“I’m not trying to, Luthien!” She shuddered spastically, her body rebelling against the counterintuitiveness of letting somebody shove the fetus further up the birth canal.
“Well, try harder not to. I can’t turn her if you keep bearing down.”
“Is she alive?” Ebreth whispered hoarsely.
“I don’t know. I think so.” Luthien struggled with Khyrisse’s uncooperative anatomy. “But she won’t be for long if Khyrisse can’t relax her muscles a little.”
“Can’t you sedate her or something?”
“Then she wouldn’t be able to push her out if I did get her turned around.” Luthien strained. “Khyrisse, lie still!”
Khyrisse tried to keep her mind on all the exquisite tortures she was going to put Luthien through in retaliation for this. It didn’t help much. “Get her out of me!”
The front door banged open right through the wizard lock Luthien had laid on it. “Khyrisse is having baby now?” asked Aithne’s worried, too-perky voice.
“If you don’t mind,” Luthien snapped, “we’re right in the middle of a complicated preterm labor here. I’ll let you know when she’s ready for visitors.”
“I am not visitor,” said Aithne, a little offended. “I am trained as midwife since five years old.”
“Fine.” Luthien didn’t have a lot of patience for social niceties even in the best of times, and he was in crisis mode right now. “Have you ever helped turn a breech?”
“Breech?” Aithne crouched for a look. “Oh, backwards... Luthien!” She gasped and grabbed at his arm. “There is dark water from this baby!”
“I noticed.” He shook her off.
“Dark water?” said Khyrisse, in a wobbly voice.
“We must cut!”
“She’s three months premature,” Luthien snapped.
“I don’t understand,” Ebreth said.
“But the baby can die!” Aithne was horrified.
“Can is better than will,” Luthien said, shortly and with finality. “We’re under the gun here as it is, Aithne, and I do not have time to explain this situation to everyone who wanders into this house trying to be helpful, do you understand me?”
Khyrisse sat her head and shoulders up off the living room sofa and screamed “You tell ME what the flark is going on here or I cast disintegrate at you, do you understand ME?”
Luthien closed his mouth and rubbed his right eyebrow. He looked more tired than annoyed, which was not a good sign. Khyrisse felt feverish. “The fetus is in distress,” Luthien said quietly. “We probably have half an hour to get her turned around and born before there is irreparable damage. Aithne wants to do a c-section, and it wouldn’t be a bad idea, if it weren’t so early in your pregnancy. Our medical technology just isn’t that good. Premature babies don’t survive cesareans. Period.” Aithne pulled out her pocket dictionary and started flipping fiercely through it. “I’m not going to lie to you, this doesn’t look good. But.” He held up his hand. “There is still a respectable chance we can save her. We just need to get her head around and deliver her. So I need you to stop fighting me and force your body to relax. All right?”
“Full-term,” announced Aithne, pushing her dictionary at Luthien with her finger jutting at one of the words. “Baby is full-term.”
“No, she is not.” Luthien turned on her, his eyes starting to flash. “Khyrisse is an elf, Aithne, and nine months is not full-term for her. I know what I am doing, now kindly back off and let me do it.”
“I know what I see!” Aithne held her ground. “Mother is full-term. Baby is full-term. That is not early labor, Luthien! Mother’s body is ready. Baby is probably eight pounds in there.”
“We don’t know that, Aithne, and I am not risking a child’s life based on an intuitive guess when I have direct calendar evidence to the contrary.”
“Luthien, look at this baby!”
He did, and hesitated the critical moment. Aithne had already moved up and pushed her sleeves out of the way. “There... was that temporal discrepancy in there,” Luthien murmured, suddenly uncertain.
“You will make the cut,” said Aithne. “I will lift out baby, ok?”
“You’re just going to cut her open?” Ebreth demanded edgily. “Aren’t you even going to give her a painkiller or anything?”
“I don’t have,” said Aithne.
“I can give her a local.” Luthien looked at her. “Khyrisse,” he said, “if we’re wrong...”
“Just do something,” she wept, too utterly exhausted even to think straight anymore.
