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From the main body of the castle, one tall tower speared upward, with a balcony looking east. All the castle's windows looked east. All of Sarxos lay there, the cloud-capped mountains and the seas, the lakes, the distant glint of clouds reflecting back the sunset....
"Nice view, isn't it?" asked a voice behind Megan.
She turned around and nodded at Rod, who was holding a can of cola and looking out the window past her. "We get great sunsets here," he said, "but you can only see them from the tower."
"Personal reasons?" Megan said.
Rod looked resigned. "To the architect, maybe. My ex designed this place. She called it a 'feature.' I call it a nuisance. I think she just wanted to make sure I got plenty of exercise."
"Is it a long way up?"
"The traditional number of steps," Rod said, "three hundred and thirty-three. That's why I put in the elevator." He grinned.
Megan laughed, turning to look at all the people gathered in the big first-floor room. Nobody refused an invitation to a party like this, if they could help it-and who would want to help it? There were a lot of the "departed" around, players who had died in one way or another during gameplay, and every player who had ever been bounced. Shel Lookbehind was standing not far from the buffet table, happily discussing third-world reconstruction with Alla. There was Elblai, chatting amiably with Argath, whom she had never previously met in the flesh. "I'm just the honorary honorary dear departed," she was saying cheerfully, "and believe me, I don't mind...." And some of the fortunate living of Sarxos were there, too. Some people weren't exactly clear why Megan and Leif were there, but weren't inclined to pry. Some-Sarxos support staff, or friends of Rod's-knew, or had a clue, and were keeping their mouths shut. "I can't go too public about it," Rod had said to Leif and Megan earlier. "You know why. There are people who'll twitch. But all the same...I wanted to say thanks." dear departed," she was saying cheerfully, "and believe me, I don't mind...." And some of the fortunate living of Sarxos were there, too. Some people weren't exactly clear why Megan and Leif were there, but weren't inclined to pry. Some-Sarxos support staff, or friends of Rod's-knew, or had a clue, and were keeping their mouths shut. "I can't go too public about it," Rod had said to Leif and Megan earlier. "You know why. There are people who'll twitch. But all the same...I wanted to say thanks."
Now Megan wandered over to the far side of her room, where her dad and mom were standing with drinks in hand, talking animatedly with Leif's mom and dad. As she came up, Megan's mother looked around them with a smile that was not as grim as it might have been, considering the talk that the two of them had had the day before. "So this this is what it's all about, honey." is what it's all about, honey."
"Maybe not all, Mom. But...these are the people we were helping."
"Well...." Megan's mother rubbed the top of her daughter's head, an affectionate gesture that immediately caused Megan to try to smooth her hair back down into some semblance of order. "I guess you did good...."
"More than that," Elblai said, coming up behind Megan with her niece, both of them smiling at Megan. "I wanted to thank you again for what you did. It's rare enough that people just reach out to people, to try to help."
"I had to," Megan said. "We both had to." She looked over at Leif, in a desperate attempt to get some help with this embarrassing situation.
He just stood there and nodded.
"You should be very proud of your daughter," Elblai said, and Ellen's niece said to Megan, "I'm still feeling so stupid that I didn't believe you that night. If I had, it could have saved so much trouble."
"You were playing by the Rules," Megan said. "It's just the way it goes. The Rules take care of themselves."
"True enough," Elblai said. "Have you had some of those little sushi, the omelette things? They're really good."
"Omelette things?" Megan's father said, gave her an approving look, and headed off for the buffet table.
Megan went after him. "Daddy-"
"What are you writing right now??"
He smiled. "It's a history of the spice trade. Couldn't you tell?"
"You are not! You're making it up!"
"Of course I am. I have to get revenge on you somehow." He grinned. "Listen, Megan. I'm glad that what you were doing Thursday night really was important. Otherwise we would have had words. But after this, anything so important that it's likely to get you shot at...I claim the responsibility to hear about it first. Okay?" The look he turned on her was both annoyed and profoundly concerned, so that she found it impossible to be annoyed with him.
"Uh, yeah. Yeah, Dad."
"Good. Meanwhile, you can read what I'm doing when it's done. Next week sometime." He turned away, smiling. "Learning patience is good for you."
"I'm going to hack into your machine."
"You're welcome to try," he said with an evil grin, and went off to investigate the omelettes.
Megan headed off to where Leif was standing, looking out the window. "Want to go up the tower?"
"Sure, everybody else has been up there by now."
They made for the elevator. At the top of its run, it came out on a small, circular room with no apparent support between it and the pointed candle-snuffer roof on top. The last of the sunset was dying away westward. To the east, over Sarxos, the moon was coming up fat and full. The second moon came up off to one side, in the "passing lane," as it were, and crept steadily past the first one, heading upwards fast across the sky.
Far away, the moonlight glinted on the snows of the northeastern mountains. Above them, in the sky, the stars started to go off like fireworks.
There were oohs oohs and and aahs aahs from downstairs. "Hey," said a casual voice from way down the stairwell, "they're from downstairs. "Hey," said a casual voice from way down the stairwell, "they're my my stars. I can blow them up if I want to. They grow back in the morning, anyway." stars. I can blow them up if I want to. They grow back in the morning, anyway."
Far eastward, a winged shape came soaring. It grew bigger, and bigger, and impossibly bigger. "What is is that?" Megan said. that?" Megan said.
Leif shook his head, and stared.
It came on, the huge shape, closer and closer, its great blackwebbed wings like thunderclouds against the darkening night. Right past the tower it banked, looking at them, an experience like being looked at by a low-space transport. The wind of its passing was a storm.
Those huge wings spread in a stall, flapped. The wind got worse for a moment, then settled as the king-basilisk lowered itself carefully to the peak of the mountain on which the House of Rod was built, made sure of its grip, and folded its wings down. It wrapped its long slender tail around the mountaintop for extra grip, and leaned its twenty-foot-long head right down to gaze thoughtfully at Leif and Megan out of sun-core eyes.
Down in the water, a sea monster put its head up on its long slender neck, followed by the requisite number of multiple loops, and bellowed defiance at the interloper. Lost in astonishment and admiration, Megan and Leif could only stare from one to the other.
"Welcome to my world," said the voice of Rod behind them, "where cheaters never prosper."
This time, Megan thought...and held her peace.
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