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Chapter 25

Coming of Age

"So you'll never believe what the Riklandic delegation wants." Khyrisse threw her hands up in the air. "An age of consent. In New Trade! And sixteen years old, if you can believe it! I think half the countries in the alliance allow marriage younger than that. I think Riklandir does...!"

"They're probably worried about Riklandic girls coming down here to work as prostitutes," Ebreth said. "What's legal age here currently?"

"There isn't any." Khyrisse frowned. "I don't legislate things like that, Ebreth."

Ebreth looked at her. "Well, you can't just leave it to the kids' discretion."

"Why not?" she said crossly. "Don't get all patriarchal on me now just because we have a daughter."

"Well Khyrisse, you don't want the Diarian diplomats bringing eight-year-old catamites to the Rise and Shine, do you?"

Khyrisse winced. "Okay," she said, her hand over her face. "Okay, that's not what I needed to hear."

"You've got to establish some kind of baseline here."

"Maybe... thirteen," she said. "Younger than that is way too sick. And I don't think that's what the Riklanders were worried about, either." She paused. "Is that legal in Diaria...?!?"

"Should I know?" Ebreth shrugged uncomfortably. "The last guy wasn't exactly paying strict attention to the official laws of Diaria. If there's a law it sure isn't enforced very much."

"As if the place weren't a fucked-up enough," Khyrisse muttered. "They're all pedophiles."

"It's--" Ebreth hesitated. "It's not exactly pedophilia. In human society, right, you're pretty much an adult when you're eighteen. Well, in Diaria it's twelve. They have shorter lifespans, they mature faster. Twelve-year-old Diarians are leaving home and getting their own apartments."

"Oh," blinked Khyrisse. "That's--not so bad then, not really."

"But then what happens," said Ebreth, "is even if they do like them young, they wouldn't think of having sex with a six-year-old Diarian, because that would seem like child molesting, but a ten-year-old human girl, even though it's really the same thing, seems more acceptable to them. Because they're thinking "Oh, well, she's ten, it's okay." He cleared his throat. "It, ah, it's not that different from a human guy bringing home a fifteen-year-old elf, really."

Khyrisse blinked a few times at that, and then dissolved into helpless peals of laughter. "I'll--have to mention that to Eric next time I see him," she gasped, wiping her tears of mirth from her eyes. "It's not quite the same though, Ebreth... fifteen-year-old elven girls are, ah, sexually mature."

"Ask Valende," said Ebreth.

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just ask her."

Khyrisse's hand crept over her mouth, a few prickles running down her back as her mind ran back over her early adolescence. She'd spent a lot of time lamenting her skinny, rather boyish figure, especially in contrast with her graceful and willowy mother; been teased by the Cynystran girls as androgynous, and not only because of her distaste for skirts. She and Karel had passed for brothers more than once, and in fact, even as a twenty-year-old refugee she had once successfully hidden in a gaggle of middle-school girls as Eric's bully boys rode by. She was five foot nothing, after all. And--well, thin.

And then there was their three-year campaign to conceive a child, something Khyrisse was immeasurably glad hadn't succeeded. But there had even been a midwife involved, and she still hadn't caught until twenty-five years later.

"Ebreth," she said slowly, "do I want to know how you know this?"


She sat up straight then suddenly, with a strangled sound. "Twelve. Merde! Ebreth, Lorrini's twelve! Are they having sex? He's just a boy!"

Ebreth made an impressive effort on her behalf to avoid laughing. "I'm sure he'll be fine, Khyrisse."

A Different Kind Of Y-Chromosome Problem

This had not been the best week of Skitch's life.

Kailan and Mirlee had spent the weekend in Tesin and apparently beaten up a kiljhac migrant worker with socks full of rocks. Kailan was showing off the police report clipping from the Tesin Daily. Skitch was absolutely sure that kind of violence was immoral as well as illegal.

He wanted to talk to Tarrin about it, but the Gift was illegal now and Lorrini's mom read the mail. Khyrisse had had some wacko violent friends she seemed to manage dealing with--Kerouac leapt to mind--but he didn't think she was talking to him yet. Skitch didn't know where to turn for advice.

And then there was Sherren. Skitch didn't have enough money to give the big jerkface, so he had to tell Lorrini about it. She'd been pretty upset, but couldn't think of any better solution than Skitch could, so they sold a pair of her mother's earrings and were just going to pay him off for a few weeks until they could figure out a way to shut him up. Lorrini was going to see if any of her girlfriends had any dirt on him they could counter-threaten him with. It seemed like a fight Skitch didn't want to be getting either of them embroiled in, but he didn't know what else they could do.

