Rani scrambled up a couple of eggs in her PJs. There was something oddly fun about having Garal camping out in her flat, like a sleepover from some kind of childhood Rani had never really had. There was always some kind of sexual tension in the air when people were in bed together. Rani had yet to meet a man, even a gay man, who didn’t have some kind of latent ability to be attracted to her, and she herself could hardly keep from checking out a woman at least in passing. Garal was different somehow, and Rani hadn’t figured out how, because there was no reason to suspect he was any less randy than any other bearer of a Y-chromosome. For whatever reason, though, he talked to her like one of the guys, and Rani kind of enjoyed that. “You want a drink?”
“Got any whiskey?” Garal muttered, still rather despondent.
“I got some vodka. You want a screwdriver?” Rani sniffed her carton of orange juice. “She’s really not going to hate you just because you were dreaming about humping her, you know.”
“It’s not just that.” Garal tried to fingercomb his messy brown hair miserably. “She knows, now.”
“Khyrisse is a big girl. I’m sure she’s seen a riding crop before.” Rani dumped the eggs onto the nearest clean plate. “Really, as dark secrets go, fantasizing about tying people up is pretty dealable with. Most people we know have secret pasts as demons or axe murderers or something, you know?”
“But this was my secret,” Garal said sadly, mostly to himself.
“Sexual orientations don’t make good secrets,” said Rani, sagely. “You try to hide it and it snowballs out of proportion, you get caught up in your own mysteriousness, and you wind up reading insufferable poetry about yourself at the local incense bookstore every night. You act like it’s just another normal way to hook up, and it will be.” She handed him his impromptu breakfast. “So go ahead and apologize for embarrassing her if you want to, but don’t apologize for what you were doing when she walked in. You’ve got as much right to play your games your way as she does.”
“If only I’d been dreaming about Silverlace or someone,” Garal groaned, plunking his head down in his hands. “What if she thinks I’d make her do something like that in real life?”
Rani squinted at him, holding up her thumb like she was measuring him. “Nah,” she said. “Too much superego.”
“Conscience, repression, depends on your perspective, I guess.” She shot back her screwdriver. “But I’d put twenty bucks on it taking you three months and four drinks before you can even bring yourself to act out with a willing sub, much less someone who really doesn’t want it.”
“Oh, great,” Garal muttered. “So I’m too harmless even to be a scary pervert.”
“In my professional opinion as a criminologist,” grinned Rani, and passed him the plate of toast. “It’s better than being aggressive and self-centered enough that you would be, though, isn’t it?”
“I’d rather be mature and self-confident enough not to have to worry about it.”
“I’d rather have a flying unicorn who’d solve all my problems for me, but life ain’t like that.”
“Can I have another drink?”
“Coming right up.”
The Hills Of Trassus
“Slade,” said the man behind the Trassus bar, drumming his fingers on the tap. “Yeah, he’s a highwayman operatin’ around here somewhere... lemme see if I can remember where.”
Thalia waited patiently for him to remember; Alderon, who’d been in more bars, leaned over and sprinkled a few coins on the counter.
“Ah yes,” said the bartender, snapping his fingers. “I’ve got it now. Well, no one knows where his hideout is, obviously, but you know, he does ride into town for supplies on Tuesdays, down at Thurston’s general store. In that armor of his you could hardly miss him.”
“Why do you let him shop here if he’s a known criminal?” frowned Sashami.
The bartender shrugged. “Ain’t been causing no trouble ‘round here,” he said. “If you’re lookin’ for him from somewhere he has, no one here’s gonna stand in your way. That what you needed to know?”
“Yes, thank you,” said Thalia, smiling at him.
“No problem ‘tall, missy. Been a slow morning. Anything else I could help you with?”
“Know any nice young men looking for a soulmate?” Chloe asked with a straight face.
Thalia hit her in the shoulder, fairly hard.
One Step Up
“Are you okay?” Khyrisse said, a little strangled.
