You Know What They Say About Assuming (or: Make Way For The Author Who’s Actually Done Time In A Maternity Ward)
Ebreth turned the pram abruptly for Linden Way, but Boule had seen them from across the street before he made it there and waved gaily. He muttered something to himself Khyrisse didn’t catch before fixing his broad, impenetrable grin in place with what was clearly moderate effort. “Hello, Boule,” Khyrisse said swiftly as she crossed to them, hoping to forestall any more catty exchanges. “How’s business?”
“Ah, she good, she good,” nodded the masseuse, with a bright smile. “Mostly travelers, you know. Good customers.” The odd emphasis she put on words made them a little hard to understand: custoMERS, traveLERS. “Don’t you worry now, your man never come by. Ahaha.” She rapped her knee with her fan, grinning sidelong at Ebreth. “And I’d rat him out if he did, bet the boat on that one.”
This was where Ebreth would ordinarily say something blithely suave about his lack of need for an escort service, or at least something deadpan about being tattled on; today he just nodded in a preoccupied way, keeping his verbal distance. Boule laughed and turned her attention to the baby, making the same silly noises practically every woman made when they met her on the street. Khyrisse just couldn’t believe this was all some kind of vengeful snipe at Ebreth; there was such lack of malice in her face. Maybe she just didn’t understand how seriously he took it. The Tor she had known, Khyrisse suspected, would have been annoyed but not genuinely hurt. “Ah, she gettin’ big,” said Boule, smiling down at Lissa. “Got her mama’s eyes. What a pretty little one.” The infant accepted the compliments graciously, Khyrisse with uneasy pride. “She gon break a di hearts,” she added back at Ebreth, in heavier creole and with a wink.
“I’m sure,” Ebreth said quietly.
“She has such a good disposition, too,” Khyrisse lamely tried to steer the conversation. It wasn’t easy to talk about a one-week-old without her cuteness being the central motif, really; she wasn’t crawling or talking or getting into mischief or doing anything else worth narrating. “She doesn’t cry much.”
“Lucky for you.” Boule tickled the baby’s little foot and was rewarded with a funny face. “Gettin’ some more hair on that little head, I see. Good for a girl. She color startin’ to come in too.”
“Her what?” said Ebreth.
“Col-orrr,” Boule said, enunciating the final ‘r’ in an exaggerated rejection of her island accent. “Or what, you think she gonna look like that forever? You wit’ yo black ass?” She whacked him in the shoulder with her fan, laughing, and then abruptly stopped as he failed to react. “Oh, mon,” she said, “you ain’t been tinkin’ yo woman cheatin’ on you or somefin’?”
Khyrisse looked at Lissa, her pulse thudding in her throat. She did, in this light, look a little darker, though there was no way to tell now if she was imagining it or not.
“Oh, mon!” shrieked Boule, and hit Ebreth in the arm fairly hard. “You somefin’ awful dat you, an?” She turned to Khyrisse, one hand indignantly on her hip. “Now don’t you let him talk to you that way, hear me? He the biggest tail-chaser in the Montas Archipelago. Fox think everybody else steal eggs.” She shook her fan at Ebreth. “I don’t believe you, Tor. Ain’t you never seen a baby before?”
Ebreth looked like he was trying to find some tack he could take in responding to her which would extricate himself without dispelling the illusions she already had, and just plain failing his roll.
“Well, they all start out pretty much pink.” Boule rolled her eyes expressively and snapped her fan open, giving Khyrisse a pat on the shoulder with it as she passed. “You better get you to the jewelry store or somefin’, mon, because you owin’ her one sak a di apology.”
She flounced off down the street, leaving Ebreth and Khyrisse looking silently at each other over the pram. After several seconds, Lissa’s voice lifted into a thin, imperious wail.
Aithne kicked a little pebble down the sidewalk with her shoe. “What you think about religion, Jack?”
Jack squinted. “What do I... think about it?”
“I mean,” she said, “what do you believe about it? In my time, I think was very simple. Here it seems like a lot of people worship dead people or leaders or some idea. And most of them don’t agree with each other about that. Do you have a religion?”
