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Chapter 27 - Armoury of Words, Part II

Taril entered the inn and, seeing Art and company already seated at the nearby table, he asked, "Mind if I join?" -- "The more the merrier, Taril, and just in time. We've been listening to Roland tell us a story." -- "Oh? What story is this?" -- "The siege of Thaar's Convent," Art replied, "But never mind that one; it's done and told." -- "That's not exactly a popular tale to tell," Taril mused. "How did this conversation start?"

Natalie explained, "We are looking to meet with the bishop tomorrow, to try to convince him into dispatching templar to support the sisters. The stories are just in case he alludes to them during that conversation, we'll know how to respond. Speaking of which, Roland, is there anything we can say to counter this story that the bishop will most likely raise?"

"Yes, there are a few options that I'm thinking might stand half a chance. Problem is they're also embedded in scripture. You'll have no idea what something like 'the parable of the wezeer's daughter and the six princes' means without the context." -- "Then you'd best get started."

"Oh, I know this one," said Taril. "My, I'm kind of surprised you'd tell a story set in Aranoch. That one's from the elder scriptures, right?"

"Yes, it's from the time of the Anointed One, and since the Church of Light primarily bases its precepts on the teachings of Akarat, the story is not well known. Since you were traveling with Warriv's caravan east, one can assume you had been there before and know the culture there, but Jezebel and Natalie might not be so well traveled, so you'll have to wait while I tell them the story."

"I'll do one better," said Taril. "I'll tell the story." He began, "The Sultan Ezmerati of Lut Gholein had a beautiful daughter, it's said that her face was like the moon, whatever that means -- whom he doted on very much, seeing as she was his only daughter, the rest of his scions being male. And when she turned fourteen and became an adult, the sultan endeavored to find a husband for her. But not just any prince of a nearby city would be meet for her; he would only give her to the best husband available.

"So the sultan dispatched couriers to each of the surrounding cities with which his city had good relations, saying that he was looking for a suitor for his daughter; and these couriers stayed at each of the six largest cities of Aranoch for three days, as is the custom, and informed the sultans of each city of the matter. And in each of these cities the sultans took their eldest unmarried sons aside and told them, 'Son, I have taught you all the fine arts and the ways of proper decorum, that you may be second to none; and as Lut Gholein is the jewel city of all Aranoch, the largest, wealthiest and most powerful, and we must have amiable relations with the city-state; therefore go you with the courier back to the city, and secure the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand in marriage, and give the matter with your full attention and ability as if your very life depended upon it; for in truth the life of our city depends upon it.'

"And on the morning of the fourth day of their arrival, the couriers began their return journey with the eldest unmarried princes which the sultans of each of the cities had dispatched: one from Lut Nelemar, one from Lut Amin, one from Lut Orram, one from Lut Tairo, one from Lut Varon, and one from Lut Lameen, these being those six largest cities; and they each brought with them trains of a hundred asses laden with all manner of gifts, of fine silks and precious gems and more, along with their guards and their scores of memlooks and female slaves.

"When each of the princes alighted at Lut Gholein, they were invited into the sultan's palace to make merry, and after a period of three days of recreation they were, in turn, introduced to the sultan's daughter, that they might get to know acquaint themselves with each other and that the sultan's daughter might choose her favorite from among them.

"So the daughter met with each of them in turn, and each of the six princes treated the daughter exceedingly well, such that she could not make up her mind; for each of them was handsome, none above the others, and had their way with honeyed words; and when she tested them on their talents, all of them could recite poetry, and recite the elder scriptures in their entirety, and play a musical instrument, and excelled at their recreational games and sports, and were excellent shots with archery and other activities, such that she could hardly tell any difference between them all. And when she tested them on their personality, they all kept their cool under pressure, they all gave charitably to the beggars they passed along their streets, and they all treated everyone they met with kindness, among other qualities.

"And at this the sultan's daughter despaired, for she could not choose one from among these six and reject the other five without feeling like she'd wronged the others; and this she told her father the sultan.

"Now the sultan had a wezeer whom he trusted greatly, and turned to him for advice on the matter, asking, 'pray do tell, how are we to distinguish between the six equally qualified princes?'

"And the wezeer replied, 'surely they have all had the best of tutors, being that they are the sons of sultans; yet though they may appear equally qualified, they are doing this by putting their best faces forward, knowing that by doing so they will secure your daughter's hand in marriage and thereby reap all the benefits that entails. Once your daughter is wed to one, and thus those benefits are assured to them regardless of how they behave, then will the truth of their behaviors be revealed, and in so doing reveal how they will treat your daughter for the rest of her life. Test them not, therefore, by how they treat someone they consider important to them, but by how they treat someone they consider beneath them.'