Ebreth nodded, leaning against the wall and shuddering. “I’m all right,” he said. “Just a little... hard to breathe. That’s all.”
Khyrisse put her hand over her lower face and sat down. “Ebreth,” she said starkly, “is it this damned paternity thing?”
“What?” said Ebreth.
“That’s making you have these, these panic attacks. Because I’ll throw Schneider in the WELL if I have to.”
“No,” said Ebreth, “no, I’m pretty sure it was Hell, Khyrisse. I think you can--trust me on that one.” He pounded himself on the chest, trying to get the rest of his wind back.
“I mean,” she said, “that they’ve been getting worse. More... more frequent, anyway. And I don’t, I don’t want...” She bit her lip, struggling not to cry. “I don’t want to make anything worse for you,” she said in a small voice.
Ebreth shook his head. “It’s not like that,” he said. “No, it’s been--it’s been getting better, actually. There are moments, here and there, where I... I stop thinking about it, for a few seconds.” He went to the bar and poured himself a drink with still-shaking hands. “Course when it comes back to me it really kicks me in the head. I guess it’s easier never letting my guard down in the first place. But if I’ve been having more, panic attacks, it’s because I’ve been having more moments of freedom, too. I don’t think I’d trade them.”
Khyrisse swallowed hard. “You--you mean you--you’ve been thinking about it all the time,” she said, “all day long. I--I didn’t know.”
“Almost all the time,” he said quietly. “I guess I’m starting to get better, now, a little. That--isn’t always easy, either.”
“I know how that is,” Khyrisse said, looking out the window.
What Was Pledged Me
“Hmm?” Lora looked up from her notes. “Oh, hello, Ambassador. Is there something you need for the summit?”
“No, no,” said the Sturtevanter diplomat, “nothing like that, everything is well in order. I had a question of a more... personal... nature.”
Lora arched an eyebrow at him. “Nothing serious, I hope, Ambassador?”
“That depends upon the perspective, I suppose. Please, call me Alec.” He sat down without being asked. He was a muscular, capable-looking man, quite attractive despite the unfortunate handlebar mustaches that were the rage in Sturtevant these days. “You see, my fiancée has broken our engagement and run off with another man. In my country that’s quite a serious crime, you understand. It also went along with the theft of some thousand crowns of property belonging to me. As it happens my fiancée has relocated to New Trade and is currently living here, in the disguise of a boy named Jason.”
“I... hadn’t realized the ‘Diarian marriage’ was legal in Sturtevant,” murmured Lora.
Alec scowled. “I did say it was a disguise, didn’t I? Her given name is Jocelyn Lindor, daughter of the Earl of Westbridge. Surely you can understand that in a conservative country such as ours, this defection on her part has brought scandal and ruin upon both her house and mine.”
“I can understand that,” Lora said, not unsympathetically, “but I don’t think I can help you, Ambassador... there is no extradition from New Trade.”
“An understandable policy given your family connections,” agreed Alec. “Oh, I know with whom I’m dealing, believe me; we have Parises even in Sturtevant. And yet, surely there must be some way to apply this policy so as to protect your relatives and associates from political attack while still allowing for the apprehension of common criminals? If word got out to the contrary, New Trade could find itself a hub for international crime, after all, as murderers and other undesirables holed up here between sprees of violence. Surely that wouldn’t serve your ends.”
“Are you threatening me, Ambassador?” Lora said quietly.
“Nothing of the sort, my good woman. As I said, I know well who I’m dealing with, and I’m not one to bring coals to Newcastle. No, I’m simply trying to illustrate the common ground we share here. You presumably don’t want your city to end up a dumping ground for criminals on the lam. For my own personal reasons, I don’t either.”
“I appreciate your concern, Ambassador,” said Lora, “but we do have a legal system of our own here, you realize. If one of our residents commits a crime while they are living here, even if the crime takes place in another country, we are well-equipped to handle the situation ourselves. But if the crime predates the residency... well, there is very little we can legally do about it at that point. It’s possible that through backdoor channels, I may be able to recover the financial losses you’ve suffered.”