Luthien’s spell was cool and numbing but didn’t do much to clear the haze, fear and weariness rushing in immediately to take the place of any subsiding physical pain. Her vision dimmed; maybe that was the spell too. And then a thin, gasping cry, like Melissa when she’d been shut in the closet. And a hush, and a murmuring, as if of angels.
“She was right,” Luthien said from somewhere, his voice gravelly. “This child is full-term. It must have been... the planar travel, or something...”
“Is she all right?” said Ebreth. His hand was unsteady around hers.
Another cry. “All right,” announced Aithne’s voice, cheerfully brusque. “Daughter. Close Khyrisse stomach while I take care now, please!”
“I’m sorry,” Luthien was saying. “Khyrisse, I’m sorry, I--could have killed her.”
He sounded badly shaken, and part of Khyrisse wanted to reassure him, but it took all of her disoriented willpower to get her mouth open and get out what she did say. “Give her to me!”
“Very soon, Khyrisse. I am fix up the baby’s string, ok?”
It felt like forever, lying there shivering on the couch unable even to feel half her body. Khyrisse would get rid of this sofa, that much she was sure of. Even if the bloodstains came out. Even if her daughter survived. Even if everything was wonderful for the rest of their lives, Khyrisse never wanted to sit in this place again. She had never felt more helpless in her life, and the idea that Aithne was off holding her baby somewhere Khyrisse couldn’t even see her made her want to weep. When she finally brought her back she was wrapped in a towel from the hall bathroom. The gods only knew where the beautiful elven receiving blanket Sallie had knitted was now. Her mouth was scrunched up in a wobbly, unhappy little O, and her round face, flushed red as it was from the exertion, was still unmistakably, crushingly pale.
Khyrisse, who had just been through not only a frightening and unexpected labor but a terroristic attack on her city whose casualties she still didn’t know, didn’t have a chance of remembering any of the reactions she’d been planning for this eventuality. She stared, her heart pounding so hard her throat shook with it, and then she burst into tears.
“It’s okay,” Ebreth said in her ear, his arm closing around her shoulders as they shook with sobs. “Khyrisse, it’s all right. It’s over. You’re both going to be all right. Let it go, it’s okay, you’re all right now.”
Khyrisse cried harder, clutching her wanted and unwanted child to her like she was afraid someone might take her away. “I’m sorry,” she choked out, to Ebreth, to the baby, to any dead gods who might have been listening and frowning on her ingratitude.
“Sorry,” he said, “don’t be sorry, Khyrisse, you did fine, you did great, we’re all right.”
“The baby girl is hungry,” Aithne interrupted, calm command in her voice that Khyrisse hadn’t heard from her before. “The men will please leave now so mother can feed her privately.”
Luthien stood, still too shaky over his near error to retort at her tone. Ebreth didn’t budge an inch but Khyrisse clutched his hand tighter anyway, her heart constricting in panic. Don’t go, she tried to say, but nothing came out.
“This is my house,” Ebreth said quietly to Aithne as she gave him a narrow look of some sort. The young witch put her hands up in exasperation but didn’t try to force the issue.
“Khyrisse,” Luthien said softly from the door. “The others... what shall I tell them?”
Khyrisse took a deep, shuddering breath, composing herself for a full sentence by sheer dint of will. “Tell them whatever you damn well please,” she finally said, “but tell them no one sees this baby until tomorrow, no one sees me until tomorrow, and I will personally ram a lightning bolt down the throat of anyone who tries INCLUDING MY MOTHER, is that CLEAR?!?”
She didn’t know if Luthien said anything in return. The room was swimming with light and noise and she sank back into it, her infant cradled in her arms, and gave herself over to the inevitable course of new life.
Derek and Schneider both paled a bit as Luthien emerged, alarmed by the blood on his clothes; Sallie, who’d given birth before, did not. “Well?” she demanded tensely.
“It’s a girl,” said Luthien. “Seven pounds ten ounces. They should both be fine.” Derek and Sallie both sagged in relief; Schneider, who still had something at stake, did not. “But they’re, uh, not taking visitors till morning. Khyrisse was very adamant.”
“She said what?” said Sallie, hurt.
“Hush, dear.” Derek patted her hand. “You know how she can get.”
