I Am a Genius: listen to my words

I Have the Conch


listen to my words

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Fun, Fun, Fun

“This is what you call fun?”

The question should have made me wince, I suppose, but since she was looking the other way, I just grinned as I shoved her through an unmarked door. Bullets snapped as they impacted the wall, just missing us. I briefly wondered what material the wall was made of to produce that particular noise.

The truth was that not only was this not what I had planned for my first date with Cynthia, it was the last thing I had expected to actually happen — which meant, to my surprise, and probably hers as well, that the black-clad assassins were here for her. This made her much more interesting.

And yes. I did think it was fun.

The way I see it, anyone who devotes his life to a career he doesn’t enjoy is a fool and has thrown away his life. That includes those few of us left in the… hands on security and espionage industry.

The hallway we turned down led away from the main concourse. It was narrow with several doors at intervals on the sides. I had mixed feelings about the lack of people. There was no one in our way as we darted down it, but if we didn’t get out before our pursuers got in, we’d be easy targets. If we did, though, we’d be a step closer to throwing them off, and a lot closer to the trains that would take us to safety.

Cynthia’s breath was coming heavy already. She didn’t look unfit — I wasn’t too picky about body type, but my friend, Sven, who set up this blind date, knew that I insisted on a healthy life style. Cynthia clearly wasn’t a sprinter, let alone a long distance runner. “Don’t think about it,” I told her. “It’ll just discourage you.”

She sneered, clearly not impressed with my advice.

I glanced over my shoulder. One of the assassins was rounding the corner. I grunted an expletive and dragged Cynthia the last few feet to the end of the hall then yanked her to the left just as the bullets started spraying.

“What the heck is going on?” she hissed.

“Shut up,” I said simply. I don’t like rudeness as a rule, but it wasn’t the time. All thoughts needed to be on escape. Plus, other than the immediate escape I didn’t know what was going on. “Come on,” I said more gruffly than I intended as I took her hand and led her into the crowd on this concourse.

I’d been on protection detail many times, and I’d grabbed a lot of people a lot of ways. But taking Cynthia’s hand stood out to me. It felt good, like it was made to be in my hand. It irritated me, because twitterpation would just distract me from the current crisis.

Fortunately, Cynthia didn’t resist as I wove through the crowd. Our pursuers followed us into the mass of people and were considerably less polite than I was, shoving individuals aside. No one had noticed the gunshots — the killers had relatively quiet weapons and the crowd was loud. But there were a lot of shouts and protests at this.

“There’s a shuttle to the other side of the complex,” I said. “It’s not an escape, but it’ll buy us a moment to rest.”

She nodded without saying anything. Her face was turning red. We needed that rest.

At least she was trusting me. That made doing my job that much easier. The thought prompted me to shake my head. This had started as a date, and now it was a job. That was not a promising sign that this would be a relationship. Also, I wasn’t being paid.

Cynthia continued her relative silence, as we pushed through the edge of the crowd and crossed the relative open space to the line for the shuttle.

To the credit of their parents, some people have been trained in their manners that even when their person is in eminent danger they are unfailing in their courtesy. It was gratifying to me that Sven had set me up on a date with someone possessed of such fine etiquette. However, it was also disconcerting to me that Cynthia moved toward the end of the queue for the shuttle. I hissed softly through my teeth and jerked her toward the front. I intended to make some people angry.

The shuttle was just opening its door to bring in passengers as I shoved the line leaders aside ungently and push Cynthia in. I followed immediately on her heals and smashed my hand on the door’s controls, shutting them. My date fell into a chair as I slapped a magnetic hacknode on the manual override panel. I hadn’t been expecting assailants, but certain small devices, like the hacknode, were so convenient and useful that I always have one with me.

Symbols flashed across the security pad for a second, and then the controls popped out of their panel. I slammed the start button.

