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A small, explosive woman with flouncing hair the sparkling orange-gold color of autumn leaves is extended across the table, low, on one knee. There is a quick bright laugh on her lips. She is contained in a smart aqua minidress with a stylish asymmetrical closure; one white arm is stretched free, dangling a piece of mistletoe over the heads of a seated couple. The man, a stocky and attractive fellow with loose russet curls and a beard, looks bemused, most of his attention obviously on the woman at his side. His arm is draped loosely around her, the sleeve of his open-chested black shirt blousing back from powerful biceps. The woman is more concerned by the mistletoe; she has half-twisted her body and has her hand raised plaintively, her soft face twisted somewhere between consternation and delight. She is a slender, willowy woman in simple peasant dress, with wispy blond hair and an ornate Celtic torc at her throat, and her thin fingers and tensed shoulder seem to beg the plant desperately. By the fire, a fair-skinned man with shaggy black hair and beautiful cheekbones is squatting easily, smiling on them, his lips slightly parted as if to speak; he is holding an iron poker in his right hand like a musical instrument, and his face is incandescent. He is wearing black stone goggles that pulse with a soft red light. Behind him the fire leaps. A wiry elven man with a tousled flop of brown hair is sprawled against the wall beside him and a few feet off, the fire to his left side and a hex-scored canvas map spread out to his right. He is stuffing a marshmallow in his thin mouth and arranging lead figurines on the map, surveying both scenes coolly and without pretense. On the other side of the room, alone, a pale hard woman in a leather vest and loose khaki pants is sharpening a claymore. She is not wearing anything under her vest; there is a stylized gold raven dangling from a chain at her throat, and her red-brown hair is cropped very short and butch. Her eyes are on the sword, which she looks capable of using, and she does not seem to be acknowledging anyone in the room. Above her head there is some crepe paper hanging, and a printed sign that reads "Happy Solstice!"
Shannon inspected herself critically in the mirror. "Would you sacrifice me, Dee?"
"You're not a virgin," Deirdre pointed out.
Shannon made a farting noise out of the corner of her mouth. "You an' your details. For one of the other festivals, then. For winter solstice."
"You could probably talk me into letting you go," she said, complacently.
"But you could do it."
"What about Rowan?"
"Shannon, I'd be a pretty rotten person to go doing things to other people's loved ones I wouldn't do to my own."
She shrugged and tightened her ties. "You'd be a pretty normal one. We're none of us without our priorities."
"It's not that kind of a thing." She fiddled absently with her hair. "It's like--well it's like an orgasm." Shannon raised both her eyebrows. "Only--" She moved her hand. "Cleaner. It's a religious experience, Shannon, there's something there that wasn't there before. The person becomes a part of the ceremony. I become part of the ceremony. We're something more together. It's not like I'm killing them. It's like they transcend life."
Shannon paused a moment. "You're a sick puppy, Deirdre."
"I'm *serious*," she protested.
"That's why I said it." She snapped her necklace around her throat. "It's not a *bad* thing. Just sick. You--could really do that?" Deirdre shrugged. "Could I do that?"
"I bet you could. It's an expression of love, Shannon."
Shannon shook her head. "If you say so. I'm sure I could if I needed to. We're all willin' to make sacrifices in the end, but it's usually for somethin' more than the love of it."
"That's what the holiday's about," she said. "You'll see."
"I've seen it before, Dee."
"You've never seen me do it."
"An' I can't wait." She kissed her friend lightly on the cheek.
OUR TIME IN EDEN
The Brytannwch Days
Shannon watched him go with her characteristic appraising eyebrow raised. "Nice ass," she commented to nobody in particular. "Too bad he has a stick up it."
Deirdre couldn't hold it in any longer; she collapsed against the chair in hysterics. "Shannon... they're going to hear you..."
"I'm an expert on who can hear what, Dee, and you're overestimatin' us." She looked nonchalantly out the window. "So... you doin' 'em both?"
