Letva had immediately told her husband what a slob I was—

"Star? Where did you sleep last night?"

She looked around sharply. "Milord...is it permitted to ask you, please, to mind your own business?"

"I suppose so. But everybody seems to be minding mine."

"I am sorry. But I am very much worried and my heaviest worries you do not know as yet. It was a fair question and deserves a fair answer. Hospitality balances, always, and honors flow both ways. I slept in the Doral's bed. However, if it matters—and it may to you; I still do not understand Americans—I was wounded yesterday, it still bothered me. Jock is a sweet and gentle soul. We slept. Just slept."

I tried to make it nonchalant. "Sorry about the wound. Does it hurt now?"

"Not at all. The dressing will fall off by tomorrow. However—Last night was not the first time I enjoyed table and roof and bed at house Doral. Jock and I are old friends, beloved friends—which is why I think I can risk that he may grant me a few seconds before killing me."

"Well, I had figured out most of that."

"Oscar, by your standards—the way you have been raised—I am a bitch."

"Oh, never! A princess."

"A bitch. But I am not of your country and I was reared by another code. By my standards, and they seem good to me, I am a moral woman. Now...am I still your darling'?"

"My darling!"

"My darling Hero. My champion. Lean close and kiss me. If we die, I would my mouth be warm with your lips. The entrance is just around this bend."

"I know."

A few moments later we rode, swords sheathed and bows unstrung, proudly into the target area.

Chapter 10

Three days later we rode out again.

This time breakfast was sumptuous. This time musicians lined our exit. This time the Doral rode with us.

This time Rufo reeled to his mount, each arm around a wench, a bottle in each hand, then, after busses from a dozen more, was lifted into his seat and belted in the reclining position. He fell asleep, snoring before we set out.

I was kissed good-bye more times than I could count and by some who had no reason to do it so thoroughly—for I was only an apprentice hero, still learning the trade.

It's not a bad trade, despite long hours, occupational hazards, and utter lack of security; it has fringe benefits, with many openings and rapid advancement for a man with push and willingness to learn. The Doral seemed well pleased with me.

At breakfast he had sung my prowess up to date in a thousand intricate lines. But I was sober and did not let his praises impress me with my own greatness; I knew better. Obviously a little bird had reported to him regularly—but that bird was a liar. John Henry the Steel-Drivin' Man couldn't have done what Jocko's ode said I did.

But I took it with my heroic features noble and impassive, then I stood up and gave them "Casey at the Bat," putting heart and soul into "Mighty Casey has struck OUT!"

Star gave it a free interpretation. I had (so she sang) praised the ladies of Doral, the ideas being ones associated with Madame Pompadour, Nell Gwyn, Theodora, Ninon de l'Enclos, and Rangy Lil. She didn't name those famous ladies; instead she was specific, in Nevian eulogy that would have startled Francois Villon.