They had been traveling on the road to Trox only an hour – Ruella with her fiddle case, Tristan with his sword, Nil in his stylish, color-coordinated elf-wear, and An with her hair in two pigtails jutting straight out of the back of her head – before the Argument set in.

In Agraphia, all roads led to Trox. This is not a figure of speech. In Agraphia there was only one road, and it had nowhere else to go. And because the capital of Agraphia was not exactly metropolitan, speaking in strictly geographical terms, as soon as the road reached Trox, it immediately got up and left. It tried to escape west through the legendary swamplands that lie between Agraphia and everywhere interesting but, finding no land that was really road-worthy, it simply drowned itself in despair.

An looked around at the group of fellow travelers. There was Tristan, walking out in front with a big, stupid look of determination on his face, Ruella with an expression that could only be described as bitchy, Nil trying to seem all knowing and elf-ish but only managing to come across as a slightly clueless humanoid with long hair… and, for some reason, Repp Sprinkle, who trailed after them all like a dog. A very badly-groomed dog.

She sighed. Judging from the average IQ of the rest of the gang, it looked, unfortunately, like she was once again going to have to be the brains of the operation. This annoyed her to no end. She had been following her brother around the world for some time and she was sick of thinking for him. One of these days, she swore, she was just going to walk off, and there he'd be, thinking that he could get out of any situation just by waving his little sword around and slicing quite a lot of people in half. Well, it did work usually, but then… but…

The point, she thought angrily, is that I always end up stuck as the one that has to take responsibility for matters and see things through, because otherwise there's only Tristan and his various godsdamn sidekicks and love interests. She glared at Nil and Ruella. If there had to be an elf in the picture, couldn't it at least have been one of the fighting ones? This one looked about as battle-worthy as a boiled noodle. He had reportedly spent a great deal of his immortal life sitting up in his bedroom alone and feeling left out. An knew the type. He probably had a notebook somewhere that was full of terrible poetry. And he was immortal, so it would have to be a lot of terrible poetry. The very thought of it made her shudder.

The girl, of course, was useless. Sometimes Tristan managed to attract the type of female who dressed in black clothes cut for a man and was perfectly deadly with a sword – there being some kind of unwritten law that says a beautiful woman with a sword will be a better fighter than any male opponent she encounters. (Handy, that.)

But… a musician? There was no race of creatures on the planet more useless than musicians. No race in the universe, probably. If you went to some far off planet where everyone dresses in silver vinyl and has more eyes than arms and can think in five dimensions, you would still inevitably find a groups of beings who, just because they happen to be able to pluck out a tune on a kbbghty-hair harp or keep time on their silicon-skin percussion object, felt that it was their natural right to sleep until noon, then sit around smoking or drinking and whining about how they couldn't seem to get enough work, the money was terrible these days, and these conditions were appalling – how did anyone expect them to keep the kbbghty-hairs in tune in this humidity, and can you believe this crowd? People used to have an appreciation for music, but nowadays any talentless schmuck of a kid with the correctly-shaped cranium wearing his silver vinyl in the approved style and swinging his hips was getting work while union members were going poor…


It was time to figure out how bloody things were going to get. An marched up to Tristan's side, matching his long strides by jogging every few steps. "Hey, what exactly are you planning to do when you get to Trox and have a look at the chalice, huh? Just whip out your sword and sort them all out, right?"

"Yes!" Tristan said.

"No!" said An firmly. "Look, this seems a bit more complicated than the messes you usually get into – and that is saying something – so I think you'd just better leave the battle plans up to me, all right?"

"What? No! What are you going to do, yell at them? That's not how it works. It works like this, see: I go in there with my sword and sort everybody out…"

"And then someone else goes in and sorts out the body parts. No thank you."

"Look, I know what you're trying to do."

"Enlighten me."

"You're trying to butt in like you usually do! This is my business. You can tag along, but…"

"Please don't be starting that again," she said with exasperation. "We went through this in Sybes, in Disserdia, in Vianalon..."