Deirdre colored abruptly. "Stop your gob," she said, a little subdued, and began gathering up her things.
"Just tryin' to place the tensions." Shannon watched the druid carefully. "We're dear friends, though, Dee, are we not?"
"Sure as green."
"Make you a deal of it then, I'll hands off your Rowan if you'll set me up with the other."
She laughed. "You sound like you think you could get him from me."
"That's not a challenge, is it?"
"No, and it had better not be a threat."
"Are we on or what?"
"So what's he like in bed, Dee?"
Deirdre had gotten over being shocked by Shannon years ago; her sass and brutality were the very things Deirdre loved so in her, but she had never learned how not to color. "Shannon, please," she said softly. "I don't know."
"You don't?... I thought you used to date."
"Sort of. We--it didn't work out."
"Mallaithe, Dee, how can you know if it worked out if you didna even try makin' love?"
"He's not one of those men with moral compunctions, is he?"
"Yes," Deirdre snapped. She fingered her wispy hair for a moment, then amended "He isn't a prude, but he takes things seriously."
"An' the two of *you* didna get along?"
Dee had to grin. "We get along very well," she said. "We just came to the, the mutual conclusion that we weren't right for each other in the long run. We're better as friends."
"I canna believe you didna give a man like that a shot while you had the chance." She chewed her tongue. "He's not gay, is he?"
"*No*, he's not gay."
"Is he a virgin?"
"Ken anyone he *has* slept with?"
"What is this, Shannon, you won't go talk to a man unless you've had him recommended to you as a good lay?"
She laughed, obviously delighted. "I'm just lookin' for pointers, Dee. It would be nice to have some idea what he likes." She twirled a piece of hair thoughtfully. "Wouldn' hurt to know his shortcomings, either, makes it easier to compensate, keeps your expectations normal..."
"Shannon, for gods' sake." She got up almost with violence and turned her back.
"Touchy girl." Shannon clucked her tongue. "You *are* sleepin' with Rowan, right?"
Deirdre opened the window. "He's a gentle man," she said, "and he truly believes in things, Shannon. You had better be nice to him."
"*Dee*." She sounded really hurt, and Deirdre turned around. "Just 'cause I'm not cagey about sex does not mean I dinna believe in love."
Deirdre lowered her eyes. "I'm sorry," she said at length.
"Well, the story is it's in a completely formative stage. Lot of rhetoric, no muscle. MacLir talkin' a lot." She shrugged. "Take 'em two years to get mobilized. You could go in an' crush it now but I wouldna advise it."
"It's a good way to turn the populace out with pitchforks," Duncan agreed. "You really don't think they're a threat."
"Not now," she said. "They're idealists and fools and their intelligence sucks. I probably ought to stay with 'em, monitor 'em. Eventually they're goin' to try for it and it's good to have a finger in. But until they start destroyin' things or callin' on foreign aid you're losin' more to kill 'em all and piss the people off. My advice is wait for a good excuse."
"Are you sure they trust you?"
"Some of them do. Let me call the shots and I'll be okay. My best girlfriend from school is involved, she trusts me implicitly."
Duncan leaned forward. "Is that going to compromise you?"
"I don't want you to kill her." She chewed her hair thoughtfully. "I dinna think a little favoritism is too much to ask for all the work I'm doin'. But you can't kill her anyway, Dunc, she's a Druid."
He started visibly. "*What*?"
"Her name's Deirdre Ryan. She's a sympathizer but she canna do anythin' direct for the same reason you canna kill her. Don't look so stressed, the Druids are not in on this." She paused. "I can do it, Duncan. Just don't go underminin' me. I'm the best you've got and you dinna want to lose me to a two-bit revolt attempt."
He nodded tiredly. "You're right, as usual. We don't have the resources to waste crushing a rebellion. It's best for you to keep an eye on it and feed us the weak spots. Then we can take care of it efficiently and legally."
