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Baron Bayard was wounded and lay at Lord Kirodiel’s feet, but he was not unaware that sweet Victoria stood between him and certain death on the keen edge of Gerash steel. And he thought her to be insanely reckless, for she bore only the broken hilt-shard of the diamond blade known as Dragonthorn, and it would shatter once again should she attempt to block a single blow from the White Beard patriarch’s blade.

But both Victoria and Kirodiel, and everyone else for that matter, were gazing skyward at Joy, who had appeared in the sky above the queen’s barge riding on the shoulders of Demonstroke. Joy had caused the dragon’s deadly mouth to aim directly at Queen Aurra, who was confined to a wooden cage on the ship’s main deck.

Victoria rushed into the sky bearing the remnant of Dragonthorn and set her flight path to lead directly at Joy. For the first time Joy became aware that her niece had come to Barbelo to stop her. B’nei Eloah on B’nei Eloah violence, but that was not unprecedented. As Chayn, after all, Joy’s first death over Luna had come as the result of a Brushfire missile loosed by some other member of the B’nei Elohim. Perhaps it had even been Victoria did the deed.

Joy did not for a moment deceive herself that Yeshua would give her yet a third chance. To protect herself, Joy caused the mouth of the beast to drift away the queen and bear instead on Victoria. A burst of white fire from the belly of the orange sun over Barbelo roared out, and Victoria altered her course directly upward to evade it. Like an arrow that had missed, the flame struck the house of the king of Menkant and set part of it ablaze.

Then Joy caused the dragon to rise into the sky and follow her niece. When his flight path matched that of Victoria’s, he bent his snake-like head and neck under his belly and loosed a continuous blast of fire, and Joy was thrown back against his collarbone as the acceleration mounted like a rocket.

By a supreme effort of will Baron Bayard stood again and drew his blade, but he was an honorable man, and he would not strike at his foe in his distracted fascination at the drama unrolling far above the queen’s barge.

“Killing you wouldn’t be murder,”Bayard said, and Kirodiel turned his gaze from the sky to the baron once more. “It’d be atonement for allowing a monster to exist among us for too long.”

The two men saluted together once again in mock ceremony and the dance began anew. They circled, waiting for an opening.

Bayard lunged forward suddenly in a ferocious attack and forced his opponent to the defensive momentarily. Kirodiel’s counterattack focused the baron’s whole attention on the patriarch’s blade flashing forward in a blur. Forced to give ground, the baron kept speaking to attempt a distraction. “Frankly, I’m quite astonished that you’ve done so well, Gerash so-called Lord. More than once Lady Talishi regaled us with tales of how you held her captive much like you’re holding my mother, because you were afraid of what another woman, a Princess Khondiel, might do.”

Kirodiel rewarded him with a prickly scratch from shoulder to left breast. Bayard risked a glance down at the blood beading up there and in that moment Kirodiel was in the air leaping high and aiming a foot blow at the baron’s head.

Almost instinctively Bayard put both hands together as a single fist and sideswiped the offending boot. Lord Kirodiel sprawled badly and landed on his back. Both men recovered their stance but they had a renewed respect for each other.

Victoria could only fly so high. She wasn’t Hunky, after all, she couldn’t make her own oxygen for her body to use. So she stopped accelerating and topped out about four miles high, bending back toward Menkant in a broad arc. Joy saw this, of course. Demonstroke stopped his burn and brought his head forward to bear on Victoria again. Short bolts of fire raced out like tracers from World War II fighter airplanes.

Victoria dodged randomly as she fell to avoid being struck by the fire. When she had descended far enough to see individual men on the ships commandeered by Kirodiel, she deliberately flew toward them to draw the dragon’s fire, allowing Joy herself to set four of them ablaze. Then she flew through an open hatch on the deck of a fifth vessel which had been a cargo vessel, but now carried only troops.