"And the sultan considered this, and deemed it good advice, and asked, 'pray do tell by what means we may test them?'

"And the wezeer replied, "I have the fortune of having a daughter in the prime of her youth and as yet unmarried, who have I enlabored to teach a great many arts to; poetry and dance and harping, and of playing games of skill and strategy, among others; now if this be agreeable to you I suggest that you take her within the part of the palace where these princes dwell, and allow her to attend to them when they sit idle in the palace, since when your daughter meets with one she of necessity cannot meet with the other five; and in this manner let them become acquainted with her, to as much an extent as they may be acquainted with your own daughter; and then when a week has passed, tell your walee to spirit her without the palace and secret her in a place where none will ever look; then watch what happens, and verily, by this artifice may you separate the wheat from the chaff.'

"And the sultan did as his trusted wezeer advised, and brought the wezeer's daughter within his palace, that she may serve the six princes in turn for a week, that they would of their own volition call upon her to grace their spare time with her presence, and on the seventh day had her spirited away to a khan the location of which only the sultan and the sultan's walee knew. And when the six princes called on her that day, she could not be found; and when they asked for her again ont he second day, they were met with the explanation that none knew where she might be found, and that lest they think the daughter had merely gone back home, that her father the wezeer was in a frightful panic over her disappearance; and they in turn all remarked on how unfortunate a turn of events this was, and joined in prayer for her deliverance, should she yet live, or for her soul to rise to heaven if otherwise.

"Yet though they spoke such words, three days passed without any of the six princes so much as lifting a finger in the search for the missing daughter of the wezeer, opting instead to spend their time awaiting the sultan's daughter as she called on them in turn. And on the morning of the fourth day, a great fire erupted from the khan of the sultan's walee, such that it took long to put out the flames, long enough for the sultan to be informed of the matter, whereupon knowing that the wezeer's daughter had been secreted therein, he arrived there with the wezeer in great haste and worry, and there in the rubble and the ashes uncovered the horribly and unrecognizably charred and disfigured body; and for this disaster their hearts were much contracted.

"As the sultan regarded his wezeer greatly and knowing that the wezeer's daughter had undertaken this endeavor in order to help the sultan and his own daughter choose a prince meet for her, the sultan treated the wezeer's daughter in death as if she were his own daughter, and he called for a three day long funeral with no expenses spared, with an aggreving procession that went nine times about the circumference of the city, such that all who dwelt in Lut Gholein would know of the circumstances surrounding the wezeer's gambit, including the princes, that they may in their anguish know that this had been a test unto them which they had failed.

"As fate willed it, on the third day of the funeral procession, an Appointed of the Anointed One arrived at the outskirts of the city and set his eyes upon the procession, whereupon he presented himself before the sultan, and the six princes who then accompanied him, to a divan within the palace; and there conjured the sultan to speak of what had transpired.

"And when the sultan finished explaining the situation, the saint was much incensed with the princes' disparate treatment between the daughters of sultan and wezeer, the former with doting gallantry and the latter with complete disregard; and said unto the six princes, 'Verily, you have transgressed mightily against the teachings of the Anointed One, now speak your fill, and hope that your tongues may spare you your lives.' And as he said this, thunder and lightning struck overhead in a clear blue sky, and when the princes saw the very heavens angered by their deeds, and as they knew the great moral authority carried by the saints appointed by the Anointed One, they grew sore afraid; yet one by one they stood up to tell their story.

"Now the prince of Lut Nelemar stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, know that not only had I had not gone to search for the wezeer's daughter, but furthermore, that no search was necessary, nor that it was even desirable; had not the Anointed One been accosted, as he preached before his congregation in this very city, by a beggar, who protested the unfairness with which he had been relegated to a life of ignominy and poverty, whereas the passersby lived upstanding lives of plenty, hoping thereby to seek out alms from the prophet?

"'And had not the Anointed One asked him, O beggar, what have you done this day before you arrived before this congregation?' -- And the beggar said, 'Why, I am but a humble beggar; what is a beggar to do but to sit out along the oft frequented streets of the city, raising forth an empty bowl for passersby to drop out alms? Thus have I done.' -- To which the Anointed One replied, 'And what have the passersby done this day, what they must busy themselves with so much coming and going?' -- To which the beggar replied, 'Surely some are gone to do their business, some to produce, others to sell, and still others to proffer the services of their labor; for they hope that, in so doing, they would earn their keep.'