They had all three gotten up to leave. Luthien cleared his throat. “And, uh, Schneider?” The jester whirled, his heart pounding practically through his tacky Hawaiian shirt. Sallie’s eyes narrowed at them both, no fool she. “Could I have a word with you,” said Luthien, “in private?”
“Incoming!” bellowed Janus, crashing through the canopy of leaves and landing in the rhododendron.
Coyote Jay sighed and watched his unlikely disciple’s descent from the shaded canopy of his geodesic tent. “I certainly hope you were somewhat more covert in New Trade,” he said.
“I was as unseen as the, uh...” The redeemed berserker untangled himself gracelessly from the bramble. “Wind! That’s it!”
“Well, at least you’re back. The Child, it’s born?”
“Janus thinks so,” he said. “Janus squinched up his eyes for the yucky parts. But by the end Khyrisse had a li’l noisy guy in her arms.”
“Guy?” said Coyote Jay, frowning. “It was supposed to be a girl.”
“Janus didn’t have time to check the whizzer.”
Jay sighed. “And who was the father?”
Janus’ blank face looked even blanker. “Coyote Jay doesn’t know?”
“We’re not omniscient, you know.”
“Uh... well, Janus doesn’t know, either. How would Janus tell?”
“Maybe you heard them talking?” Janus shook his silver-masked face. “Who did it look like?”
“Looked kind of like E.T. to Janus.”
Coyote Jay gave up. “Well, either way,” he said. “It is well she was born now. Later might have been... problematic. This will be Tor’s best chance.” He looked off across the horizon. “And,” he said, entirely to himself, “my last.”
Aithne frowned and drew the curtain to one side, peeping out into the darkness for the source of the pebbles that had struck the pane. Jack was standing on the pavement beneath the window! Aithne unlatched it and pushed it open, leaning out to him with a smile. “Hello Jack,” she said. “You found me.”
“It, uh, wasn’t hard,” Jack said, and gave her a pleading look. “What happened with the baby?”
“Baby is okay,” Aithne assured him. “Daughter, a healthy girl. There is no problem.”
“What, uh,” said Jack, and shifted from one foot to the other. “What about Khyrisse... and Ebreth?”
Aithne scowled. “Ebreth will not go away.” Aithne didn’t understand the presumptuous attitude of these men. The matriarch’s husband did outrank Aithne, but to disobey the orders of a trained midwife? Aithne’s own royal mother listened to her men-at-arms about castle security, and her father would never have gotten in the way during a woman’s delivery and recovery period. Perhaps, she conceded, Ebreth did not trust such a young member of the house to see to Khyrisse’s comfort adequately. He was tender-hearted, and he did owe the queen much. “Khyrisse is good. We had to cut her to get baby out, but she is healthy now. Baby is eating real good. Khyrisse name her ‘Lissa’.”
This wealth of information did not seem to satisfy Jack. “Oh,” he said, “I mean, uh... I mean, are they, you know, okay emotionally? Do you think they need, you know, someone to talk to?”
That stumped Aithne, a little. Maybe Luthien had told everyone Khyrisse was crying. He must have seen births before; she couldn’t believe he didn’t know it was a common reaction. “Khyrisse is fine emotionally,” she said. “Tired but fine. Childbirth is much stress for a woman. Normal.”
Jack sighed and gave up talking around it. “Is it Ebreth’s baby, Aithne?”
“Ebreth’s?” Aithne frowned. As the queen’s husband, any child of hers belonged to him. Jack must mean who had impregnated the queen. That was a very personal question, but Aithne was not above a little midwives’ gossip. “I think maybe this one Schneider’s again.”
Jack’s shoulders slumped a little in disappointment. “Oh,” he said.
“Or someone’s else,” said Aithne. She had heard the rumor that Jack’s uncle the shapeshifter had been a consort of the queen’s once, though Khyrisse certainly didn’t act like it. “But I think not Ebreth, for baby is not special looking like him.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
“But, is very pretty baby,” Aithne added, suddenly worried she might seem to be disparaging the newest member of her house. “Look a little like Khyrisse.” She extended her arms playfully out the window to him. “You wanna come up?”
“Uh,” said Jack, “you mean through Khyrisse and Ebreth’s window? Don’t you think they’d, uh, mind?”
