“You!” said Kit. “What do you... look, I’m right in the middle of a tough fight, and--”
“You’re not in the middle of anything but my store, right now,” said Magnate, taking a long drag on his cigarette. He looked older than the last two times Kit had seen him, tired lines etched hard into his long, drawn face. “Well beyond the reach of space and time. And the one who brought you here would be you, not me, so there’s no point in asking what I want. The question is what you want.”
Kit blinked. “Well,” she said, “how about something to defeat six semi-immortal beings called the Sebetekh with?”
“Don’t ask for much, do you?” Magnate smirked, turning a set of nesting dolls painted like armed warriors between his hands. “What have you got in trade?”
“This wand of the Ram,” Kit offered. “I’ve been trying to use it to knock them into the Doomrift with, but they just don’t budge.”
Magnate took it and inspected it. “Mortal magic,” he said, handing it back to her. “The Doomlands Rift is attuned to the immortal. You’re never going to be able to push someone into it using mortal force. Nice try, though.”
“So what I need is immortal force?” Kit demanded. “Do you have any?”
“What if I do?” sighed the merchant, looking even more tired. “I could hardly use it to help you.”
“Could you sell it to me?”
Magnate paused a long pause, drew on his cigarette, paused some more. “Everything’s for sale,” he finally said, a strange bitterness in his voice, “for the right price.”
“I’ll give you the wand and my magic lich glasses,” Kit bargained.
“In exchange for immortality?” Magnate said drolly.
“Well it’s all I have, Mister Magnate!” She bit her lip. “I could give you the Heart of Trade back.”
“No buy-backs,” said Magnate.
“Well, I don’t have anything else,” Kit said. “Look, couldn’t you just give it to me? I am trying to save the world, here.”
“Nothing’s free in this world, Kitreyla,” said Magnate, drawing heavily on his cigarette. “If I was Magnate the Giver-Away, Shadow would never have landed here in the first place. You think it doesn’t get to me? Watching the world fall apart, over and over, having all the tools to stop it and none of the power to use them? Yes, I could have saved Ataniel from Shadow. Yes, I could give you what you need to destroy the Sebetekh. Yes, I could stop the Invisible Empire from obliterating Diaria, but I can’t. Everything has its price, Kit, and the price of my power is impotence. I am the Seller. That’s all.”
Kit was quiet a few moments. “You mean,” she said, “you can’t give anybody anything... ever?”
“In a nutshell.” Magnate stubbed out the end of his cigarette and flipped another out of its case.
“What if I just kind of... rented it? Could you sell me immortality just long enough to beat the Sebetekh with? ‘Cause my artifacts would be enough to afford it for just a few minutes, wouldn’t they?”
“That’s not exactly how immortality works,” said Magnate, lighting up his new cigarette. “Being a little bit immortal is like being a little bit dead.”
“You said the price of your power was you always have to sell everything,” Kit said slowly. “What if you sold me immortality, and the price was... how I have to use it?”
“Now,” Magnate said quietly, “you begin to understand.”
“How about if I use it only to save the world with?” Kit said hopefully.
“That would be no kindness on my part,” said Magnate.
“Then it wouldn’t be charity,” Kit said triumphantly, “right?”
“Kit,” said Magnate, “go away. Go far, far away, and never look back.”
“But what about the Sebetekh?” she cried.
“Ataniel has survived much,” he said. “It will survive their rule too. Grow up. Find a home. Have children. Never look back.”
Kit sighed. “I--I guess you’re right,” she mumbled. “How--how do I get out of here?”
“Just go,” said Magnate. “You’ll come out where you want to be.”
“Thanks, Mister Magnate.” She bit her lip and hugged him, harder than she’d meant to, more emotion in it than she’d realized she had. “I--I’m sorry about--everything.”
“I know,” he said, softly.
He stayed in that place, unmoving, until the cigarette had burned down so far it singed his fingers. “Funny,” he murmured, his other hand coming lightly to rest on his ribcage. “It doesn’t feel any different.”
Kit pushed through subspace, immortality crushed in the palm of her hand. It was the biggest heist of her career, but the giddy thrill she usually got from these things was missing today, nothing in its place but an aching, crawling dread. She was saving the world, she admonished herself. That was worth it. If someone came along and stole it from Kit, she wouldn’t be mad. No one kept anything forever anyway. Kit herself hadn’t kept anything of any importance for more than a few years in her life. Family, friends, magic items. They all came and went. This was no different. It would be no different.
She stuffed it into her left side, the same place she had seen the gleaming of it like a loose golden thread beneath Magnate’s jacket. It slid between her ribs easily, like it should have been there all her life. Beyond that, nothing. It didn’t feel any different.