"'To which the Anointed One replied, "Surely, then, the passersby have earned their keep through diligent labor, and thus are most deserving of it; and whereas your beggarly self had done no thing to earn yours, and for your idleness must you beg upon the streets for scraps. Be overjoyed, therefore, with your lot; for even that little which you have received from the hands of those who have given freely of their wealth, yea, even that you do not deserve.'

"'And at that, the beggar snatched the money-bag out of the nearest member of the congregation, and made to run; but of course this went not unnoticed, and he was soon caught by the others and beaten miserably, and one of the congregation sent for the walee, who brought with him the executioner and commanded him to sever the hand that stole; upon which the beggar accused the Anointed One, saying, 'Have you not conjured me to not remain idle? For that reason have I snatched the money-bag, now look what is to become of my hand!'

"'And is this not the reason why the Anointed One, he who is most wise for his eyes had been opened by the angels in heaven, has said, 'to he who does good deeds, much good shall acrue, and to he who does ill, much ill shall acrrue'?

"'Now behold, the daughter of the wezeer has turned up burned to death; surely this be a mark that she had done deeds most unwholesome in life, to warrant such a punishment? Surely a death by burning be most meet for one such as her, so why then, O eminences, do you concern yourselves with the likes of such a depraved person, the very association of which would mar your otherwise pristine name? And furthermore, your eminences, ignore this matter, and not seek to punish anyone here, for our very wealth and station attests that we be of good character, above all reproach.'

"To which the saint raised a hand to the heavens, and a bolt of lightning blasted through the ceiling, shredding plaster and shattering stone, and smote the first prince, and he keeled over dead. And when the other five princes saw what happened to the first one, they protested, saying, 'had not the fine prince of Lut Nelemar made a convincing reason for sparing him?'

"And to that the saint said, 'Wherefore do you complain, saying that I had done an injustice? Can you not see that as I have smote this the prince of Lut Nelemar, that he is very much dead? Is that not proof enough that by withholding aid for the wezeer's daughter, he had done a deed most unwholesome, to warrant such a punishment? This then must surely reflect the heavens' ire at your cumulative failure to locate the wezeer's daughter; such that none of you have any grounds to claim any blood vengeance against me for my doing of it. Now speak, the rest of you, why I should not do unto you such as I have done to make an example out of him.'"

"That prince is an idiot, I can't believe anyone would believe in a worldview like that," said Art. "By that logic--" -- "By that logic," interrupted Natalie, speaking calmly but looking furious, "Any woman who'd ever been sexually assaulted or raped deserved it: maybe they were wearing clothing a bit too lascivious, they say, or if they'd gotten drunk beforehand, that that's what happens when a girl goes and drinks, they say. Always blaming the victim, and it happens all the time." She shot Art a look. "So no, quite a lot of people believe it." -- Art looked down, and they shared a moment of uneasy silence.

"Should I continue?" asked Taril, looking a bit concerned.

"Do we need to? I see where we are going with this," said Jezebel, turning from Taril to Roland with a knowing look. "Each of these six princes represents some excuse or other for why someone might not go to the aid of another, and the saint finds all of their excuses wanting and kills each of them in turn, right?"

"Exactly," replied Roland. "But the end of each story is not the important part. What matters is the excuse behind each of these princes' stories, and the logic of the rebuttal. As I have mentioned before, the bishop is liable to throw the story of Thaar's Convent against us, and upon that basis, to say that if the sisterhood perishes as a result of this war, that it is because of their lack of devotion to the faith and that they would deserve such, and thus that there would be no reason for him to dispatch any templar to their aid to avert any such disaster. When that happens, we can rebuke him with this, casting the wezeer's daughter as the sisterhood, and the bishop and the templar beneath him as the first prince."

"Brilliant," remarked Jezebel with a clap of her hands. "It directly counters the argument he would raise. We'll see what he has to say in response to that!" She gestured for Taril to continue.

"Now the prince of Lut Amin stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, you both know that I also had not dispatched my men to search for the wezeer's daughter; but hear now my reason for not having done so, that you may be moved to sparing me. Though I had brought almost as many gifts with my train as the others, to bestow upon the daughter of the sultan, this belies the true poverty of my father's city.