“They are very busy, I think,” said Aithne, tilting a grin down at him.
“Well,” said Jack, “if you’re, uh, sure.”
His hands gripped hers with a charming carefulness as she pulled him up to the sill.
“Pleeeeeeeeease,” cajoled Vastarin.
“No.” Luthien shut the hotel door.
Vas opened it and followed his former boss down the hall at a lope. “Oh, pleasepleaseplease, Luthien? I won’t tell a soul.”
“Yes, you would,” Luthien said matter-of-factly, “and even if you didn’t, it’s still none of your business.”
“How can you say that? She’s like a sister to Valende and myself. Luthien, please, I must know!”
“If you’re that keen on being fireballed at this hour,” said Luthien, opening the door to his room, “I suggest you ask her yourself.”
“I don’t want to bother her!” Vas looked horrified. “What do you take me for, Luthien?”
“A frivolous, rumor-mongering fluffhead with attention deficit disorder?”
“Ah, insult me as you will, captain mine; but still I care for my lady’s feelings. And if I, or, more likely, my sister can offer her solace in the event of unwelcome news, I would be most remiss in not seeking out the truth of the matter as swiftly as possible, wouldn’t you say?”
“Honey!” yelled Rhynwa’s voice. “Is that Vas yapping out there?”
“Yes,” Luthien called back.
“Well, get rid of him! It’s time for bed!”
Vas sighed in mournful defeat. “Luthien?” he pleaded, as the necromancer turned to go inside. “Even one small hint? For old times’ sake?”
“It didn’t have a donkey head,” Luthien said deadpan, and shut the door on him.
Vastarin stood in the hall for a few moments, collecting his thoughts. “No donkey head,” he muttered. “Well, it’s a start.”
Khyrisse watched her daughter sleeping, cherubically unaware of the turmoil her presence was causing. It isn’t fair, wailed a voice inside Khyrisse. It isn’t supposed to be like this. The archmage shivered, miserably cold despite the blankets she was wadded up in. Blood loss, she assumed. She often felt this way when she died, or got close enough to it. It was strange associating it with birth. Khyrisse felt like a fairy tale had been shattered. Oh, she knew it would be painful, she knew it might not be at a convenient time, knew she herself might not be in the best frame of mind. She’d heard the tough-as-nails Rhynwa screaming invectives at her husband like she really meant them, and her mother had reminded her several times that she’d been in labor with her a good nineteen hours. So Khyrisse wasn’t really expecting to wake up one morning and pop out her dream child in time for their first family picnic; she really felt she’d earned more than this, though, this backdrop of violence, anger, and destruction, this scary labor she had no control over, this puckered seam across her abdomen where Luthien had to rip the kid out like some alien parasite. Khyrisse felt disempowered. And then, after all this, and then.
Ebreth came back in with her tea. At least she hadn’t cursed at him. She didn’t think she’d be able to bear that. “I’m so sorry, s’parde-vois,” she managed, not looking him in the eye as she took it.
“You shouldn’t be.”
It was almost worse that he was being so supportive. She wouldn’t have wanted to be yelled at, Grendel knew; but if he’d been even quietly upset with her, she could have felt appropriately punished and carried on. As it was she felt guilty even looking at him, raw shame when he acted so nice. “Yes, I should,” said Khyrisse. She looked at the adorable interloper sleeping there, her pink face screwed shut and her
little fist pressed against her mouth. “I had another man’s baby,” she said, wanting the penance of having to say it. It hurt even more than she thought it would.
“Khyrisse.” He sat on the bed and turned her face so she had to look at him. “I was afraid I’d lost you both,” he said, his expression so serious his teeth were together. “Now this isn’t what either of us wanted, right, but it is a lot better than it could have been. I would rather have another man’s baby than my own dead one.” Khyrisse closed her eyes. “And I don’t even want to think about what could have happened to you. Whatever happens now, we’ll deal with it. At least it’s over now, and at least we’re all going to be all right.”
She fumbled her hand into his. “Do you think,” she whispered, looking at her sleeping daughter, “we might still... make a family out of this, somehow?”
“Somehow,” he said quietly, and held it there. “I promise, Khyrisse. Somehow.”