Just when things seemed like they couldn't get any worse, the boy conceded with a sigh, was when they pretty much always did. Today it was two priests of Rekzyr waiting for him in his dorm room, and from the look on their faces, it was not a research follow-up. "P-polajhin," he stammered out the High Diari honorific for a respected priest. "Is--is something wrong?"

"I'm afraid so, Skitch," the younger one said gently. "The university sent us your most recent physical examination. It seems you've developed a... complication."

"Complication?" Skitch said in a wavery voice, unsure he was understanding the Diari word.

"Unfortunately," said the priest, "complex genetic alterations do sometimes have dangerous side effects, Skitch. Though your surgery still definitely qualifies as a success, I'm sorry to say you've developed a genetic disorder known as shejoth terai, a corruption of one of your chromosomes. I believe you were warned about the risk of this before the procedure began?"

"What--what can I do about it?"

"You will need more treatment, I'm afraid. Shejoth terai is invariably fatal if untreated. You should prepare yourself for as much as a week away from your studies."

"More treatment?" Skitch was aghast. "But I--I don't have any more money!"

"Treatment for complications of elective surgery is covered by universal Diari healthcare," assured the priest.

Skitch relaxed. "Okay," he said. "But you can cure it, right?"

The two priests looked at each other. "Yes, the recovery prospects are good," the older one said. "Given an unaltered copy of your Y-chromosome to work from, we have about a 120 per-gross chance of curing the condition entirely."

Skitch had never gotten used to the base-twelve counting system, but those seemed like pretty good odds to him. "Where do I get an unaltered Y chromosome?" he asked.

"A blood sample from your father," said the younger priest.

Skitch went white. "My father?"

"Or an immediate paternal relative," said the priest, "grandfather, uncle, or male first cousin. But the father's optimal. If we use a chromosome that isn't an exact match for yours it'll certainly be fatal."

"But... but I don't know who my father is! Can't we cure it without a Y chromosome?"

The two priests looked at each other. "The chance of that," the older one said slowly, "is so slim the hospital isn't authorized to use its resources on it."

Skitch put his head in his shaking hands.


There was a gentle, hesitant tap at the study door, and Khyrisse twisted her head. "Come on in, s'parde-vois," she said. "Lissa's sleeping."

Skitch pushed the door slowly open, biting his lip.

Khyrisse sat unmoving at her desk for a good thirty seconds. "Sennett," she finally said, in a low, angry voice, "you were specifically informed that the list of people to be admitted to this house had changed."

"I let him in, Khyrisse," said Ebreth's voice quietly from behind the boy.

"Then you've got some nerve," Khyrisse fired, turning on her husband.

He didn't flinch. "Tell her," he said.

Skitch swallowed. "I'm, uh, dying," he mumbled.

Khyrisse sat down.


"Grendel," whispered Khyrisse, holding the pillow numbly to her in bed. "I've got to do something, Ebreth. I can't just let this happen."

"Then let's take him to see his parents," said Ebreth. "Would your mother look after Lissa for a few days?"

"You're kidding, right?" said Khyrisse. "The problem would be getting her back afterwards. No, that's--" She winced, and closed her eyes. "That's not it. Ebreth, I don't want to do this. I don't want to let him back in. I don't, I'm not good at, moderation. If I do this, if I go with him, I'll wind up... caring... about him again. And once I did, he'd either cast me off and go back to Diaria, or he'd--" She shut her eyes tighter, not able to even articulate the alternative, flooded in a sea of maternal adrenaline. Goddammit, I just gave birth two weeks ago. Why now? Did he do this on purpose? "What am I going to do, Ebreth?"

"Follow your heart," Ebreth suggested gently.

She pressed her temples. "That's the most useless advice known to man, you know that?"

"Then follow mine," said Ebreth. "I couldn't live with myself if he died and I hadn't even tried to help him."

"You don't understand," Khyrisse whispered, shuddering. "I couldn't live with myself even if I had tried. Ebreth, if I put myself into this, and I fail..."

"We won't fail," Ebreth said confidently,

"Ebreth, I have no idea who his father was. He was four when he came to Trade, and he was alone. I don't even know where to start."

"I do," said Ebreth, and grinned. "You may even like it, too."


"One-twenty-five up front," said Rani. "Fifty a day from then on, plus expenses."