"'Lut Amin is but the smallest of the seven cities, and is is because of this that our people had fallen on hard times. Almost a near ago, our city came under siege from the armies of the sultan of Lut Lameen, and as we had fewer men, were forced to withdraw into the safety of its walls, whereupon the men of Lut Lameen burned and pillaged all that was without our city, all its nearby towns and villages, any settlement not ringed by stone. When they left, they took with them the women as chattel, and left behind the men as corpses; and our once glorious city has been struggling to recover ever since.

"'Now this great travail has put our city in a most difficult circumstance, for each of our six larger neighbors saw us weak, and only tarried in attacking because they doubted firstly that they could take our walls and secondly that there was anything of worth left to pillage in the outlying territories; but this state of matters would surely not persist indefinitely. In order to better protect the remainder of our state, my father poured much of our treasury into bettering the armies, so much that much of our prized assets and heirlooms have been sold off, and little remains of our treasury. And if you think it easy for me to tell you of this, recall that I have come here to seek your daughter's hand in marriage, and that my revealing the weakness of our city must surely ruin my chances of accomplishing this objective; and because of this you can trust that I would not have said this except that it is true.

"'When your courier arrived at our palace and brought his wondrous news, my father drew me aside and told me, 'Son, know that while I shall be sending you unto Lut Gholein to secure the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand in marriage, so shall the sultans of each of the other cities bid likewise of their princes; and they have more wealth to draw upon. As such it will prove difficult for you to win her hand; yet you absolutely must. Gaze upon the dearth of our treasury, and you shall see naught but dust and cobwebs within; gaze upon our city and see it much diminished in size.

"Only by gaining the the sultan Ezmerati's daughter's hand can you avert this terrible wasting away of our city, without which our realm will continue to remain vulnerable to invaders. But do this, and we will have the allegiance of Lut Gholein, the greatest of the seven cities of this land, worth tens of thousands of men-at-arms and all that it costs to feed them; all that your alliance will save of our kingdom's expenses, and with that sum may we revitalize our city unto glory.'

"'But I asked of my father the sultan, 'Yet how shall I rise above the other suitors, when their lands be larger and their wealth be greater? Surely they will be able to present more gifts unto the sultan's daughter, and thereby outshine me and doom me to failure in this matter.'

"''Worry not,' he replied, 'For their overweening pride shall be their downfall. Know that I send you force with many gifts, such that a bit more or less shall mean little in the scheme of things; and the royalty of Lut Gholein, it being the largest and wealthiest city, shall not prize such gifts overmuch. They shall care more of how you comport yourself. Now heed this lesson from me, that you shall triumph over all the other princes: The fastest way to a woman's heart, as well as her father's, is to treat her with the utmost respect; so see to it that when you go into the city, that your thoughts are only of her, and of how you can gain her attention and please her, and take a care to do this to greater extents than your competitors, that you may win her heart; but do not let any other matter lead your astray, nor let any circumstance contrive to separate you from her; for therein shall lie your undoing.'

"'And as I listened to my father's words, I saw the wisdom within them, and knelt before my father and there swore an oath, invoking the angels to be my witness, that I shall devote my fullest attention on securing the princess' hand in marriage, and to perish all other thoughts and concerns until I either succeed or fail in my task, and if I break my oath, may the heavens strike me down; so determined was I in this task.

"'And thus have I done since setting foot in this city, thinking day and night only on how to win the princess to the disregard of all else, and so spurned her attempts to either visit or summon me this past week. So when the news came that the wezeer's daughter had gone missing, I gave it no further thought, and soon forgot about the disappearance entirely. All this I have done out of a pure duty to my homeland, to which, as its future ruler when my father the sultan dies, I have a responsibility to protect and make prosper above all else; and that I may fulfill the oath which I had made; and has not the Anointed One said that the breaking of an oath made in earnest is worse than can be remediated by a hundred good deeds? Answer me, O eminences, what you would do in my stead; and ponder as to whether I have done right by my people.'

"And the saint replied, 'It is indeed good to act to protect or better one's people, as it is good to fulfill an oath; but you are a fool, for by your oath and your actions you have only endangered your people and succeeded in doing the opposite of what your oath intended; for having displeased the sultan Ezmerati and me in failing to consider another, for refusing to take action to save her life, you have not only failed in your quest, but have also doomed yourself." And so saying this, he called down another stroke of lightning, which killed the second prince on the spot," Taril finished.

"Hmm… the prince actually had a good point there," mused Art. "If I ha been the second prince, I would have done the same as he did, acting to protect those I cared for. It seems more of a case of the saint judging him in retrospect for not considering something that he couldn't have known ahead of time."