The hatch clearly wasn’t big enough for Demonstroke. But Victoria wasn’t to escape that easily. Joy commanded the beast to burn his way through and make the hatch bigger. Then Victoria and Joy were briefly together inside the large hold of the ship as screaming men were crushed under the feet of the thrashing dragon.

“This is the part of the movie where you tell me why you did it, Aunt Chayn,” said Victoria, but Joy let Demonstroke open his mouth and answer for her.

Kirodiel and Bayard faced each other anew, focusing on probing each other’s defenses. Gaging the changes, at the same time seeking not to be changed. Bayard, slowed by his wound, fought with calculated risks but never rash ones. Kirodiel was rash, but attacked with supernatural speed. The blades would thrust just here, or there, bait or blow? The combinations were infinite. It became a game of looking for the opponent’s hesitancies through a net of deception and decision.

Bayard tried to ignore the pain of his wound, but the whole point of pain was that you cannot ignore it. Pain is a priority organizer. Yet one thought kept him going. Victoria had become his highest priority. Bayard longed to see how she was doing, but dared not tear his eyes away from the fight for an instant.

When Kirodiel said, “You lousy cunt,” Bayard merely continued the high tension ballet. However, when Kirodiel described the things he would do to Bayard’s mother the queen when he was finished here Bayard did an unexpected thing: He threw his blade away.

Astonished, Kirodiel tracked the errant blade with his eyes as his training required. In that split second Bayard blasted the White Beard lord with a kick squarely and solidly in the face.

Then they were rolling and thrashing on the ground. Faces were punched. Fingernails and teeth went for eyes and other soft spots. Kirodiel pulled the classic move of aggravating Bayard’s wound, which made the baron howl in agony.

Briefly, just briefly, stopping the pain became a higher priority to Bayard than Victoria was. And that made him fly into a rage. He literally saw red, and wasn’t entirely clear exactly what happened next. He found himself kicking Kirodiel’s head again and again until Kirodiel’s son Hovan and chief lieutenant Zadkiel crossed the deck to restrain him. Zadkiel said, “Baron, stand down. You got him.”

Young Hovan, leaning over his father, confirmed he was dead. Yet there was no anger. It had been an honorable death match, and the Baron had prevailed. But Hovan was fully confident the expedition would yet attain victory. The dragon Demonstroke remained the most powerful weapon of House Gerash.

The dragon set half of the ship’s hold ablaze, condemning a hundred soldiers of House Gerash to burn alive, yet Victoria escaped by rising through a second open hatch. Joy commanded the dragon to exit the ship through the same hole he had made. Yet Demonstroke was less agile than Victoria, and even as the dragon’s neck and Joy cleared the burning hulk, Victoria seated herself neatly behind her aunt, with the point of Dragonthorn resting on Joy’s back next to a kidney.

“If you choose to commit suicide, dear aunt Chayn, you are just seconds away from True Death. Or you can decide to live, and we can talk about what your deal is. So what will it be? I recommend you live, because if you die it’s really going to smart.”

For an answer, Joy tried to slam her right elbow back into Victoria’s face.

“Then I guess my daughter was right,” Victoria said, “and you really are Jill.” So with a shrug she pressed the jagged tip of Dragonthorn smoothly into Joy’s back and deep into that kidney.

Disabling pain. Joy’s scream of agony was inhuman. The only mercy she would receive would be her instantaneous death after she fell five hundred feet to thud like a sack of wet garbage on a cobblestone city street.

And Demonstroke, free at last of Joy’s overweening control of his movements, didn’t much like having Victoria crawl up his neck to get within striking distance of his head. He thrashed as violently as he could to shake her off, but she held on for dear life. Dragon fire couldn’t help him, he couldn’t very well aim his mouth at his own head. And his arms were too short to swat her off.

When Victoria had shimmied high enough to reach, she buried the fragment of the diamond blade in the dragon’s brain.

Demonstroke fell to the surface then, and if his brain had been working any better he would have thought to give Victoria a parting spray of fire on his way down, out of spite. Because that was the sort of dragon he was.

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