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"Hey, Threnody." Tila yanked at her sleeve. "I, ah-- I'm sorry."
"Oh," said Threnody. "It's okay, Tila. Everyone gets drunk and acts stupid at an Irish wake. It's practically common law."
"Not the belly dance, you moron." Tila pushed her stringy hair behind one ear. "About, you know, your loss. No one else is gonna say it because you've got them all convinced you're the same person and it doesn't matter. But I know you loved him." Threnody put her hand over her mouth. "And, well, it matters. And I'm sorry."
"I loved him," she whispered.
"What, have I ever been wrong?"
"*I* loved him." She thumped herself brokenly on the chest, two times. "Me. Shalini. Of course Tjekanefir loved him. We were the same man for a year and a half. Of course the Sunfighter loved him. But when I, when we found him again, every line of his face was burned into the back of my brain, and he didn't know me from Wyvern. And he held out his hand to me like he'd known me all his life. And I fell in love with him too. What was I supposed to do? Fucking A."
"He kicked ass," Tila agreed.
"He sure did."
"And he had a really good body, too."
"Well, it's true," said Threnody.
"It's just, really *nice* guys, you know, they almost always have pretty mediocre bodies. But Janther and Max both had really good bodies. Did you ever notice that?"
Threnody rubbed her lip with her index finger. "That is kind of weird," she said.
"Isn't it?" Tila took Threnody's hair from behind and twisted it twice in her hands. "This sucks, Threnody. It just really sucks. It would have sucked in ten years and it would have sucked in fifty. Sometimes life just really sucks."
"It really sucks," said Threnody, listlessly, and let Tila put her arm around her.
"Ssssst. Hey, kid." She started and backed up a little. "Come here, I've got a secret for you."
"I'm not supposed to talk to strangers," said the girl, still backing up.
"How are you going to meet anyone new, then?"
Her lips pursed in confusion. "Well..." Threnody laughed. "What you're really not supposed to do is *go* somewhere with a stranger. They might hurt you. But we're in your backyard, all your neighbors are around, and your mother's probably upstairs. I'm not going to hurt you. You're Kelly, aren't you?"
"Yeah," she said slowly.
"I'm Threnody. Nice to meet you."
"Is something wrong?"
It startled her. "No. Well, no. Why?"
"You sound like you're about to tell me bad news."
"N-o, not really. Do you know what happened at the western coast last week?"
She brightened. "Sea monster tried to eat the castle," she said, enthusiastically, and clutched her fingers into claws. "HRACCCCHT!"
"Yes, exactly like that. Only his voice was probably a little deeper. Well, he killed a friend of mine."
"Oh, I'm sorry."
She looked down. "Well, me too," she said softly. "But these things happen. And the sea monster didn't eat the castle."
"I'd like to be killed by a sea monster."
"Well... more than dying of plague, or something."
"Take drowning, if you have the choice." She shook her head to clear it. "I'm getting real sidetracked here. My friend left you something when he died."
"Did I know him?"
"No, probably not. Have you heard of a man called Alain MacLir?"
She frowned. "Freed the country or something, didn't he? My da fought in it."
"Then your da can tell you the story better than I can. What matters is he was a good man. He always tried to make a difference, make other people's lives a little better. Now he's gone, and I don't need this, so I'm giving it to you."
"What is it?"
She backed into the cottage wall. "I can't catch things," she said shrilly.
"Try it." She flipped the feystone at the girl, who flung her hands up in panic and caught it. "You'll find there are lots of things you can do. All I want in return is for you to try to make somebody else's life a little better. A little kindness goes a long way."
"But what, what do I--"
"Put it over your head. It'll fit you."
"Like how? Like this?" She held it like a crown, frowning with concentration, and after almost a minute let it rest on the bridge of her nose. Threnody bit her lip. Kelly flattened herself into the wall. "Right. Like that."
She turned her terrified head right, then left. "Hi," said Threnody, and waved. The girl started. "Don't worry. It takes a little getting used to." She looked at her hand a little dizzily, raised one finger, lowered it, raised it again, and then touched it with her other hand. "I should be going. I'm sure you have a lot to do. Good luck."
"Lady," Kelly said abruptly, as Threnody turned to go. She raised an eyebrow and looked over her shoulder. "I'm sorry about your friend. I mean, I'm really sorry."
Threnody nodded softly.
"Yeah, you're welcome." She put her hands in her pockets, looked off at the horizon, and smiled. "Take care of yourself."
