Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 13
Stories
Beautiful Winter
by Eugie Foster
Hologram Bride: Part Two
by Jackie Gamber
Second String
by David A. Simons
Command Transfer
by Darren Eggett
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
Salvage
by Orson Scott Card
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
De-Fence
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews

Like Diamond Tears From Emerald Eyes
    by Eric James Stone
Like Diamond Tears From Emerald Eyes
Artwork by James Owen

Larindo and I were standing guard at the entrance to Krankel's Fine Jewelry and Loan Emporium when the bride arrived in town. She stepped down from her horseless carriage and into the volcanic ash that covered the road. Her dress must have been enchanted somehow -- it managed to stay spotless white as she swept across the street and into Blat's Tavern next door.

"Pretty lady," said Larindo.

I wrinkled my nose. "Couldn't tell, what with the veil." But I knew what he meant. Larindo wasn't overly smart, but he knew pretty things when he saw them. As long as he didn't try to touch them, I could usually keep him out of trouble.

Krankel must have been watching through the window, because he poked his head out of his shop. "Who's getting married? Nobody's bought a ring!"

"I have no idea," I said. "One of the adventurers at the tavern -- or more likely, one of them left her at the altar, and she's finally tracked him down."

"Humph. Fancy carriage like that, she's gotta be rich." Krankel stepped back into his shop, then re-emerged with a small black case. "I'll see if she's in the market for any wedding jewels. You guys hold the fort."

"Got it, boss." I patted the hilt of my sword as he headed toward the tavern.

A few minutes later, the bride came out of the tavern, with Krankel trailing behind her. Her veiled head turned toward us, stopped, and then she strode in our direction.

I assumed she was coming to the shop to see more jewels, until I heard Krankel's voice. Rather than his usual sycophantic manner toward the wealthy, he was arguing with her. ". . . cannot be left defenseless. You must see that."

"There are plenty of men in that bar. Hire them." The bride's voice sounded clear as glass bells from behind her veil, which obscured her face so that I only caught a glimpse of its outline.

"If I wanted to hire them, I already would have," said Krankel.

The bride swept to a stop in front of Larindo and me. Her veiled face tilted as if she were looking me up and down, then did the same to Larindo. She took longer on him, since I'm only five foot two, and he'd stand a hair over eight feet tall if he weren't completely bald.

"I need a wizard and a warrior for a little job," she said. "I'll pay your year's salary for only a few hours' work." She opened a small velvet pouch and poured a half-dozen diamonds into her palm.

"Pretty lady," said Larindo. He reached out a beefy hand toward her veil.

I reacted quickly as she shied away, grabbing Larindo's arm with both hands and yanking back. "No," I said. "Don't touch."

His arm relaxed.

"Don't mind him," I said to the bride. "He's not too bright, but he's harmless. He just likes pretty things."

"I'm more interested in his skill as a warrior than his intellect," she said.

I suppressed a smile. "Then you have a problem. He's the wizard. I'm the warrior."

"You're joking." She stated it as fact.

"No, Ma'am." I was used to this reaction. "You'll notice he's got the staff, and I've got the sword." I tapped on the hilt.

She whirled to face Krankel. "You have a runt warrior and a dim wizard as your guards?"

I didn't resent the remark. Being underestimated had helped the two of us stay alive on several occasions.

"Jerton and Larindo serve me well enough." Krankel pointed back to the tavern. "But I'm sure you'll find heroes more to your liking in --"

"If you hired these men, they must be more than competent. A fool in the jewelry business doesn't stay in business," she said, putting the diamonds back into the pouch. "You two -- you're hired. Follow me." She started toward her carriage.

Larindo began to follow, but I pulled him back.

"Excuse me, Ma'am," I said, "but we're already hired, by Krankel. And even if he were willing to let us go, I don't like to hire on for a job unless I know exactly what it is."

She stopped, but did not turn back. "I see. Master Krankel, I trust you'll lend me these two if I pay you their salaries for a year."

"Twice that," he said. "In advance."

That was when I understood what had Krankel so rattled. It wasn't that he would have to hire someone else to cover for us for a few hours. He expected us to die if we took the job.

And that meant . . . "You want us to go into Wizard Mazi's castle?" I glanced up at the volcano outside of town, where the castle was shrouded in the smoke from the fissures that surrounded it. "You can't pay us enough to die."

As if agreeing, the volcano emitted a small rumble.

"Mazi is dead," she said, her voice tinged with satisfaction.

