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Chapter 26

The Hardest Things To Believe

“She’s in Peteser for a couple days,” said Schneider. “I miss the kid already, if you can believe that.”

“She brought the baby with her?” Flicker asked.

“No, she left her with her mom. I don’t miss her that much. I think Old Lady Starshadow might put my head on a pike outside to warn off other men thinking about going near her daughter, you know?”

Flicker laughed. “Well,” he said, “remember she wasn’t here for the early part of this whole soap opera. It’s probably pretty hard to make sense of after the fact like this.”

“Heck, I still haven’t figured it all out myself.” The jester pressed his temples. “My life’s been such an emotional rollercoaster lately, I have motion sickness. I mean, it was tough enough seeing Rox at the wedding. I thought she hated me, but it’s worse than that. I let her down. I hurt her. And now she’s with Khyri’s prick of an ex-husband. If he beats her or something, it’s going to be all my fault.”

“You can’t take responsibility for other people’s bad decisions, Schneider,” said Flicker. “It’s enough to take responsibility for your own.”

“And now this baby. First she’s mine, then she’s not mine... I’ve got no claim, no connection to this kid at all anymore. All I had was this tenuous genetic thing, and now that’s gone too. But she sure as hell feels like my kid, in my heart.” He looked at Flicker. “Do you feel like that, about Siobhan?”

“It’s different,” Flicker said quietly. “Siobhan is Alain’s daughter.”

“Yeah, but he’s still part of you, right? And he wasn’t married to her mom, wasn’t the one who raised her, hell, he died before she was even born. Nothing but a genetic link, one that isn’t really even there anymore. Don’t you sometimes feel more, paternal, towards her than you really have any right to?”

“Sometimes,” said Flicker. “But my culture allows it. Alain was closer than even a brother. In Riklandir you’re allowed to feel that way about a kinsman’s child.” He looked at Schneider keenly. “It helps to have a context for things like this. Why not use the one Khyri’s given you?”

“Il Padrino, you mean?” Schneider moved his hand in a vague parody of a cross. “Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m all over that like white on rice. The Mario Puzo jokes alone are gonna be a gold mine for me. But I’m not, you know, the most religious guy in the world. There’s gotta be twelve different paternal roles I was relishing the idea of. ‘Spiritual guidance’ is the one I was hoping to leave to someone else. Like maybe Luthien. Or George.”

Flicker stifled a laugh. “Well,” he said, “I don’t think Khyrisse is really asking you to oversee her daughter’s religious upbringing, you know. She’s just giving you a context, a way for you to stay connected. If that’s what you want.”

“It is.” Schneider made a long, sad sigh. “I just feel like... man, have I been through the wringer this month. My first real flame gets hitched to someone else, and the love of my life shows up at the reception with a man I think is only slightly morally superior to a goat turd, and that depends on the goat, you know what I’m saying? Then I become a father for the first time, and wow, is that something else again. Was it worth losing Roxy over? Damn me if I know, but before I can figure it out, oops, little mistake in the lab, just forget about that part, okay? What’s a man supposed to do?”

“Keep your head up and keep on going,” Flicker said, and shrugged. “In Riklandir, that’s pretty much all there is to being a man in any situation, really.”

“I gotta visit this place sometime. The comic potential just abounds.”

“And you haven’t even tried the food.”

Follow The Leader

Chloe folded the map the hero had given her into quarters without even looking at it. “Justin,” she said plainly, “we need you to come with us.”

“I can’t do that, Chloe,” he said, a slight note of apology in his voice. “You have to forge your own heroic path... I’m here to encourage and mentor your development, but I can’t do it for you.”

“We don’t need you to do it for us, but we’re not going to be able to do it without you, either. I haven’t talked to the others about this, I don’t want to hurt their morale or anything... but last time we faced Slade, he almost killed us all, and he was alone outside a convenience store. Now we’re going into his stronghold?” Chloe shook her head. “This is out of our league, Justin. You’re sending us to our deaths.”

“Nothing is out of your league,” Justin corrected. “You just need to approach the task with the necessary preparation--”

“You mean like the necessary allies?”

“If I go with you and wind up saving the day, Chloe, you’ll never know you can do it on your own.”

“Last time a deus ex machina superhero with about 25th level elemental powers had to show up to save our butts,” said Chloe. “That’s a lot more demoralizing than you coming with.” Justin hesitated. “If it makes you feel any better, I don’t believe you could take this guy down without our help, either. Good guys have allies. That’s how we compensate for not being unscrupulous bastards, right? We’re hampered by ethics, but we have friends. If our friends leave us to twist in the wind for some philosophical reason, then Slade’s right and we might as well give up now, because evil will win every time.”

“I--guess it would be the responsible thing to do,” Justin said reluctantly. “Just this once, you realize. I’m not joining your group, I’m not going to be your guardian angel. I have my own works to do.”