“That is not sufficient,” said Alec, frowning. “I need the girl back, Mrs. Paris. I cannot marry another while she remains at large. She holds my future hostage, and I must have her back.”
“Then I’m afraid you will have to resort to negotiation, Ambassador,” said Lora. “Our laws cannot be circumvented so lightly. We are an international community here, and it is imperative that the cultural mores of our member states not be enforced here. I’m sorry I can’t be of more help, but the girl does not leave New Trade unless it is by her own will.”
“I see,” Alec said quietly. “It seems I will need to find a means of persuading her, then.”
“A friendly suggestion,” said Lora, “choose legal means, Ambassador. We do enforce our own laws within the city limits.”
“Thank you,” he said, and rose. “I will be sure I do that.”
She watched him go, her chin introspectively on the knuckles of her left hand, and then she buzzed Shelley. “Ambassador of Sturtevant,” she said, “Jocelyn Lindor. Have the Word get me a full dossier.”
“Yes ma’am,” said Shelley.
“And have him watched.”
This Scene Just Doesn’t Read The Same Way It Did Last Year
“With many pardons,” said the Kyokota ambassador, bowing slightly in the direction of Khyrisse’s podium, “but the proposal of the Shanghai daimyo is one that concerns us somewhat. The empire of Kyoko-Ra of course recognizes the benefits of including the markets of Szizak province in this trade federation, but the precedent of admitting each small state of Shikintu separately threatens our continued participation. If this trend were to continue, soon our interests would be badly outnumbered.”
“Yes,” Khyrisse said thoughtfully, “an... understandable objection, Ambassador, but...”
“Sharing summits are boring,” Gordon whispered to Schneider.
The jester was inclined to agree. Rhynwa had roped him into watching the boy for the afternoon when her babysitting arrangements fell through, and the political roundtable just hadn’t been the source of inspiration for witty bureaucratic jokes Schneider’d been hoping it might be. Plus, that big brainy freak was here. He didn’t usually show for these things, but he had some kind of iron in the fire today. Schneider was dreading having to make small talk with him when the meeting broke. Schneider! Good to see you again. Recovered any more of your sanity since last we met? ...Why, yes, doc, though I do miss those straitjackets, quite the fashion statement they were...
“...this is, after all, an economic federation only... the number of Shikinti provinces involved should have no effect on Kyokota sovereignty. It’s not as if we vote on resolutions here or anything.”
“Yet,” the diplomat persisted politely, “it has been our experience over long centuries that economic alliances can never truly be free of politics, Director. If more of Shikintu wishes to join us in peaceful trade, then let them enter into a joint agreement with Shanghai, as the Riklandic citystates have done...”
Flicker had long since wandered over to talk to Jack, who had for some reason brought his girlfriend here on a date. Someone needed to have a talk with that boy. Rani was here with Garal and a cute female halfling, but Schneider knew the story there: the other halfling was a leader of the little people in Cynystra, and they were making a bid for independence, so Garal had been taking any excuse to get her into Trade Federation meetings as an observer. And Vas was here with Val, of course, bodyguarding presumably as a nominal excuse for scouting out some gossip. Most of the other attendees were ambassadors and world leaders, but the ones who were the best for making fun of--Shilree, Knighthawke, Eric Tremontagne--either weren’t here or had moved out of politics. You could usually count on Asinus for a clever comment or two, but he and Khyri’s boytoy were over by the donut table talking about something else. And Tila just kept falling asleep and having to be poked by her aide. There was, Schneider reluctantly admitted to himself, just not a lot of comedy potential in this economic federation, not the way there had been back in Trade, or the good old days in the Nylevian court.