"I know that," I said. "I helped burn his body." Master wizards can't be harmed by fire, so burning a master wizard's body was a good way of making sure he was, in fact, dead.

"Then what's the problem?" she asked. "I merely need an item that belongs to me retrieved from his castle."

I waved my hand at the tavern, although it was a useless gesture because she still had her back to me. "There are maybe a dozen adventurers in there today. Three weeks ago, there were over forty. After Wizard Mazi died, many of them decided that looting his castle was a good idea. None ever came back."

"That's not true," said Krankel. "Thogar the Mighty returned."

"My mistake," I said. "But he's Thogar the One-Armed Madman, now." Truth be told, Thogar wasn't all that sane to begin with, but whatever happened to him in the castle pushed him over the edge.

"Five times your yearly salary," she said.

"No."

"Ten."

"I'm sorry, Ma'am," I said, "but there is nothing you can say that will get me to go into that castle."

Larindo put his hand on my shoulder. "I help pretty lady."

"Lar . . ." I said.

"I help pretty lady."

I knew that tone of voice. No amount of arguing on my part would talk him out of it -- he would help the pretty lady or die trying. Half-brothers could be so irritating sometimes.

When I was ten and Larindo was six, Mom made me promise to protect him -- even though he was already taller than me. I had kept that promise for the pastsixteen years, and I wasn't about to break it now.

There was only one way to protect him. I sighed. "We'll take the job. Ten times our salary, you said?"

I only hoped Larindo's talent with magic would get us through alive.

The box was about one foot square and six inches deep, with geometric patterns inlaid to the rosewood. I hefted it, looking for hinges or a seam. Maybe it was just the dim lamplight inside the bride's suite at the inn, but I found none.

"And the box we're looking for is identical?" I asked.

"This copy was built by the same artisan according to the same plans," said the bride. "There might be minor variations in wood color, but other than that they are as identical as possible."

"And what's inside the box?"

She hesitated. "It's a personal item."

"I don't like doing a job when I don't have all the facts."

The bride stood and walked to a window, shuttered against the daylight. She ran a lace-gloved finger along the grimy sill, but it came away spotless. "I was supposed to get married."

I said nothing.

"Seventeen years ago. Mazi used what's in that box to prevent me from marrying the man I loved. It's a secret that I do not want revealed, even after all these years."

I nodded slowly. Blackmail was something I understood. It's how Mom got the money to apprentice me to a swordmaster -- though my father ended up strangling her eventually to stop her demands. I was polite enough to thank him for funding my training before I killed him. Mom always did want me to act like a gentleman.

And a gentleman would not insist on knowing a lady's secret.

"Can you at least tell me what part of the castle he might have kept the box?" I dreaded the thought of searching the place from bottom to top, encountering whatever traps the old wizard had left behind.

"Better than that: I can show you exactly where it is," she said. "But not until after dark."

The gibbous moon shone orange through the smoke as we reached the hardened lava from the last major eruption. That had been about three years ago, just after Larindo and I came to town. Even through the haze, the castle stood out above us -- alabaster walls amid the basalt. A single, thin tower twisted up out of the center.

"Here will do," said the bride. "Hood the lanterns."

We complied. I handed her the duplicate box and said, "If we're lucky, it'll be near the entrance."

She placed the box on the ground and leaned over it, touching each corner in turn. Then she stood back up.

"I don't see anything," I said.

"Wait," she said. "The affinity magic takes a few moments."

"Pretty box," said Larindo. He reached toward it.

"Don't touch!" I tugged his arm away before he ruined the spell.

After a few moments of waiting, a thin silvery line sprang into being. I traced its path from the box in the direction of the castle until it became invisible in the smoke. As the line thickened and brightened, eventually I could see where it entered the castle.

I groaned. "The top room of the tower. Of course."

Ten minutes after leaving the bride to wait for our return, we encountered a deep fissure that crossed the road to the castle. It was ten feet across, and I could feel the heat from the molten rock that glowed red at the bottom. It was certainly possible that a new fissure had opened naturally, but I was suspicious.

"Lar," I said, "do you see the big hole in the road?"

He concentrated, looking carefully around him. "No hole."

It was an illusion, then.

Even though I tell everyone that Larindo is a wizard, he is not. In a way, he's the opposite of a wizard. He cannot use magic at all, but that's not because he's slow-witted. It's because magic has no effect on him -- which happens to be a very useful trait when a wizard attacks.

