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"Don't forget your end of the bargain," said Praxis.
"I won't," said Edyric. She frowned at Lotus. "Cute kid, though. Have you ever thought about--"
"Later." Lotus grabbed Edyric by the crotch and they both disappeared.
"You are welcome to accompany us back to Trade," Praxis told Brain Mechanism, the black woman, and the deformed Diari woman.
"Anywhere better than here, man." The woman gave Frank some serious stink eye. "It's been three days since I ate."
"You're *kidding*!" said Frank. "You know, I *specifically* told Kilar to feed you guys regularly. I think I'm going to bring that guy up before the research--"
"Stow it, freak." She shook Praxis' hand. "Wombassa. Very pleased to meet you."
"For Pete's sake, Frank, do we have to bring *all* of this stuff?"
"I'm not letting these Diari get my Glasfur Prize. These logs come with me."
"Besides," said Tila, "this will trap Talakan in the CompuTor forever. Ha!"
"I think we need to talk," said Tila.
"Talk-- about what?"
"Well, about you're a mud woman." Savis put her face in her hands. Luthien and Threnody both turned to look at her. "This doesn't *bother* me, but see, last time I got a little burned, so I need to know: do you have a good reason for not sharing this with Max right now, or are you planning to betray him and overthrow the government or something?"
"A *mud* woman?" said Luthien.
"Hey, what's wrong with overthrowing the government?" said Threnody.
"You weren't that thrilled about the illithid, as I remember," said Tila.
"Don't you have any better name for yourselves than *mud* women?"
"He won't love me if he knows!" cried Savis.
"*Max*?" said Threnody.
"You're going to have to do a little better than that," agreed Tila.
"He *won't!* Who would stay with a mud woman?"
"Max," said Threnody.
"Savis," said Luthien, "Max has got friends--Threnody's a *demon*, Noyarc is a werewolf, Zzenith's a blob, who knows *what* George is, but he's *blue*--"
"Demons and werewolves are powerful," said Savis, muffled. "Mud women are lowly."
"Oh, for--" Threnody grabbed Savis and shook her. "Shut up and listen to me. You're not fucking *lowly*. He chose you over me. Walk with a little pride, will you? You're making me look bad."
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"This isn't answering my question," said Tila.
"We haven't got a chance. He's more powerful every day. If the gods are scared of him, what the hell are *we* supposed to do?"
"Hold to what we believe, and do what we know is right," said Threnody.
"That'll look great on our tombstones, Thren, but it doesn't mean jackshit to Wyvern."
"Is there any other defeat, for him?"
"All right, Wyvern," Praxis practically snarled, "aren't you going to tell us about your world plot and gloat over us a little?"
"I'm a little above that, Todd."
"Funny. I wouldn't have guessed it from the last time we met."
"I have more pressing concerns at the moment, and feel no real obligation to tell you anything. Yield to me now, and I won't kill all your loved ones."
There was a moment of stricken silence. "Khyrisse?" whispered Max. Savis looked like she'd been punched in the gut, and Threnody liked her suddenly, irrelevantly. Wyvern smiled. "But she's a--goddess..."
"She is the goddess of Trade. And I own Trade."
Max looked sick to his stomach; even Luthien was shaken. Threnody sighed and drew her sword slowly. "I hate to do this. This is exactly what you want, you putz. But my loved ones would rather be dead than your slaves, and so would I. So fuck you, Wyvern, and fuck everything you stand for, but I'm giving you your psychodrama after all. I go down swinging."
"Suits me." He shrugged and flipped a switch, and Endicott leapt forward twelve feet and planted his foot in the side of her head.
"Knighthawke," said Luthien, "I take back everything I ever said about you."
"Excuse us." Khyrisse crushed Wyvern's shirt front in her well-manicured hand, and if he said anything, it was lost in the golden glow that enveloped the two of them. The hostages began groggily standing up, and even Rip staggered over leaning heavily on Zzenith. Threnody stood with muscles taut as a balanced dancer's. "Rip," she said, low. "Is this another time thing?"