“...could be a viable model,” Praxis was saying carefully, “provided the tariffs are not applied cumulatively. I’m sure you can see that would be an unfairly prohibitive--”
The explosion was so powerful the foundation split.
The windows of the Federal Building seemed to blow out in slow motion, the roof lifting and collapsing in a crash of dust and rafters. “Khyrisse!” shouted Tor, flinging his coffee cup to one side and plunging forward into the batter of debris with his other arm up over his face. Schneider jerked his head left, then right, as the scene advanced in strobe frames, and then he seized Gordon’s arm and pushed the boy behind him, backing to the wall. “Fire in the hole!” brayed Asinus, charging forward. Ieshala wailed like a siren, somewhere. The main rafter came crashing down at the seats, slow and violent as a bad dream, a nightmarish collage of people ducking and leaping for safety. Praxis stood his ground and the rafter rolled from some invisible barrier and struck the empty east aisle with a thunderous sound.
And then time resumed, and it was over, as quickly as it had begun. “A little help here?” yelled Jan Lifesgrip.
“I’m okay,” managed Lora Paris, supported in his arms. “I’m all right.”
“Oh, dear God. Rhynwa!”
“Everyone remain calm.” Flicker’s voice. “Things are under control. If you’re hurt just stay where you are. If you’re all right please just move outside and we’ll let you know as soon as we--”
“Hey, math boy!” Rani’s. “Blast origin?”
“Forty-two-point-six-one degrees,” Jack estimated from somewhere, his voice moving through the swirl of people, “behind the--”
“He’s breathing,” said K’Mar.
“Okay, just look over there, Derek buddy, and don’t think about being backstabbed or anything.” Tila pulled out her healing sword.
“I’m here. I’m here!”
Schneider pushed around Asinus, who was helping a frantic-looking Vastarin pull a big chunk of masonry off of his moaning sister. Gordon darted after him, wide-eyed. There was blood on Khyrisse’s face. “Vital signs strengthening,” said Rhynwa. “She’ll be all right.”
“The baby,” said Ebreth, hoarse and desperate.
Rhynwa didn’t say anything, but the look on her face froze both Schneider’s feet to the floor.
“Gila,” Rani held up a smoothly curving shard of metal in both gloves. “This was a Gilan bomb.”
“Treacherous assassins,” spat the Kyokota ambassador, his grievance with Shikintu forgotten.
Rani shook her head. “No assassination,” she said. “This was a terrorist act. They weren’t expecting to kill anyone in particular. They’re just letting us know they can get to us.”
“Oh, believe me,” hissed Relan Alliejin, bleeding from the forehead, “this will be dealt with.”
Khyrisse stirred, whispering something blurrily in Elvish, and Ebreth held her against him with badly shaking arms. “Let me through,” Luthien’s clipped, competent voice slit the commotion. He looked at his wife and she looked at him, and then he nodded. “All right, let’s get her somewhere I can work,” he said. “You stay. You’re needed here.”
Rhynwa nodded back and stood. “All right, is anyone still down?” she yelled. “If you’re standing near someone who’s down, yell ‘Rhynwa’!”
“Ember,” moaned Khyrisse.
“What?” said Luthien.
“I don’t know,” whispered Ebreth, his face very grey. “Khyrisse, Khyrisse, Khyrisse.”
“Can you bring her?” said Luthien. “You--may not want to stay.”
“The Hell I won’t.”
This was a dream, Schneider found himself thinking, rooted in place and watching dizzily as Ebreth Tor lifted Khyrisse from the rubble. This had to be a dream. Didn’t it? The two men’s eyes met for a moment that felt like a fragile eternity, but then the evacuating crowd had closed around them, and he could see no more. Schneider realized, for the first time, that there was blood running down his side from a piece of shrapnel lodged in his shoulder.
It had all taken less than five minutes.
And he didn’t know why, exactly, but something Khyrisse had mentioned to him once was running through his mind unbidden: One shall return to the fold, only to watch as that which he came for is destroyed.