She faced the blank mists of subspace and took a deep breath. No other choice now.
Kit stepped through space and time.
“What is the meaning of this!” thundered the dark man in the faceless silver mask, moving his head back and forth in a strangely violent surveyal of his new surroundings. “You! Gambler! Is this your doing?”
“It’s mine,” said Kit, from beside him.
He whirled on her furiously.
“Get off my planet,” she said, and the storm whipped around her.
Blast From The Past
“Well, his name is Slade,” sighed Chloe, wiping the foggy residue of her commune spell from her eyes. “He was operating in Nylevia before the Perfection, for what that’s worth.”
“Perfection?” winced Sashami, as Berryn set her broken arm.
“Perfection, Ragnarok, Shattering, whatever,” said Alderon, waving his hand. “Is that all you were able to find, Chloe?”
“The spell doesn’t work as well now that my god’s dead,” sighed the priestess.
“Well, it’s something, at least,” Thalia said optimistically. “If he used to be based in Nylevia, maybe he’s gone back there now. Or maybe a Nylevian hero like Noyarc might know something about him, too.”
“It’s unfortunate we couldn’t have gone after him last night,” Sashami said, frustrated.
“We’ll get him eventually,” Alderon assured her. “Thalia’s right... we just need a little help to point us in the right direction.”
A voice cleared behind them. Sashami whipped her axe around bad arm and all; none of the other young adventurers were paranoid enough yet to draw on such a harmless noise. The owner of the voice was a bespectacled blond woman in an old-fashioned dress. “Are you here to give us some deus ex machina assistance finding Slade?” Berryn said hopefully.
The woman squinted at him, and he felt the weird sensation of her mind brushing against his. “No,” she said, “I’m afraid I don’t know anything about that... I’m a newcomer to your world, myself. My name is Princess Kristin, though my royal lineage is long-defunct even in my own homeland.” She looked carefully at Thalia. “And I’m sorry to say I bring dire tidings from Talaria.”
“Talaria?” Thalia paled. “My father... is he in danger?”
“No, young princess,” Kristin said gently, “I’m afraid you are. Allow me, in his stead, to explain.”
The Sebetekh tried to struggle back from the Doomrift, but Kit scrunched up her eyes and pushed them inexorably towards it. Now that Magnate had told her the secret of the Rift, it was easy to use. Her immortal essence itself, directed at the six interplanar beings, was buffeting them towards its maw. Kit could imagine how this had been a devastating battle between two whole parties of gods trying to use their life forces against each other. But Dexy had been right about the Sebetekh... they weren’t gods, and though they could spank her butt six ways to Sunday in any other place, here they were at her mercy. Kit wished they’d known this much about the Rift back when Flicker was trying to face down the Lich Lord Shalak here.
“Fool girl,” hissed the dark leader, seizing her by the arm as the supernatural storm raged around them. “Do as you will, but you will fall with us!”
Nay, Great Ones, replied a resounding voice, as a familiar stone shape shook itself loose from the dry earth. You will not slay this mortal child, for too much rests on her shoulders.
“Sphinx!” cried Kit. “Stay away from the grey lady!”
The Sphinx sprang at the lead Sebetekh, biting at his faceless face, and for an instant his grip came loose from Kit’s arm. The immortal wind howled and blew, and all six Sebetekh were blown over the edge like children’s toys.
So was the Sphinx.
So was Dexy LaRue.
“No!” screamed Kit, grabbing out with her newfound power for her friends. Too late, she realized that the one place her latent immortal energy could be unleashed, it could do nothing but destroy. As if slipping through fingers she couldn’t tighten, the eight figures floated, in slow motion, inexorably, down.
“You did it!” Ralchar was cheering. “You saved the world, Kit!”
Kit looked dully out over the Doomrift. “It doesn’t feel like it,” she whispered.
Get Me To The Church On Time
“And so,” finished Princess Kristin, “the last curse of the Blue Fairy has been passed down through thirty generations of Talarian monarchy, Thalia... and fallen upon you. In that time, every royal daughter who married by the age her ancestor Allecia did has lived long and well. Those who met their eighteenth birthday single... well...”
“That’s terrible!” said Chloe.
“Gee,” said Thalia. “And here I thought my dad was just trying to marry me off to be old-fashioned.”
“She’s going to die of some hideous curse just for not having a husband?” Alderon was aghast. “Thalia, I’ll marry you.”
“Uh...” said Thalia. There were few people on Ataniel as well-trained in the diplomacy of etiquette, but this was not exactly a situation her governess had rehearsed with her. “But we’re not, um... I mean, don’t you think that’s rather... sudden, Alderon?”
“Well, you only have a few weeks,” Chloe pointed out. “You have to marry someone.”
