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Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 8
It was a beautiful evening in New Trade, clear and crisp and quiet. Ebreth, Jack, and Garal were having a couple of beers on the low stone wall outside the Rat Trap, watching the sunset. The days had warmed up, but the nights were still a bit stiff for Ebreth’s Caribbean blood. He’d found a full-length Brytannic greatcoat from a Cynystran import shop, though, which was both too warm and too
kickass-looking for him to keep complaining about the weather. Jack, who controlled his environmental constants, and Garal, who’d been to the Ice Planet of Hoth, were both in their shirtsleeves. The two were telling him about their adventures in the Tower of Wax. They’d gotten to the part where Vickie Dare stuck the shaft of Kingfisher’s Grendel-fork through the spokes of the Wheelie Commander, and all three of them were laughing.
Then someone else arrived.
“Hi Schneider,” said Garal, oblivious to the sudden tension in the air.
Jack blinked. He’d never actually met the notorious jester in person before, and he didn’t look the way Jack had imagined. From the sparse memories of his Other, he’d had the vague impression of a masked wit with a biting tongue; from Ebreth’s comments he’d expected a sinister, psychologically
menacing man. Schneider fit neither description. Instead he was ashen, thin to the point of anorexia, had dark circles under his eyes, and he looked sad. “Howdy, Garal,” he said. He was carrying a box.
“If you’re looking for Khyrisse,” Ebreth said quietly, “she and Tila are having dinner at the Jardin.”
“I didn’t know Tila was in town,” murmured Schneider, momentarily derailed by a sentimental longing. It’d been so long since he’d seen Tila. He felt like a bad friend. “Maybe... well, maybe.” He shook it off. “Anyway, I’m not here to talk to Khyrisse, Eight, I’m... here to talk to you.”
Ebreth raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.
“It’s like this,” continued Schneider, not looking at the former slaver. “We’re not really going to know whose junior is for another seven months, right?”
Ebreth frowned. He didn’t much care for this as a public topic of conversation, but he didn’t suppose Schneider was bringing it up to mock him, not after losing his own woman over the whole mess. “Right,” he supplied minimally.
“Right, well, you ever hear of something called Schroedinger’s Theory?”
“Relativity application, right?” said Garal.
“Post-relativity, actually,” Jack corrected. “It’s quantum mechanics. The theory holds that phenomena don’t exist until they’re observed. The canonical example is a cat in a closed box. You don’t know if it’s alive or dead. Until you open the box, both realities are still possible. So the cat’s actually alive and dead at the same time.”
“Like time-traveling,” agreed Garal. “Everyone knows all the possible futures exist out there, but actually, all the possible presents still do too. That’s how you get alternate realities.”
“It’s like ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’,” Jack tried to help Ebreth back into the conversation.
“I... thought Borges was making that up,” frowned Ebreth.
“Uh,” said Schneider, a bit intimidated by the detailed response his metaphor had gotten out of the mathematician and the planeblazer. “Right. Anyway, my, uh, point is: until October or so, me and you are both... dad. So we probably ought to be cooperating a little more till we find out. Taking care of mom-to-be and all that. Especially since, y’know, I still care about Khyri either way, still care what happens to her and her kid. I, uh, assume you do too.”
“That’s a safe assumption,” Ebreth said.
“Right. So, uh, here.” He put the box on the table, still not meeting Ebreth’s eyes.
“There had better not be a cat in this,” Ebreth said.
“Well, technically,” said Garal, “until you open it, there is.”
He opened it. No cat, but there were several jars of... “Pickles?” Ebreth said.
“You’ll be glad to have ‘em soon enough,” Schneider said. “Trust me. The, uh, book’s for you.”
Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, read the cover.
“I figured you could probably use all the help you could get,” said Schneider. “If Schroedinger’s baby turns out to be yours, y’know.”
That made Ebreth’s frown deepen considerably, but he did say “Thanks.”
“I’ll, uh, be going now,” mumbled Schneider. “The Jardin, you said?”
“What are the pickles for?” Garal asked Jack. Jack shrugged.