“Uh,” said Jack. “Well, I guess I’m kind of a, uh, deist, you could say... I mean, I don’t know how the world got, uh, created, or anything, but it could have been divinely ordained. Now that it’s here, though, I’m pretty sure the gods aren’t controlling it... I can see the mathematical harmonies underpinning the universe, and they’re too regular, too patterned for someone to be constantly manipulating them.”
Aithne nodded. “This is like my religion,” she said. “Gods and kings can change what happens, but never how things happen.” She paused, contemplatively. “Only,” she added, “for us is the web of magic, underpinning. I don’t really understand the parts about math.”
“Well, I don’t really understand the magic much,” Jack offered, grinning at his own expense.
“Maybe, they are the same thing,” Aithne said thoughtfully, “only seeing from two different sides.” She slowed her gait, frowning at the woman who had stepped out in front of their path, and then her frown deepened, for Jack paled as if he had seen a ghost. “Who are you?” Aithne demanded.
“Hello, Jack,” the woman said softly.
“Brie?” said Jack, a little weakly.
“Of course.” She tossed her misty hair a bit, smiling a strange little smile. “You seem... surprised to see me.”
“Uh,” said Jack, “well, since last time I saw you, you, uh, tried to kill me for no real reason--”
“Oh, Jack.” Gabriella laughed, shaking her head fondly. “I was just keeping you on your toes a little. You know how it is with us... you always hurt the ones you love, don’t you?”
“Who is she?” Aithne demanded of Jack.
“Uh,” said Jack, not completely sure how to answer either of them.
“Gabriella Hu,” said Gabriella, with a slightly whimsical bow. “Imperiator of the Wakening Shadows, Grey Lady of Grindar, Overlord of the Imminent Darkness... I have a few other titles, but they’re all in the same vein, really. Would you be Jack’s most recent attempt at filling the place I still hold in his heart?”
“Uh,” Jack offered, “you, uh, don’t--”
Aithne was frowning at the other sorceress, her eyes narrow now. “She is Ratpack?”
“Um,” said Jack, “no, she’s my, uh, ex-girlfriend from my old party... the one with Cori and, uh, Crandall in it. We never really did have a name--”
“Good,” said Aithne, and Gabriella exploded in flame.
Nothing Ever Stands Still Very Long
Khyrisse came in slowly, her knees weaker than they had been since reading Eric’s extortion letter in the Dalencian summit. Ebreth was standing by the window, his palms on the sill. You could always tell when he was most stressed because he stopped his near-constant motion and just stood. “Well?” he said now, without turning his head.
“She--she was right.” Khyrisse put Lissa down shakily in the bassinet. “Rani says she’s ours. I don’t--don’t know why I assumed--”
“Shit!” Ebreth made a forceless fist against the window pane, his face struggling. “You mean to tell me all this time--”
“All along,” said Ebreth, “all these things we gave up, and this could have been--” He covered his face with his hand. “I--I’ve got to go out for a walk or something,” he said, his voice breaking. “I just, I’ve got to go get some air.”
Khyrisse watched him stumble out, and not without a certain amount of shared pain. She would never burn her disappointment at seeing her daughter for the first time out of her memory herself, and she knew it could only have been worse for him, having to back off, having to stay quiet, relegated to the background. There were no do-overs here. They would never experience the miracle of a first child again; this was all they were going to have of it, and they had damaged it, and for nothing, no reason, no point. In the back of Khyrisse’s mind she knew, too, that this would not make things easier on any of them in the days to come, not on her, not on him, and certainly not on Schneider.
All of this and more; but still what was bubbling to the top of Khyrisse’s unsteady heart was not pain, not right now. She sank to her knees beside the bassinet, trembling almost too much to stay on her feet.
My daughter is my husband’s child.
Her silent rhapsody of thanksgiving sang out to whoever might still be listening.
Jack Paris, In Over His Head As Usual
“No! Wait!” Jack flapped his hands in useless anxiety, trying to get between Aithne and Gabriella. Neither of the two mages seemed to be much inconvenienced by his interference, their spells easily zipping around his thin frame and into each other. “Stop! Someone’s going to, uh, get h--”
Gabriella’s disintegrate spell went wide and atomized a lamppost in a silver rain of ash.
