Khyrisse stirred her pasta listlessly. It wasn’t Schneider’s fault, but spending time with him just wasn’t pleasant anymore. It was hard enough avoiding the paternity issue with Ebreth, and they had hundreds of other things to talk about. With Schneider it was how-are-you-feeling and gee-the-baby’s-cute and then long, awkward silences, periodically interrupted by a rather forced attempt on his part to pretend they weren’t awkward. He asked her about uterine swelling. Khyrisse didn’t think her guts were any of his business at all. He made a joke about stretch marks. Khyrisse was still too sensitive about that to find it amusing. He kept on claiming Lissa recognized his face even after Khyrisse had explained to him several times that infants her age couldn’t even see more than a foot in front of them and his insisting that Lissa was different was getting kind of annoying, please. He talked about their future together, which, even though Khyrisse had already agreed to let him have one, still constricted her breathing. Today he was saying he couldn’t wait till Lissa was old enough for him to take to the Lianth zoo. She was only just born. Khyrisse hadn’t even gotten used to her the way she was, and Schneider was already trying to make her look forward far enough to imagine her going to another city without her mother’s supervision? Just let me take this at my own pace, she wanted to cry. Just stop pushing me. We can talk about these things when the time comes!
But Schneider couldn’t read minds--just as well, really--and Khyrisse couldn’t articulate her distress. So they sat there, on either side of the café table, watching the baby sleep peacefully in her basket as if they were both hoping she might wake up and do something cute to distract them from their discomfort.
She did not.
“She’s having lunch with him?” Grayson was incredulous. “You’re telling me she thinks this is okay?”
“I’m having lunch with you,” Ebreth pointed out.
“Yeah, but last time I checked we never slept together, Tor.” The planeblazer poked at her milkshake sharply with her straw. “You don’t sleep around on someone and keep on seeing the alternates. Even if... well, you just don’t.”
“There’s nothing going on between them anymore,” said Ebreth. That much, at least, he was confident of.
“Nothing except for Backdoor Bob taking your family out to lunch like he’s got some kind of place there. Christ!” She crossed her arms, turning partly away. “I’m not going to tell you to respect yourself, all right? I’m not that stupid. But no one should have to put up with the kind of shit she’s giving you.”
Ebreth sighed. “It’s not like that, Grayson. You don’t know. Khyrisse, she... we didn’t even have a commitment. When they took me back to Hell. Do you understand? She came after me. She didn’t even owe me that.”
Grayson didn’t say anything for a while. “No, she didn’t,” she finally said. “I wish I had a friend like that. And if she didn’t want any part of it anymore after Hell was through with you, I wouldn’t think less of her for it. Some people might, but not me.” She made a brittle puff of air. “But she did, Ebreth. She decided to pursue the relationship anyway. She got married to you. You can’t do that and keep on lording it over someone. I don’t give a damn what all happened to you. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. Either you’re her equal or you’re not.” She rubbed her forehead. “Please make her treat you like a human being,” she said in a much softer voice.
“Whoa,” Marty said. “So does this make me, like, an uncle? I’ve never been an uncle before.” He peered curiously at the baby. “Unless you count Rabid, I guess.”
“Rabid?” Khyrisse said despite herself. She had bumped into the young paladin on her way out of the restaurant, and despite her prevailing mood, didn’t have the heart to blow him off.
“Yeah, he’s, like, Gaby’s familiar. She summoned him when we were teenagers, you know? So he’s sort of like her baby, except he’s, you know, a bunny, instead of a kid.”
“Gabriella’s familiar is a rabbit?” Khyrisse didn’t know anyone who’d gotten that crappy a roll.
“Yeah.” Marty shuddered. “She was trying to get a quasit or something, but instead she got Rabid. Man, it was totally awful. He tried to bite my face off sometimes...”
Khyrisse would have to remember to ask Jack whether this really was some sort of evil demon rabbit, or if Marty was just being Marty. “Anyway,” she changed the subject back, “her name is Lissa.”
“Dude, really?” Marty looked disappointed. “I thought her name was Znodar.”
Khyrisse took two deep breaths. “Did Schneider tell you that?” she said in her sweetest voice, trying not to let it show that if he had she was going to run the jester through the nearest laundry wringer.
“Oh, no, Miz Khyrisse, I did... I mean, me in a dream. There was this really old guy, right, and he said he was me from the future?” Khyrisse nodded with all the patience she could summon. “And so I was asking him about, like, the future, and he said Znodar was this totally popular name. So I figured if it was going to be popular in the future, people had to start using it now, right?” He looked uneasily at the baby. “Are you sure you don’t want to name her Znodar instead?”
“I’m sure,” Khyrisse said as nicely as she could.
“Dude.” Marty sighed. “Cause I don’t want to mess up the future, you know?” He paused, and then brightened. “But maybe it’s, like, a boy’s name.”
“Don’t you have a quest or something to be doing, Marty?”
“Not really,” said Marty. “Everything’s kind of stopped for the holidays.”
“Well,” said Khyrisse, “but if there are going to be quests in the future, you have to go start them now, right?”