Ebreth watched the jester go, his hand still closed a little harder than it needed to be. The book was a pretty good present, actually--there couldn’t be too many people on Ataniel who knew less about babies than Ebreth Tor. They were loud, he’d gathered from crowd scenes, and cute; that was about it. It was the contingency that was making him want to kick the shit out of something. If the baby turns out to be mine, I’ll need this? And if it’s not? “Maybe you guys can tell me the rest of the Brass Overlord story another time,” he finally said, standing up. “I’ve kind of lost the mood. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Jack assured him, giving his shoulder a friendly squeeze.
“What do you think of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?” Garal asked him.
Jack settled back down on the stone wall. “Well, on the subatomic level, it certainly makes sound mathematical sense; but metamagically...”
Please Forgive Rhian-Civis' Resident Mommy One Moment Of Demiurgic Aggravation With A Really Inaccurate Stereotype
"Augh!" yelled Khyrisse, putting her hand over her mouth. "Get those pickles out of here! Just looking at them is making me sick!"
"Thanks a lot, Schneider," muttered Ebreth.
Dark And Bitter Tide
Otter didn’t understand the draw topside had on her any better than her family did. She had an abiding hatred of extraneous noise and wasted movement, and the appeal of Ataniel’s herky-jerky motions and the shrill voices constantly splitting its thin air was one that completely bypassed her mind on its way to her heart. Otter supposed there was something in the sheer inevitability of gravity she liked somehow. To think on it more than that would have been a waste of energy. Salmon swim upstream, the freshwater saying went. There was no sense wondering why.
Small silver darters swarmed through Otter’s path as she pulled past the reef’s underwater pinks and purples with long and efficient strokes. One of the problems with this place was that fish were just plain stupid, of course. Here she was, a large, dangerous predator, and the darters weren’t even capable of altering their course enough not to bump into her. The only other mammals with a presence in the East Sea were dolphins, and they stuck to the open oceans. Next to Otter’s people, the brightest reef inhabitants were octopi, and their silent little shanty towns and eerie asocial intelligence were too much like time spent alone to interest Otter long. She’d been home nearly a week this time, and, as usual, she was bored. Time to return, then, to riding the waves on hollow wooden shells, to be a stranger again among human sailors who, like the whales of the Great North, sang constantly for no real reason at all. She didn’t understand them, and so she longed for them. Otter was usually a stranger, and when it came time to go she didn’t spend her time arguing. She did not, generally, say goodbye.
Otter’s legs undulated in tight up-and-down waves that propelled her horizontally along the reef ledge and away from her ancestral cove. We should have named you Shark, her father would complain. You don’t know your own motives, and so even when you’re still you are never still. Otter’s father loved words, especially ones he spoke himself. Otter knew that the reason sharks were never still was that their primitive gills relied on motion to push air through their system, and didn’t listen to her father much.
Today, though, as Otter banked down and to her right towards a change of light her eye suddenly caught, it did occur to her, in an almost revelatory flash, that she did not know why she was doing it.
For the first time in the clean, focused lines of her life, Otter was about to find herself wondering.
A shadow slid through the other shadows, across Otter’s throat, and the water went mottled and then dark.
Take Me Or Leave Me
Ebreth sat on the rim of the fountain in the main plaza of New Trade and trailed his fingers in the water. “Khyrisse,” he said, softly, “Look, I’ve been--putting this off.” Her good mood abruptly fled from the corners of her mouth, and he winced a little and looked away. “But I need to know, Khyrisse. What are you planning to do here?”
She expelled air and sat down herself. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “It depends on the, paternity, of the baby, I guess. If it’s Schneider’s--”
“No,” said Ebreth. “Khyrisse, look. That is not acceptable. I’m willing to commit to you and this child, but I need something back. I am not just going to sit here for seven months waiting to see if I have a family or not. I’m worth more than that. Do you want me, or don’t you?”
“Oh, Ebreth, of course I want you,” she said, with impatient tenderness. “This has nothing to do with that.”
