“Hi, Khyrisse,” Jack said as she opened the door. “Is Ebreth around?”
“He’s working on the boat,” Khyrisse said. Ebreth spent an astonishing amount of time working on the boat, given that there didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. She’d gone down to the docks with him a few times, but though Khyrisse loved sailing, she didn’t have much interest in whatever new thing he was doing to the jib any given week, so once she’d ascertained that she didn’t have any rivals older than about fourteen ogling the shirtless dockwork she’d pretty much left him to it.
“Oh,” said Jack, “well, I’ll, uh, go find him there, then. Thanks.”
“Jack,” said Khyrisse.
“Didn’t we use to be friends too, once upon a time?” Khryisse pushed a piece of stray hair behind her pointed ear, tapping her foot at him with a wry expression. “Why don’t you ever talk to me anymore?”
“I’m sorry!” Jack said, aghast. “No, it’s nothing like that... I like you a lot, Khyrisse. I just, uh--”
“--feel more comfortable talking to Ebreth,” sighed Khyrisse, “or to any of the other Rat Packers for that matter, and so does everyone else in the party, ever since that damn thing with Vickie. Jack, look, I’m not your boss. I’m the same mortal idiot you practically had to step through my own relationship, remember? Between you and your... Other... you’ve been there for me more than anyone in this city except Ebreth. Can we throw the awkwardness in a well somewhere, please?” She gave him a wobbly smile. “I’m not really in charge, I just fake it for the cameras. And I’d just as soon forget that too... between friends.”
“Consider it forgotten,” Jack promised.
“Then tell me what she said, already!” Khyrisse half-yelled, flinging her arms up in comical exasperation. “I’m dying of suspense over here!”
The mathematician blushed. “That’s the, uh, part I was trying to avoid having to tell everyone about.”
“Because it’s good or because it’s bad?” Khyrisse said impatiently. “Come on, Jack... I think the entire Rat Pack knew Ebreth and I had slept together about five minutes later...!”
“Oh,” said Jack, “no, we didn’t, uh...” He blushed even more. I can’t believe Robinson programmed in so much blushing, Khyrisse thought bemusedly. I wonder if he used Lora and Lavin’s daughters as models? “No, she, uh, I told her about my, uh, finity problem, and she said everything was, um, cool.”
“So you’re still going out?”
“I, uh, think so.” Jack shuffled his feet self-consciously. “She said she liked me. I just don’t want to, you know, push things... I don’t want to be like Vas.”
“Jack,” Khyrisse said truthfully, “I don’t think you have to worry about ever being very much like Vas.”
“Is that meant as a compliment or not?”
“Some of both, I guess.” Khyrisse sighed. “He has good qualities and bad ones... and some that aren’t good or bad, either, just there. You’re pretty much his polar opposite in all of them.” She gave the mathematician a rueful grin. “I doubt you have to worry about pushing her, Jack. I’d be more concerned about you taking so much time to fret and analyze the whole thing that she assumes you don’t like her and moves on.”
“That was why I wanted to talk to Ebreth,” Jack admitted. “I’m, uh, really kind of at a loss here... I’ve only ever had one relationship before, and it didn’t, uh, go too well.”
Khyrisse sighed again. “Val was... fragile, Jack. I can’t say what she did was right, but I... understand it, maybe a little too well.”
“Oh,” said Jack, uncomfortable. “I was, uh, talking about Gabriella, actually.”
“Oh,” said Khyrisse. There was an awkward silence. “I, I never really know how much of your Other’s--”
“It’s okay,” said Jack.
“Anyway,” said Khyrisse.
“Anyway,” said Jack. “The problem is I never want to move too fast on the first date... or the second, for that matter. I don’t, uh, get a lot of third dates.”
“Innocence can be kind of endearing, Jack,” Khyrisse murmured, her eyes twinkling. “Just be yourself. It’s clear to me she likes you. After that whole fiasco with Vas, she asked me if it was still all right to keep seeing you, for gods’ sake!”
Jack blinked. “Aithne said that?”
“Very plaintively, at that.” Khyrisse gave him a rueful grin. “Go get Ebreth to give you some lines, Jack. Grendel knows he’s got enough of them. But if she didn’t freak out on you over the fact that you’ve got two months to live, she’s not going to dump you because you’re awkward on a date. Go out with her. Have fun. And gods willing, we’ll lick this flarking finity thing and you’ll have plenty of time to enjoy it after all.”
A pensive look skimmed across Jack’s face. “I hope so,” he said quietly.
Crazy As You Feel
“Hey, Mister Schneider!”
The screen door to the New Trade Orphanage banged behind a scrawny eight-year-old named Sam. Sam was one of only five kids in the orphanage so far. Less populated areas had been much less devastated by the Madness, and there wasn’t much in this part of the Northlands before Khyrisse built her city here. Sam came from a homestead a couple miles down the county road. His mother had burned the farmhouse down, with the large family still inside. Sam and his sister Elsie were the only survivors. Schneider was glad they’d been able to keep the two siblings together. “Hey there hi there, Sammy. What’s the good word?”
“I seen a vampire!” said the boy, in breathless excitement. “He were attackin’ some bigger kids down by the docks! I seen ‘im!”
“Vampires?” said Jane Sinclair, a note of alarm in her voice, and reached for her holy symbol.
“Oh no, Sister Jane, it’s all over now. City director done showed up and blown ‘im straight to h...” The boy coughed spasmodically in a belated attempt to smother his impending blasphemy in front of the cleric, who looked more amused than offended. “I mean, she sure done whupped him. And a man shootin’ arrows into ‘im too. But the magic was some’in else again, aye? Blue lightnin’ just right through ‘im, quick as thinkin’ it!”
“Sounds like Khyrisse all right,” said Schneider, his smile a little wan.