"Us," she pleaded. "There's only one demon, right?"
He stared. "Lord, I hope so!" He looked at the console in dismay.
"It seemed the thing to do at the time," George apologized.
"It probably was." He seemed terribly shaken. "Christ, when you see whose hands this kind of power can get into..."
"Book," said Luthien, holding it up.
"Got a match?"
Luthien had always been a man given to hyperbole. Threnody watched the book disappear in a jet of flame from the corner of her eye, hovered like a base-stealer. "Alain," tore out of her, almost brokenly. "Sweetheart, the curse, I think I got it."
He turned his familiar haggard radiance. "Really?" he said, softly, and it was like the trembling of the world: an immeasurable weariness, an impossible release. Threnody shot across the room then like a magnet that had got free of someone's hand. A couple people applauded. She did not bother to keep from shaking; it was not readily apparent who was supporting whom but that was the way she liked it and the way it had always been, and everything sparkled too wonderfully to try and stop the source. "Still and all," she muffled in his chest, "the fate of the world and everything, what I felt worst about was you."
Rip stared blankly at the twisted glass and chrome ruins. "You know, I could have been an accountant. I could have been a garbage collector."
"There's an opening in my band," offered Trissia.
"Rip, fuck," said Threnody, crossing to him, "please, all we can do is our best. I'm so sorry this all fell on you when it fell but it isn't your fault, none of this is your fault. Look, he had the book anyway, it was gonna come down to this. If you hadn't opposed him I don't want to think where we'd be now. You did the right thing in the finer hour, Rip, and it's all come right now."
"I guess," he whispered. Threnody realized that her left hand was not going to fit his right and changed the gesture to an embrace. "I'm sorry I'm such a pain in your ass, man."
"Yeah, well." He touched her back. "You're a straight line from now on, right?"
"Straight as an arrow, Rip, I swear it."
"How Rip god feel does?"
"I've been dead, I have plasma nausea, my Time Dome is a melted mass, I can't force myself to stop believing that my arm itches, and I just almost turned the sphere over to a maniac who looks like Anthony Hopkins. How the *hell* am I supposed to feel?"
"Alive," said Alain.
"It could be worse," said Luthien.
"You need a vacation," said Max.
"You need a hot bath and some brandy. You need your feet massaged. Rip, baby, I owe you."
"Funny." He ran his fingers through his scraggled hair. "I didn't think I did anything."
"We all tried our best," said Max, "and it was enough."
Alain took his glasses off and rubbed his eyes with his other hand. "Luthien, is your sister okay? Wyvern was fucking with her."
"I'm going to *kill* him. Wait, we *did* kill him!" Luthien high-fived Max.
"Luthien, we didn't kill him," said Praxis.
"No, but Khyrisse is pulling all his nails out right now!" Luthien high-fived Max again, and Praxis shook his head. "Alain, how did you survive? We thought we'd killed you."
"Wyvern just wanted to separate us. He had--" His mouth twisted. "He had some plan to destroy his own people."
"Yeah, he told me," said Threnody.
He put his goggles back on and looked at her for a long moment. "Thank you," he said.
She made visible attempts to parse it and then put out her arms. "For what? Thank you for what?"
"For not ignoring me," he said, quietly. "Not taking over."
"*Hey*," she said, her voice wavering a little. "Hey, come on." She pulled her thumb at her chest. "Come on, what do you think I am? I'm not some--infestor, or some skanky alien dragon here. Come on, that isn't fair. I've been some bad things. I've never been some--some creature that could ignore you."
"I appreciate what that means."
"Well, don't." She closed her hand and knocked it on her wrist, her face tight. "Take it for granted, take me for granted on that. I don't thank you for not killing children or something. Give me credit on this one thing, will you? I'm a demon. I'm not a monster."
He nodded slowly. "I'm sorry."
"You don't have to be sorry, I--" She looked up at him, her face working. "You don't have to be sorry. You're okay, aren't you?"
"I'm fine," he said. "My soul isn't shattered, if that's what you mean."
