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Interlude Thirtyfour point Four, In the Kingdom

Sting appeared, literally, in front of one of the Beggar Kingdom's knights, deep in Castle Immergrun. After recovering from his surprise, the man admitted that yes, the Beggar King was there. He went in to check and a moment later, he opened the door to let Sting enter Max'es study, the place everyone else called the Throne Room.

The room was dimly lit by a series of electronic Christmas candles scavenged long ago. There were other lamps around, but not lit. Hung along the walls were various tapestries with symbology obviously of the streets of P.A. The names beneath the heraldry were things like Tufnel, Portrat, Rampart, and several with shelter names. Hanging from a plaque on the far wall was a sword. A real, sharp, steel broadsword.

Although it was called a Throne Room, there was no raised dais or Throne, per say. Instead, there was a huge, oaken desk. While the obvious grain spoke of the wood's salvage origin, the craftsmanship could not be denied. A true master cabinetmaker had put his tools to the wood. Behind the desk was a high-backed, leather office chair which had no doubt been the seat of a Dot Com CEO before the economic downturn a few years ago. A stand held the dagger that had come back to P.A. from medieval England. Laying across the desk was a vicious looking spear which might have actually seen some use once.

A desk lamb burned brightly, casting in shadow the man seated in the chair. His hair was longer and of a lighter color than Sting remembered, as was his beard. He had taken to braiding strands in the front as well as his mustache. He was also not dressed in his trademark leather coat and motley clothing. Instead, he wore a simple shirt, hand sewn with wide trim around the neck and arms. He hardly looked up from the papers as Sting's eyes adjusted to the light.

"Oh. Hullo, Sting. How have you been?" he asked as if they last met for coffee two days ago.

"Well, we're just getting over four evil magicians trying to take over the world." Sting began. "It tore up the Dome pretty well, so rebuildings taking awhile. Things with Marie are going swimmingly well, Wanderer left the team to return to the stars, and we had a new member come on who disappeared during the fight with the magicians and we're still looking for her. Oh, and we're still trying to track you because as far as the rest of the team knows, you're missing at best and dead at the worst."

Sting pulled his mask down and approached the desk. "I'm not sure what was going through your head when you came back, and I'm not one to judge. If you didn't want the Protectors to come calling, I can understand that. However, I thought we were friends. Why wouldn't you at least tell me you were back?"

Sting took a step back. "I'm sorry for being so forceful, but I'm trying to still grasp the fact that you're not only alive, but back here."

Max looked up from his papers. In this light, he looked fifty or more years old. He tilted his head to the side. From the look in his eye, Sting could tell Max was honestly surprised. "Hmm... it never occurred to me that you might assume I had died. Port Alexander is still here, so I must be alive. My fault, really. As all my subjects know that, I forget you Daysiders don't. Seat?"

He motioned to a chair that had not been there a moment ago. Sting caught sight briefly of a servant scurrying out of the room.

"Magicians? Would explain the dome I couldn't get through when I got back. Might also explain some of the things we had to clean out of the back tunnels of Castle Immergrun, too. Well, good on you for taking care of them." Max put aside his paperwork and poured two glasses of port from the glass decanter on the desk. "My Barons and Marquises did an excellent job of maintaining the kingdom while I was gone, but none of them were willing to tackle the paperwork. Shame that. Anyway... dead, huh? Why would you think I was dead?"

"There was no trace of you on the Queen's ship. We had no idea where you were. You never, to my knowledge, tried to contact us. We weren't sure you were dead, but it was a distinct possibility." Sting said. He stroked his goatee as he thought. "Where *have* you been, Max? I have to say the new look is quite striking."

"Queen's ship? Which Queen? Was it matters of state that took me there? I'm sorry if I seem to prattle. I'd like to understand why I might not have contacted you, but I'm unsure of the incident you are speaking of. As for where I've been... troll slaying." Max glanced at the spear. "What happened with these magicians? Was it the Company again?"

This was getting weirder by the minute, Sting thought, but he wanted to get to the bottom of things. "Yes, they had gained artifacts of great power that made them more than a match for us, but we were given artifacts by the denizens of the dimension where Dradoom came from and defeated them. The magicians are Dradoom's home dimension. I'm sorry, did you say troll-slaying?"

Max waved the inquiry off as if that sort of thing happened all the time.

"So you have no memory of our time fighting Baba Yaga in the ocean? The last we saw you, the Eaglejet had been badly damaged and you took off in your ghost form. You had left your Protectors communicator on the ships, that was the last vestige of you." He handed Max the communicator.

"Who? No, I can't say I remember this person. If I left the jet, I must have done so to try and help somehow. But, no. I don't remember. Are you sure it was me? I'm not one to fly a lot."