“I will defeat, you bad woman!” shouted Aithne, more fire jetting around Jack and into her rival.
“You can try,” whispered Gabriella, that old, mad pain in her smoky eyes.
“Couldn’t we, uh, talk about this?” pleaded Jack, ducking a stray lightning bolt.
The power word stun slammed into the duelling women from behind then, throwing them both back into the brick wall of the library. “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE!” Khyrisse screeched.
Gabriella, woozily, fireballed her head.
Jack gave up on trying to stop the melee and concentrated on using the principles of oxygen flow to try and keep the nearby buildings from bursting into flame. When the ashes had settled Gabriella was gone, the blue hex of her teleportation spell afterimaged in the smoky sky. Khyrisse turned her scorched fury on Aithne. “What do you think you’re doing!?!”
Aithne bowed her bleeding head respectfully but defiantly. “She try to steal my boyfriend!” she cried indignantly, pointing an accusing finger at the magical tracemark where Gabriella had last been.
Khyrisse looked at her for a moment, looked at Jack, and then burst into gasping peals of laughter, sagging against the blackened brick wall. “Oh, poor Jack,” she wheezed, tears of mirth stinging in her eyes. “Don’t you hate it when this happens...?”
“I’m sorry!” Jack wrung his hands woefully. “I tried to stop it... I didn’t think...”
Khyrisse ran her fingers through her burned hair and surveyed the scene with a resigned sigh. “Well, it doesn’t look like too much has been destroyed,” she said. “And I suppose I might have a similar reaction myself, in Aithne’s place.” She gave the young witch a rueful grin. “Can we try to keep the collateral damage of you guys’ lovelife to something of a minimum from now on, please?”
“I try,” Aithne agreed, not very contrite-sounding.
“I’m sorry,” bemoaned Jack, wringing one hand helplessly in the other.
Joined At The Hip
Lora was still sitting in the living room where Khyrisse had left her, chatting quietly with Ebreth, who had apparently returned in the interim. Lissa was lying on her back staring hypnotically up at her black-and-white mobile. “Everything all right?” said Ebreth, looking up as she came in.
“More or less.” Khyrisse sighed and shook the cinders out of her daycloak. “Aithne and Gabriella Hu tore up a city block squabbling over Jack, if you can believe that. No one else was hurt... but Jack is being sort of, well, Jack about it. Maybe you should talk to him.”
“Actually,” murmured Lora, standing from the sofa, “this sounds more like my kind of job.”
“Who won?” Ebreth wanted to know.
“It was sort of a push, I guess. Gabriella had better spells, but Aithne was casting hers faster.” Khyrisse shrugged tiredly. “I broke it up and Gabriella teleported away, but I doubt we’ve heard the last of this.”
“I’ll alert the Word,” said Lora. “Lissa’s an angel, by the way. If you ever need a sitter again, you know where to find me.”
The door closed behind her. Khyrisse was actually kind of curious to know what kind of maternal advice she had for Jack on the subject of pissy evil sorceresses battling for his romantic affections, but conceded it wasn’t really her business. She crossed to Lissa’s bassinet and looked down at her there, quietly. There was something so surreal about all of this. “Did you tell Lora?” she asked, glancing at her husband.
“What would I tell her?” He sounded tired. “It’ll be obvious enough soon. Let them figure it out for themselves. With any luck they’ll all be embarrassed enough about making assumptions, they won’t notice we made the same mistake.”
That was a happy thought. “I guess we owe Boule an apology,” Khyrisse said, looking at her daughter on the blanket. “She wasn’t being snide after all. Just a little saucy, I guess.” She gave Ebreth a sidelong grin, pushing a piece of hair back behind one ear. “She may have been right, actually. I know just what night it was now, too.”
“Don’t,” Ebreth said softly.
Khyrisse was shocked how devastating it was, that one quiet word of pulling back. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes stinging.
“I can’t,” he said. “The part of me that could have strutted over this is dead, Khyrisse. I had to kill it to survive. Do you understand?”
She nodded tearfully. “I’m so sorry,” she whispered through her hand. “This--is the worst of both worlds, isn’t it?”
