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Shannon approached them smartly, her composure recovered enough to smile firmly. "You must be Khyrisse." She eyed her skeptically. "No accountin' for tastes."
"I was a lot prettier before this curse," she said, stung.
"I'm sure. I have a letter for you." She produced a folded vellum with a royal seal. "If you're interested, your marriage has been legally annulled. Just in case you're ever in a position to care."
"I have nothing to say to Eric."
"No, but he has somethin' to say to you."
"You might want to read the letter before you decide that." She tossed her head. "Can you not even think *one* move ahead? It's amazin' the things people settle for when they're young."
"I was just going to mention that to you," said Rowan, loudly, to Alain.
Shannon licked her lips. "I have a message for the Queen of Brytannwch," she said formally, presenting him with a second letter. The Celtic king ripped it in half and dropped it on the floor. "She is not interested."
Shannon picked up the two pieces and held them out to him again, making eye contact. "Then let her decide that," she said, meaningfully.
"She has already decided." He turned from her. "We will speak more later," he said to Alain, gripping him by the shoulder, and walked out of the hall, his cloak whipping. "Shit," framed Shannon's lips, but she didn't say it. "My *father*?" said Khyrisse, and looked up from the letter, shaking. "What question? He wants me to say yes to what question?"
"When someone asks you, you'll figure it out. Don't give the wrong answer." She turned on her heel. "Wait," said Khyrisse. Max held her shoulders. "What is it?" he asked.
"Wait, don't go. What do you know that I don't?"
Shannon stopped but did not turn around. "Oh, lassie," she said, "you shouldna be leavin' yourself open to shots like that." She walked out.
"Ho, Janther," said Finn. "It's been a long time. I haven't seen you since that trouble with Gnartriech. I trust things are well?"
"Fairly well," he said. "How are the Giant Lands?"
"Hey, there's never a dull moment," said Finn. "You've got quite a reputation among my people now, I'll have you know."
"I--hope it's for my efforts to bring peace between us."
"Actually, it's for kicking ass," said Finn. "To be frank, my people respect ass-kicking more, Giant-Killer. But your diplomatic priorities have not been wasted on me." He took a small pouch from his inside pocket and leaned across to Janther. "That's why it's your coalition I want to have this." Janther opened it into his hand. It was one of the warm, thrumming stones of the Wall. "I know I'm not a major player here," said the giant king, "not with one. But we don't want to live under Tres. I'm counting on you to do the right thing by us, Moria."
"I--will do everything in my power."
"Hey, that's all a guy can ask." Finn stood up. "That and keep this little contribution quiet. I don't want all my eggs in one basket, you understand." He slapped his breeches with his palms. "What the heck is going on between you and the Cynystran duchess, by the way?"
"It's a long story," he said softly. "She had me assassinated."
Finn shook his head. "Women," he said. "Can't live without them, won't make it to old age with them. She's a pretty little one, though. If you've got to die, it might as well be worth it, as we say back home." He put his large hand on Janther's shoulder as he walked by. "Watch your back," he said, seriously. "There's a lot depending on you guys."
"Note for Alain MacLir," said the page girl.
He turned. "A *note*?"
"Yes sir." The page girl smiled weakly at him and bobbed a curtsey. He took it slowly. "I--thank you." He opened it, looked at it, turned it over, and tapped it on his other hand as the page girl left. "Rhynwa?" he finally said, and handed it to her.
She looked at it. "It says "Don't go, Lion. Tres planning an ambush." There's Tres again. Who the hell is Tres?"
"At the warehouse?" said Tila. "Hey, why don't we do a counter-ambush and finally meet this Tres guy? We can go there ready for a fight."
"*No*," said Rigg, urgency beneath his strange staticky monotone. "Listen to me, Tres is out of our league. We've got to get to that city."
"What do *you* know about this?" said Rhynwa.
"I know that there are powerful, powerful people involved, and if we're prepared, and they're prepared, we're history."
"Well, wait a minute," said Tila. "Janther, do you trust this note?"
"Well," he said.
"She's not a nice person," Syndriannia reminded everybody.
"Do you trust the first note?"
"Hell, no," said Tila.
"Let's err on the side of caution," said Rigg, grimly.
Khyrisse sat tightly curled in Max's arms, an alabaster hand pressed into each of her eyes. He stared numbly at the wall. "I can't believe he's gone. I'll never be able to do this."
"Of course you will," said Janther, soothingly.
"I don't even know what to do! I'll try my best, of course, but how can I live up to Faraker? He--he was politically savvy, and diplomatic..."
"He had a good heart," said Janther, "and so do you. That's most important. You will be a good duke."
"He was a great leader." Max bowed his head with grief. "Everyone loved him."
"Faraker is perfect now," said Rhynwa, trying not to cry.
"He's not perfect, he's *dead*!" said Schneider. "That Ti'Ar'Na bitch *killed* him. What's perfect about *that*?"
"He's--perfect *and* he's dead."
"*I* killed him," said Max. "My God."
"You released him from her control," said Janther. "He would rather have died than be used by her to destroy his friends and his citystate. You know that."