"Well we'll make sure Art isn't the one to present this argument before the bishop," said Jezebel, and when Art turned to face her, she stuck out her tongue at him.

"I think you're missing the point here, Art," mused Taril. "Because of the prince's short-sightedness in neglecting to save the wezeer's daughter, he ruined his chances of gaining the princess. Had he taken action and located the wezeer's daughter, he would have succeeded."

Roland spoke up. "The bishop is going to raise concerns about needing to deploy his templar elsewhere, whether it be for the protection of Tristram's cathedral and itinerant clergy or -- more likely -- for the defense of the churches and the faithful of the various towns and villages scattered across the land, which he will argue is a valid concern now that the redskins no longer have to worry about getting attacked in their flanks from sisters striking out of the monastery. I'm sure he's gotten reports of increased redskin activity all along the regions east of Tristram. And it would be hard to exhort him to have his templar abandon the defense of the outlying villages; after all, he could easily retort that doing so would put the faithful at risk, and his foremost duty is for the salvation of his flock.

"Here we would be arguing that his failing to aid the sisterhood -- in the story, his failure to rescue the wezeer's daughter -- would instead bring about more danger to the surrounding villages. This is a point we can argue in all honesty -- after all, the sisterhood acts as a bulwark against redskin incursion, and retaking the monastery would allow them to reopen a second front against the redskins, forcing them to pull back, which in turn would mean safety for the outlying villages." After seeing nods of understanding from the others, Roland turned to Taril. "If you would?"

Taril continued, "Now the prince of Lut Orram stepped forward and said to the sultan and the saint, 'Your eminences, please listen to what I have to say, for I speak the truth when I say that, though I had not done so, I had very much intended to set forth to recover the wezeer's daughter; but for certain events that conspired to turn me from that path. Immediately after your eminence had informed us six of the dire news, I had gone to my section of the palace, intending to speak with my walee, that he might dispatch the guards who had accompanied me to go without and search throughout the city for any sign of her.

"'But as I began giving instructions to my walee, I looked to my left and my right and beheld that up and down the hallway, the other five princes had gone to meet with their walees in turn, so that I paused in giving my directives and approached the prince of Lut Varon, and listened while he bade his own walee to take his guards and go without the palace in search for the wezeer's daughter. 'You look for the daughter also?' I asked of him, and he replied -- 'Yes; as per my instruction my walee will go a-searching for her in all the streets of Lut Gholein.' And his words put my heart at ease, as he had brought with him to the city twice as many guards as I had, and they thus could comb through the city twice as quickly as mine.

"'And even so, I added, 'Then I shall add my guards to yours in this search, and we shall search about for her in our own way, and in so doing find her all the faster.' -- To which he replied, 'Though I am sure the wezeer would appreciate your assistance, your sending guards of your own could cause concerns in the doing of it.' -- 'Why?' I asked, and he replied, -- 'In this city your guards are strangers in a strange land, they know not the customs of this place; now if you have them scatter throughout the city in such a manner, who knows how many of them shall get themselves lost, or perchance do such deeds as which they believe are legal here but which in truth are not.'

"'To which I asked, 'Would your guards not have the same problem as mine? For they are of Lut Varon, also a city separate from this one.' -- 'Aye, he answered, but Lut Amin is as a neighbor unto Lut Gholein, a mere six days' travel, and the men of Lut Varon travel to this city with great frequency, such that I could choose to bring with me only guards who have not only set foot in this city, but have done so on multiple occasions; and thus have I done so. Now have you done the same with the guards you chose to bring?' -- To which I could only say, 'No, I have not.' -- 'Then leave the matter to me,' he said, 'for it would be more amiably handled by my guards than by yours.'

"'But that had not entirely set me at ease, so I asked, 'But the city is large, and of a great many persons and buildings; it would take your men longer to search through it all, and all the meanwhile events untoward might happen to her while she is lost to us. If she is forever lost for want of the lack of my men's contribution to the search, then I shall forever bear the guilt of not having taken action.'

"'And he consoled me, saying, 'Fear not, for the daughter of the wezeer could not have gone far; this here is her city, and she has been here far longer than I and knows this place better than we; and she has no place to go but to her home, and to her father who awaits her there.' -- 'Could not she be captured, and her captors taken her without the city?' I asked, and he replied, -- 'If that be the case then our minds may be at ease, for surely they would seek to ransom her to the wezeer, and the sultan lacks not money.'

