|The footman showed them into a long room lined from floor to ceiling
with dark bookcases. On the far wall a small fire blazed in a stone hearth.
Before the fire was a table spread with bread, cheese and wine. At the
end of the table in an ornately carved armchair sat the rotund figure of
Duke Otto of Edoc-Rab. He smiled broadly, his small, dark eyes glittering.
"Welcome," he said, "it is not often I can entertain visitors who share
my interests in the arts and information sciences. My gamekeeper tells
me you are from the vendors' marketplace in the village. What guild do
"We are not vendors," Meta answered, stepping forward. "We are itinerant
"Then you must be affiliated with one of the Temples of Knowledge?"
"We are consultants," Conan cut her off before she could speak again,
"from the other side of the forest."
"Oh, excellent," the Duke grinned as he poured large goblets of wine
for them. "I, myself, am an independent contractor to many of the Temples.
You have seen my herd of zebra?" He took a large bite of cheese, stuffed
some bread after it, and gestured to his guests to help themselves. Meta
thanked him and made complementary comments about the wine, all the while
avoiding Conan's eye.
"We are seeking a vendor who left the market before we arrived," Meta
said casually. Conan coughed sharply, but she continued. "Perhaps you know
of him. He offers spells to communicate with the OCLC."
"Ah, the OCLC." The Duke drained his goblet. "An oracle of powerful
utility. And you seek to connect to it? You must be well versed in the
"I am," Meta said, glancing down modestly as she let the prism hanging
from its cord around her neck catch the light of the fire.
"And your companion?" asked the Duke, his eyes never leaving the prism.
"He knows enough to practice on the public side," she said with a soft
Conan's hand unconsciously reached for hilt of his now-absent knife.
From the corner of his eye he saw the servant watching from the corner
of the room shift his balance.
"Perhaps we can help each other," the Duke smiled broadly at Meta and
dabbed the corners of his mouth with his napkin. "I have an important project
for the temple at Cambridge with which I am having just a minor technical
difficulty. Would you do me the very great honor of taking a look at it?
In return I will consult with my contacts and I am sure we can locate this
vendor you seek."
Conan rose with them. "We are, unfortunately, already overlong on our
journey," he said through a stiff smile, he eyes on Meta.
"But I am sure this one favor will not overly delay us," Meta smiled
at the Duke.
"Oh, I am so pleased," the Duke offered her his arm and she took it.
"I am sure we will be able to help each other. Let me show you my technical
processing area. Your companion can await us here. Be assured he will be
well taken care of."
They walked out without a look back. Conan, not used to being ignored,
prepared to turn his anger at the servant who was now moving quickly up
behind him. He did not see the guard step from the shadows of the shelves
on his other side, nor--a second later--did he see anything else.
© 1993, by Hadley V. Baxendale