“Oh!” Marty jumped. “Dude! You’re right! I better go.”
“See you later, Marty,” sighed Khyrisse, waving.
“I wonder if Rani will go with me if I tell her it’s about the fate of the future,” mused Marty as he jogged off.
The Judge of Heaven
“There were some solars here to see you,” said Fizznang, clicking his pincers lazily in the air. “So I told ‘em you were off in an alternate universe.”
“Thanks,” Asinus said. “I knew there was a reason I kept you yobbos around.”
“You know,” said Nasty, painting her toes, “we’re going to have to deal with this planar crisis eventually, sweet baboo.”
“For the last time, ya deluded harridan, I’m not your sweet flarkin’ baboo, all right?”
“Sure you are.” The succubus smiled beguilingly. “Why, we’re already lovers, to six degrees of separation.”
Dragworth scratched his head. “How’d’ya figure that?”
“Asinus slept with Ailonwy,” Nasty explained, counting on her fingers, “and Ailonwy slept with Arcraver and Arcraver slept with Glasya and Glasya slept with Kevin Bacon and I did too.”
“Yeah, well,” said Asinus. “To six degrees of separation I’ve had sex with Zzenith the flarkin’ space alien, and it don’t mean I’m going to do it in real life.” Nasty pouted. “So what did the flarkin’ solars want?”
“They had some kind of dire warning or something.” Fizznang stuffed chips into his cavernous mouth. “Something about the fate of the heavens being determined by the time some comet or other passes over. Oh, and if you make the wrong choice Ataniel will be destroyed forever. Almost forgot that part.”
“I need a new flarkin’ life,” muttered Asinus.
“Could you help me fasten this garter, sweet baboo?”
Rising to the Occasion
“Baby looks very good,” Aithne pronounced. Lissa waved a little fist around in the air as if in celebration. “I think, she is gaining weight. Very healthy girl.”
“That’s good.” Khyrisse paused. “Aithne, can I ask you something... privately?” The young witch nodded solemnly. “After a woman has a baby... how long before she can get pregnant again?”
“You want some births control?” Aithne said sympathetically.
“No... no, just the, opposite, actually.” Khyrisse looked down, tiredly. “How long before I can have another baby, Aithne?”
“You want pregnant again soon?” Aithne looked stupefied, but didn’t argue with her matriarch. “Yes, I know plants to help that. Probably you can pregnant in two month, I think, after baby stops drinking milk. You won’t pregnant while a baby is still drinking.”
A terror skittered slowly across Khyrisse’s face in the angled light from Aithne’s window, and she held her child to her reflexively tighter, appalled at herself for the few seconds of hesitation, for the mouth that had already half-opened to ask how soon that could be. “Thank you, Aithne,” she said instead, strangled, and escaped into the reassuring glare of the street.
Ebreth opened the door. “Khyrisse isn’t in,” he said. It wasn’t the first he’d seen Schneider since Lissa’s birth, but it was the first time he’d had to talk to him, and it wasn’t an experience he was eager to prolong. “She took the baby to Aithne’s for a check-up or something. Try back in a few hours.”
The jester cleared his throat. “Uh,” he said, “well, actually, I was, uh, hoping to talk to you, Tor.”
Ebreth paused a few long moments at that. “What about?” he said, without moving to let the other man in.
“Well, about Khyri.” Schneider shifted from one foot to the other. “See, it’s just... I actually kind of know a couple things about midwifery, believe it or not, and I’m a little, well, worried about her.”
“Maybe you should talk to Aithne.”
“Uh, well, putting aside the fact that she creeps me out even more than you do, this is, uh, something you’d know more about, actually.” He rubbed his neck uncomfortably. “How has she, uh... been? I mean, do you think she’s been taking everything... all right?”
Ebreth frowned, trying to figure where this was going. “She’s okay,” he said. “It’s been a stress, obviously, but the baby’s all right. That’s the most important thing.”
“It’s not the only thing, though.” Schneider twisted one hand in the other. “See, when women are too, uh, stressed, or depressed, or something, sometimes they don’t bond with the baby the way they should after it’s born. And boy, can that cause problems down the pike. A kid needs nothing like she needs her mom in her corner. And I know the times I’ve seen Khyri she may not have been behaving, uh, typically... but I’m getting some vibes of, well, resentment from her. If she resents this baby because of me, if she’s not as happy with her as she should be and it’s keeping her from being the kind of mom every child deserves... well, I can be on the next coach out of here. That’s what I’m here to say.”
There was a long silence on the doorstep. “That, it’s not necessary,” Ebreth finally said. “Khyrisse is a good mother. She’s a little unhappy sometimes, but she loves this baby, she really does, and she’s taking good care of her. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Would she be taking better care of her, though,” Schneider said pointedly, “if I wasn’t around here complicating things?”
Ebreth did hesitate, but loyalty to his wife and maybe even a bit of reluctant admiration for Schneider’s last-minute selflessness won out. “No,” he said. “She’s a good mother.” He paused, and said “Stay.”