"Of course that's what I mean. I feel like I use people and just throw them away."
"It has been my honor," he said quietly.
"I'm really glad you're all right." She reached out hesitantly, her hand shaking just a little, and touched his hair. He didn't pull back. "I really thought you were dead. I'm glad you're not." She looked at him and he didn't look away. "You--look very much the same. From the outside. You know Lugh Long-handed came to your funeral. If you were feeling a vacuum of responsibility."
"No fear of that." He smiled, unexpectedly.
"I miss you, Alain MacLir."
"Sinn araon," he said, seriously, took her hand in his hand. You and me both.
"Sorry, Rip," said Tila, emerging from the rubble. "There's no sign of her. I'm sure she'll turn up."
"CJ," moaned Rip, and pressed his head.
George cleared his throat. "Ms. Oyello?" She looked up haggardly. "I am George, avatar of Morvon. I wish to end the hostilities between our sects."
She just stared. "George, don't taunt her," said Alain, softly. "She was a victim in this."
"I know," he said. "That's exactly what I mean. Look how easily our differences can be exploited by people like Wyvern!" He put a big blue paw on her shoulder. "I know you were under his influence, not Vox's, when you killed our high priest."
"Dorick," she cried. "What have I done."
George patted her on the head. "Morvon forgives you," he said kindly.
Alain regarded George in total confusion and turned to Threnody, his hand out towards the alien. Threnody tapped her temple, twirled a little circle in the air, and pointed at George. Iolleil, staring like a little girl, bobbed her head twice before him. "Thank you, Morvon," she whispered, childishly, and rocked.
"I have the solution to all our problems, Inez!"
She sighed audibly. "I don't want to know."
Threnody emerged smartly from the Chinese blinds, wearing black high heels and a full formal tuxedo with tails. "*I'll* wear the suit, and *Endicott* can wear the dress!"
"Threnody, I am *not* getting married with the wedding party in drag."
"Actually, your brother would look pretty good in a skirt, too." She put her hand on her hip and extended her slim black pant leg first forward and then to the side, like a dancer. "I'll even wear a pink cummerbund."
"Threnody, you look like a dyke," said Tila, from the floor. "If the Web crash the wedding, Edyric might carry you off."
"A small price to pay." She shook her dark red curls out, spilling like wine along the sharp cut of the jacket and down the white silk blouse. "How much did you pay for that?" said Tila.
"Isn't it cool?"
"H-hey, nobody's allowed in the Queen's grove."
"You idiot," hissed the second guard, "it's Alain MacLir."
"Bull shit it is," he said in a stage whisper, with authority.
"Deirdre can take care of herself," said Alain, with amusement. "She doesn't seclude herself for security reasons. I think she'll be glad to see us."
"*I* think you'd better stay right where you are." The edgy guard moved away, eyeing them uncomfortably. "If they make a move at you, James, call the guard. I'm going for the Captain."
"Hey, Praxis, they're going to arrest us," said Alain, with a straight face.
"I don't want to be arrested," Inez complained.
"Don't worry, I think you get a trial these days. They don't shoot people down in the streets still, James, do they?"
"Not that I know of, sir," he said politely. "Have you come back to us, then?"
Alain was still a moment. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I have."
"Cream," he said, pleased. "I've a bet out on it."
"Congratulations." Alain opened the double doors. "Send the captain in if he wants us."
Dancer came springing over lightly, the edgy guard close on his heels, and punched Praxis in the shoulder hard. "Praxis, you bastard, how've you been?"
That was as close as Dancer came to expressing emotion, his voice dry and his eyes betraying nothing. Praxis felt warm inside and forgot to wince. "Good. Really good. Meet my wife."
She looked poised to dodge a punch, but Dancer just afforded her a quick nod. "Don't you ever stay dead, Ideals?" he said over her head. "Not for very long," Alain replied. The guard looked nervously back and forth, then apparently decided Dancer and the Queen could handle any complications and scurried into the background. "Paranoid kid," Dancer commented. "Pay attention, Praxis, he'll live a long time."
