To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die—to sleep,
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to: ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep.
To sleep, perchance to dream—ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of dispriz’d love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would these fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment,
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

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Axtyn II, often called “The Last Great King of Pexate,” an appellation which has stuck despite Thurlford III’s many accomplishments, had a total of nine children–a fact he was very proud of, as it put him in the same league as his ancestor Eyon I.

Of the nine, three died young, leaving three sons and three daughters. Thurlford II, the youngest son of Axtyn’s second wife, became king on his father’s death at the age of three. His two elder brothers both died of misfortune, one of plague and another on campaign in the deserts of Naix. This left Axtyn’s daughters, the Three Sisters, all of whom married powerfully and well and became known for their adroit manipulations. Axtyn’s middle and favorite daughter married Uxbridge VI of Brae, the most powerful baron in the House of Owls, and her only son–also named Uxbridge–became baron in time as well.

Lord Uxbridge was known as a handsome, genial man who made personal friends easily and was most in his element when he was speaking to someone one-on-one. He was also brave and honorable to a fault, never failing to accompany his troops into battle and rarely, if ever, breaking his word once given. When Axtyn’s line failed, Uxbridge became a key aide to the new king, Axtyn’s younger brother Thurlford III, and Thurlford relied heavily on Uxbridge to keep the increasingly rowdy House of Owls in line.

However, it did not take a sage to see that Uxbridge’s eyes were on the throne. Thurlford was childless and increasingly distracted from the business of ruling by his need for a direct heir, and Uxbridge was already shaking hands with barons on the king’s behalf. Despite the fact that, historically, the kingship was not inheritable through the female line, Uxbridge nevertheless was in a position to advance his claim strongly. By the time his game of chess was complete, Uxbridge had married his only sibling to King Thurlford, had the support of a majority of the Owls, and had already guaranteed himself the position of regent for his nephew Eyon.

The Layyian Plague turned out to be the catalyst for Lord Uxbridge VII to become King Uxbridge I. Both the king and his wife succumbed–or, at least, that was the official story–and after a regency of only nine days, so too did young Eyon–again, according to the official story. Rumors that Eyon had survived and that Thurlford had been murdered persisted, but the House of Owls unanimously backed Uxbridge for the throne.

And, true to his word, he honored the promises that he had made: more autonomy for the barons, less royal interference in the day-to-day running of the country, and so on. To do otherwise would have cost him his support, but the following decade–Uxbridge’s Anarchy–would show that he had sacrificed perhaps too much in his pursuit of the throne.

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Thurlford III, King of Pexate, became king after his nephew Thurlford II died young. As regent for the boy, he was well-positioned to take the throne, but Thurlford was also the last male-line descendant of Axtyn II. A tough, practical statesman and general, Thurlford was a capable ruler but his reign wound up becoming consumed by the question of succession.

Thurlford’s first wife, Mirh of Layyia, was the daughter of King Fraen IV and many hoped that their union would hep bring-about the long hoped-for union between the “warring brothers” of Pexate and Layyia. Mirh’s early death in childbirth dashed those hopes, and her child was sickly as well. He would have been Thurlford IV, had he lived, but the child suffered from hydrocephalus and died at the age of eight, though his surviving letters show that he was an intelligent lad and full of promise.

Lady Lyx was married to Thurlford when he became king, and was therefore Queen of Layyia. They had met on the occasion of one of Thurlford’s campaigns against the orcs in the deserts of Naix, and she was a member of the disinherited by still powerful House Diuaj. However, their union was a childless one, and rumors soon began to spread that her mother had actually been an elf, leaving Queen Lyx herself as a mule and infertile. Scholars remain divided about this, but there is no denying that she failed to produce an heir or even to become pregnant.

Thurlford appealed to the Sepulcher, asking that the marriage be dissolved, but the canon law of the time required both parties to agree to a divorce, and Lady Lyx refused to grant one. Thurlford resolved to sire an heir regardless, and began courting a variety of ladies both in Pexate’s capital of Simnel and in the baronies as well–it is said that the Annex at Castle Aiov was built to be his love-nest with the baron’s daughter.

However, the barons’ power had been growing, and they saw the opportunity to flex their muscles. The House of Owls resoundingly rejected King Thurlford’s petition to have an heir of illegitimate birth succeed him, and the House of Sparrows agreed. The sudden death of Queen Lyx broke the logjam, though the barons’ whispers that she had been poisoned by her husband gained wide currency.