Sam didn’t seem to notice. “You can do ‘at stuff, cantcha, Mister Schneider? D’ya think maybe you could teach me? One day, I mean? If I’m real good n’at?”
“Well,” said Schneider, quietly, “we’ll see.”
“Man, what I’d give to blow up a freakin’ vampire like ‘at...! I gotta go find Elsie. I’ll see ya later, Mister Schneider. Think about it, about the magic I mean, aye? I could try real hard, I betcha.”
Sam tore up the stairs, and Schneider looked out the window. “Vampires in the city,” said Jane, mistaking the reason for his worried look. “And just when we thought their scourge was behind us. Shall I send back to Edimon for some vampire slayers, Schneider?”
“Nah,” said Schneider, “Khyri’ll probably just put Val and Vas on the payroll, that’s all.” He paused. “Jane, I--”
“Oh dear,” said Jane, and came around the table.
“I don’t know about this,” Schneider said. “This job, I mean. Me being around kids.”
The priestess shook her head firmly. “Nonsense, Schneider. Mylie is frightened of all men. It’s not you. She just needs time. Look at Sam; he thinks you’re the sun and moon.”
“That’s... what I’m worried about, actually, Jane.”
Tell her, already! said Tila. God, there is nothing more annoying than a jester with a secret.
Like it’s any of her fucking business, snorted Rani, dolled up like the lipstick lesbian from hell.
You don’t want to tell her because you’re afraid you’ll lose your position, Javert said severely. That alone makes it unethical to withhold it.
Yeah, right, said Roxy, rolling her eyes. She seemed to be dressed primarily in red and gold body paint. He doesn’t want to tell her because he’s afraid she won’t like him anymore. Get over yourself, will you, Sideshow?
Oops, Duke Faraker commented mildly. Looks like you’ve lost your chance. She’s already answering.
Damn, thought Schneider. “If this is about the Madness,” Jane was saying, gently, “you need to forgive yourself for what happened then, Schneider. By the Prelate’s calculations, nearly one out of ten people on Ataniel killed somebody in those four days. Our own Sister Astilla committed four murders. You are far from alone, and it is well-known that those acts were the fault of foul and evil magic, perverting the minds of good men.”
“It’s, uh, not that.” Schneider cleared his throat. “Not this time. Jane, Khyri thinks I’m crazy.”
“If we barred every man whose ex-girlfriend thinks he’s crazy from being with children, Schneider,” Jane sighed, “we’d need a second continent.”
Tila snickered. “No,” said Schneider. “I mean, that wasn’t what she meant. I mean really crazy. Wacko. Out there. Off the deep end. And the--the thing is, Jane, I--part of me thinks she’s right.” He bit his lip and looked down. Jane was looking at him. Point of no return now. He’d kill himself before he’d let them take him back to that damn nuthouse, but he had to tell her. It was too late to back out. “I hear voices,” said Schneider. “Dead people. People who aren’t there.”
Jane was looking at him carefully, but not with shock. “I take it you’re not using divination spells when this happens?” she said. “Because it’s not unheard of to get noise on the line.”
“No,” Schneider whispered, looking down. “I just hear them in my head. See ‘em, too. I can’t even tell the real people from the phantasms, sometimes.”
“They don’t... tell you to kill people, or anything like that, do they?”
Only people who really deserve it, grinned Rhynwa.
Hush, admonished Janther. Don’t make this harder.
“No, not--nothing like that, not usually. One of them did, uh, try to talk me into killing myself, once,” Schneider mumbled, shuffling his feet. “But I was already kind of, uh, thinking about that.”
“Oh, Schneider,” Jane said sadly. “How long has this been going on?”
“Since the, uh, Madness,” he said. “You’re going to commit me, aren’t you.”
She frowned at him, her grey eyes taking his measure. “I don’t really think that would help you... do you?”
“Hell no,” said Schneider. “But isn’t that what they do with, with crazy people? Lock ‘em away where they can’t hurt people anymore? After the Madness, I had to stay in one of those places, for a while... but they said I wasn’t really crazy, just, you know, stressed, so I got out, got away. But I didn’t--didn’t tell ‘em the truth. I hear voices.”
“Well,” Jane said after a beat, in her most supportive confessional voice, “that doesn’t necessarily make you crazy, Schneider.”
“I hear voices in my head, I see apparitions, and I can’t always tell the real world from my imagination,” said Schneider. “What else are you going to call it... indigestion?”
“Well, you could be a saint,” Jane said deadpan.
“There’s not that big a difference, actually,” said Jane. “Most of Tal’s saints are either simple or strange... average men and women called by Him simply join the clergy, as I have. My point is, though... if your ‘voices’ don’t call you to evil, then in what way are they a danger? Perhaps they are simply your conscience. Or parts of your own personality, speaking with the voices of friends. Or even a supernatural, subconscious connection of some sort with the psyches of those you’ve cared about. Perhaps we are giving you advice, and never knowing it. Tal is great. Many things are possible.”
I’m his conscience, announced Tila, putting her feet up.
Hush, admonished Rhynwa.
“I see your actions, Schneider, and as a priestess, I see your heart. Both are good, or striving to be. If you hear voices that lead you down a good path, then you’re not crazy, you’re blessed.”
Schneider sat down. “Well,” he said. “Well, I--certainly never thought about it that way before, that’s for sure.”
“So,” said Jane, smiling, “put that in your pipe and smoke it.” She went back into the kitchen, wiping her hands on her grey habit. “And you’re not off the hook,” she called over her shoulder, “either. Tal needs a layman to run this orphanage, and I’m not about to waste my time hunting down and training a replacement. I’m overtaxed as it is.”
“Yes’m,” said Schneider, wanting to hug a nun more than he ever had in his life, and went upstairs to check on Sam and Elsie.