"That's my middle name, Dunc." She grinned and leaned back in the chair. "They know I'm with the government, but they think I'm a double agent. So if you screw up I ought to be able to talk my way out of it. But don't screw up, okay?"
"You're sure they don't suspect you?"
"Couple of 'em do, but I know how to be discreet." She shrugged. "I'll save a butt or two. Deirdre trusts me, and I'm workin' on seducin' MacLir."
"Don't get too carried away."
"I'm a professional, Dunc."
"I'll contact you now and again. Whenever anythin' important happens. I can meet you here. They've got nobody in the castle proper, so there's no way they'll overhear me here."
"You like these dangerous gigs, don't you?"
She blew him a kiss.
"I don't think you have anything to detain me for," he said softly.
"We know about you, changeling," snarled the larger of the two men, and gripped him by the forearm. "You're coming with us."
"Do you think you could have sent more than two men after me?" The small wiry man had levered the trooper into the doorframe before he was done with the sentence, put a dagger into his eye with his left hand, and backed off half- way across his living room, freeing his black bow. The other cop went for his crossbow, and Dancer, pulling the bow with a tremendous taut power, released a shot into his throat and knocked him backward into the street. "If all your generals make assumptions like that," he told the bodies drily, "this is going to be an easy war." He took a backpack from the closet, opened the desk, and started transferring maps and papers.
Alain came in limping, his mouth drawn with pain; his right boot was stuffed bulkily, and seeped through in places with blood. Deirdre leapt up and bolted the door behind him, swearing in soft frightened Gaelic. "It's all right," he said tightly. "No one's following me."
She was at his side by then, her shoulder under his armpit and her arms locked around his chest. Shannon was pretty sure he wasn't wearing a shirt under his greatcoat. He let the druid support him to a chair. "The wardogs?" she asked numbly, slipping down his leg.
"I just stepped in a bear trap. I swear we're in no danger."
"You should've been lookin' where you were goin'," Shannon said, almost under her breath but not quite. Deirdre whirled on her with something akin to betrayal, more hurt than angry; "Shut *up*," she half-reproached, half-pleaded. Alain stretched his body out along the chair, knotting his fingers in his hair. "She's right," he said. "It was a stupid thing. Took me five minutes to open that damn thing. We all need to be more careful."
"I *am* careful," Shannon shot back, watching him closely. He made an exhausted grin; Deirdre, clearly less entertained, began slicing off his boot.
Shannon's eyes were huge, her heart going like a hammer. Alain's body nearly filled the space, red and black in its own light, his powerful shoulder and forearm streaked with blood. Behind him was nothing but rubble. "Are you all right," he said hoarsely, the spiralling intensity of it unexpected, and his grip was tight on her arms, he was fierce and splendid and his hands tightened on her. Her eyes shook in their sockets and she made a little crying "Alain."
He released her immediately and sat partway up, above her. "I'm sorry," he said, a little muted, "I was just--concerned, I swear I didn't--"
She pulled herself bodily up to him by the collar of his shirt, trembling. "Shut up and take me," she said through her teeth, and ripped the rest of his shirt front open with a single wrenching tear.
Shannon poured bubble bath into the tub, humming. "Don't use it all," said Deirdre.
"Mmm-hmm." She took off her robe and slipped in, exhaling as the water swallowed her. "I'm in love, Dee."
"Is that so."
"I thought I was the dry, witty one. Pass me a washcloth."
She did. "As I recall you thought you were in love with Liam Donnealy."
"That was in high school, Dee." She began scrubbing vigorously at her smudged face. "We all get a few dry runs. What about Mickey Burns?"
"I never really liked him. I just said I did so you'd stop teasing me."
"Is that *so*." She clucked her tongue wickedly.
"You're in fine spirits for somebody a cave fell on."
"I told you. I'm in love." She nestled into the lather and sudsed at her hair, humming off and on. Deirdre shook her head and continued sewing. "Dee?" said Shannon, at length. "Would you not say he's a person who takes things pretty seriously, Alain? If he made love to me chances are he meant it?"