“Thanks a lot.” Alderon kicked the priestess in the ankle. “No, seriously, Thalia. We wouldn’t even have to, uh, consummate it. And we could get divorced again once your birthday’s over. No one would really even have to know. That’d hose her curse, wouldn’t it, Kristin?”
Kristin thought about that. “Well,” she said, “it should.”
“I--” said Thalia.
“It is a sensible plan,” agreed Sashami. “Will you be able to find a priest to go along with it?”
“The curse didn’t say anything about a priest,” said Alderon, with a shrug. “We could just go to the Rimbor City notary. For ten bucks they’d marry me to my horse if I wanted.”
“I--” said Thalia.
“You could go to the Lianth casino!” giggled Chloe, poking her friend in the ribs. “You could get married by Elvis the air elemental!”
Thalia burst into tears. “How can you all say these things?” she sobbed. “After that beautiful wedding we just went to! You want to make me get a marriage of convenience in a registry office or some tacky casino? I don’t believe you people! I don’t want to get married without my True Love!”
There was a moment’s uneasy silence. “I was just trying to help, Thalia,” said Alderon.
“We didn’t mean you won’t find true love,” said Chloe. “I’m sure you will someday. But how could you possibly find it on such short notice like this? Wouldn’t it be better to stave off this curse now, and give yourself the time you need to meet your Mr. Right?”
“And how would I explain to him that I hadn’t even had the faith to wait for him... that I got married to a friend just because I was afraid of a curse?” Thalia sat down, sniffling. “I disobeyed my own father over this. I can’t believe you really thought it was something you could all just talk me out of. My one True Love is out there somewhere. My fairy godmother said so when I was born. I didn’t get married to someone else just because my father told me to, and I’m not going to do it now just because I’m scared. If I can’t fulfill my destiny... maybe I’d rather die.”
“Don’t talk that way, Thalia!” cried Sashami, making a sign to ward off evil.
“Maybe we can find another way to dispel the curse,” said Berryn, looking hopefully at Princess Kristin. Kristin slowly shook her head. “Or,” he said, “to cure you once it happens. What’ll it do to her, anyway?”
“It has been different every time,” the foreign mentalist said quietly.
“No curses are permanent,” Chloe said with confidence. “Even death can be reversed, if it’s not just.”
“Or we could try to find her True Love before her birthday,” Alderon suggested. “We could put out a personals ad, maybe. Or run a contest. You know, who can scale a cliff of thorns or something. Princesses find guys that way in fairy tales.”
“If there is any way your father can help you,” said Princess Kristin, “don’t hesitate to call on him. That was his message to you. But... well, woman to woman, you’d really better not go back to his palace unless you change your mind about the marriage of convenience, Thalia. Your father loves you very much, and he’ll force you to marry if he has to.”
“I know.” Thalia wiped her nose on her sleeve with an uncharacteristic gracelessness. “At least it makes sense why he’s been behaving this way now. Tell him I left Talaria to find my True Love and I’m trying my best. Tell him it’ll work out... somehow. It just has to,” she said, trying to believe it herself.
Princess Kristin sighed. “Well,” she said quietly, “I certainly hope you’re right.”
While The Cat’s Away
“Ms. Paris?” Colleen’s voice was unsteady, almost a whisper, as she poked it into Lora’s office. “I--I don’t mean to intrude, but I--we--there’s a problem.”
“I’ve handled problems before, Colleen, and I’m sure I’ll handle them again.” Lora motioned the young intern in with a kindly smile. “Is this a personal problem, or a political problem?”
“A, uh, political problem, ma’am,” Colleen whispered. “It’s Tobrinel. They’re... adjusting their border with Talaria.”
Lora looked at the girl keenly. “How serious an adjustment are we talking about?”
“About forty miles to the east, ma’am. Two towns and a dryad grove have been forcibly relocated. The statement from Tobrinel says that land is historically Tobrinel’s and they have no intentions of occupying other parts of Talaria. The Talarian monarchy is outraged but apparently doesn’t dare declare war.” Colleen put the dossier down on Lora’s desk with trembling hands. “What are we going to do, Ms. Paris?”
Lora flipped through the pages. “Call Asinus for me,” she said. “We’ll go over this together, but I doubt it’s against the treaty they have with us. Talaria’s not a member state.”
“But--but we can’t just let them get away with this!”
“We’ll do what we can, Colleen. All I can do at present is issue a statement of concern for the welfare of the displaced villagers. When Khyrisse returns, we’ll discuss our options in more depth.”
“That’s a week from now!” cried Colleen. “By then, Tobrinel will have solidified their hold on the lands they’ve seized... we’ll never be able to return it to the indigenous people it belongs to!”