"You think you're so important! Well, look, which one of us is the knight, eh? Which one officially belongs to the Order of the Silver Queen? Everybody who belongs to the Order of the Silver Queen, raise his hand! What's this? Why, An! You're not raising your hand! That must mean you're just a twerpy little brat who doesn't know her place, so pipe down, would you? I know what I'm doing," he shouted. "Jeeze. You're so loud," he added.

"Tristan, if the gods above had really meant you to lead anything, they would have endowed you with a functioning brain…"

Hours later, Nil and Ruella walked along beside each other, an appreciable distance behind An and Tristan. They had come to realize that this argument never actually stopped, per se, it merely went on hiatus whenever they were eating or drinking. Ruella was using the best Glare in her book – and no one can glare like an aggravated musician – but it was like knocking on the door during an earthquake. She was beginning to see that anyone who wanted to be involved in a conversation with Tristan and An should be ready to be a spectator.

"Have they always been like this, do you know?" she asked Nil.

"Their long-distance bickering is renowned throughout the land," Nil said.

Ordinarily he would have been having bitter thoughts about mankind upon such reflection, but at the moment it didn't bother him. He was thinking about how, as much as the whole thing still looked doomed to failure and these pathetic humans obviously wouldn't be able to accomplish anything, he was beginning to feel, somewhere in his elfly soul, a twinkle of hope. Although perhaps it was just the after-affects of the herbs Ruella's father had given him as a parting gift.

He felt, somehow, that he was actually looking forward to the journey. Because maybe – just maybe – this was his chance to get things right, his chance to show his father that he was really a dependable son, his chance to finally be able to rub something in his brothers' faces. He was ready for it. He was finally going to take charge of the situation, get the job done, be a man! …Well, not exactly a man, but anyway.

Nil was going to put the elf back in self-esteem.

"You seem very happy about something," Ruella commented.

"Oh, I'm just looking forward to this splendid journey…" he said dreamily.

Ruella balked, but with a quick study of his eyes realization struck. "It's the 'pipeweed,' isn't it?" she said knowingly. "Father's herbs are notorious. He's quite famous for them."

"Um, I guess so…"

They walked in silence for a minute.

Then she asked, quietly, "Hey, he didn't, you know, give you any for the road, did he? Only he's figured out how to lock up his stash back home…"

Their eyes met.

"Not very much," he said.

"Right. Sorry I asked."

"No, I mean, probably only enough for two people. Or so. Strictly for healing purposes, of course. For these terrible hangovers we've got."

"Of course. Right," she said, her eyes not even the least bit bloodshot, and added a very unconvincing, "Ah, my head aches."

Up in front of them, An and Tristan were going full tilt.

"It was my sword, mine!" Tristan bellowed.

"It was made of wood!"

"It was still my sword, and you stole it! You were always weaseling around in my stuff!"

"You stinky, blood-covered stuff always got left on my side of the room when you came home! I had to wade through it just to get to the door! And how many times did Mother tell you to pick it up, huh? I always kept my side of the room neat," An said.

"Oh yes, your dolls were always in perfect order."

"For the last time, they are called 'action figures.'"

"Which you needed because you didn't have any friends."

"I had a slew of friends! Armies of friends! Not that you ever cared. Oh no. Never worry about me. You're supposed to be my big brother! That means you look after me and pick fights with my lovers and everything!"

"You don't have any lovers," Tristan pointed out.

"I do too have lovers!" An raged.

"Right. Name one."

An stopped dead in her tracks and thought hard for a moment. "There was that boy back home, Kestral Mac…"

"Beating up a kid when you were twelve does not make him your lover," Tristan observed.

"Fine," she said, looking so downcast he almost felt bad for her. "Not him, obviously… obviously…But there was…"

"Look," Tristan interrupted. "If it makes you feel any better, if any man ever shows the slightest bit of interest in you, I promise to kill him."

