She hated it when I’d call her that, of course. Back when we were kids and she was insisting with all the illogic of the age that twelve was a perfectly adult number of years and she deserved the respect and consideration of any other adventurer, she was simultaneously insisting that three and a half was an insignificant number of years among elves and I was her elder in technicality only. Pointing out the discrepancy between those two arguments, which I did with some frequency, was a good way to get kicked in the ankle, which I also did a lot.
Those were good days, back before I screwed everything up. This is the part no one else is going to tell you: Khyri’s first marriage was my fault. Oh, he courted her, of course, and she fell for him. He proposed, and she accepted. But what caused it all was that I married a sixteen-year-old girl named Miyrr.
I look at Miyrr, sitting in the first pew with our kids. She’s still a pretty woman, twenty-five years and three childbirths thicker. Back then she was a bombshell. Lustrous black hair down past her waist, legs up to here. She was my first love, from a family that expected marriage and a country that expected it young. I would have cut my hand off if she wanted me to. I wound up cutting out Khyri’s heart, and there’s still part of me that has never forgiven Miyrr for it. Marrying her made my father-in-law the head of my family, and that put him in charge of my dependents. My little, as the Cynystrans said without fear for their ankles, sister.
She was fifteen. A minor, back in Dyved. Forcing her to marry someone would have been a felony where we came from. In Cynystra the age of consent is fourteen, and an unmarried daughter a financial burden. Cor Minarye started talking to his business partners about selling Khyri off before the cake was stale. It was Eric who intervened. At the time I could have kissed his feet. And she had the biggest crush on him, so when he offered to solve Cor’s problem and Khyri’s in one fell swoop, I thought it was the best for everyone. It was better, I told myself, than one of Cor’s golf buddies who needed a new wife, someone Khyri would be terrified of and want nothing to do with. At least this way she was being married to someone she was in love with. He just wasn’t in love with her. She didn’t know that then, but I did. And I’ve been carrying that secret around with me for twenty-five years, getting heavier and blacker in my heart with each tear I’ve seen stand in her eyes. Maybe today, I’m thinking, watching her wobble down the aisle again on our father’s arm, is the day we can finally rewrite all those things we got wrong back then. Maybe this is the day I can have a little sister again.
There are six hundred and seventy-eight vices in the Book of Tal.
Not like that’s the only religion in the world or anything. Hell, it ain’t even the one with the biggest hang-up about sin. Butt Gumby in my brain here thinks it’s a sin to kick a rock down the street. Giving me hell about it the other day. I didn’t ask for this job.
But anyway, there are six hundred and seventy-eight vices in the Book of Tal. I know this because my gramma Eveline Paris used to tell me so every time I went over to her flarkin’ estate. “There are six hundred and seventy-eight vices in the Book of Tal, Asinus,” she’d tell me, meanwhile with my ear in the kind of grip that’d leave a dent in it all week. “Are you bound and determined to try each one?”
Well, so far I’m up to five hundred and eighty-two. Six hundred and five if you count the ones about bestiality, which are mostly written to condemn the participant with the human body, know what I mean.
Five hundred and eighty-two different vices, and what’s making me feel dirty for the first time in thirty, maybe forty years? Watching Khyrisse Starshadow float towards this dais like some flarkin’ angel of light, I am for once not checking out any of the more appealing quarters of her anatomy.
I am pretending she’s coming to me.
Crowd looks all right. No sign of trouble yet, and I’d be the one to see it. Plenty of surveillance lines active, of course. And undoubtedly all kinds of political machinations and hidden allegiances among the guests that Rissa has no clue about, but frankly I don’t care about any of it. My big concern right now is Gilans, that and whatever extraplanar conquest the casement’s been hinting at. There are at least two Gilan conspirators in attendance today, probably more, and all the intelligence is that they’re planning something big. International function like this, political representatives from across Ataniel, all twelve Mithril Dagger Heroes. Hell of a target. No one else is going to have their eyes open competently, so I do.
Rissa, of course, is clean. She’d be an open book even if I hadn’t had years to learn her ins and outs, which I have. Derek same. The husband’s more of a question mark, but he wouldn’t attack today regardless. Disrupting your own wedding is a counterproductive exercise for anyone. For my part, if I’d known the Godmaker ring was going to turn Rissa appalling colors I would have saved it for an anniversary present. Melodrama does nothing but call pointless attention to you, that and waste time that could have been better spent. And from the dossier I’ve got this Tor hasn’t got the subtlety for a gambit like that anyway. What he does with her heart I couldn’t care less. His allegiances will be clear enough with time.