"Don't look at me." Khyrisse smiled sweetly. "Skitch is the one who needs your help, aren't you, Skitch?"

"You did this on purpose," Skitch mumbled, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Book Three

"Her name was Emmeline," Skitch said very softly, looking at his six-fingered hands as the Carriage flew eastward across Peteser. "She died when I was a baby. I never knew my father."

"You were raised by your grandparents?" Rani said, jotting notes.

A look of pain flashed across Skitch's strangely foreign young face, but what he whispered was "yes." Khyrisse had long since relented on thinking the whole situation served the little deserter right. She knew what it was to have a past you wanted to leave behind, to have to keep talking about things you just wanted to forget. Skitch hadn't even told Khyrisse his story. She knew it already from Trade, and if there ever had been any closeness between them that was probably why, a child's need for someone who knew what he'd gone through without his having to explain it. Tarrin, she assumed, filled that role now. Khyrisse crossed her arms and concentrated on not reaching out to offer the boy any of the love and support he apparently wasn't interested in from her anymore. It had been a difficult few weeks, and she didn't care to be rejected by an eleven-year-old again today.

Rani was professional and detached. "Their names?"

"Maggie and Archie."

"And how long ago did you leave Tramsen?"

"When I was four," he said softly, kicking the bench.

Khyrisse found Ebreth's hand and squeezed it. Vas and Val were driving the Carriage; they'd been to Peteser before, though neither had heard of Tramsen, and thought they might be of some use navigating. The truth was Vas would take any excuse to drive the Trade Carriage, and neither elf would let Khyrisse travel without their bodyguarding services anymore, particularly since the attack on New Trade. The sorceress was unsure whether to be touched by their loyalty or annoyed by their mother-henning.

"Your grandparents," Rani continued, "they're both human?"


"Then your father would have been the one with elven blood?"

"I guess so." Skitch looked at his toes.

"It's been a while since I've been on a deadbeat-dad case this long after the fact," said Rani, "but it may not be as tough as it sounds. There aren't a lot of elves in the rural parts of the Princedoms. Even if he skipped town eleven years ago, it's likely someone there remembers him. The thing I'm most worried about is the possibility he left Ataniel with the city of Liratyn, in which case we'll never find him. But even then he might have brothers or another son still around somewhere. Our first avenue's your grandparents; they're likeliest to remember the guy." She looked keenly at Skitch. "What circumstances, exactly, did you leave them under?" Skitch flushed something awful. "You were four years old the last time they saw you," Rani elaborated, "and you've been genetically transmuted. There's no way they recognize you on their own. does it help my case to tell them who you are, or not?"

"No," whispered Skitch, so quietly Khyrisse almost couldn't hear it. "Not--at first, anyway. Maybe it depends how the conversation goes."

"All right, then." Rani snapped her casebook shut. "Here we go again."

Girl Talk

"I can't believe you didn't even hit it off with Ethan," sighed Chloe, packing her travel bag for Nylevia. "He was the one I really thought was going to be your type."

Thalia decided to charitably interpret that as Chloe turning a blind eye to the character flaws of her own friends rather than a slur on the princess' taste. "We just weren't right for each other," she said tactfully.

"Well, I've got one more guy I'd like you to meet, and then I guess we're on to Sashami's friends."

Thalia winced at that prospect. "Listen," she said, "Chloe... this just isn't working. I don't think blind dates are my style." Chloe was starting to frown, and Thalia lowered her voice and changed the subject before she could protest. "But you know who I do think is kind of cute? Justin."

"Our Justin?" Chloe brightened quickly. "Thalia, that's a wonderful idea! He's heroic, just like you... and he's very noble-looking. I bet your father would be happy to have him as a son-in-law."

"I think my father would be happy to have a tree frog as a son-in-law at this point," sighed the princess. "But you're putting the cart way in front of the horse here, Chloe. I don't think he's interested in me. I tried to talk to him the other day and he really kind of backed off."

"If at first you don't succeed," Chloe opined, "try, try again."

"We know, like, nothing about him, though. For all we know he's married."

"He's not wearing a ring." Thalia pondered that. "You're a great catch... I'm sure if you spend a little more time with him, he'll come round."

"I have less than two weeks left before the curse takes hold," Thalia said softly.

"All it takes is one magic moment. Don't you read fairy tales?"

The princess sighed. "Well, I... I guess it couldn't hurt..."

"That's the spirit!" Chloe squeezed her friend's hand. "We'll have you hitched in time yet, Thalia, just you wait and see."

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