The shuttle was a vehicle designed to automatically fit a couple dozen people and carry them the twenty-five kilometers to the other end of the Nyark Mercantile Complex — the largest shopping mall on humanity’s home world. It slid smoothly into movement. We had about five minutes to breathe. I allowed myself to smile as the people I had shoved grappled our pursuers, clearly unwilling to allow anyone else to cut the line. The assassins would not be getting on the next shuttle without indiscriminate show of force. I hoped, even with the bluntness of their assault, the assassins would try to keep collateral damage to a minimum.

Cynthia was regaining her breath. “What is going on?” she asked again. I didn’t believe it was possible to lace a question with more impatience than she did.

I couldn’t afford to calm her though. I turned on the heads-up implant in my eye with a thought and took hold of her wrist. I was gentle enough that I wouldn’t hurt her, but firm enough that if she resisted I wouldn’t lose my grip. I looked her in the eye and asked, “Are you really an assistant at the Drieter firm?”

She tried only for half a second to pull away, and not with much force. “What are you talking about? Why would I lie about that?”

“Just answer.” I kept my voice low. I didn’t want to make her upset. In fact, I was hoping to calm her. But I needed the answers more than anything else.

She glared, but answered. “Yes, I am. I told you…”

I nodded and interrupted. “Do you have any enemies? Anyone who would have a reason to hurt you?”

“What? No! I’m just an assistant. Why would I have enemies?”

I didn’t have an answer to that. More importantly, the bio-readings in my HUD confirmed that she didn’t have an answer for it either. She was worked up but wasn’t holding back.

I released her hand and sat back in the chair facing her, my arms spread across the backs of the seats next to me. She ran her fingers over the spot I had been holding. It was time to review my earlier thesis. I had friends. With a little work I could get a good outlook for my immediate future. To be sure, I had enemies as well. But I didn’t actually interact with many of the people I dealt with professionally, targets or colleagues. My identity was a closely guarded secret – completely divorced from my work. I had safeguards and triggers in place to let me know the instant anyone so much as looked at a file containing information about me. There hadn’t even been a sniff. Nothing’s one-hundred percent, of course, but I had confidence that this was about her, not me. It just remained for me to figure out why.

“Look,” I said calmly. ” I considered that these guys might be after you. If you knew what I really did with my life, that would be the reasonable assumption. But…” I held up my hand to quiet her interruption. “Those men aren’t good enough to go after me, and anyone competent enough to even figure out who I am would know that. And there’s the snippets of chatter I’ve managed to hear from our attackers. Their target appears to be a woman. And I promise I haven’t lied about that.”

I was in luck. That remark elicited the slightest of smiles from her lips.

“But why would they come after me?”

I shook my head. “I don’t know, but I am going to find out. More to the point, I feel responsible for you. These guys have pissed me off by going after you while you were in my care.” It sounded corny, like an old, twentieth century vid, and I was a little bit surprised to hear myself talk like this. Funny thing was, I rally did feel that way. A half dozen guys with guns after one woman was hardly fair – but this type of thing was never about anything fair. But they had also ruined my date.

“So you don’t think chivalry is passé?” She said, the tiny smile returning to her full lips.

It was infectious, and I smiled broadly. “I suppose not. I hope that’s not a bad impression for modern times.” After a brief pause I continued. “I know this has been strange and probably frightening, but I need you to trust me so I can get you out of here alive. It’s not done yet. They’re far behind us, but they might have reinforcements at our destination.”

She caught my gaze and held it, looking into me with her sharp green eyes. “I trust you,” she said.

What an amazing woman.

###

The shuttle followed the track it was attached to until it reached the friend of the complex. I had a few moments to look over my date. Her wide eyes were set under thin, dark eyebrows. The left brow was pierced with four gem like studs. The crystal structures held her ID and credit info, attuned to her DNA. Her raven black hair dangled close to her brow in front, and in back was held in a series of silver colored rings that made her single pony tail hand down from a point several inches away from her head. It was a chic style. By contrast she didn’t wear the form fitting coveralls that were all the rage. Instead she wore an old-fashioned skirt to her knees with a short-sleeved blouse. It was a less explicit demonstration of her figure, and it made her seem less common — it suited her. The material her skirt and blouse were made of was quasi-reflective and of a silky texture. The color seemed to shift with her movements and the light — for the skirt dark colors: blue, green, black, red; the top played in lighter colors but always complemented the bottom.