“Yes,” he said, “it does. Do you want me to be the father of your child, or not? I need to know this now, Khyrisse, not in October.”
“Either way I want you to help me raise this baby,” said Khyrisse. “How could giving Schneider a share diminish yours?”
Ebreth slammed his hand into the water. “Don’t quote Valende at me!” he shouted.
She flinched hard. “Ebreth!”
He turned away again. “Sorry,” he said, muted. “Listen, Khyrisse, I can’t do this. I can’t tell you ‘yes’ now and wait seven months to see if you say ‘yes’ back. I can’t take it.”
“I’m not going to sleep with him, Ebreth.” She pushed her hair angrily out of her face. “This isn’t like that. How is saying ‘yes’ to Schneider saying ‘no’ to you?”
“Because I don’t trust that guy further than I can throw him,” he said. “You can’t ask me to put my heart into a child and then cheerfully hand it off to a man who uses psychological warfare against people who can’t defend themselves because it makes him feel better about himself.”
“He would never hurt a child,” Khyrisse said, clearly with less conviction than she’d like.
“Would he save a child?” Ebreth rubbed his forehead. “Would he teach a child? Is he going to tell our kid that it’s OK to twist the knife in someone as long as you don’t kill him? Is he going to tell him that’s a good deed?” Khyrisse put both her hands over her mouth, like she hadn’t thought of that. “I am not willing to just give him custody of a child that’s part of my family. And if you do want this to be my family, Khyrisse... you have to say it now. Not in October if the genes happen to go my way.”
“This isn’t fair to Schneider, Ebreth,” she said in a throttled voice.
“No, probably not,” he said. “It’s not my place to decide what’s fair to Schneider. It wasn’t fair to me to tell Schneider he could have this kid half the time without even consulting me.” She shut her eyes and trembled, and he forced himself to calm down. When he spoke again his voice was soft and free of accusation, but Ebreth Tor was resolute. “It’s not fair to me to make me pend my future on a paternity test. This decision gets made now. Khyrisse--my cards are on the table here. You know I love you, you know I want, I want to have a family with you. You know what I want, now--I need to know what you want. I need you to commit back, here, or--” He closed his hand. “Or let me go.”
Ebreth could hear her breathing.
“I, think I’m going to stay at Jack’s tonight,” he whispered over her devastating silence. “You go on home and think, think it over, come tell me in the morning what you want. Maybe you need some time to think. Khyrisse...” He reached his hand across to hers painfully. “Whatever decision you make,” he said, his fingers on her ringless fingers. “We’ll be all right. We’ve come so far, you and I. You don’t need me or Schneider. And whatever decision you make, we’ll still be standing. Both of us.” Her eyes were fragile and almost black, and Ebreth’s hand lingered on hers for just a few seconds more than he’d meant before he withdrew it. “I’ll be at Jack’s,” he said again. He’d stopped trying to keep tears from running down his face. “Please, Khyrisse, just--come and tell me, tomorrow. I’ll be waiting. Don’t think this doesn’t matter to me.” She just stared at him, her heart beating like a frightened bird’s wings. “I’ll be waiting,” he said, and turned away from the woman he loved, and walked silently through the darkening plaza.
Khyrisse’s breath left her in a strangled gasp, but Ebreth was already gone, melted into the shadows of the far side of the square, like he’d been a dream. She put out a trembling hand and wrapped it hard around the lamppost, trying to convince herself that it was still there.
It’s not fair. I can’t do this. It’s just not fair, she thought miserably. I didn’t want to tell Schneider in the first place! I thought it would only complicate things. Ebreth convinced me to tell him. Ebreth said it wasn’t fair not to let him know. She sank down onto a cushioned bench in the front hallway, not quite sure how she’d gotten back to the house. So now what am I supposed to tell him? “Oh, the baby might be yours, so I figured I should let you know--but you’re totally bughouse, so you can’t come near us. Have a nice life”? She pulled her hair. It would have been kinder not to tell him at all, then! How can I do that to him? Khyrisse covered her face with her hands, moaning. After what I did to him and Max... after what happened with Roxy! I can’t! I just can’t! Why do I always have to choose between my heart and my conscience, dammit?