"I don't notice *you* disbelieving our existence."
"A spy disguised as Alain MacLir is chancy but innovative. Four spies disguised as Alain MacLir, an obscure revolutionary linchpin, and two unknown foreign women are too stupid to be much of a threat."
"I'm so sorry about Shannon," murmured Deirdre, stroking Alain's hair.
"Don't be. I loved her and I don't regret it. It's all worked out in the end."
"I am *not* doing bodyguard detail," Dancer muttered.
"What we need is a festival." Deirdre stood clear with authority. "Go ring the bells, Dancer. I declare a festival."
"I'm getting swayed out," said Inez.
"Bell-ringer is definitely not part of my job description," said Dancer.
Praxis and Alain entered the courtyard with a third man, who wasn't bad-looking either. Brytannwch, say what you wanted about it. Inez grinned. They couldn't have looked much more like old army buddies if they'd practiced, walking in step as men do, not quite touching but close enough. "Are you sure this is necessary?" said Alain to the bearded man.
"I have to do something with you. And as long as I have your job, you might as well get mine." There was a touch of bitterness beneath his slight brogue. Alain bowed his head a little but smiled and said "I see I'm not the only one who handles adversity better than victory."
"I don't want to hear it from *you*, Mister Fly-By-Night." The bearded one poked him hard in the back. "That's a royal command."
"I'm not a nobleman, Threnody."
"Nobleman?" She squatted in front of him and poked a thin finger into her chest. "*I'm* the bastard daughter of a bartender. I smuggled things for a living, remember? The issue isn't social class here." She stood lightly, shaking the shirt out. "It's style."
"Then I'm not very stylish."
She dismissed it with her hand. "Some things are always in style. Now take that stupid smock off; it looks like an undershirt. Brown doesn't flatter you, you know. Your coloration's too extreme."
He put his hand over his smile. He still had a shining, amazed smile; it made his whole face look younger, and Threnody found herself grinning back. "Ah, it doesn't matter what you wear, Alain; humor me and let me dress you up, will you?"
"You promise me these things aren't--fuchsia, or--"
"Oh, come on now--"
"I'm not *that* irreverent. Look, this is white." She shook the sleeve at him. "You trust me with your body and you won't trust me with your wardrobe. Have a little faith, okay?"
He took his shirt off slowly. "It's not the way I do things."
"It's a small thing to do my way, after all our months. Hold still." She looped the sleeves over his arms. "I can't believe Shannon never made you do this."
"Shannon never seemed very concerned with my clothing."
"Girl knew what she wanted, I'll give you that." She unhooked his belt. "You're coming back to your country from the dead, duibh, and the least you can do is wear a good shirt. Stand up."
"This from the woman who wouldn't wear a dress to Praxis' wedding."
"I gave in at the end."
"Only because the bride had a royal flush."
"We also compromised. It wasn't *pink*. You haven't seen my hair." She flicked him a pair of blue cotton pants, which he caught reflexively. "It could be worse. Praxis is wearing a kilt."
"If Branwen were alive she'd be wearing a studded leather vest. *I* wouldn't."
Threnody laughed. "I know *you* can't see yourself, Alain, but I can. You just have to trust me. This is a special occasion, and you might as well look your best. I promise you won't be fussy. These people haven't seen you in a year and a half."
"I hope they recognize me."
She threw a boot at him; he caught it. Alain's sense of humor was underrated. "I got you a new cloak. It's grey; you'd like it. You keep forgetting I can judge these things." She flipped him the other boot. "Do--you get the feeling Dee doesn't like me?"
"I think Dee holds her entire gender responsible for Shannon," he said. "She'll get over it in time. You know how close they were."
"I guess it doesn't matter. Sometimes I wish..." She shook her head. "No, I don't. Here, take this."
"Are you sure this shirt is the right size?"
"Positive. The chain fastens on the left." She bloused his shirt a little over his waist, and tucked his left pant leg more evenly into his boot. "That's got it. Let me look at you."