The rest of them, though. The one I’m wary of is Mad Sallie, I can tell you that much. Shows up out of nowhere as Rissa’s long-lost mother, knowing just enough to pull it off and conveniently amnesiac about the rest. Any third-level Gilan spy could handle that role. Derek believes it, but that’s not much more helpful a recommendation than Rissa’s. Good man Derek, but incurably naďve. Then there’s the crew on the dais. Taizi briefed me on them before I came. Cop on the left flank is Grace Averdale, police chief out of Wyndar. Security guard on the right is the Grendelian mercenary Kingfisher. Lora and Asinus Paris I know, Mina and Jack Paris their niece and nephew. Luthien I met during the troubles. Smart man, full of himself, your basic necromancer. A lot like his father was back before he went mad. Could be trouble down the line, probably none now. Rhynwa the death priestess, used to fight the Gilans. Val and Vas, couple of oversexed Liratyn elves who’ve done some work with Luthien. Marty Hu, apparently the Imperator’s brother, not much known about him till recently. Stupid thing could be an act. And this Aithne. Newly arrived to our timeline, that I could verify. So she can’t be a part of any long-standing schemes, but doesn’t have ten years of resume to extrapolate from like Rhynwa or Asinus, either. She could do anything. Live wire.
Right now, though, there’s nothing but a wedding. So I lean forward in a perfect pretense of interest as Rissa comes down the aisle. Let the tabloids think I’m intent on an ex-wife’s nuptials, let the politicians think me busy feigning it for the cameras. My attention has not been diverted for an instant. There is nothing in this pavilion that will escape my notice, and the only one who knows it is actually probably Rissa Starshadow.
She’s beautiful, of course. Isn’t the bride always beautiful? She looks like she’s about to throw up, I grant you, but given her history it’s perfectly understandable, not to mention these hot lights on a woman in her condition. No one uses soft lighting anymore. No one makes allowances. Khyrisse is my friend, one of a very few I would honor with that word, and I’m willing to give her what no one would give me.
The organ is playing traditional elven music. I picked this out for her myself, a sonata to deliver my blessing. I am not always a person I am proud of. I am sometimes racist, Sehanine forgive me. I am unstable in my emotions more often than I care to admit. I can hold a grudge, and believe me, I haven’t forgotten Ebreth calling me a slut after I slept with Rani last year, even if he didn’t say it in exactly so many words the way Mina did. But I want this to work between them, this pasirel, this marriage, with all my heart I do. Khyrisse is my friend, and though Ebreth is not he is a good man, a decent man, and he’s been through a lot to earn this. I’m willing to give them what no one would give me. I want them to be happy.
And there is more. I don’t think I’m giving away a secret when I say this world has been dim for me since my gods and my people left. I am Ataniel’s last disciple of the departed elven pantheon. I only stayed behind for my brother’s sake, my brother with the broken heart he’s still trying to salve in the callow attentions of other races. It has not been healing him, and it has not been healing me. I am feeling very low these days, very alone. And so I want Khyrisse to live long and well with this foreigner who adores her, I want them to have beautiful mixed-race children who defy my uneasy concerns. I want it because she is my friend, but I also want it for myself, for Vas, for my lost Jack who doomed us both with his misguided sacrifices, for this new Jack I can hardly bear to look at beside me. I want it for every star that seems to shine less brightly in the sky. I may have given up on it for myself, but I still need at some level to believe in love.
Get used to it, Sideshow, said Roxy, sitting next to Eric Tremontagne. You’re the odd man out on the musical chairs of love. Always have been, always will be.
There is still time, protested Flicker, sitting next to Kayla the waitress.
Oh, there is not, snorted Rhynwa, sitting next to Luthien.
If you can’t play, agreed Tila, sitting between two male models, then get out of the way.
You don’t need a partner to be fulfilled in life, objected Sister Jane, sitting next to the illuminated light of Tal. I do not.
Yeah, but that’s bah choice on youh paht, sistah, drawled Palmer, sitting next to Tria.
It’s not like women have never been interested in him, you know, Duke Faraker pointed out, sitting next to Lady Jenny. Had quite the booty call back in Castle Lianth, hey, Schneider? Getting some in the ‘Tour, too. Khyrisse, then Roxy. No small potatoes there.