Max nodded gratefully. "Of course. Of course he would. I would."
"Yesterday we knew less," said Janther, "but yesterday things were worse."
"Thank you, Janther. That helps a lot."
"Oh, for gods' sake!" yelled Schneider. "Faraker's dead and Tres is taking over the world, but *we* don't care, because *we* think death is perfect and *we* have Janther to feed us platitudes! Bring 'em on!"
"Don't you diss my religion!" Rhynwa hollered.
"Death *sucks*, Toots!"
"Schneider, take it--"
"Don't you even talk to me!" he screamed. "*My* friend is dead, *I* feel awful, and I *want* to feel awful. Don't you *dare* take that away from me. You can't just mind-control away someone's pain! Is this what you did to your girlfriend? No *wonder* she killed you!"
Janther stood with his hand out, frozen. He opened his mouth, shut it again, slowly lowered his hand and turned and went upstairs, noiselessly.
There were several seconds of silence and then Syndy fled, crying. Rhynwa flopped back on the floor, pressing her forehead. "We are so fucking dysfunctional. We're the Significants with better hair."
Rigg stood up, looking after Janther with his inscrutable blank silver face; he stood that way for a second and then sat back down, folding his gauntleted hands in a strangely slow gesture. "I'm sorry, Rhynwa," said Luthien, painfully. "I--know you cared about him."
Tila flipped open the wineskin and poured a drink. Max looked helplessly at Rhynwa, his arms full of Khyrisse. "She's prettier than I am," said Khyrisse. It was the first thing she had said.
"No, she's not," said Max.
"She's also bitchier," said Tila. "It kinda gives me a warm feeling when the evil villains finally find each other. Keeps them from messing up any more nice people's lives." She gave Schneider the glass. He took it with a slightly shaking hand. "It's good for them, and it's good for us. Like Lotus and Edyric."
"There is *nothing* going on between Lotus and Edyric," said Rhynwa, crossly.
"Now who's being naive?"
"Stop gossiping about the supervillains, Tila."
"Well, there's no need getting worked up about things," said Palmer, laconically. "I don't know what the matter is with you all."
Tila rolled her eyes. "That's because you haven't got the sense God gave a jackass, Palmer."
"Oh yeah?" he drawled. "Maybe a jackass can tell me where the sense is crying over whether somebody's ex-husband has found himself a prettier girl. Or hollering at Janther for trying to cheer somebody up. Maybe a jackass can tell me that. They sure sound like jackass things to get upset about to me."
"Let me demonstrate." Tila screwed the wineskin shut and upended it. "The wine *wants* to come out the spout down here. Right?" She gave the top of the bag a good hard squeeze with her left hand. The wineskin bulged but did not give. Tila took something that looked like a long, slender awl out of her inside pocket and stuck it into the side of the wineskin. Wine came spurting out. "Geez, what a jackass place for wine to come out of!"
"You are *so* weird," said Palmer.
"Now I've got wine on me. Sucks to be me."
"Tila," said Rhynwa, slowly, "what are you getting at here?"
"There's nothing wrong with us. We're under pressure." She let go, opened the spout, and cheerfully poured herself a glass. "So tomorrow why don't we go kick Tres' ass. And then we can rescue Khyrisse's dad from Duke Eric. And then we'll see if anyone still cares how cute Shannon is."
Syndy, who was just creeping back into the room, pressed into the stairpost with alarm. "Are you *hitting* each other?" she shrilled, as if she was ready to give up on humankind entirely.
"No, we're playing with wine." Tila bent the neck up and squirted some at Syndy, who ducked out of the way fluttering. "See, it's wine. I'm not bleeding."
She looked somewhat relieved. "Okay," she said, and settled gingerly into the armchair by the stairs. "Why--why are you playing with wine?"
"Because we're not really mad at each other," said Rhynwa. "Is Janther coming down?"
"I don't think so." She looked at her hands.
"Well, maybe I should go up and talk to him." She sat up, holding her head. "Look, *I* feel like shit. I was a lot closer to Faraker than any of you. And I'd feel better if Janther was down here, so I'm going to go get him, and if you don't want to talk to him just go somewhere else, okay? I don't want everybody fighting in here."
"I didn't mean he had to *leave*," said Schneider, unhappily. "I just want him to stop messing with my mind. I don't mind when he does it in combat or something. But I don't like people manipulating my emotions."
"Really?" said Tila. "You should probably stop telling dumb jokes then."
"That's *not* the same."
"Yes it is. You're deliberately trying to change somebody's mood." She shrugged.
"That is totally different. Look, my feelings are valid. It's normal to feel upset when somebody dies. He shouldn't be using fairy powers to make us *forget* that. Grief is natural."
"So is comfort," said Max.
"Janther doesn't have fairy powers," said Syndy.
"No. He's just nice."
"He has some magic powers," objected Tila. "He's immune to alcohol. He doesn't have to sleep--"
"Those are things that happen to humans when they get possessed by demons," Syndy said patiently. "He only has two demon powers. He has a curse, and he can't be possessed. He can't do fairy things."