The shuttle bumped to a stop, shaking me out of the observation. I wondered for a moment why they couldn’t invent a way to smooth out those stops, but evenas I did I waved Cynthia to join me near the door. “Stay with me,” I told her. “Remember, you’re not safe until I say so. Until then, assume that somewhere there’s a guy trying to line up a shot at your head.” It was blunt, but break was over; speed was again imperative. I saw her head nod quickly as my attention turned toward the outside. I felt a small weight leave me, she really was putting her trust i me.

There wasn’t anyone down below the shuttle who looked like the attackers. Either we really did have some breathing room (too good to be true), they had disguised themselves (unlikely given the short time), or they were hiding, which miggt even mean a sniper.

I pulled my hacknode off the controls and the door slid open. Cynthia took my hand as I stepped out. It was strange, but exiting the shuttle felt like enteringa completely different environment. My senses, even th cybernetic ones, were reaching out, finding suspicion in everyone and everything around us.

We pushed through the light crowd toward a nearby hallway.

And the bad guys revealed themselves. From both sides a group of two or three appeared.

They were dressed in black still, and making too much noise. “These guys really suck at this.” I said. It had stopped being fun and was just annoying now. These guys were nothing but thugs, not remotely professional. Beneath me, really. If it weren’t for Cynthia, I would have just stopped and beaten them to death. Well, maybe not to death, at last not all of them. Somebody would need to learn how deep the trouble they volunteered for was.

But Cynthia was with me, so instead I just led her away, breaking into a run she could keep up with. The main hallways were too wide – they provided no cover. So I found myself again turning to side passages.

The Nexus

The Nexus is a place where all things are possible, all things exist, and all things happen. It is a crossroads of reality. Some things arrive there from their öwn times and worlds-but many have come to be in The Nexus itself: they were made or born there — or spontaneously sprang into existence.

In the nexus super-technoiogy works alongside arcane magics, and some technology is powered by magic or works to influence magic. Fantastic creatures of legend interact with aliens of other planets. Supers live with normals, with unspeakable horrors lurking near. Feudal kings, militaristic empires, primitiue tribes, and modern democracies fight to maintain control of their realms. Gods dwell with men, and men ascend godhood. The shining architecture of multiple futures mixes with brick-and-mortar city tenements, thatch huts, Medieval castles, and crumbing stone forts.

Newcomers to The Nexus are generally overawed and frequently confused. Typically they find their place with people and things that meet their previous understanding of reality. A great number of them maintain a fear, or at least a prejudice, of places, people, or things “of other realities.” Natives of The Nexus never experience the disorientation or denial of newcomers, nor do they, typically, hold prejudices. Yet there is still a degree of segregation — groups coexist and even interact with those from “other worlds,” but non-homogenous groups are uncommon.

Through The Nexus one can reach any of the worlds, times, and realities represented within it — if one can find the portal and figure out how to use it. But whether it’s wealth, adventure, or knowledge, you don’t have to leave The Nexus to find it.

Untitled ii

It wasn’t the volume so much as the vibrations caused by the unholy scream that caused Mick to cringe. And it was less the scream at all than the thought of what it was screaming. And even less what it was than the responsibility he had for it being … well, in existence, let alone here in this … hell, he wasn’t even sure what it was. A convent? A girl’s school?

Whatever it was, it had a locker room, and he’d had to fight through the crowd of a couple dozen women in their teens and twenties dressed in the most horrid clothing he’d ever witnessed to get this far. A matted bit of black hair stuck to his face,covering his eye and held there by his sweat. He pushed it roughly aside, regretting, as he always did at moments like these, that he bothered to get a haircut every now and then.

He winced as he reached in his jacket pocket for more ammo — the scream simply didn’t stop. The leather straps he had wrapped around his hands caught and he cussed, forcing his hand in. He dropped three of the four rounds he’d pulled out when the the pipes burst in a portion of the wall and he was showered with powdered ceramic tile and grout and both cold and hot water. He cussed again, and yet again when the rounds he dropped rolled across the floor and into a drain.