"'And I continued to prod him with questions, until he answered, 'And to further set your heart at ease, if she be within the city, then she will of necessity be found, for the sultan's guards have shut the gates of the city and have also begun searching for her, and if my guards be more numerous and better at searching out this city than yours, then so the sultan's be more numerous and better at searching out this city than mine; now therefore cease your worries.' And having thus had by fears allayed, I took my leave of him and withdrew to my room, believing that so long as others better suited to the search than mine had taken the matter upon themselves, that I had no need to search. And that, your eminences, is why I had ceased my inquiry, though I had intended to undertake it; now therefore I submit myself to your judgment.'"

"And the saint replied, 'And yet despite your being assured that no action was needed on your part for the intervention of others, none had intervened. The sultan had not committed to any search, seeing as this was a test of his contrivance; and those few guards who had been dispatched returned empty-handed each day, until the fateful day of the fire; and had you not watched on as merely a bystander, she may yet have lived. And as you by your inaction have condemned her to death, I condemn you to fulmination by the heavens.' And as he said this, the saint raised a hand in gesture to the angels above, and another bolt of lightning struck out from the firmament and smote the first prince, and he fell dead," Taril concluded.

"I think the moral of this story should be apparent," said Roland. "The first prince's excuse is that others whom he believes to be more qualified than he is taking action, thus he does not have to. Sounds reasonable at first blush, but in practice that can easily turn into a situation where no one takes action, everyone looks to everyone else to move first, and the thing that needs to get done is not."

"It happens far too often," Natalie agreed. She stared down at the table as she spoke. "Once, several years ago, I was walking down one of the town's streets when I chanced upon a group of men gang raping a woman. This was in the middle of town, let me remind you; and not in the darkness of some back alleyway. This wasout in the open, in bright daylight. Plenty of people passing by, as is usually the case in towns; and I watched as many of them turned to look at the spectacle and at the woman who was pleading for help.

"And I watched as each and every one of them kept right on walking past as if it was completely normal. None of them tried to drag them off her, nor shouted for them to stop. And I hated them all for it. I wanted to scream at them, wanted to beat them into a pulp, for just callously walking away like that. Hadn't they any compassion? But though incensed, I kept quiet… It was as if the fact that everyone else around me -- that is, everyone but the victim -- was treating it as a non-issue, was somehow inflencing my mind. You weren't there. You have no idea how hard it was for me to act, then. It was as if the situation had left my limbs and my lips paralyzed, and I couldn't speak or act, now matter how much I wanted to.

"And after watching this for about a minute, perplexed, I realized why. The men doing the deed had swords at their hips, and wore either armor or fine clothes, such as it was clear that they were a noble and his retinue. And none of them dared to make a peep about it lest they be beaten or killed for it. And when I realized that, I walked away in silence as well, leaving her to her fate, thankful that what was happening to her wasn't happening to me and thankful that I hadn't done anything stupid by making a fuss of it, and at the same time hating every bit of myself for thinking such things as well as for abandoning her to her fate."

"My god," said Jezebel, looking downcast as well. "I can't imagine how terrible it must have been for her. And it couldn't have been easy for you. Seeing something like that must have scarred you."

"It's not your fault," said Art. "That's a kind of peer pressure all its own. I've seen the equivalent of it myself. Men I'd thought greater than I had faltered on the field of battle, unable to bring themselves to act when those beside them were likewise frozen in place out of fear or unsureness."

"That day I backed away because I knew I couldn't stand a chance against the likes of them. They knew how to fight, and had the equipment for it, while I had nothing. Then and there I resolved that I would gain the means to fight back -- either to defend myself against something happening to me, or to protect those who couldn't defend themselves. I inquired around, and learned that Duncraig had a local chapter of the Order of Night's Shadow, and the very next day I set foot and began my journey westward."

"Night's Shadow," mused Roland. "No wonder you have a way like that… invisible blade that you have there. Quite suitable for assassins, I have to say. Being able to go into and out of places where arms are forbidden and searches performed, while still always having a weapon available to you. I wonder how many people you've killed with that."

Art gestured for Roland to stop. "She could tell you the answer to that, but then the answer would change." He gestured, slit throat. -- "Ah, right," said Roland. "Forget I asked." -- "The answer's zero," replied Natalie with a wry grin. -- Art doubted that, of course; he thought he'd a good grasp on Natalie's temperament already, and doubted she could stay her blade in the heat of the moment. But he wasn't going to call her out on it or say that she was only saying this so that he wouldn't have to come back later to kill everyone at the table; it couldn't be done without forcing her to do exactly that.

"Let's just get on with the story," said Jezebel. "Taril, you have our attention."

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