"I thought his fairy glasses gave him the gift of the gab or something."
"No, *stupid*. His glasses help him see." Syndy pushed a piece of hair behind her ear. "The Sidhe gave them to him because he helped us mediate a blood feud. Sometimes the hosts fight with each other. In fact, a bunch of the hosts are fighting right now. That's why I came. Sometimes neutral parties have better luck settling these things."
"We'll help you just as soon as we've dealt with Tres and the wall, Syndy," said Max.
"There isn't any rush, really," she said. "Time moves differently there."
There was a long pause. "Well, I'm going to go talk to Janther," said Rhynwa, and then she said "Please, guys, please don't fall apart on me. I've seen what can happen. We have got to stick together."
"We'll be fine," said Tila. "Go on."
"He didn't really want to talk to me," said Syndy, not to anyone in particular.
"I don't understand," said Schneider. "He's always talking people out of things and into things. He's got to be using *some* kind of magic power."
"It's a people power," said Syndy, and shrugged. "People have powers too, not just fairies. You can do that. You made me change my mind just today."
"Yes." She turned her head away from him rather deliberately. "I used to like you."
There was a stunned silence. Schneider staggered back and sat, heavily. "Hey," said Max, "hey, come on, Syndy, please don't do this. This is difficult enough already."
"You want some of this?"
"If you put it in a cup instead of spraying it on me, please."
"I can do that."
Rhynwa came downstairs looking paler than usual. "Are-- are you all right?" said Luthien.
"I am eighteen years old." She sat on the bottom step and put her fingers in her hair. "I don't know what the fuck I'm doing. Last time I tried to do this everyone killed each other. I am eighteen years old. Stop *looking* at me."
"Rhynwa," said Luthien. "Honey. Rhynwa. No one's going to kill each other." He found her hand and squeezed it, frowned, and looked at her quickly. "Janther didn't--say he was going to kill anyone, did he?"
She shook her head, wearily. "He won't say anything. I need him, Luthien. I can't do this. I don't know how to do this. Faraker's dead. Everyone's coming to pieces. Tres is gonna take over the world. I can't do this alone. I'm an eighteen-year-old priestess of *death*."
"Oh, I think death is very comforting," said Luthien, seriously.
Schneider pulled his facemask off with a shaking hand and half-threw it against the wall. He pushed past Luthien and Rhynwa and stumbled upstairs, both hands on his face. "Look," said Tila. "If everybody just sleeps on it, we'll all be fine. We're just stressed out here. I'm almost out of wine. A little sleep would do everybody some good."
"Janther!" Schneider banged on the door. "Janther, let me in. I need to talk to you." No answer. Schneider squinted through the keyhole. "Janther? C'mon, open the door. I'm sorry I yelled at you. It's not your fault. I'm just having a really shitty day." He rattled the door. "Janther, I could pick this lock. And if I couldn't, I could go get Tila." Still no answer. "Come on, Janther, I'm trying to apologize. I'm on my knees out here. If you, if you kill yourself, or leave the group or something, or stop talking to everyone, and it's all my fault for saying something stupid, then everyone else is going to kill me, and that'll be *your* fault." Nothing. "Janther, I lied. I *don't* like feeling awful." He slid down the wall. "And now I made you feel awful too, and Rhynwa, and Syndy. But I'm *really* *sorry*. I was just talking without thinking. That's why I'm a standup, and you're a diplomat. Hey Janther. I'm scared, and upset, and angry, but not at you." He put his hands in his hair. "And now I have to try to make *you* feel better, and you, you're higher level than I am." He closed his eyes. "Okay, this string walks into a bar, okay, and the bartender says--dammit, Janther, open the door!" He hit it with his hand. "There's nothing wrong with you. I'm just upset. You're one of the best guys I've ever met. And you're my friend. I'm going to stay out here all night until you forgive me, because everyone's worried about you, and we need you. Rhynwa needs you." He put his hand over his face. "And I need you." There was a long moment and then the door rattled and Janther stumbled out, and the two of them held each other like children.
Janther moved slowly down the stairs, one step at a time, holding the railing with both hands. Halfway down his legs gave out and he had to sit, his fingers curling around the balusters. He sat that way for what seemed like a very long time, his head leaned back with his face against the wood, his mouth open and his eyes shut, watching them downstairs and breathing. He sat for what seemed like a very long time and then he spoke. "There will come days like these, days." Syndy leapt up and turned, clutching a cushion. "When there seems to be no reason and no hope, no answer that could be good enough. But I know as no other man could know that the whole is more than the sum of its parts, that together all things are possible." Luthien put his arm around Rhynwa. "We might not get everything we want but we will not be broken and we will not be silenced. I have already rejected the darkness. I know that the choices that are the most difficult matter the most. It has been a long day, but the sun will rise tomorrow." Rigg made a long exhaling sound. Janther put his head down on the stair. "And we will be there." The suite was so still he could hear Syndy's wings rustle as she curled softly into the chair. Janther lay on the stairs, his right hand closed tight, and never told any of them it was the hardest thing he had ever done.
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