Hastily he pushed the last round he had into the cylinder of his revolver and slammed it closed, then he peered over the piece of rubble he leaned against. The thing was still there, floating in the middle of the shower area, the three … what were those, tails? still undulating in the air green, with suckers on one side, like an octopus tentacles, pointing downward. It had six arms as well, in a circle about the upper body — bony, near skeletal, jointed in three points, with fingers nearly half the arm length, ending in claws, of course. They all had claws. There were no legs. though Mick supposed it didn’t need them if it could float there.

And the piece de resistance … the head. Or was it heads? There were two beaks, easily a foot long each. Both were open, and both were screaming. It apparently didn’t need to stop for breath. It was dripping wet from the spray in the walls. Mick guessed that the plumbing wasn’t holy water than. Or, admittedly less likely, this one wasn’t vulnerable to that sort of thing.

The scream was its weapon. Which was, at best, irritating. He had to admit it was a very effective. He wasn’t sure his ears weren’t going to start bleeding at any moment, and he had to fight the temptation to cover his ears with his hands.

Instead, he stood and faced the beast full on. Aiming his gun with both hands, willing his muscles to stop shaking. He only had one shot.

Then the most unnerving thing of all happened. The scream stopped.

Mick lost his footing in the sudden change in the air pressure and he stumbled forward, though he managed to stay upright. The thing was looking at him. He wasn’t sure what part of that head (heads?) were its eyes, but he could feel it staring at him. Then both beaks pointed toward him and the scream resumed, louder. The force of the sound threw him back several feet. He rolled until he hit a wall. He couldn’t stop it now, his hands flew to his ears, and he pressed them against it. Though the right hand, with the gun, was less effective at blocking any sound.

His eyes were wide with pain, and he couldn’t shut them. He groaned. It may have been audible — he wasn’t sure, because he couldn’t hear anything. Even the scream. But he could feel it, every where in his body, every inch of his skin.

In desperation he stretched out his arm and pointed the gun. He couldn’t hold it steady. He used every last bit of his strength to squeeze the trigger.

The shot couldn’t be heard any more than anything else could. It seemed like everything froze for a moment. He thought the screaming stopped. Then it exploded in a visual cacophony of guts and lights spreading everywhere.

“I guess I hit it,” Mick muttered. He was deaf, he hoped only temporarily, and didn’t hear it. He hadn’t heard the explosion either. Or the guts hitting the walls. He tried not to think of it.

He forced himself to his feet, his left hand against the wall to steady himself, the gun hanging limply at his side. As soon as he could he took a step forward, then another. Till he reached where the thing had stood… floated. He shook his head and immediately regretted it, the pain shooting over his skin. He winced.

He reached down into the rubble and the water until he found it: the thin chain of silver threads with the pendant on it, an unassuming smooth round stone, the size of a silver dollar, in a flat platinum setting with… symbols or runes etched around it. He ached as he stood again and limped away.

Untitled i

In the vids, the stars all raced by, like comets. Or like meteors burning brilliantly in the atmosphere. In the hundreds of years since humans had first achieved space travel, still not enough people had seen space while they were actually out in it to know it didn’t look anything like that. Even with faster-than-light travel with dark matter drives, there was only a slight blurring. Stars were so far apart that you didn’t see much change as you went.

Charlie put up his feet and stared at the unchanging space. It was his watch, this was his job. Music from 21st century earth played. It was much more racous and energetic back then — 26th century music favored slow tones, alternating subtlely, very little repetition. In the 21st century, they hadn’t been into subtlety. Or slow. He believed the band playing was called Linkin’ Park, but it could be anyof a hundred bands. He didn’t know the difference between them that well. He had a couple favorites, but mostly it just stayed on as noise. He liked it, but he couldn’t sleep with it playing. Not at this volume.