"Okay." She waved with a sudden enthusiasm, and banged the door behind her. "Hey, ma, dead man gave me some magic eyes!" Threnody shook her head and walked around the house. She was all the way to the road by the time the woman started shrieking in Gaelic. "That was my mom's reaction, too," she said to nobody in particular, smiled, and went walking lightly down the lane.
Threnody stepped out of the bathtub, whistling, and reached for the towel; her hand barked off an invisible barrier, and she blinked. She tried to step forward, and was repulsed; closed her eyes and tried it again, with no better luck. "It's too early in the morning for this," she said aloud, and turned to head back into the tub. She was arrested in this direction too, and knelt squinting to the wet tile. There was some charcoal smeared there, in a curve. She followed it around, stood up and looked down at it. She was standing in a pentagram. Threnody stood there blinking at it for several seconds and then bawled "LUTHIEN!"
"*You* like the bathroom so much," he said, from the other side of the door, "*you* can just live there."
"You rotten *bastard*!" She pounded furiously on the barrier with her forearms. "Just because my kinfolk aren't speaking to me..."
"If they were, you'd probably have better things to do than lock me out of the bathroom all morning."
"Let me *out*, Luthien."
"What's it worth to you?"
"I'm not going to give you a geas!" she hollered.
"Hope you like the decor in there."
"I can wait a hell of a lot longer than you can, Mageson. You're going to smell so bad Rhynwa's gonna need clothespins."
"Repeat after me. 'I will do all Luthien's laundry.' "
"For the rest of the century."
"What are you gonna, spiritwrack me?"
"Nah. I'll just let Max in."
"Let me *go*!"
Threnody crashed through the bathroom door, surreally grim in a fluffy white towel streaked with the long wet tendrils of her hair. "It's the end of the world, Mageson."
"Ah-ah-ah." He wagged his finger at her. "We have a bond. You're not allowed to attack me."
"Guess what." She kicked him in the chest. "I didn't."
He skidded back into the banister with a satisfying yelp of indignation. "No wonder they threw you out! Don't you get imprisoned in Hell for that kind of thing?"
"Not responsible for my human host. In fact, *now* she thinks she gonna hold your head in the toilet."
He vaulted over the banister with startling aplomb; she leapt onto it like a cat and threw herself after him, head-first.
"*You're* not even a kiljhac."
"I'm not?" said Threnody. "What am I?"
"Kajjhac." Shilree sipped her hot chocolate daintily.
"Kajjhac? What the hell is that? You're making this up, aren't you?"
"I would *never* make up a Diari word."
"Well, then what is it? I've never heard that before."
"It means 'goat person'. It's the, ah, the offspring of a kiljhac and a goat." She made a fluttering gesture with her hand. "In this case it just means any demon."
"*Goat* person?" Threnody blinked a few times, and then flung her arms out. "People can't have children with *goats*!"
"That doesn't seem to stop you from trying." Shilree cackled.
"I can't believe you have a *word* for that. Tashmikhai!"
"Who's a pervert? We're not the ones humping goats."
"Oh, yeah, then how come you're the ones with a word for it?"
"Because we see what your nasty, hairy goatherds do on the banks of the Aljhain, that's why!"
"I was two years down by the Aljhain and I saw a lot of goats having sex and it was always with other goats."
"That's because you weren't watching any goatherds."
"There's nothing wrong with goatherds!"
"Yeah, nothing except they have sex with *goats*."
"Shilree, you are so full of shit. Have you ever *seen* a kiljhac have sex with a goat?"
"I was much better bred than to go watch goatherds."
"That's the problem with kiljhac men. No control over themselves. If all they can get is a goat, they'll take a goat."
"Oh yeah? What about Ralchar?"
"*Ralchar* wasn't a *goatherd*."
"I told you--"
"Ralchar was a kiljhac too, but he had women to choose from, so he could muddle through. It's when you're low enough class to have to--"
"I *said*--" Threnody upended the table. Shilree shrieked as her hot chocolate splashed on her shirt front. "Fuck it, *Sunfighter*--"
"I *said*." Threnody grabbed Shilree by the jaw and shoved her into the wall. Shilree grabbed her by the wrist and Threnody crammed her arm back into her chest with her right forearm. "I said there's nothing wrong with goatherds." They looked at each other for a split second and then Threnody released her. "*Fuck* you," said Shilree. "Look what you did to my shirt. You act like a ten-year-old boy sometimes."
"There is a point," said Threnody, "at which something stops being funny and starts to insult someone's honor. You should know that. If this were Diaria you would be dead now."
There was a pause. "I didn't mean *you*," she said. "I meant, you know, dirty rednecks on the Diari perimeter. Not people like Ralchar or you."