An's face lit up. "Wow, really?"

"Sure. It'll put him out of his misery."

"You mean it? You'd really kill my lovers?"

"I swear I will kill every last lover you've got," Tristan said.

An's face suddenly broke into a grin. "Wow! You know, that's how I always thought things were done when you had an older brother… Hey, remember that time in Bergberengia when you tied that guy up by his ankles and hung him from the tree and took his sword…"

Ruella and Nil stared, baffled, while she rattled on.

"It's kind of like being in the eye of a hurricane. Everything goes strangely quiet, all of a sudden," Nil whispered with hushed solemnity, although possibly it was just the herbs talking.

An trotted back to them a few minutes later. "We've decided to stop for the night," she said.

"But it's not even sunset yet!" Nil noted.

"But there's a village over the next hill, which means there's probably an Inn."

"I thought you typically spent a lot of time camping on these journey things," Ruella said.

"Tristan, camp? Not if there is the chance of beer within a twenty-mile radius."

And now, to Trox.

You may be thinking: big, solid stone walls. Perhaps even ruins. Arches. Temples, palaces and so forth. Spectacular crowds of easily overawed locals, possibly selling apples and shoes and other wares in the designated market area or partaking in some distasteful street theater, etc.

Unfortunately for the standard fantasy narrative, the cultural progress of Trox had never made it that far. There was a fence (mostly there to keep out the foxes) around a cluster of dingy neighborhoods, and finally, right in the middle, a pile of bricks and mortar that might loosely be called a castle, but in a normal scale only by the King of the playground. Across the street from this – and here, the tour guide might just point out, is the only officially paved segment of road in all of Agraphia, note the cobbles of varying sizes – The Street, they named it – was what the citizens lovingly called the Great Big Hall. It was a big, long and boring bit of architecture, but nonetheless it managed to put the castle to shame. When neither side has anything else to rely on, size does matter.

And anyway, the Agraphian King had never actually been held in any great esteem by the Agraphians. When all the arguing was done, they tended to look down on him as a hapless public servant.

But right now in Trox, there were two men who were looking forward to being King.

Things had been quiet in Trox for a while. There was a tacit gentlemanly agreement among the occupying forces – two at the moment – that the fighting was better left for organized events in the fields outside the city. They could pass each other on The Street and nod polite greetings to one another, and no one would think it strange. After all, this being a civil war, they were probably related somehow.

General Mead of the East-southeastern army currently controlled the northern half of the city, which contained the King's castle, in which the chalice sat untouched. It would not belong to General Mead until he had beaten the army of General Shrub, who currently controlled the southern half of the city. Shrub had possession of the Great Big Hall, the largest building in all of Agraphia. Strategically it wasn't really good for much at the moment, but it was not a bad place to keep your stuff.

And General Shrub was sitting in it right now, clasping and unclasping his hands as he sat at his desk on the dais surrounded by advisors.

Some men like to be in total, despotic control, but Shrub liked advisors. And Shrub had very good advisors. General Shrub was a great leader in combat, a real hero to his soldiers; he left the details to his advisors, because, he told himself, he liked to make them feel that they were important.

His advisors felt differently. To give you an idea, at least three of them were lining up to be his Grand Vizier – but this was not their only conflict. Somehow, over the course of the years that Shrub had been General of the Northwestern Army, his advisors had managed to convince him that he was in charge. And now everybody blamed everybody else for putting him where he was.

It wasn't that he was a bad man, exactly. He was even passably intelligent, at least compared to his soldiers. It was just that he had a very, very big hat, and was riding a very, very big horse; he was known to be commanding the largest army in the country, equipped with all the biggest spears and swords and catapults, and he knew it… and beside all that, he looked very, very small.

But he thought big. Too big.

"How soon'll the Poriferal Guard be here?" he asked his top advisor, a skinny old man with an air of butlery about him whose name was Major Grass.