Charlie born at the end of the 23rd century. He was passenger on a ship to HD 10307 — the first star system with a planet that wouldn’t even need terraforming to colonize. They’d even renamed it Gaia — the Greek word for earth, to show how much faith they had. Charlie had fought and pulled in favors and spent money — a lot of money — to get on that ship.

He’d spent two and a half centuries in cryosleep, and woken to find the ship to find that two centuries earlier FTL had been created and that there had been not just colonies but full blown cities and a thriving populas lived on Gaia. There was a great party and a parade and galas and events and interviews. No one in the 26th century had ever met someone from the 23rd before, and the passengers on the Starry Hope were oddities and celebrities. Through all of it though, Charlie had been in a depression. He’d wanted to be the first. Or at least among the first. And where had he been while human life was first established on a distant planet? Sleeping somewhere in the middle of space.

It was, at best, frustrating. Which is probably why he’d turned to piracy. That and the fact that even with his celebrity status he had no money whatsoever. They’d paid for rooms, food, travel. All until no one wanted to hear from him. He’d been ready to make his way as a modest mechanic/technician/electrician on the first colonies of Gaia. He’d been completely unprepared to make a life in the bustling metropoli that spanned the western spiral arm of hte Milky Way Galaxy when he’d been revived. He snorted at the memories. He was still angry about it all.

His break had come when he’d first taken a tour of a modern space ship. He’d been a futurist and a space buff for his whole life. So, of course, he’d played all the video games before he had boarded the Starry Hope. Turned out that the man who’d designed the most popular simulation game for space ships had been much more educated than your typical video game designer. He’d gone on to work for multiple space programs and even now the primary designs for small space craft were remarkably similar to the controls on the game Charlie had played.

Three Wishes

A man found himself walking through a dark wood. He was entirely unsure where he was or how he had gotten there.

As he looked about, he was interrupted by a deep voice. “And now, master, if you would be kind enough to make your third wish, so that I may be free.

The man jumped and turned to see a large man, seemingly half-formed of mist. He wore a turban and bore himself proudly.

“Third wish,” the man said haltingly. “I don’t understand?”

“That is because of your second wish,” the djinn explained. “I cannot explain more.”

The man stood thoughtfully for a moment, then looked at the djinn with confidence. “For my third wish,” he said, “I desire to be completely aware of why I am here and my role in the universe.”

The djinn began waving his arms and pronounced, “It is done!” He looked at the man with his head cocked. “I find it odd, though. That was your first wish as well.”

A Love Story

A knock on the door made Reilly start, separating him from his thoughts and bringing him back into the moment. He set his notebook down and went to the door. The girl standing there was gorgeous. “Hi, Reilly,” she said simply as she stepped into the apartment. “Can I start my homework now?”

“Uh. . . hi, Misty.” He punished himself inwardly. He’d forgotten she was coming over to use his computer for some class projects. He quickly glanced around his living room to make sure it was clean. There were some books and a few glasses scattered around the room, but at least there weren’t any clothes. “It’s in my room. This way.”

Reilly led the way down the hall to his bedroom, shutting doors as he went and making sure the bed was made before she came in. Then he pulled out the chair and offered her a seat.

He sat in the recliner near his computer and gazed at the girl in his living room for several long moments. Her dark hair fell in slight curls and waves until it spilled over her shoulders. That was about all he could see, because she was facing the computer screen with her back toward him. How cool is this? he thought to himself, gazing admiringly at the head of hair.

Suddenly she turned to face him. Reilly quickly turned his gaze back to the papers in his hands, hoping she didn’t notice he was–staring.

“You were a literature major, right?” she asked him.

“Uh… yah,…” he muttered. “Er… Yes, I was.” Why was he so awkward? This girl was barely twenty years old. He was at least seven years older than her.

“Listen to what this guy has to say about Ben Jonson . . .” She read something absurd one of her classmates had posted about Shakespeare’s contemporary. Reilly listened with interest, more fascinated by her voice than what she actually had to say. She laughed when she finished, “Isn’t that ridiculous?”

Reilly let her laughter flow over him like a refreshing breeze. “Yeah, pretty funny, Misty.”