“Mom...?” She started, looking up at her son, standing puzzled on the stairs. “Are you all right?”
“No, kiddo,” she said, holding back both tears and her rising sense of panic. “I’m not.”
Khyrisse lost the battle and put her head down on her arms, crying bitterly.
“She said she couldn’t make any promises till the baby was born,” Ebreth said, very quietly, “because it wasn’t fair to Schneider. I said if she wasn’t going to commit to me I was leaving. She just, didn’t say anything.” He poured himself another drink, with a heavy sigh. “I’d rather know this now, I guess. She doesn’t really owe me anything. I was thinking maybe I’d go north, join a whaler or something. Somewhere there’s no women. Anywhere but here.”
“Uh, well, this isn’t really my field of expertise,” said Jack, fidgeting a bit. “But I’d put the odds at about 95.08% that she’ll reconcile it with you.”
Ebreth looked at him funny. “I thought you couldn’t tell what people would do mathematically.”
“Uh, I’m going by inductive reasoning on this, not deductive. Out of the sixty-one times you guys have disagreed on things, she’s lightened up fifty-eight of those times.”
“You really counted?”
“Uh, well... me and the other guy.”
“Thanks,” Ebreth said wearily, and put his hand on the mathematician’s. “I’m glad someone’s looking out for me.”
Khyrisse struggled out of the pale green light of her dreams, choking. With a wordless shriek that scared Skitch out of his own dreams and about a decade of life, she caught up her longsword and ran down the hallway into his empty room. Melissa yowled in terror and streaked under Skitch’s bed.
Khyrisse yanked the Oyster Totem out of the desk drawer, shoved the clutter of homework violently aside, and banged the artifact down in the cleared square of hardwood. Clenching the base of the blade so tightly that blood trickled down the steel, she slammed the hilt of her sword down into it, smashing the totem repeatedly until it flew apart into a million coruscating fragments.
Wyvern’s soft, civilized, mocking laughter still rang in her ears.
He didn’t look like he’d slept at all, really. Khyrisse guessed she didn’t look much better herself.
The sun was still working on rising, but Ebreth was always awake by four or five, and Jack didn’t need
sleep, so there was no reason to wait at home wearing a hole in the carpet and going over and over it in
her mind. “I thought... mabye we could talk outside?” she said in a gravelly voice, showing him the thermoses she’d brought for them in the basket on her arm.
“Sure,” said Ebreth. Khyrisse couldn’t place the look on his face.
She wished she could think of something to say related to anything other than the fight they were having as they walked down the stairs together and out of the Rat Trap, but she couldn’t.
Khyrisse sat down on the rim of the fountain and handed him the thermos of coffee, then poured some tea for herself. Out of procrastinations, she held the little mug and just stared down into the rising steam. Ebreth started to reach out for her bandaged right hand, but he paused, and then he drew his hand back and looked away. “You wanted to talk,” he finally prompted her, softly.
She shivered and stared into the rapidly cooling peppermint tea. “I wish we’d never told Schneider about this in the first place,” she whispered.
“He would have found out from Vas, then. Good God, Khyrisse.”
Khyrisse started, and turned her head to blink at him. “I--I hadn’t thought of that. That would have been awful. That would have been worse.” She shook her head, tears starting to well in her eyes again. “But how can I tell him and then turn around and say “Here’s what you can’t have”? It’s just so cruel, Ebreth, and after he lost Roxy and everything...”
“Can we talk about us?” he said plainly. “This suspense is worse than ‘go away’. Schneider’s lovelife is not something I give a damn about right now. I want to know about ours.”
“I am talking about us.” Khyrisse put her tea down and wrapped her arms around herself miserably. “I’ve been up all night trying to convince myself to act against my conscience to keep you from leaving, but it wouldn’t be right, Ebreth!” She took a deep, ragged breath and added in a pained rush, with the air of a woman striking the nails into her own coffin, “I don’t, I can’t do that.”
