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Vas was busy blow-drying his hair with a wind cantrip, but after his sister strode past his bedroom door for the sixth time he concluded that she was pacing. “Valende?” he called, abandoning his toilette to investigate. “Are you testing the strength of my carpetry, sister, or worrying about our good Jack?”
“I’m worrying about us, Vas,” she sighed. “Jack is... well, ready. He’s near the end of his days anyway, and as spiritually strong as he may ever be. If he’s going to face this, now would be the time.”
“You’ve heard of this Hotel before, haven’t you?” frowned Vas, putting two and two together.
“I’m... not sure,” Val admitted. “So much gets lost in the translation. There is a hall in the Song of Enorath said to exist out of place, out of time... sort of a metaphysical proving grounds for the soul. If this is that place--well, entering it in anything but total spiritual readiness could spell our doom, Vastarin.”
“Then perhaps we should spend tonight in prayer,” Vas offered.
She gave him a narrow look, and then a more startled one as she realized he was in earnest. “Perhaps we should,” she acknowledged. “But that may not be good enough. I can assure you Khyrisse is not going to be spending the night in prayer... nor is Rani. If Aithne is I don’t even want to know. This Hotel may be a place for the trajectory of the elven soul to be judged, Vas. I don’t know how that would translate into human terms, much less Diarian, but I am sure that most of the Rat Pack are not ready for a spiritual audit.”
“Legends are funny things, sister,” said Vas, shrugging. “The Parises have one... we have another... who knows what the truth of the matter is? Was it Lady Janeille who was lost there, in the Song of Enorath? Because that would hardly imply a simple imperfection could doom one of us anyway. Janeille was quite a bit on the immoral side, if I remember my mythology correctly.”
“And Aithne isn’t?” Val raked her fingers through her dark hair. “Rani’s an ethical mess; Tarrin is a wonderful man but he does think it would be a mercy to kill her, if you’ll recall. And don’t forget there’s still someone feeding Omeria information about us. I think it’s that niece of Asinus’, myself.”
Valende rarely used Mina’s first name anymore. “Are you sure your personal falling-out with her hasn’t colored that opinion, sister?” Vas asked gently.
“If being judgmental of me was a sign of treachery, all of New Trade would have fallen by now,” she said a bit bitterly. “No, that’s just my personal guess. She has something she’s hiding from us, that I can tell. It could be something else, and another of our friends the mole. That isn’t the point, Vastarin. Are we going to bring a traitor with us to a trial of our souls, whatever its nature?” She shook her head. “Worried about Jack? Brother, he may well find himself dragging us back in bodybags.”
“But that’s just it, isn’t it?” Vas shrugged. “We don’t know what he’ll be facing there. The world is inherently chaotic, Valende, and Jack is hardly emotionally invincible. He has a very poor self-esteem, for one thing. Perhaps with some of his friends there to assure him he’s loved, he’ll have a better time of it.”
“Or perhaps my presence,” snapped Val, “resenting him through no fault of his own for not being the Jack I loved, will only make him feel all the more worthless.” She folded her arms, tightly. “Not to mention Ebreth, who I still haven’t forgiven from the Paris mission. What if that harms him somehow? I may hold grudges, brother, but I hardly want to see good people suffer over them.”
“What did Ebreth do on the Paris mission?” Vas said curiously. He was more interested in that than in Val’s obsessive anxiety about the Hotel anyway, and hoped she might change the subject. “Telling you it was a mistake to sleep with Rani, you mean?”
“It was hardly that trivial, Vastarin,” she said bitterly. “The implication about my character was bad enough; it was the lecture about being unfair to Jack that still hurts. Where was he when Jack left me?”
“With the Remnant,” Vas answered.
Val blinked at him. She’d only been half-way through her rant. “What?”
“Ebreth,” said Vas, regarding her in confusion. “He was with the Remnant when Jack left. Not with us. Remember?”
Valende clearly hadn’t. “Where were you?” she amended painfully, and turned her back. “No one had a word of reproach for Jack, much less sympathy for me... not you, not Khyrisse, none of you. You all just gave him a free pass without ever asking. I needed him, and he never even said goodbye.” She looked over her shoulder at her brother, her dark eyes brimming. “I needed you.”
“Oh, Valende.” Vas took her sorrowfully in his arms. “There was so much else going on... Skitch had just died, and then when the other Parises started acting so strange... I think milady and I just assumed he might be possessed, or at least insane. And Ebreth, as I recall, did have a few four-letter words about the boy’s defection once he found out about it. Jack even apologized for it.”
“To Ebreth,” Valende said sharply. “Not to me.”
“Well, Ebreth was the one who confronted him about it, wasn’t he?”
“What are you taking their side for?” she barked. “Are you going to defend that Paris girl calling me a slut next?”
“Of course not, Valende,” he sighed. “She was in the wrong. As was Jack, and Ebreth. But they were also acting from love, and that does make a difference. Mina’s emotional outburst in defense of Jack can hardly be compared to Vickie Dare accusing you of whoring around merely as ammunition in an argument. Ebreth was trying to help you, however like a bull in a china shop he may have gone about it. And as for Jack, his thoroughly misguided self-sacrifice was meant to save the Rat Pack. If I could accept your rather unwise liaison with Rani knowing it was motivated by your love for her, then surely I must accept the less wise behavior of our friends if I know their intentions were good?” Val didn’t say anything, and Vas sighed. “I must, Valende. It’s my only hope of salvation.” That did make her crack a smile, but it didn’t free Vas from what had to come next. “Perhaps you had better sit down.”
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