And that was another thing: her name was Misty. Who’s named Misty? It’s what you called your pet mouse, or a cat at best. It wasn’t a name for someone you fell in love with.

Misty turned back to the computer. “Sorry for interrupting,” she said. “I know you’re busy, and I’ve got to get through this for class.”

Reilly couldn’t figure out why he was so fascinated by this girl. Sure she was brilliant and had a pretty face and (let’s admit it) a great figure, but she was also very young, and couldn’t possibly be interested in a college drop out trying to break into comic book self publishing. Take it for what it really is, he told himself every time she came over. A girl who came over because you have a computer and she needs to read the news group for her class.

All the same, he always found an excuse to be in the recliner while she worked on the computer so he could look at her. Today he had brought some pictures of characters his partner had drawn, and Reilly was supposed to be making suggestions for changes. In practice, he was mostly waiting to hear her laugh again. He loved listening to Misty’s laughter; it sounded as if the laughter hid something from him. Something very important.

Sometimes he would try to figure out how he could include her in a story. He thought of classic Greek beauty, but she was too modest. Next he’d try the magnificence of Victorian nobility, but she was too unpretentious for that. Truth was, Reilly wasn’t quite sure how to describe Misty. She was an enigma, and that only added to the fascination.

Suddenly Misty leaned back in her chair and stretched, showing her figure, entrancing Reilly in a magic spell. “Well,” she started slowly as she glanced back at the computer screen. “I guess I’m done. I’ll get out of your hair now. You’re probably tired of that college girl who keeps coming around and wasting your time.”

“No!” Reilly said, far too quickly for his own judgment. “I mean, it’s no bother. Always willing to help,” he tried to clarify. Especially for you, he thought but didn’t have the nerve to say out loud.

“Oh,” Misty said. She stood in thought for just a moment, and an odd look of surprise crept across her face. Then she smiled. “I hate to intrude further, but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to read my e-mail too. Is that ok?”

“Yeah,” Reilly managed to blurt out. Anything to see that smile again.

As if reading his thoughts, she rewarded him with another grin. “Thanks!” She sat back down and began to type again.

Inwardly celebrating, Reilly sat back down and began to pretend to look over the artwork again. He was thinking about her again, though, and didn’t pay attention to the papers in his lap. Well, I got her to stay a little while longer, he thought. Not that I’m doing anything about it. Not that I’m even sure I should do anything about it. Geez, why do I keep thinking about her this way?

He was so wrapped up in his thoughts that he didn’t notice that Misty wasn’t paying much attention to the computer screen, but kept looking over at him with a thoughtful expression.

“Well,” Misty started after half an hour. “I really should go,” she said slowly as she rose from the chair.

Reilly quickly stood as he noticed her rise, and although he didn’t know it, the gesture wasn’t lost on her. “Well, ok,” he said awkwardly.

“Yeah,” Misty responded, and she hesitantly started to head for the door. Reilly started to follow, and when they reached the entrance, she turned around. “Oh, hey. What happened with that comic book you showed me?”

“You mean the adaptation of those rock songs?” Reilly asked. “You remember that?”

“Yeah, I really liked it. What did the guy you were sending it to say?”

“Oh, well, he called once to ask me something. The distributor’s still thinking about it, but I’m not sure it’s something I’m keeping my hopes up about.”

“Well, that’s too bad,” Misty said. “I liked it. It was interesting.” As she spoke she absent-mindedly reached forward and held the pendant Reilly wore around his neck. “Let me know how it turns out.” She read the pendant aloud, “‘I am a child of God.’ Nice thought.” She let go of the pendent and softly drew her fingers across Reilly’s chest before pulling her hand back.

Reilly sighed. He wanted to kiss her so badly, but he knew it wouldn’t work, so he told her. “Look, you don’t want to do this. You wouldn’t be interested in me when you got to know me. So you might want to just go home.”

Misty looked him in the eyes, hurt and a little lost. They were both silent for a moment. “Bold words. But you’re wrong,” Misty finally said.