Max took the shattered communicator and gave it a look. "It's broken."

"Oh, right." Sting said. "And you do fly, when you render yourself immaterial."

"I meant as with mechanical assistance," Max said. "Never flown on a jet before. Except this time you are telling me about. Did I seem to have a good time? I've always wondered about whether people actually enjoy flight."

"Well, at the time, we were in a terrible sea storm fighting for our lives, so I don't think so." Sting said.

Sting paused for a moment. "Can you tell me in more detail about what you've been doing for the past month plus before retuning from...where you returned Port Alexander? You have been gone for over a month, and we have been worried about you."

"I told you, as long as Port Alexander is standing, I'm alright," Max said. "No need to worry about me."

Sting looked downcast, as he was certain there was more to it, but Max seemed in no mood to talk about it. He was very concerned but refused to force himself. "Very well, then, I'll let everyone know that you're OK. Are you off duty or can we still contact you if needed?" He pulled out his standalone Protectors communicator to give to Max. "You can use this until you get to the base to get a new one, I usually get feeds through my wrist communicator."

"I can help where I'm needed," Max said as he took the new communicator. "It's not broken."

Max stood, taking up his leather coat from the arm of his chair. He stepped from behind the desk, turned and held out his hand. The spear leapt into his grasp. With his left hand, he motioned for Sting to head toward the door. The two left the office/throne room. Where Max walked, men and women parted and bowed. He returned their reverences with smiles, nods, and the occasional touched hand. He used the spear like a walking stick and no one seemed to mind their liege walking openly with such a deadly weapon.

"Things were a little rough around the edges when I returned. There is a certain amount of mutual belief that goes into maintaining the Beggar Nation. Upon my return, I found myself regretting a recent decision to send several of my Marquises to answer a call for aid from the Duke of Falcon's Bluff. Their strong hands would have been nice to have around while I was gone. Thank Danu for Tatterknight."

Max paused at a food vendor in the Marketplace. He paid for two apples and offered one to Sting. They were mealy and over-ripe. Max ate his with gusto, as if it were the best apple ever grown, rivulets of apple juice running through his beard. "My return was timely, though. I still have much to do in some of the outer baronies. Recent street level operations from the Russian families have caused troubles for those areas. I'm just thankful someone finally got Jackal off the streets. Anyway, back to belief. It is easy to look at the Dayside and assume they have it so much better and to despair. After all, when was the last time you missed a meal because the rat-catchers and scavengers came up short?

"I have come to understand my place here as 'Symbol' now. My own life is inconsequential. I must be the strong leader these people need. This has led me recently to make a few... sacrifices. I do not wish to discuss that and must apologies as your questions earlier involved these things. Also, there is a part of my recent life that I do not remember but as flashes in nightmare. I have decided not to worry it and instead focus on bringing the Beggar Nation what it needs.

"This is all a very longwinded way around an epiphany I had on the fishing boat from Newfoundland. I suspect I always had the abilities I've demonstrated in the last year. The accident in the flying saucer was only a wake-up call. But can't you feel it in the air? There is a magic here that I cannot explain. My life follows a strange path where everything, every step, every chance meeting, every minor action, matters. And it all feeds back here. I should find that Mystic fellow and discuss this with him one day."

Max stopped at the sewer grate that lead from his realm to the surface world. "You asked me once to remember you if I needed help dealing with the business of my realm. That is a generous offer, Sting. And in the small things you have done Dayside, it has helped. But my epiphany also bears a warning that I forward to you. Once you become a symbol, your life is no longer yours but Dame Fortune's. There is nothing that stops me from helping the Protectors as those missions help the Beggar Nation as well. But each time you help here, you are drawn one step closer to *being here*. Once you are *here*, you can never escape."

There was a hidden catch that allowed the sewer grate to open easily. Max smiled at Sting. "There was business you came here on, not expecting me? What brought you Down Below today?"

"You did." Sting said. "As I said, I had heard you returned, and I wanted to see my friend, whom I've missed."

"Oh," Max said, speechless for the first time Sting could ever remember.

Sting started to climb up the ladder, then stopped, and turned to Max. "I remember telling you once before that for most of my non-adult life poverty was what I knew. I got lucky; football has taken care of me for a long long time. I also know that 99% of your people may never know that.

"My daddy always told me that often it's not our fault that we have no money, but it is our fault if we're broke. What he meant was that it's not what we have, but who we are and how we conduct ourselves, that defines us. I can't imagine the weight of your crown. But I do know that too often society wants to forget about you and yours. Your presence with the Protectors,even part-time, won't allow them to forget. Regardless, should the Kingdom everrequire me, I'm there. Don't let me not be there, Max."

Last Updated 9 February 2004