"Chances are," said Deirdre, forcing back a smile.
"It felt like he meant it." She turned the bubbles absently. "He held me like one of his dreams. He's a terribly sincere man, very powerfully real. I think I want to have his children."
"I'm glad he passed your test."
Shannon schlepped soapy water at her. Deirdre let herself giggle. "Arrah, laugh all you like," growled Shannon, obviously more amused than irritated. "Sex is a lot more than just a body thing, an' if you dinna ken that by now I'm right sorry for you." She went back to her hair, thoughtfully. "I mean it wasna the most incredible sex I've ever had. He just glows with meaning."
"Spare me the gory details, will you, Shannon?"
"Have I given you so much as one?" she said, nettled. "I've been speakin' in metaphor all night, that I have. If you want to be shocked believe me I can do it."
He was leaning back in the desk chair, relaxed, and did not seem even vaguely ill at ease when she entered. Men were usually extremely uncomfortable with you whether they wanted the relationship or not; he was a hard one to place, Alain, and Shannon wasn't pretending it wasn't one of the things that intrigued her most. "Hello, Shannon," he said.
"Mornin', MacLir." She dragged a chair over and straddled it, beside him. "You're mighty casual."
He smiled a little, Shannon would have said shyly but there wasn't any fear in it. Just some wonder. It was an undemanding smile, incredibly beautiful. That was when Shannon finished making up her mind. "I don't like to force things," said Alain, quietly.
"Is that why you're bringin' on the rebellion, then." She reached across and touched his hair, almost tenderly. It was a beautiful crisp day, the smell of green things was lifting through the windows. "So was it just a fuck or do I get a commitment?"
His face split in a grin and he half-hid it behind a big hand. "You have the damndest way with words," he said.
"I'm not a patient woman." She twirled a piece of his hair, smiling on him. "I'm not a sentimental one either, but I've been drawn to you since I met you and I'm not sure but I don't love you, Alain MacLir. It would be nice to know where I stand."
He held out his hand. "About two feet too far away."
"Why do you hate me, Rowan?" she said. There was nothing plaintive or bitter in her voice, just interest, as though the curiosity had finally overcome her. "Are you jealous of my relationship with Dee, or am I just too much of a woman for you?"
"I don't hate you," he said. Then, after a pause, "I don't know where your loyalties are."
"Oh." She clicked her tongue and sat back sideways on the armchair. "It's a business thing."
"You say you're with us, you say you have nothing but contempt for Evered and the castle. That they think you're working for them but you'll throw them all over when we're ready. That you know their weak spots. That they think you care about them but you don't. Is that what you tell them about us?"
"Of course," said Shannon.
"Is this the conversation you would be having with them, if they asked you the same thing?"
"Of course," said Shannon. "Absolute sincerity is the only way in this field, Rowan. If I'm lame enough for you to tell the difference they can."
"And vice versa."
"Yes, of course."
"So how do I know it's us you're telling the truth to?"
"You don't." She shrugged. "It's the art of the game, Rowan. If you could ever know for certain I'd be useless. Have faith."
"We have Alain to have faith."
"You have Dancer to play fruitless mind games with me. If I wanted to destroy you all I'd've done it by now, believe me."
"And what would you tell them if they heard you saying that?"
"That I'm a professional and I need to convince you I'm on your side. That they know and I know you need to handle politics more delicately than that."
"Is that true?"
"I could do it anyway. Rowan, I can go on like this all night, but I'm tyin' your poor brain up in knots, I am. I'm the master at this. You're just going to have to trust that."
"But you'd say it whether it was true or not."
"If I were an amateur, darlin', it wouldna occur to me to say."
"I just don't know if I can believe you've ever been sincere about anything, Shannon."
She was quiet what seemed like a long time. "Well, you dinna have to," she said finally. "It's not any of your fuckin' business." She got up and left.
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