What does it mean without love? shrugged Max, sitting next to Valleri. They didn’t really care about him at all. Most of them were bored. Khyri just slept with him because she was mad at me. And Roxy...
I could have loved you, Roxy admitted. But you just couldn’t do right by me, could you, Sideshow? Had to go cheating on me. Had to go lying to me. You weren’t worth my love.
At least you’ve found someone better, Khyrisse consoled, sitting next to Ebreth Tor. At least Eric’s not insane.
This is not just, protested Janther, sitting next to Syndriannia. Eric treated you much more poorly than Schneider ever has.
Hah! said Khyrisse. That’s just because Eric’s less impotent. Tell them, Skneeder. Tell them what you would have done to me if you could have.
No, croaked Schneider, alone on the stage. No that was Bane, it was...
Found your tongue at last? said Praxis keenly, sitting next to Inez. Is this, then, the one you’re embarrassed enough of to hide?
Tell them, Skneeder, said Khyrisse. Tell them what you did to the girl Bane made you mistake for me.
Did she... suffer? said Jane uneasily.
Did she plead for her life? said Max.
Say it isn’t so, Schneider, said Janther.
Did you enjoy it? frowned Eric.
Would you try it again, frowned Ebreth, if you thought you could?
Was it you? whispered Roxy.
Was it me?
Please, Grendel, don’t let me faint.
Please, Grendel, don’t let me faint.
The photographers’ lights are so bright you can barely see anything at all in the glare. Last time I walked into the light like this...
Please, Grendel, don’t let me faint.
Another unsteady footfall, another trembling step. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn heels this high. I just didn’t want to be so depressingly short, not today... But it would be worse to fall, and my head is swimming so, the lights so bright I can’t even see where I’m going. How hard can I lean on my father’s arm without scaring anyone? This aisle is excruciatingly long, the lights like scalding water.
The last time I walked into the light like this.
It was not my first marriage. It was the day I became a god.
Please, Grendel, don’t let me fail.
Footfall, and another step. From the glare his silhouette is emerging, something from nothing, the fragments of my once-divine sight. If this is my second chance, I am thinking, wobbling under the weight of all my accumulated missteps. If there is one thing I can get right, then let me be worthy of this one now.
He is standing somewhere before me, taller than the others, straight, and with blood roaring so in my ears that I cannot hear the music I am walking towards him, one step and then another.
To Live Is To Fly
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said Sister Jane, smiling kindly on the unsteady-looking Khyrisse, “friends and neighbors, we are gathered here today to celebrate two lives coming together as one.”
Jack smiled. This was right: the fitting end to a wonderful story. Ebreth did look rather dazed, but he took her hand with his usual ready grace and his arm was steady as she clung to it. The bride delivered, Derek took Sallie’s arm from their son and the two joined the rest of the wedding party on the dais. The priestess was still talking, but the content of her speech didn’t matter much, and not only did she know it, it seemed to please her. She could be reading from the New Trade personnel directory. Khyrisse and Ebreth were the only two people in New Trade who mattered right now, and it made Jack happy, after all they’d done for others, to see a few moments that were just for them. Jack couldn’t think of anyone who deserved it more.
“In the wake of the recent tragedies,” Sister Jane was saying, “it has been hard for many of us to maintain our faith. But true faith is found only in love. This is written in the Book of Tal, and it is written in the human heart. Only through love, through coming together and having the strength to rebuild, will we overcome.” Jack glanced at Khyrisse to see if the references to the Madness were causing her distress, but it didn’t look like it. She didn’t look like she could hear a thing the priestess was saying, actually. He hoped she’d figure it out when it was time to say “I do.” Ebreth looked more serious than Jack had ever seen him, his eyes locked onto Khyrisse’s with some depth of emotion his face was not used to conveying.
Ebreth had not needed his best friend’s encouragement to pursue the beautiful sorceress. He hadn’t needed any advice from him to win her. But this marriage, this moment of amazed realization in their eyes, that was Jack’s fault.
And it was a pretty darn good legacy, if he did say so himself.
Ebreth stood watching her face, very little of the rogue about him for once. It was starting to dawn on him that this was actually happening, that she was standing here with flowers in her hair giving herself to him in front of four hundred people and six teams of international photographers. Pinned between the inappropriate impulses to either break down weeping or make love to her right there on the dais, what he managed was a sort of awed paralysis. It had to be more or less presentable, he figured, because otherwise Sallie would be frowning at him. As for Khyrisse, she knew what he was thinking all right. “Only the gloves, s’parde-vois,” she whispered, giving him a wobbly smile along with her silk-clad hands to unveil. He didn’t say anything back, slid them off slowly and rather intensely, one at a time, without taking his eyes from hers. Khyrisse, in front of four hundred people and six teams of international photographers, shivered.