Reilly felt a deep disappointment that he was sure could be seen on his face. There went all hope he had of getting close to her.

“Look,” Misty patted him softly on the front of his shoulder. “Are you interested in me?”

He hesitated for a long moment and looked down at his feet, wanting to tell her but afraid to. “Well, . . . yeah.” He finally answered.

“So why do you think that you can be interested in me, but you can still tell me that I can’t be interested in you?”

“Well, that’s not what I meant . . .” Reilly searched for what to say. “I mean, . . . I, it’s just that . . .”

“Look,” she told him as she put her hand on his neck and made him look at her. “Why don’t you let me be the judge of what I’m interested in?”

“Well,” Reilly tried to look away but Misty forced him to see her eyes. They were a gorgeous green, a color he couldn’t quite describe to anyone, especially after that moment. “I guess that’s fair,” he finally mumbled.

“You’ve got a lot to learn,” Misty told him as she pulled his face down the few inches that separated their faces and kissed him gently on the lips. Her soft lips pressed against his, opening slightly. He could taste the sweetness of her breath, savoring the promise it held. Lost in this newfound rapture, his head began to spin.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” she said softly, and then she walked out the door, closing it behind her.

Reilly stood in place for a few moments, trying to figure out what had just happened. Then a grin crept across his face and grew until it filled the space between his cheeks. He skipped back to his room and got ready for bed, barely able to contain his excitement for morning to come.

Misty liked him.

The Duke and the Contessa

The duke and the contessa were forbidden to love each other. At least, that is what they believed. It would have been socially inappropriate to express any such feelings. Yet everyone at the court knew that they loved each other. It could be seen in every glance, every gesture, every word they spoke to one another (and many words they spoke to others), though they never admitted what they thought would be indiscretion. By most courtiers, including all the women (with one unimportant exception), felt that their relationship was terribly romantic and many hoped desperately that somehow the situation would result in a union of the two plaintive lovers, but by the same token no one would tell them about the plainly obvious love because that would ruin the utter romance of the situation, and everything should be romantic, even at the cost of happiness. For romance is beautiful, and beauty is more important than pleasure.

But then came the day of their falling out. The duke by some small forgetfulness or faux pas had somehow offended the contessa and hurt her pride. Or perhaps it was the contessa who had slighted the duke; no one can be sure about these things. Either way, they both turned cold shoulders to each other that day, and the relationship only grew more sour. At one point the duke surely felt that he would like to make it up to the contessa, but as they could no more declare their love now than previously, and thus there was no way for him to show that he was sorry. The contessa grew angrier and angrier, and even when the duke was not the subject of conversation or when he wasn’t near, one could feel her burning anger. Meanwhile the duke simply grew more and more morose; his visits to court became less and less frequent. The contessa felt slighted at this as a new insult, and the effects of her wrath in the duke’s deportment: he stopped showing as much care in his grooming, he spoke barely ever. This development was very sad to observe. But it was that tragedy was beautiful, so no one said anything to correct the situation.

Eventually, the contessa could no longer stand the sight of the duke, and commanded her army to attack his territory. The war was bloody, eventually involving most of the other courtiers as they had to either defend their own lands from the armies or joined one or the other side, depending on which side they found to be more beautiful. In the end, most of the realm was destroyed, the crops burned, the citizens murdered, and the animals driven away. Only the courtiers themselves remained. But even the ruin was beautiful, so no one complained of the results.

The contessa still hated the duke, but she lacked the power to kill him. The duke, on the other hand, still refused to directly harm his beloved contessa, even though his army had been much larger and more capable, and he was still physically capable of ending her life. And so we did what we had always done, and continued to hold court, although there was nothing left to rule. And that is when the angel came. We called him an angel because he was beautiful, and we didn’t know what else he was. He came from the sky, right through the roof of the castle, and stood before all of us. He proclaimed in a deep but melodic voice that he had witnessed the strife in our land, and that he now knew what he had always suspected. Now that he knew who they were, he would take the contessa and the duke with him.

For the god and goddess of beauty cannot be suffered to remain with mere mortals.