“No,” he said. “No, the worst of both worlds would have been if she died. I think we’re all in agreement there.” Khyrisse shivered. “This isn’t a bad thing. It... I’m glad, Khyrisse, I’m happy she’s mine. It won’t solve the problems we’ve already made for ourselves, but maybe--it’ll keep there from being more. Maybe things can get normal again. Someday.” He looked out the window. “And--and if I’d known all along, I would always have been wondering in my heart if that was the only reason I loved her. At least now I know it’s not.” Khyrisse closed her eyes. “So it, it’s probably better this way. Just don’t ask me to be proud now. Please. It’s too late for that.”
“I understand,” she whispered around the lump in her throat. “I--think.”
“And it’s too late to cut Schneider out. You know that, don’t you?”
“Schneider,” Khyrisse snapped, frayed, “has caused more than enough trouble already.”
Ebreth paused a long pause. “I’ve been waiting most of a year to hear you say that,” he finally said very quietly, “but we can’t, not anymore. He closed ranks with us when we thought the child was his. We have to do the same for him now. Not just to save his face... to save mine too.”
“You aren’t seriously suggesting we share custody with him anyway, Ebreth...!”
He turned away. “Did I say that?”
“Well, then what can we do?” Khyrisse buried her twitching fingers in her hair miserably.
“What we should have all along.” He sighed. “Take her down to the Church of Tal on Sunday and have him named her godfather.” Khyrisse’s jaw dropped. “Pretend he really was a family friend the whole time and blame the entire thing on Vas and the tabloids.”
“That--” Khyrisse couldn’t find words for a few seconds. “Ebreth, that’s a wonderful idea. I can’t believe we didn’t think of that months ago. You--you’re sure you’re okay with that? With Schneider being your daughter’s godfather?”
Ebreth shrugged tiredly. “Don Alliejin was mine,” he said. “I turned out all right, eventually.”
“We’re... going to make this,” Khyrisse whispered, “aren’t we?”
“We would have anyway,” he said. “That’s all we learned from all this heartache. We might as well take it with us.”
“How very Ataniel,” murmured Khyrisse.
In her bassinet, Lissa studied her black-and-white mobile as if the key to the universe were contained within it somewhere and she would be the one to unlock it.
Equal Time: The Single Life Is Stress-Inducing Too
“So after my sixth suicide attempt,” explained the young priest, “I suddenly realized I was called to the worship of Arawn.”
“Really,” said Thalia.
Blind dates were really, really starting to get old.
“I have 86 My Little Ponies in my collection now,” said the innkeeper’s son proudly. “Would you... uh... like to come back to my mom’s place and see them?”
After a week on Annwych with Chloe, she was just about ready to put her head through the nearest wall, actually.
“My last girlfriend, we were going out for a year and a half and she still just wanted to hold hands,” said the divinity student, scowling. “My brother can’t get any either. This is the extinction of my genes we’re talking about here. The female gender is damning my family line.”
“How... trying that must be for you,” Thalia murmured, inching further away.
She was much too polite to say anything about it, but Chloe knew the most staggering assortment of losers the young princess could have imagined in a hundred years.
“It’s so refreshing to go on a date with a woman who’s actually intelligent,” said the magician’s apprentice. “Usually I go for the prettiest woman in the room--I simply can’t help myself--and she’s just never up to my intellectual standards.”
And Thalia had quite an imagination.
“Look!” said the church organist suddenly, jumping up from his chair and swinging out the window with a manic grin Thalia could only hope was meant to impress her with its goofy spontaneity. “I’m Silverblaaaaaade!”
So when Justin Moore returned with news of Slade, the princess could just about have kissed his feet, even if he wasn’t, the more she thought about it, really rather charming. “We’ve located a hollow excavation beneath part of the stone flats of Tanarri,” explained the hero, “just northeast of Trassus. The stone rejects magical scrying... but I suspect that’s where they’re holed up now. The kind of stasis field you detected around the prisoner should have stood out like a beacon if it wasn’t shielded somehow.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Alderon, and stretched. “You guys ready to rock and roll?”
“So you’re a feminist, right?” said the painter. “So you’re paying for this, right?”
“Totally ready,” said Thalia. “Totally ready.”
“Just when I thought we were making progress, too,” Chloe said sadly.