He blinked at her a few times. “What?”
“I said I can’t,” she said, in the smallest voice she’d ever forced out of her throat.
“No, I heard that part. Where does your conscience come into this?”
“Because I can’t just kick Schneider out of my life like this. It would be wrong,” she said, anguished.
There were three absolutely silent beats. “What. Are you. Talking about.,” said Ebreth.
Khyrisse felt cold prickles shooting through what was left of her nervous system. “You--that wasn’t what you were asking?”
“Then--what?” she whispered numbly.
“A place in your life,” he said, “regardless of how you got pregnant, the same place.” Khyrisse felt more like fainting than she had since reading Eric’s letter about her father. She wasn’t sure if she’d made a sound or not. “I said this last night. I’m willing to commit to you either way, but--only if you’re willing to do the same for me.”
“Oh gods,” whispered Khyrisse, shaking. The combination of her faint morning sickness and how near she’d come to sending Ebreth away without even knowing what she’d said ‘no’ to almost made her lose it in the fountain, but she battled down the nausea. “Oh my flarking Grendel. Yes, I am. Yes. We can work this out. Stay.”
Ebreth closed his eyes and exhaled. “Montasi,” he said, something Khyrisse didn’t think she’d ever heard him say. “You just about gave me a heart attack over your relationship with Schneider?”
“I’m sorry!” Khyrisse said, anguished. “I thought--when you brought him up last night...”
“That was you,” said Ebreth. “I said ‘What about me,’ you kept talking about Schneider.”
She opened her mouth, shut it again, and dropped her head wearily into her hands. “I’m all muddled,” she said, not quite whimpering.
“Look,” he said. “We already settled Schneider as far as I’m concerned. I don’t have to like him, and you don’t have to dislike him. I never asked you to cut him off. I don’t know where you got that. What I don’t want is you and him making decisions about this child without even talking to me about it. It’s not all right with me for Schneider to share custody of this kid with you.”
“I--I got that part,” she whispered. “And I think I agree with you, too... But he wants to be part of the baby’s life somehow, and I have to let him.”
“I’m fine with his visitation rights, Khyrisse,” said Ebreth, a little impatiently. “This isn’t about Schneider. Can we forget Schneider? I want to be the one you make these decisions with, not the one you tell them to as an afterthought.” He opened the thermos she’d brought for him, finally, and poured himself a cup with an unsteady hand. “I can take it if you have another man’s baby, but not if that changes my status. It’s not fair to make me wait like this.”
Khyrisse swallowed and nodded, trying to get hold of what remained of her composure. “You didn’t--think I was going to throw you over for Schneider if the baby was his, did you?”
He stopped with the cup still at his lips. “Well, it had crossed my mind,” he finally said, “but that’s not really what this is about, no. You’re so wrapped up in what might upset Schneider you’ve got my life on hold. I don’t have a lot of pride left here, Khyrisse. I’m not going to wait in the closet until you figure out who got you pregnant. Family friend with an option to upgrade if the DNA falls out favorably is not good enough. Even I have more self-esteem than that.” He drank deeply. “If you want me here, want me either way, then I need you to say so now, and hang how that makes Schneider feel. And if you’re not going to want me involved, if it’s not mine... then I’d rather know that now too.”
“I do,” she whispered, “either way. We can make this work, I promise. Let’s go home.”
He made a long sigh and finished off his coffee. “Khyrisse?”
“What?” she managed, barely audibly.
“I’m glad you wouldn’t stop seeing your friends if I did ask you to.”
She decided not to tell him how close she’d actually come. “I, guess I’m glad you think you deserve not to be strung along,” she said shakily. “But now we know, so let’s not do this again, okay?”
“No kidding. Come here.”
Khyrisse practically threw herself across to him and clung to him, shivering. He wrapped one arm around her and took her bandaged right hand in his, pressing her palm gently to his chest. “What did you do to yourself, anyway?” he whispered into her hair.
“I got rid of a troublemaker,” she said, muffled.
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