"A few days, a week," Major Grass said. "Depends on the weather, sir."

"They're tiny, now, sir," said one of the other advisors, Major Sheepish. "We could wipe out the Poriferal Guard with a third of our forces. Less than that. They shouldn't be much of a worry."

"Unless the East-southeasterners decide to attack us at the same time," noted another advisor, Major Dam. "Then they'd give us a run for our money."

"Ah, but they'd be fighting the Poriferal Guard as well!" said Major Sheepish, the eternally optimistic.

"Not if the Poriferal Guard and the East-southeasterners form an alliance," Major Grass said.

"Would they do that?" Shrub asked incredulously.

"Sir, we have been immensely successful with intimidation tactics," Grass explained. "The Poriferal Guard believes we're twice as big as we are. They are incredibly skilled warriors, the fiercest in the country, but they will be desperate. I do not put it beyond them to send a treaty proposal of some sort to General Mead. The battle will go well for Mead if he can put forces on either side of our army."

"We'll have to stop all messengers…" Shrub said.

"Impossible, sir," another advisor said. "We can't patrol the entire periphery. We'll be spread too thin, and we don't have the cavalry for it."

"But they cain't attack all at once!" Shrub cried. "That's unsportsmanlike!"

"They are indeed evil," Grass said dourly.

Suddenly the door at the back of the Great Big Hall burst open, and a messenger ran in. "General Shrub, sir! There is an army approaching from the east, sir!"

"What, already? Why are they coming from the east? I thought you all said the Poriferal Guard of the North was in the south…"

"Not the Poriferal Guard, sir. It's the South-southeast, sir. They should be here by tomorrow night."

This started a minor squabble among the men.

"The south-southeast? But I thought they had disbanded!"

"Yes, they split into the South-south-southeast and the East-south-southeast. But then General Snood…"

"No, not Snood, it was Bacons, and he took the East-south-southeast…"

"What did he call them? He changed the name, didn't he?"

"You're thinking of the South-east-southeast. They renamed themselves the Westlakers."

"Ah yes, because they were from the North."

"But then there was a small army that branched off of the East-south-southeast, and they were the East-westers," said Major Dam.

There was a unanimous pause. "The East-westers?" Sheepish asked.

"Yes. They couldn't make up their minds. The varmints."

Shrub looked desperately to Grass while this was going on. "Can't we just make an alliance with the South-southeast?"

"Unlikely, sir. The South-southeasterners do not hold you in much esteem, sir."

This was hardly unexpected. Shrub had been hugely successful in warfare; his army was the biggest for a reason. This made him very popular with his troops. Not so much with other troops, however. Shrub firmly believed that one of the keys to winning a battle was to kill a whole lot of other people by any means necessary.

"Wait," he said, hand on his head. "Let's get this straight. We've got the Poriferal Guard of the North coming up from the south, the South-southeastern army coming in from the east, and the East-southeasterners holding the city to the north of us."

"Yes, sir," Grass said.

"And two or more of them may be forming an alliance."

"Yes, sir."

"Then we should attack Mead now, so we can get him out of the way!"

Grass smiled to himself.

"No, sir," Major Dam said. "Mead will stall, sir. He will wait for the others. He will not take the battlefield before the Poriferal Guard gets here."

"Then… then couldn't we just attack him where he is?" Shrub queried.

There was silence all around.

"Battle within Trox, sir?" Grass said cordially, very glad with the way things were going. He had been hoping for this all along, because secretly, in his calculating and uncivilized heart, he knew it was the only way they could win.

"Well, if they all can be unsportsmanlike, I can," Shrub said, with growing enthusiasm. "I'll show that Mead. I'll put the varmint in his place."

"No one has ever fought that way before," said Major Sheepish.

"Ah," said General Shrub, "That's why it'll work, see?"

Author's Note.

See? I didn't die.

Having a character named An really hurts when you're doing spell check.