“Khyrisse,” said Valende, in her gentlest voice. “You have to stop beating yourself up over this. The feelings you’re having are normal.”
“Normal,” Khyrisse said drolly, trying to calm her nerves with herbal tea. “So most new mothers get a little disappointed and depressed about their children turning out to be the result of some supernatural jungle spirit using their bodies to jump people with? Really? And here I’d been feeling so all alone...”
Val sighed. Sarcasm just didn’t amuse her the way it amused her brother. “Your situation is obviously a unique one, Khyrisse,” she said, “but the emotions it’s evoking are far from that. I will confess I have never seen a case where the child proved to have the wrong father, before; but I have certainly seen women whose infants suffered from birth defects or genetic disorders, or, more simply, just happened to be a gender other than the mother was sure in her heart she was getting. There is a sense of loss, and suppressing it does no one any good. In Elvish we call it toile cerime, a phantom twin.” She squeezed Khyrisse’s hand. “If you had twins and one of them died, you wouldn’t feel guilty about grieving, would you? No, of course not. And it wouldn’t mean you loved the living child less. It’s no different in this case. You have to mourn the child you were expecting but didn’t get as well as celebrate the one you wound up with.”
Khyrisse dabbed at her eyes with her napkin. “That’s... remarkably sensible, actually,” she whispered.
“Liratyn’s been a great city for millennia, you know. Madrigal shirts and cream puff pastries haven’t been our only contributions to the world of Ataniel.”
Khyrisse laughed ruefully, and looked into the cloud of her tea. “Phantom twin,” she repeated in Dalen. She could almost see Ember in the steam.
“So stop feeling so afraid of being sad every once in a while. It doesn’t mean you don’t love your daughter, for goodness’ sake. You don’t have to be in constant overwhelming bliss every moment of the day to be in love, as you should well know.” Val sipped at her own tea. “Besides,” she added, “some babies get colic. Their mothers would never have a chance if that were the standard.”
“You’re a better friend than I deserve, Val,” Khyrisse murmured remorsefully.
“I feel that way about most of mine,” sighed the older elf, and clinked their teacups together with a tired smile.
We All Want To Change The World
“Revolution?” Cornelius Evergreen’s eyes bugged almost out of his head. “Are you mad? We’ll be slaughtered!”
“We’re not talking about a military revolt, now, Cornelius,” Keri said soothingly.
“And I’m not talking about a military massacre! I’m the head guildmaster of Samanal, girl, and I’m telling you it’ll be economic ruin for us!”
“The Federation of New Trade has already given us an unofficial promise of entry,” said Mr. Salzar. “Cynystra has an extremely compromising treaty with the Federation and won’t be able to block it. It’s doubtful they’d jeopardize their rebuilding process making war on us.”
“What about our rebuilding process?” The gnome folded his arms. “It’s suicide, I tell you! We’re not Diaria out here. We don’t have some wealth of silk and spices everyone else on the continent is salivating over. These other countries aren’t going to spend all their money importing our fish and potatoes; what’s going to happen is our people are going to start buying foreign goods produced more cheaply by wealthier industrialized countries! It’ll put my men out of business!”
“It’ll get them out from under the thumb of Cynystran protectionism,” Mr. Salzar pointed out. “Right now the craftsmen have to buy their raw materials from Cynystra... it’d save them a fortune if they could buy them at market value from the least expensive bidder.”
“Fat lot of good it’ll do them if their demand dries up!”
“Besides,” said Keri, “you know Cynystra doesn’t have our interests in mind, Cornelius. Whenever there’s a shortage of anything, they just stop selling it to us. We’re the ones with coal, and during the blizzards of ’09, they imported it all and we had to heat our houses with peat... remember? And the way they hung us out to dry in the Madness!”
“Oh, the Madness this and the Madness that.” Cornelius waved his hand irritably. “Every other country on Ataniel suffered losses the same as we did. Cynystra didn’t bring the Madness.”
“Well, they sure weren’t any help,” Garal muttered.
“If I had a way of staving off the Madness, laddie, I wouldn’t have split it down the middle with Cynystra. Would you?” He stood up. “No, I don’t like Cynystra; none of us does. But they haven’t been oppressing us, they haven’t been abusing us. I don’t believe this Trade Federation would be any better, any better at all. Until you can convince me otherwise, count me out.”
There was a long pause in the meeting room after he left. “The craftsmen will be more excited about this than the miners and farmers,” Keri finally said. “If we can get enough of them to pressure him, he’ll change his mind. He does what his constituents want.”
“I could talk to some of the guildsmen,” Alora offered. “I think a lot of them are more upset with Cynystra than Mr. Evergreen thinks... they wouldn’t complain about it to him unless there was something they really wanted him to do about it, that’s all.”
“Yes.” Mr. Salzar nodded. “Get them to voice their unrest. While we all remain silent, nothing will happen. History tells us this. But once a noise starts... it will spread quickly.”
“Won’t the Cynystrans hear about it then?” Garal said uneasily.
“They will have to hear about it eventually, my boy.” Mr. Salzar stood. “And we are approaching the endgame now.”