Seeking to shore up his support, Thurlford’s third wife was Lady Zann of Brae. She was not a well-known beauty like Lyx, nor was she an adroit politician like Mirh, but she was the sister of Baron Uxbridge VII of Brae, a cousin of the king and one of the most powerful members of the House of Owls. Uxbridge had long been Thurlford’s “fixer,” dealing with problems arising around Pexate with his brand of personal diplomacy–he was renowned for his warm, friendly manner, personal honor, and fine speaking voice. Queen Zann therefore came with a powerful ally attached.

It seemed that Thurlford finally had what he wanted; Zann was pregnant within a year and the king’s first legitimate offspring, Prince Eyon, was born soon after. But within a year, both Zann and Thurlford would be dead, and Pexate would be spiraling into chaos.

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“What is this?” said Marcos, looking at the form. He was still sitting behind that giant and likely bulletproof desk, without a clear shot from the silenced PB pistol in my briefcase. The wire around its trigger was already starting to cut into my skin in the lush Veracruz heat.

“International Solutions, LLG?” Marcos continued. “No, no, this invoice is no good. It has to be countersigned.” He slapped the paper down on the desk. “Do you take me for a fool? I want to see the Interior Minister’s signature on this before I pay a cent.”

“My apologies,” I said as evenly and coolly as I could manage. “With your leave, I will take the document back and return it with the proper signature.”

“Don’t apologize,” Marcos said. “Just get it done. And send someone else next time, or we might just decide to make you pay for wasting our time.”

I started circling the desk, but before I had made it more than a handful of steps, Marcos lunged forward and drove a dagger into the wood–and judging by the many similar holes, not for the first time.

“Stay back,” he said. “I don’t like strangers getting too close.”

“Of course.” I gestured at the paper. “Then, would you mind…?”

With a grunt, Marcos lifted himself partly out of his seat and reached across the desk to scooch it my way. For a moment, and only a moment, he was unprotected by the desk.

It was now or never.

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A cat’s eye is my eye now
Over indoor sights it will play
Confined we both softly prowl
Too risky to let us away

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Let us sing now of adventurers
Forthright and bold in verse
As a second great journey they start!

We head now to the dwarven king’s halls
Mines deep and spoils rich in those walls
As our heroes with empty purses enter!

Gem and coin they did need
Afore the planting of seed
But the mines they were full up with monsters!

O’er a lake they would slosh
To reach mountains of dosh
But a cthulhu lurked deep down within it!

Our heroes soon realized
As they fought for their lives
That the monsters were eating the treasure!

The longer they did wait
And their fury abate
The less spoils there were for the banker!

To make bad matters worse
The dwarf mines were cursed
With severe tectonic instability!

As the monsters did feast
Leaving heroes with least
The dwarf-cave did threaten a cave-in!

As all hope was lost
And regardless of cost
The heroes’ mage stepped forward with grim purpose!

He gave up his life
In an orgy of strife
That his friends could escape from the maelstrom!

As they fled the great blast
They seized jewels at the last
And erupted from the mines with a pittance!

Their good friend had now gone
With brain over brawn
And left them just enough richer!

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I didn’t know my way around my parents’ new house, since the old one had burned down. It was on the same plot of land, and the same treasures from travels all over the world filled it, but they’d bought a house elsewhere and had it moved onto the plot. I never would stop seeing it as a labyrinth, having trouble even finding the stairs up or down.

They sent me to the corner store to get some groceries, just like they had in decades gone past. The old IGA was open again, downtown on the corner, as if it had never left, as if all its broken tile floors and worn-out conveyer belts had just been sitting in storage for twenty years.

On my way back–at a run, because time and daylight are short–I see my aunt and uncle coming into town, my father’s big sister and part of her brood. They shout to me, sing a little “Happy Birthday” out the window. It’s embarrassing, but I know their heart is in the right place. They are driving one of the cars of their generation, outdated and gigantic, a glacier with oval side windows and faux vinyl, but it’s a good fit.

When I reach home, I have visitors. Old friends, or were they rivals? We’d gone to school together and gone our separate ways. But they’d never been far from my mind, and I was flattered to see that the same was true. The old swingset was back in my parents’ backyard, or perhaps a new one of the same design, and we sat in the three seats idly talking of days gone by. Some old secrets were shared, and we each asked after people we’d lost track of. I had to tell one of them how truly little I cared for his opinion, and the other seemed to cut me to the quick with her questions, innocent as they seemed.

I am older, yes. I am older. But that does not mean all is lost.

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