He was blown away by the affirmation of this all, the sheer concept. The first time she admitted she was in love with him in front of the Rat Pack, it humiliated her so much she turned red and ran out of the room. Ebreth could hardly blame her with the mess he must have seemed to them all back then. He was only a little stronger now, honestly, but she seemed to have forgotten that in the day’s hysteria, and now here she was in public letting everyone see she wanted him. It was enough to leave a man dumbstruck.
They were supposed to read poems or something. The traditional “honor and obey” vows still gave Khyrisse flashbacks. She was going through hers now: How do I love thee, let me count the ways. What Ebreth knew about poems could fill a shot glass. Jack had lent him a well-dogeared book called “Greatest Love Poems” that Ebreth wasn’t very impressed with. He’d spent enough years as a pirate to know a get-a-girl-into-bed line when he heard one, and pretty much every poem in the book was, even if Jack was too naďve to know it. One of them reminded him of her, though. Nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands, it said. He looked at them in his, so soft and sweet, and then he put them to his chest as she spoke. Her voice was small and wavering but did not falter. “I love thee with the passion put to use in my old griefs,” she said, “and with my childhood’s faith. I love thee with a love I seemed to lose with my lost saints. I love thee with the breath, smiles, tears, of all my life, and, if God choose, I shall but love thee better after death.” God, you are beautiful, he wanted to say back to her. Khyrisse, my love, my wife. But he didn’t know if he trusted his voice to say it, and he didn’t know if it would come out sounding like he meant it anyway. And maybe that was what poetry was for after all, letting her say she loved him in public without fleeing, giving him the crack in his stupefied wonder he needed to speak through. Jack had been right about so many other things.
“Somewhere I have never travelled,” he began, “gladly beyond any experience, your eyes have their silence: in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me.”
Down in the city square, church bells were ringing their song of triumph.
“If anyone here today knows of any good reason why these two people should not be married,” Sister Jane called out, “speak now or forever hold your peace.”
Everyone held their peace.
“If anyone wants to attack and turn the groom into a disgusting undead thing and ruin the wedding night,” Rhynwa added with a threatening glare for the audience at large, “do it now!”
“Still bitter, huh?” Vas whispered sympathetically to Luthien. Luthien nodded.
Anyone with such aspirations wisely waited for a time High Priestess Rhynwa, not to mention just about every high-level hero on the planet, wasn’t in attendance. “Then do you, Khyrisse Paris Starshadow, take this man Ebreth to be your lawfully wedded husband,” asked the nun, “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”
“Yes,” whispered Khyrisse, holding his hands very tightly. “Yes, I do.”
“And do you, Ebreth Tor, take this woman Khyrisse to be your lawfully wedded wife, for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you both shall live?”
“With all my heart,” said Ebreth.
“Then by the power vested in me by Tal and the state of New Trade, I pronounce you man and wife.”
“You can kiss the bride,” Rhynwa added.
He leaned over and did, very softly, looked down at her for a few moments with such emotion in his impossibly blue eyes it seemed for a heartbeat that he almost might disappear into them.
Then he pulled her entirely off the ground and up to him for a better kiss. Tila, somewhere in the audience, ululated.
“I think you’ve got something in your eye, Rani,” Garal whispered, leaning across to her.
“Shut up, Tinderhook.”
The wedding was in an outdoor pavilion. As such, there were no arrases in view of the altar.
This left Ariath hiding behind a tree.
She hoped no one would look for her too hard. Without Omeria’s protection, there was no political reason for Khyri not to vent her wrath at her, assuming the sorceress still had wrath to vent. Besides, it looked like Rhynwa had brought her scythe.
But even if Ari wasn’t in the good graces offering her congratulations would have required--even if she’d backstabbed the bride once, and Khyri had returned the favor (Ariath assumed) by getting the little thief evicted from Bloodscar--she was damned if she was going to miss the wedding. After all, it was Ari who’d set the two of them up.
She peeked around the tree, smiling a smile romantically indulgent enough that it probably would have made Khyrisse want to slap her upside the head.
Happily for everyone involved, the archmage never saw her.
Ariath watched the ceremony with genuine gladness in her heart.