"Hi, is everything OK over here?" said Kayla in her usual cheerful voice, putting her hand on the knocked-over table very subtly. "Yeah, it's fine." Threnody rubbed her forehead. "I, ah, I wrecked some cups. Just put it on my tab." Kayla nodded and whisked off. Threnody sat back down. "Kajjhac, you said?"
"Look, it doesn't matter."
"No," said Threnody, "I kind of like it, actually. Kajjhac. Child of a goatherd and a beast."
"Just forget it."
Kayla returned with another hot chocolate and another rum swirl. "Here you go," she said, brightly. Shilree blinked at it. "Did we order this?"
"No, but we should have. Thank you, Kayla, that's exactly what I wanted." Threnody rocked the table back into position and took a long pull from the mug. "That stuff's lost its kick, but damn, it still tastes good."
"Nothing's wrong with the rum, I hope?..."
"Oh, no. No, it's me. Thank you."
Shilree picked her chair up slowly. "Ralchar was a good man. I hate that doppelganger for fucking up my memories of him. He was no Diarian but he had his own strengths. I liked him that way, I really did. But you--you've got to admit, those overworked libidos of yours get you into trouble."
"Sure," she said. "Sure, they do."
"I forget he's dead sometimes." She sat down. "When the doppelganger showed up I didn't ask any questions. Now I can't believe I was such an idiot. But I still feel that sometimes and then I know I would try to believe it again. Because I forget about him for a while and then I remember. Like falling into a hole I'd stopped paying attention to." She put her fingers on the stain on her chest. "Do you ever--feel like that?"
Threnody nodded slowly. "I feel like that. But I know a secret: when you love someone you take a piece of them into your heart. While you're alive they're never truly dead. It feels like a hole to me too sometimes but it's only because I don't always know how to look. What you love enough is always with you. Listen and you will hear me, he said. He was right; he was always right."
Shilree paused. "Who told you that? Janther?"
"Who else would say that," she whispered.
"Well, it's beautiful. Is that Celtic philosophy?"
"Do you still--miss him sometimes?"
She put her hand in her hair and twisted it. "Every day of my life," she finally said, low.
Shilree looked at her, looked into her cup. "Well, it's beautiful," she said again.
Lian was holding her in her lap and singing a lullaby. "Aren't you dead?" said Threnody. "Have strength," she replied, and it was Alain's voice.
Then she was in the Rimbor City arena with Max. The portcullises all lifted at once and there was Max behind every one of them, slender Max, bulked-up Max, Max with his arm hacked off at its elbow and Max with his other arm in a sling and Max with a silver chakra on his head. They were all naked and they were all wearing Diari dance masks. Calypso music was playing from somewhere, and when Threnody rubbed her eyes she stabbed herself in the right one and honey started running down her face. "It's all up to you, Threnody," said the Maxes in unison, circling her, and she looked up at them weirdly, through honey. "It's all up to you." She felt the blade connect and pull free, connect and carry through, and then connect like an electric shock, as though the whole thing had not been part of the same fluid motion, as if the body falling were just the next link in a random chain of events. She watched the sword clatter to the ground, spinning slightly. She watched her pale fingers. She took off the mask and it was Max. "I love you," he said. She screamed and screamed. The crowd was cheering and calypso music was playing. The earth seeped red. "Have strength," whispered Max, and it was her voice.
Threnody fuzzed into consciousness nailed to the wall. Fuck. She won a quick battle with nausea. -Hey, Praxis, SOS, help.- No answer; they must have thought to take down the link. She squinted at her hand. Whoever the hell "they" were. There was a metal spike driven through her wrist, like the kind you'd secure a tent with only it looked like it might be silver. Real funny. If she could get her toes behind its head and get up the power in her leg she could pull it out. The wall behind her to brace on, too. She drew up her leg and almost passed out. Foot. To the floor. Threnody was unable to maintain both consciousness and silence, and the scream ripped out of her like a firestorm. The young man just entering the room stepped back two paces with a cold but wary eye. "You're awake," he asserted.
"Get me *off* the fucking *cross*-- I have spent *enough* time on fucking *crosses*--"
"I hadn't believed you would wake so soon." He took a scalpel from the case he was carrying and set the case on the table. "I hope this doesn't pose a problem."
"No problem at all. Get the fucking pitons out of me."
"Seeing how long the tranquilizers held, they were a wise precaution." He heated the scalpel in a green flame jetting from a nearby brazier. "If I shoot you up again it might kill you. Try not to thrash around too much. This is going to hurt."