But even if Larindo was not affected by magic, magic could be affected by him. An enchanted object became unenchanted at his touch. I used to have this enchanted sword that would cut through steel as easily as . . . well, never mind. Half-brothers could be so irritating sometimes.

As far as I knew, Larindo's talent was unique. The wizards we've fought seemed to assume he was actively countering their spells, and that they just needed to find a spell powerful enough to overcome him. They always failed.

"Lead the way for a bit," I said.

Larindo stepped forward, into what looked to me like heat-shimmered air -- and then the illusion dissipated and the road continued unbroken to the castle.

The crushed remains of a cart propped the castle's wrought-iron portcullis partially open. One of the advantages we had was that earlier looting attempts would have dispelled some of the traps Mazi had left behind, so we faced fewer dangers than our predecessors. That didn't keep me from holding my sword at the ready.

Larindo and I slid through the three-foot gap under the portcullis's spikes, then made our way past the splintered wooden doors into the main hall.

The light from our lanterns seemed to pool at our feet, as if reluctant to extend further.

"Let's find the stairs to the tower," I said. I led us along the wall to the left, counting on Larindo to stop me if he noticed any danger -- or stairwell -- that illusion hid from my eyes.

I spotted an oil lamp attached to the wall, so I used the candle from my lantern to light it. A spout of flame jumped from the lamp, arced through the air, and landed on another lamp six feet away. That lamp lit, sending another spout of flame to the next. In less than a minute, the room was brightly lit.

"Ugly," said Larindo.

I was forced to agree. The room must have been elegant back before Mazi died, but the sculptures and paintings displayed along the walls were spattered with dried blood. The long table in the middle was broken and overturned, as were all of the chairs.

There had been a battle here, and judging by the numerous bloodstains, a deadly one. But no bodies lay scattered on the floor.

"Hello, Andek," Larindo said happily, as a man entered through a doorway on the other side of the room.

Andek had been one of the first to try his luck at looting the castle after the wizard's death. He had not returned, and along with everyone else, I had assumed he was dead.

He drew his sword.

"Hey," I said, "we're not trying to horn in on your treasure hunting. We're just after one --"

He lunged toward me. I parried and stepped back.

Behind Andek, eight more men emerged and spread out to surround us. I recognized them as other denizens of the tavern who had disappeared over the past few weeks.

"We don't want any trouble," I said. "We'll leave. But if you find a cherry-wood box, there's a buyer who . . ."

Without saying a word, the newcomers drew their swords.

"Lar," I said, "they aren't our friends any more. Understand?"

Larindo nodded. He held up his wizard's staff and aimed it at Andek.

Of course, Larindo couldn't perform any magic with the staff. But such an action tended to draw the attention of attackers because Kill the wizard first was generally a sound tactic. And when enemies focused on Larindo, they tended to ignore the real danger -- me and my sword, circling behind them -- until it was too late.

That strategy had seen us through dozens of battles against numerically superior forces.

It utterly failed this time.

As I began to circle around the men, they focused on me, ignoring Larindo completely.

Keeping my back to the wall so they couldn't surround me, I parried several of Andek's blows while looking for an opening to strike.

I hadn't known Andek was so good with the sword. It had been several years since I faced someone so skilled. I could still win this fight, except for the fact that it was nine swords against one.

Well, one sword and one quarterstaff, I realized, as Larindo brought his staff down on the head of one of the men with a wet thunk.

My sword was a blur as I wove a defensive pattern, keeping the enemy blades at bay while Larindo attacked the men from behind. But they kept attacking me, ignoring Larindo, even after he knocked one man's head clean off.

When that man kept fighting, I finally realized these were magically animated corpses, not men. They weren't attacking Larindo because their perception was magical in nature: they simply didn't know he was there.

"Lar," I yelled, "touch them with your hand."

Each corpse he touched collapsed to the floor, and the battle was over in moments.

After that, facing Thogar the Mighty's disembodied arm and its enchanted sword was relatively simple.

After Larindo eliminated the green magical shield that blocked the door, we entered the circular room at the top of the tower.

The box floated in the middle of a pillar of light that spanned from the ceiling and continued downward into a hole in the floor. A silver strand of light stretched out from it and through the wall, connecting it with the twin box the bride had.

I walked all the way around the box, examining it from every angle.

"Lar, do you see the box?" No use going after it if it was an illusion.

"Pretty box," he said, and reached out toward it.

"Stop!" I ordered, and he stopped. "Don't touch." If the box itself was enchanted, I didn't want him dispelling the magic, as the bride might not be happy about that.

