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Chapter 21

Out Of The Frying Pan

Edyric yawned and pulled her T-shirt off over her head with crossed arms.

It was Belle who had convinced her to broaden the scope on her self-imposed geas of revenge, and the genetically enhanced warrior had a good point: beyond the Signet-Waterloo conundrum, beyond Tila’s annoying refusal to have a serious enough relationship to be worth kacking, several of these putzes were going out with people more powerful than they were. The Khyrisse job was one she had a good but not great shot at; if the elf’s new husband obliged her by having a flashback at the appropriate time she’d be set, but if he made his saving throw it would pretty much be even odds, and Edyric still had eight of these hits ahead of her. She’d seriously considered trying to get Wyvern to talk the guy into killing himself, but finding a way to free the archvillain had proved beyond her abilities. Lotus had always been the brains of the operation.

Still, she wasn’t too sorry to hear that the baby had survived. This hit bothered her, in a way that whacking Shilree and Zzenith’s girlfriends hadn’t given her even a twinge. Edyric blamed her biological clock. She’d been trying to talk Lotus into a baby for years. It was reminding herself that was never going to happen now that had steeled her resolve, in the end, but Edyric was finding herself uncomfortably relieved at her own failure, and now she was really kind of hoping she could make one of the Rhynwa scenarios work out after all. She didn’t know if she had it in her to axe a seven-year-old.

Edyric’s mercenary instincts were so fine that she had rolled out of bed in her underwear and fired off a shot before the presence of the shadowed stranger had even registered in her conscious mind. The arrow of mage slaying--Edyric knew who her most recent piss-offs were--whizzed right through the figure and thunked solidly into the wall. Illusion. Complex one, too. That meant Shilree again, not Khyrisse. That wasn’t good--Shilree had a seemingly endless supply of annoying artifacts, and her last attack had left Edyric a glass statue for months until the Black King had finally set her free--but it was better news than the archmage also being onto her would have been. “What do you want?” yelled the archer, scanning the shadows for the first sign of movement.

“Everything you know about Gila, collaborator,” came the soft reply.

Edyric felt buzzing at the edge of her mind. Shilree must have brought Praxis with. That was okay, though; Lotus had left her mind sealed off tighter than the Diari mint, and the psionicist’s ethics actually protected her from the two of them better than from Shilree alone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she lied with impunity. Edyric didn’t even know the name of the illithid she’d planted the bomb for, to tell the truth, but she knew better than to reveal even the smallest and most useless clue about the paranoid tentacle-heads, especially to enemies she hated. “You’ve got nothing on me, Shilly, and the kind of interrogation that’ll get you past these mental blocks isn’t too--heh--heroic.”

“Too bad I’m not Shilree.” The hologram smirked. “Or a hero.”

Edyric whirled and loosed at the first hint of motion behind her.

Her arrow of paralysis turned into a green rubber duckie halfway to the alien psientist.

“YoU aRe OuT oF pLaCe HeRe, EdYrIc ThE aRcHeR,” came from her other side.

The battle was brief and lopsided.

“Next time,” said the illusory projection drily, “you might want to try picking your allies as carefully as your enemies. Shilree Vestrin is hardly the only player on Ataniel with an interest in the Gilan agenda.” There was a moment’s pause. “Assuming there is a next time. Take her to Intelligence.”

Intervention By The Peanut Gallery

“Oh, uh,” said Schneider. “Hey there hi there, Sallie. I guess you’re waiting for Khyri to relent and let us in too, huh?” The elven matron fixed him with a look plainly communicating that if it wasn’t for Schneider she would have been able to see her grandchild the previous night. Schneider coughed. “So is the Big Derek coming?”

“Soon enough,” Sallie said.

“Groovy.” A long silence ensued. “Can I just tell you,” Schneider added, “how cool it is to have someone on Ataniel with both his genes and mine? I can’t wait to see what this kid wears to her prom.”

Sallie gave him a sharp frown. “Now you listen to me, young man,” she said, like her patience had been entirely exhausted. “My husband is the finest person I’ve known in my life: by far the kindest, and one of the most brilliant. And I strongly resent your attempts to pass yourself off as some kind of kindred spirit of his simply because your shirt and vest clash. Do I make myself clear?”