“That may be true,” Lora said honestly, “but I can’t very well break off relations with one of our most important member states without so much as consulting the Director of the city. And even then, I can’t imagine her starting a war over this. Sometimes you have to take one on the chin, Colleen. I’m sure we’ll be able to get an aid package together for the displaced Talarians. It’s sparsely populated out there. It wouldn’t be hard to relocate them and get their community back on its feet. A few thousand coin, maybe. That may be the best we can do.”
Colleen hung her head. “If... if you’ll excuse me, then, ma’am,” she whispered, blinking back tears. “I--I think I want to be alone for a little while.”
“It’s difficult, Colleen,” Lora said gently. “But you can’t fix everything in the world. At least not in one fell swoop. Sometimes, you have to be patient... and take a few losses.”
The young intern closed the door and shuffled off down the hallway.
Ebreth stood to his collarbone in the Deepsea, looking, not back at the beach, but out at the horizon. Khyrisse was so much smaller than he was that the depth left her floating, hanging weightlessly from his neck with her face tucked into his shoulder. Ebreth stood steady and strong in the tide. Beneath the surface her body was the same temperature as his, a perfect completion in his arms, and he wanted to stand like this forever, he never wanted to take her home. He almost whispered it to her: leave the city with Lora, Khyrisse, stay here with me. It wasn’t possible, though, and so he didn’t ask. He closed his eyes and he held her to him in the waves and savored the feeling, if only for one night, of having her all to himself, of sharing his family with no one. It was heady, delirious. He wondered if other men felt this way all the time or if they took it for granted. Ebreth ran his hand along his wife’s soft body in the ocean and loved her with all his heart, unrestrained by shame or pride or uncertainty, unencumbered by words. If only for one night.
Life Goes On
Khyrisse’s wedding had really affected Shilree.
It was the clone who had fallen in love with her college roommate and proposed marriage, not Shilree herself. So watching a happy wedding ceremony was only a little bittersweet: an opportunity tragically lost, not a true psychodrama. Shilree didn’t feel especially jealous, or vengeful, or angry with her lot in life, or even depressed. It wasn’t any of those admittedly familiar feelings. It was really just seeing Khyrisse.
Khyrisse had been something of a kindred spirit as far as Shilree was concerned. Life had kicked her in the teeth, and she got up and kicked back. Stood with her back to the wall, did what she needed to to survive, and took no shit from anyone. An Angry Young Woman, volatile, bitter, and hard enough to make it on her own. And now here she was pregnant and radiant, standing in her new husband’s arms and smiling.
Shilree was twenty-four now. She wasn’t sure, but she suspected that was older for a Diarian than forty was for an elf. She felt like she was being left behind. If all her friends were growing up now, leaving the violence and emotional barricades of their younger days behind them--Rhynwa and Luthien, Khyrisse, Palmer, heck, Sunny--then why couldn’t she? Why not Shilree Vestrin?
“It’s time to go home and plant,” Flicker said. Ever since, Shilree had been trying to use her political connections to wrestle Diaria back onto a soberer path. The mad new “Emperor” had deposed her as Western Regent in favor of a blob for her troubles. She’d kept the fight up behind the scenes, of course, but it was starting to occur to her that that wasn’t necessarily what the Sunfighter meant. Diaria had survived a long time, and it would survive this, too.
The coach wasn’t even halfway to Diaromyn before Shilree had made up her mind to have a baby.
The House of Pysyri was not what could be called supportive about it. Macabre, they said, if not downright sacrilegious. Diari religion frowned on artificial insemination under any circumstances; conception was only supposed to occur during a physical act of love. You should wait until you have found a new love, have a child together, and name that child after Anjra. That would be the proper way to honor her memory.
Shilree hadn’t gotten her reputation as a negotiator from nowhere, though, and three days later she had what she wanted: Anjra’s fertilized egg, implanted within Shilree.
She was lying on the beach now. Anjra and the clone had purchased this little island off the coast near Tesin as a vacation home. Shilree intended to fill the little villa on the hill with all the happiness the two of them had been denied. Her first child had filled her with such rage. She had decided, with difficulty, against an abortion, but she’d been a terrible mother, and it still hurt her heart. She had a second chance now. The normalcy of it was wonderful somehow.
She wrote her mother a long letter, and was working on one to Flicker. It was nice to be communicating about something personal and low-security enough that she could write it out longhand. Shilree’s mother had the Gift, and after all they’d been through this year, it was silly to balk at Praxis contacting her anymore, so she told Flicker to have the psionicist call her if he needed to reach her. She hoped he wouldn’t, though. It was someone else’s turn to save the world. Right now Shilree just wanted to lie on the beach and daydream about baby names.