Conan the Librarian on the Information Highway
Chapter 4
Returning to his quarters, Conan found his dress tunic cleaned and mended on the bed. He draped it on the chair, stretched out, closed his eyes and drifted into the still blackness. 

He was riding through a dark wood, hypercats lurked in every tree. In a clearing stood a tower surrounded by knights with hammers tapping away, bringing it down brick by brick. From the window his friend Colin seemed to call to him. A short, heavy-set knight with curly black hair began pounding on the tower's door. Conan called out. The knights pounded harder and the tower began to fall. 

Conan sat upright in bed. The pounding on the door continued. 

"Who is it?" 

"Wake up call, Sir. The banquet will begin soon." 

"Thank you." 

The banquet hall was enormous. Conan wiped his palms on his tunic as he took his seat. He was uncomfortable with his weapons checked at the door, a conspicuous seat at the head table, a speech to give, and Boots the cat licking its paw behind the Crown Prince's seat, two chairs away. 

As the servers moved among them, Conan observed the other guests. The head table ran the width of the room, with ten long tables running perpendicular. The Order of the Key filled the far table to Conan's left, resplendent in tan tunics with maroon trim and the bright gold key insignia. He was surprised they did not have a more central table. They seemed to be having trouble gaining the attention of the serving girls. Filling the two tables to the right of center were the their archrivals: Lord Reed and his retainers in their colorful tartans seated with Lord Elsevier and his company sporting the crossed sword and tulip. There, too, were the lesser knights of their company wearing the insignia of a shooting star on blue field and the letters L/N. The delegates at the next two tables were all dressed differently except for their common device--a maple leaf with the letter T. 

Of the rest of the room, the loudest voices came from the Knights of the Hammer, while the wine stewards move frequently among the quieter delegates from the Temples. 

Dinner passed pleasantly as Conan shared the details of his adventures and his companions shared the latest gossip, mostly involving shifting alliances and the disappointment of the cabal of the T-and-Maple-Leaf over losing the fealty of the L/N to the Reed-Elsevier diad. The most surprising and unlikely rumor was that they would try now for an alliance with the Order of the Key itself. Finally, the Crown Prince rose to begin the ceremonies. Conan wiped his palms on his leggings before he stood, but the presentation ceremony was over quickly and he watched with relief as the High Priest of Cataloging carried the AACR2 to the Temple. 

Prince Albert offered the first toast--to the success of the Conference--followed by similar toasts from the other dignitaries at the head table. The next to stand was Sir James the Lovable, leader of the Knights of the Hammer. Conan did not remember ever meeting him, but somehow he seemed familiar. The company grew restless with the long toast but all grew still when he ended it with a look to Conan's left and the words, "to freedom--and a media-neutral citation system." 

Sir Vancealot rose then, his face pink. "To copyright, the best defense of a free marketplace." 

Sir Allan's toast was short and spoken loudly. "To a marketplace free of monopoly." 

There arose a muttering in the crowd. At the head table, the gentle Lord Robert of Berkeley rose and spoke. 

"My friends," he began and the hall quieted, "we are all here with a single mission. Let us drink tonight not to our differences of opinion on how best to accomplish it, but to our common purpose." 

But before anyone could drink, someone from among the Knights of Tap shouted, "Easy for you to say, with your fat consulting contracts and all expenses to the Conference paid by the Key!" 

Sir Robert's many friends rose immediately to his defense and only the occasional shrill overtones of Lady Chickerly could be distinguished in the general commotion. Conan did not see who threw the first goblet but soon knights were jumping onto tables, carving knives were pulled from the platters of meat, and pieces of fruit and dinnerware flew through the air. Prince Albert's personal guard rushed to protect the head table. One knocked Conan off balance as he dodged a pineapple, causing him not to see the pewter plate coming from the other direction toward his temple. 

As the red mist cleared Conan found himself under the table, with Boots washing blood from the side of his face with his coarse tongue. They stared at each other for a second, then the cat darted out through one of the curtains behind the table. Recognizing that the beast knew the exits, Conan decided not to stay for the rest of the Conference. 

© 1995, by Hadley V. Baxendale

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