“Uh, loud and clear, ma’am,” Schneider said as humbly as possible. “Not that I don’t, uh, aspire to the niceness and genius parts too... but all I meant was the clothes, honest.”

“Hm,” said Sallie, and went back to her knitting. “Your socks match,” she added, in a not unfriendly tone of voice.

Schneider looked down. They were red and green and had little storks sewn on them. “Khyri gave me these,” he said. “A long time ago. I, uh, wasn’t exactly expecting to be using ‘em in these circumstances...”

“I was rooting for the donkey,” Sallie agreed.

“But life throws you a curve sometimes, you know?” He twisted one hand in the other. “I--I’m sorry we got off on such a bad foot and all. Do you think we could sort of, start over? I mean, anyone who raised Khyri has gotta be all right... and we’re kind of family now, in a way. Like to keep it friendly if we could.”

“You’re no family of mine, Mr. Schneider.” Sallie’s eyes had hardened again. “I do hope you’re not stricken with that naïve human adage about the enemy of one’s enemy being one’s friend. I may think little enough of Khyri’s husband, but at least in his misguided and fairly sexist fashion he’s trying to take care of her. You are trying to take care of yourself. That hardly makes you a preferable alternative to my mind.”

Schneider felt like he was navigating a minefield, and one he understood less well than the minefields he kept finding himself in with Khyrisse. “The baby is the first priority for all of us,” he tried. “We all want to take care of her... that puts all of us on the same side.”

“That would be very nice indeed.” Sallie jabbed her long needle sharply through a joint in the emerging sweater. “Forgive me if I don’t believe it. What this baby needs more than anything else is a healthy and loving mother. And you are not doing much to provide her with one.”

“You--think I’m bad for Khyri?” Schneider said faintly. “But we--we’ve talked about everything. Apologized, came up with a solution we were all happy with... she’s seemed happy with me since. And she’s not exactly the type to keep it to herself when she’s pissed off, know what I mean?”

“She’s not ‘pissed off,’ Mr. Schneider, she’s fragile,” snapped Sallie. “That may not be your fault, but it would be somewhat less Neanderthal of you to take it into consideration once in a while. I didn’t like this marriage in the first place, but if it fails too, she is going to be completely crushed. That may not be a matter of great import to you, but I am her mother, and it certainly is to me.”

“Whoa,” said Schneider, raising his hands, “I’m not out to sabotage her marriage here, Sallie, honest to crows. I may have made some not-completely-admirable moves in my day, but I’ll tell you, if I was going to try and steal her, I would have done it before the sacred vows and all that.”

“Yes, yes, I know,” Sallie said irritably, waving her hand. “That’s not at all what I mean, believe it or not. I’ve told you my esteem for my own husband, and I think it would be difficult for him to sustain our marriage under the circumstances you’ve put poor Khyri in. My faith in Mr. Tor’s maturity and confidence levels is significantly lower. Your behavior is a strain whether you intend it to be or not, young man. And only time will tell what it will do to this marriage... and to Khyri’s relationship with her firstborn child.” She went resolutely back to her knitting, her face stony. “I will do what I can for them. I suggest you at least attempt to do the same. And in the meantime... do me the favor of not presuming to be my family, please. Tumbling my heavily drugged daughter once nine months ago hardly grants you that honor in my book.”

“Now you listen to me, Sallie,” Schneider started, beginning to see red.

No! yelled practically everyone in his head in chorus, clamping their hands over their ears.

No temper!

No wars of words with women who’ve been at it longer than you’ve been alive!

No screaming at pseudo-mother-in-laws!

No messing with my mom! hollered Khyrisse, wearing incongruous lavender overalls. You rip one for my son, you rip one for my husband; you even start with my mother and you are out on your--

They’re are all a little overprotective, Schneider, Duke Faraker sighed, taking a swig from his long-necked bottle of IBC. Trust me on this one.

No one’s ever good enough for their little girls, you know? said Tila. You should see my mom.

Stay the course, counseled Flicker. And take her advice as she intends it. She wants you to be supportive of Khyri. You want to be supportive of Khyri. There is no conflict here.

Okay, guys, okay. “I’ll try,” he said, with a sigh.