He turned his head to her, the barest of wearied amusement quirking his lips. The sharp wool cloak flipped back from his loose-sleeved right arm, leaning into the wall before the window; the open Renaissance shirt was spanned across his throat and shoulder by the gold chain that held the cloak together, and the garnet on the clasp winked from its other side. The sunlight fell across his cheekbone in a splintered streak and glinted painfully off the feystone, golden-red. His hair fell rich and shining in the light, and Threnody touched her throat and turned away, her eye almost tearing. "I changed my mind," she murmured. "I can't send you out like that."
"What did you do to me?"
"No, no. It's nothing like that." She sat down. "You look great. Alain, you have no idea how beautiful you are, none. You can't see, so you don't know." She tapped her fingers on the table. "Do you remember--Jenny?"
He looked at her funny. "I look like Lady Jenny?"
"No, of course not. But you remember how she was beautiful, the shape of her face, her colors."
He paused. "Not well. Those--were Sunny's memories. But she was beautiful." He turned his head slowly. "You think I am that beautiful?"
"Much more beautiful, Alain," she said, low. "Much more beautiful. If you were a woman men would kill each other. Women are more sensible but we are not made of stone." She put her boot on the table and rested her head on her knee. "The other one," she said, "who was so beautiful, was my mother. Brionwy. She is just like the center of a flame. There is something seductive about evil, but people forget. People don't talk about it so much, but there is something very seductive about good."
"Threnody." He leaned across to her, his palms on the table. "What are you trying to get at here? Do I look like I'm trying to seduce everybody? This is not the effect I'm going for."
She reached out and touched a stray piece of his hair. "You look like Alain MacLir," she finally said. "And today, of all days, I suppose it isn't going to kill anyone. Come on, let's go."
"Just promise me, once, that you're not putting anything over on me."
"I promise," she said. "You're the gem of Brytannwch's crown. And as for me, I should have been a professional. There's money in this."
"These pants are a bit tight."
"Yeah, don't worry about that," she said. "It's not a problem. Really. Come on."
Threnody rolled over, her head throbbing unpleasantly, and pulled one of her eyelids up with her finger. "Luthien?"
He jerked up at her voice. "Huh? I--oh my God. Oh shit. I didn't."
"Don't shout, my head is killing me." She sat up groggily and picked a black silk shirt with blousing sleeves off the bedpost. "I don't remember anything either. Is this mine or yours?"
He looked with dismay at the bottle of schnapps on the nighttable and put his head in his hands. "Rhynwa is going to kill me."
"Oh, stop angsting, Luth. You know what this means, don't you?"
"It means Rhynwa is going to kill me."
"It does *not*. It means Schneider's back."
"APRIL FOOL'S!" Schneider leapt out of the closet in plaid pajamas and blatted a garish horn triumphantly. Luthien exploded out of bed in his boxers roaring "I'M GONNA KILL YOU, SCHNEIDER!" Threnody winced a little at the noise, then just shrugged and started putting on the shirt. "Well, it's mine now."
Schneider darted delightedly around the room and Luthien followed him. "YOU LITTLE SHIT!" he bellowed, caught him, and they started pounding each other exuberantly on the back. "Hi," he said. "Did I miss anything?"
"I'm Threnody," said Threnody. "Nice to meet you."
"You weren't this perceptive when you were Janther," Schneider complained. "I should've gone with Tila, she'd have bought it."
"Tila gets drunk, Tila falls asleep without being heavily drugged, Tila's the, er, promiscuous type, and Tila wasn't a het man when she met Luthien. No offense, Luthien. Cute shorts and all."
"Oh, shut up." Luthien got his bathrobe out of the closet, irritation belied by his quirking mouth. Schneider grinned. "I'm impressed you guessed it was me, though. Endicott said I've been gone a year."
"That long?" Threnody hopped out of bed, squinting. "Whoa. Honey, color vision makes you a whole new drug."
"If we hurry we can still do this to Max and Inez," said Luthien.
"Wait for me."
Go on to Chapter 5
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