I decided the best plan would be to have Larindo wave his arms above and below the box, to get rid of the magic that held it in place -- plus any other magical traps around it. My job would be to catch the box before it fell through the hole.

"Ready?" I asked him, once we were in position.

"Yes," he said.

"Go."

He swung his arms into the pillar of light, and the light vanished. I grabbed the box.

The plan worked so easily it felt anticlimactic. I put the box under my left arm, just in case I needed to draw my sword to fight anything on the way back down. "Let's get this back to --"

The floor trembled as the volcano rumbled.

"Congratulations, thief," said a voice that seemed to come from the wall surrounding us. "If you got this far, I must be dead. The magical pillar --"

"Run downstairs!" I yelled to Larindo. He ran, and I followed, barely keeping my feet as the tower swayed.

" -- you have destroyed was the main structural support for this castle, which will now collapse into the volcano. Enjoy your doom." The voice sighed. "Stupid thief."

Magical shields glowed green as they blocked each doorway, but they disappeared as Larindo ran through them. Half-brothers could be so useful sometimes.

By the time we crawled under the portcullis, the tower had collapsed into a widening pool of lava. We didn't stay to watch. Instead, we ran down the road to put as much distance as possible between ourselves and the castle's destruction.

The illusion of the volcanic fissure blocking the road had reappeared. I was about to run through it when Larindo grabbed my arm and yelled, "Stop!"

I realized it was not an illusion. Fortunately, Larindo was big enough and strong enough to halt my momentum before I fell in.

Unfortunately, the box slipped out of my grip. As it hit the ground, its lid burst open and revealed its contents.

Resting on a bed of crimson velvet was a young woman's face.

I held my breath as the box teetered for a moment on the edge, then stabilized.

"Pretty lady's face," said Larindo. Before I could stop him, he reached out to touch it. But instead, his fingers brushed the side of the box and toppled it into the fissure.

In the pre-dawn twilight, the bride's dress stood out against the basalt. She rose to her feet as we approached.

"You're alive!" Her voice was tinged with surprise and hope.

I was too tired to be anything but blunt. "We failed."

"Don't lie to me, Jerton," she said. "I know you got the box: I tracked --"

"We got it, but then we lost it," I said.

"If it's a matter of more money, I assure you no one else will pay more than --"

"It was your face, wasn't it?" I said.

She gasped. "You opened the box?"

"It broke open, but then it fell into a fissure." No need to go into exactly how. "It's gone forever. I'm sorry."

She sank to the ground, dress billowing around her, and sobbed. From time to time she lifted a handkerchief behind her veil.

Larindo and I sat down and waited.

Finally she said, "You're still here? I suppose you want your payment." She held out her handkerchief and then released all but one corner. A dozen diamonds spilled onto her dress.

"No," I said. "We didn't earn our pay. But we'll walk you back to town."

She sniffled, then rose to her feet, ignoring the diamonds that scattered on the rocky ground. Her dress was still impeccable. "Let's go, then."

"It was my own stupidity," the bride said, after a few minutes of walking.

"What?" I asked.

"Mazi was in love with me, but I didn't love him. He was furious when I told him I was marrying someone else. But the day of the wedding, he offered an enchanted jewel box filled with jewels as a gift. I foolishly believed he wanted the best for me, so I accepted."

"And the box stole your face somehow?"

"He told me the enchantment would keep me forever as beautiful as I was on that day. That's why this dress never gets dirty." She tugged at the sleeve. "I can never take it off, though. But that wasn't the worst of it: he said the beauty of my face would be as the jewels in the box."

She stopped, and after a moment Larindo and I halted and turned toward her.

With a sweep of her hand, she raised her veil.

For a second, I thought she wore a mask -- until I saw the rubies that formed her lips move. Large emeralds looked out at me from the carved alabaster of her face.

"These are the jewels from the box," she said.

"Pretty lady," said Larindo.

I didn't try to stop him as he reached out and touched her face.

Alabaster faded to pink skin. Emeralds became wide green eyes, and rubies turned to soft lips.

Larindo withdrew his hand.

"Oh," she said. She lifted white-gloved fingers to her checks, pressing against the restored flesh. "Oh."

"I help pretty lady," said Larindo. "See?"

I sighed, thinking of all the trouble we'd gone to trying to get the box. "Ma'am, if you'd just given me all the facts to begin with . . ."

I stopped speaking because she was crying again.

As the sun broke through the ash clouds, the wetness sparkled on her cheeks, more precious to her than diamond tears from emerald eyes.


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