“And would you mind moving out of my light?”

Cum On Feel The Noize

Thalia crouched uncomfortably behind a bush outside the general store, magic missile at the ready. Alderon wanted to remain in hiding and follow Slade back to his hideout, where he was surely keeping his prisoner, but the rest of the young heroes reluctantly overruled him in favor of an ambush. Slowed as she was, Chloe could never keep pace with the villain. Besides, Sashami pointed out, if there was going to be a fight, it would be better to confront Slade and his minions separately than all at once. Thalia got a bad feeling about this, but she didn’t want to let Justin down.

Slade looked even more imposing on horseback, his massive black armor casting an evil silhouette across the dusty road. He bumped his helmet on the doorframe of the general store as he went in, though, an oddly reassuring human error. Justin was right, Thalia thought. The armor is new--he’s not used to its extra bulk. It felt like a long time waiting for him to come back out, and when he did, he had an even more human sack of supplies over his shoulder: a loaf of bread, an aluminum pot, some soap. Thalia found herself hoping they weren’t really going to have to kill this man. Kidnapper though he might be, there was just something... different... about killing a human being. Someone who ate bread and used soap. Thalia shivered.

And then Sashami had leapt out from behind the lamp-post, brandishing her greataxe. “Hold where you are, foul abductor!”

“What?” Slade turned on her, a scowl in his voice. “Oh, you again. Who are you kids, anyway?”

“I am Sashami of the Clan Red Hawk,” she said proudly.

“Never heard of it. Now get out of my way before you get hurt.” He slung the sack onto his warhorse’s big back.

“Nay, villain, it is you who are in danger,” said Sashami, frowning at him. “Release the woman you kidnapped or face justice at our hands.”

“Justice,” spat Slade. “Bah! I’ll show you ridiculous children where heroism gets you.” He clashed the knuckles of his black steel gauntlets together, and his armor started to make an unholy glow. “Demons! Come forth! You work for me now!”

There was a strange whining sound, and then three pentagrams opened out on the ground. In a puff of stinking gas, a fat toadlike creature with long ears had appeared in one of them and purple chitinous beings with red coal eyes in the other two. The demons and the young adventurers blinked at each other for a few moments, and then one of the chitinous creatures yawned, curling its long, yellow tongue from its wicked beak. “Damn,” it said in a voice like static, “I hate being summoned to wipe up the low-level ones.”

“Like I was doing anything interesting today anyway.” The fat one cracked its knuckles, grinning.

“Oh, dear,” Thalia understated.

Jester’s Child

“Hello, little sleepyhead,” cooed Derek, tickling his granddaughter under the chin. She bore this patiently, blinking up at him with her unfocused newborn’s eyes. Khyrisse had been terrified her parents would say something about Lissa’s obvious paternity, but plainly neither of them could care less about anything but the baby’s adorable existence. Lissa was their third grandchild, but the other two had been born while they were incapacitated, so she was the first they’d gotten to see from infancy. “Oh, Khyrisse,” said Sallie, her eyes tearing a little as she touched the tiny fingers, “she looks just like Karel did.”

Khyrisse could see the connection, actually; her silky brown hair, the gentle slope of her just-pointed ear. Like Karel. Khyrisse could live with that. She brushed her own fingers along the side of Lissa’s head, and the girl turned towards her a little, mouthing at the air. Knows my touch.

“If only Eleni could have lived to see her,” Sallie whispered, to herself.

“A thousand pardons, ma’am,” said Sennett, materializing in the doorway, “but Mr. Schneider would like to know when he may be admitted. He is wearing something of a hole in the hall carpet.”

Sallie sighed, and released Lissa’s little hand. “No sense being selfish, I suppose,” she said a little reluctantly. “Perhaps we... might come by a little later with lunch for you, Khyri?”

Khyrisse was still rather stunned from the whole birth experience, but her mother’s unexpected timidity still made an impact. “Yes, we’d like that,” she said, and gave her a wobbly smile.

Derek looked wistfully over his shoulder at the baby the whole way out. Ebreth got up to follow them, and it took Khyrisse a few moments to process this. “No!” she said hoarsely, making a lunge for his hand. “No, you--you don’t have to go, Ebreth...”