She recognized the insignia on his robes then, suddenly. "What are you going to do to me?" she whispered, cold creeping up her spine.
"Wait," she said, "wait, please, you don't understand. The world, that's *you*, that's your children. When I destroy the world I destroy you."
"Brionwy will protect me." He turned the scalpel.
"Brionwy will--Brionwy." She turned her head, dazed. "May she take you as close to her heart as she took me, and may she--treat you as well."
The young priest pretended not to be shaken. "As she pleases." He approached with the scalpel but stopped to look at her first, her struggling chest, her trembling throat, her speared pathetic fist. "I will release you to Trade," he said, quietly, afterwards. I won't let the sect take you."
"You are breaking my heart and you offer me my *body*?" she cried.
"I won't let the sect have you. It is the only kindness I have to give."
Threnody's head rolled sickly. "Get away from me." He took her by the chin. "GET AWAY FROM ME!" she roared, terribly, with power. The priest pushed the side of her face to the wall with his left forearm, jerking back her hair from the base of her skull where the worm was; she screamed and crashed forward like a wave, her arm muscles tensing, rippling, she lunged forward with an awful wrenching rip and a scream like a dying cougar's and impaled herself on the scalpel. "Say hello," she rasped. The brilliance was almost unbearable. Her feet were still nailed to the ground, and she didn't have the strength to try and move them. "To my mother. For me." She exploded in his arms like a star, and his last thought was that she was desperately beautiful.
Time had stopped existing. Every second was part of every other second; everything was splintered glass, and time had given up on Shalini Kyber.
It had long since passed the point where she knew she couldn't take any more. She was out of sounds. She knew she wasn't a physical entity but she could almost feel herself hanging from her mangled wrists, it was a dull and nostalgic pain, almost familiar. When she tried to concentrate on it the ceiling would blow out again. Shalini Kyber, cosmic kaleidoscope. She had this idea that if she could see her eyes they would be broken mirrors. She tried to think about that and hit a piece of glass instead, some place where something wasn't. There was no such thing as focus. She rolled her head wearily. It had long since passed the point. When she thought about nothing the fire caught up. When she thought the shards drove through her eyes from behind. Montasi. There was a slicing brilliant instant of one of Max' eyes, and then that was gone, too, a quick one. Some of the things that writhed out of her brain seemed to last for days, or years. There was no such thing as time. She shuddered. She knew she wasn't physical but she shuddered. She could have sworn she had a crumpled body and savaged wrists and a restless exhausted head. She could have sworn she was twisted. She knew better but the visions defined her, the broken remains of her psyche defined her. The sun hurt her eyes here. Light took its toll. Dust to dust. Back to back and belly to belly. Ashes, ashes. She couldn't do it. She didn't have a choice but it mattered. She shut her eyes, the screaming pieces kaleidoscope under her skin. She couldn't do it. If she could have quit she would have.
She thought she felt a hand under her breast, lifting her, almost raising her. Panic made a fresh bleeding star. No, she grated, she didn't know aloud or not. She didn't know if aloud existed. Not now. Not like this. She thought she felt something raising her, something warm around her, behind her, there were pyrotechnics and she thought she felt her head throw back. No, don't look at me like this, this way, oh alone. Shame broke like a wave into nowhere, her restless head rolling, she was naked with failure and weakness and she wanted to go home. There were pyrotechnics. There was a raw scream that didn't make any noise. She was out of sounds. Kaleidoscope. The lifting hands. Home. "One of these mornings," she whispered. Her lips felt cracked, everything felt cracked, but she felt his breath like a blanket at her shoulder, her body twisting, arm like a band across her chest. She knew she wasn't a physical entity. She knew how the night did not end. "You're gonna rise, rise up singing." Her heavy head rolled but her voice gathered strength. The sun screamed. Can you think of a *better* time to sing the blues? Warm like a home against her back and she forgot the next line like a stab of light and when she gasped the pain was undulled but her center was back. Stand together. Body and soul. "Until that morning. Comes. Nothing gonna harm you." There was something warm and quiet and strong, holding her, holding her. "Oh baby oh don't you cry." She knew suddenly how there was no such thing as comfort. She breathed. It was like breathing glass. Only grace. Slowly, she straightened, trembling, with ragged breath. Slowly she straightened. Strength and grace. It had long since passed the point where she knew she couldn't take any more. This was her moment. The sun through bloody glass was like colored scraps of God. Strength and grace and l. Raising. Holding. She lifted her arms like slow shaking wings. "I love you," she said. Glorious. Shredded. "I love you."
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