“Khyrisse, don’t,” he said in a soft voice.

“Please. I don’t want it to be like this.” She shuddered. “You belong here. I--I want you here.”

He came back to give her a kiss on the forehead. “Not today,” he said gently. “For the rest of my life if I have to. But don’t ask us to talk to each other today. There’s only so much I can take, Khyrisse. Don’t make me watch this. For all our sakes. All right?”

And then she had to let him go, even though what she was thinking, in her sleep-deprived haze, was that she didn’t want to have to watch this either.

He was very subdued, as it turned out. No box of cigars, no T-shirt proclaiming his virility. He was wearing a pink propeller beanie announcing “IT’S A GIRL!” Khyrisse could forgive him that much. She could forgive him his entrancement with Lissa, too, who the gods knew warranted it, but she couldn’t quite hide her pain, and it was clear he had noticed. “At least she doesn’t look like me,” he offered by way of a joke.

Khyrisse didn’t know what the flark to say to that, because she’d already thought it, and felt horribly guilty for thinking it. Whether he believed it or not, she did think Schneider was a perfectly good-looking man, but his features blaring at her from her daughter’s face every day would have been more of a scarlet letter than Khyrisse was ready to bear. “She looks like my brother,” she finally said.

“Let’s hope she doesn’t inherit his stubble. Congratulations, kiddo.”

“Thanks,” she said wanly.

“Can I, uh, hold her?”

Possessiveness flared in Khyrisse for a moment. The girl wasn’t even a day old. Only Khyrisse had held her yet; not even Sallie had dared to ask this early. And Schneider holding her before she’d even asked Ebreth to! But it would be so cruel to say no, and for no real reason. She wasn’t asleep. She wasn’t nursing. She was just lying there, blinking up at nothing. Khyrisse sighed. “If you’re very, very careful,” she said. “And don’t bounce her. She’s too little.”

“This isn’t the first time I’ve picked up a baby, you know.”

He sounded a little miffed, and Khyrisse sighed. “Sorry,” she said, shortly. “It’s been a long day.”

“Yeah, Luthien said.” He picked the infant up gingerly. “Have I told you yet how crappy it is that women have to do all the grunt work on the birth front? You’d think they would have figured out some way for us guys to take our share of the lumps by now.”

“Easy for you to say,” Khyrisse muttered. “Since they haven’t.”

“Are you, uh, okay?”

“I’ve been better. Can I have her, please? I think she wants me.”

He handed her right over. Khyrisse was surprised how much less tense she felt with her child in her arms, like she was the family, like other people came and went as she willed it. Sometimes Khyrisse almost wished she lived in Aithne’s time. “If she’s hungry,” Schneider offered, “you can go ahead and feed her. I’ve seen it all before.” He cleared his throat. “Uh, breastfeeding, I mean,” he said. “I didn’t mean you in, uh, particular. You know.”

Khyrisse knew. She was damned if she was unbuttoning her shirt in front of him, though, and Lissa didn’t look ravenous anyway. “Her name is Laelissa,” she said instead. “After my mother.”

“I thought your mom was named Sallie.”

“It’s a long story.”

“Khyrisse?” Schneider shuffled his feet. “Please don’t be mad at me. It wasn’t my fault either.”

She sighed, expelling more air than she realized she’d had in her. “I’m not mad at you,” she said quietly. There was no way to explain that what she was was hurt, hurt that the damn Gilans had ruined a birth experience she’d wanted to be so perfect, hurt that her mother, however distracted, hadn’t even congratulated her husband, hurt by the paternal wistfulness on Schneider’s face. He wanted her to be happy for him, she knew, and he was successfully making her feel guilty about it, but there was no way in hell she was going to indulge him. Khyrisse had never quite forgiven the jester for telling her he hoped the baby was his, for the small and personal betrayal of putting his genetic desire to procreate ahead of her psychological health. It hadn’t even been consensual sex. She didn’t blame him for it, not even in the back recesses of her brain; but who rooted for an incident like that to make a woman pregnant against her will? Khyrisse sighed again. “I’m not mad at you,” she repeated. “I’m just, tired. I am so tired. And I just want to be alone.”

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