“One-time NPC only,” Chloe promised, raising her right hand. “Just enough to get us started... we can take it from there. I promise.”

“All right, then,” sighed Justin. “I’ll meet you at the corral at noon. Be ready to ride.”

Chloe smiled to herself as she watched the hero saunter off in the Nylevian morning light. Check, she thought, and mate. It was going to be her first adventure, of course, but Chloe was a Paris, and she knew the rules without having to learn them for herself. Two days of adventuring was worth two months of ordinary living. By the time the Silver Bullets got back from the flats of Tanarri, Justin would be head over heels in love with Princess Thalia.

Chloe Paris so swore it.

Over The River And Through The Woods

The door opened about a foot, just enough to reveal a broad, tired face framed with graying brown hair. “Yes?” the face demanded.

“Would you be Maggie?” Rani asked.

“My name’s on the mailbox, ain’t it?” She squinted suspiciously at the stranger on her doorstep, opening the door wider to get a better look at her and the Rat Packers standing behind her. She was wearing a faded housedress in a floral print. Middle age had not been kind to her. “Who are you?”

“I’m with the Rimbor City authorities,” Rani lied calmly, flashing her ID at the older woman. “I’m here to ask a few questions.”

“Rimbor City?” said Maggie, frowning. “You look like one of them Di-arians, to me.”

“Very perceptive of you, ma’am. There’s a lot of us in Rimbor. Is your husband home?”

Maggie barked laughter. “Don’t know much for a bunch of authorities, do you? He done died three years ago. You got something on him, take it up with the undertaker.”

A strange look skittered over Skitch’s face and was lost. “My condolences,” Rani said. “It’s actually your grandson we’re investigating.”

“Well, he ain’t here either,” said Maggie. “Took him maybe four years to make like his daddy and run off on us. If he’s making trouble it ain’t my problem.”

“His father,” said Rani, “do you know where he is now?”

“Hah!” snorted Maggie. “That SOB? He’s long gone. That what you brought all these prickears tramping around here for?” She gestured impatiently at the adventurers standing behind the detective. “Well, you all are a decade late and a dollar short. Good morning.”

Rani stuck her foot out to keep the older woman from closing the door. “We need to find that man, Maggie,” she said. “Your grandson could die if we don’t.”

“Let him,” snapped the woman. Khyrisse’s jaw dropped open. “Never did a damn thing for me but kill my only daughter. Four years I spent taking care of the mangy little half-breed, and it’s more than he deserved. I don’t want nothing to do with him now.”

No one quite dared to look at Skitch. The only one who really kept her composure was Rani. “You must be pretty angry at that elf, Maggie,” she said smoothly. “After everything he did to your family.”

“You can say that again.” The woman rolled her eyes in a disconcertingly Skitch-like fashion. “Rutting on my Emmeline like she was some kind of prickear whore. Missus, we may be poor around here, but we ain’t dogs neither, for elves and goblins and God knows what to come round here defiling.”

Khyrisse’s knuckles were white by now. Ebreth put two fingers silently to the small of her back: a solidarity, a reassurance, a warning not to lose her temper here. Khyrisse counted to ten. “He must have really thought he got away with something,” Rani continued. “Getting a country girl in trouble like that and prancing off into the sunset. I bet he was laughing all the way back to Liratyn.” The older woman scowled her agreement with that assessment. “Help us find him, Maggie. We can avenge this at long last.”

Maggie hesitated a long moment, almost swayed. “Won’t bring my Emmeline back,” she finally said, and spat on the ground. “I ain’t getting involved in no prickear politics. They can deal with their deviants their own damn selves and you can tell ‘em Maggie said so. Now get off my porch.”

“Fine,” sighed Rani. “Khyrisse?”

The hard part was restraining herself to just the sleep spell she’d prepared. Khyrisse would really have liked to unleash at least a magic missile by now. She stuck to the plan, though, and the woman sagged to the floor of the foyer like she was fainting in the heat. “A most... impressive effort, Rani,” Vas murmured to the detective as she stepped over the threshhold to kneel by the body. “I didn’t know sucking up was part of your repertoire.”

“I’m a woman of many talents.” She stripped off one of her red gloves. “Besides, I knew the alternative was going to be touching this woman. Can someone tell me why I didn’t just get a job as a hat check girl?”

“I can see why you left,” Valende murmured sympathetically to Skitch, who wasn’t looking at her. “Your grandfather, was he any better?”

“No,” said Skitch. “He used to beat me up. He did it to her, too.”

“And the kicker,” added Rani, her eyes half-lidded, “is she misses this guy. The world just gets more and more fucked up the more I see of it, you know?”

Khyrisse, who had caught herself missing Eric at more than one inappropriate moment in the early years of her exile, said nothing.

“All right,” Rani said, “I’ve got the daughter’s death. Definitely the worst night of her life. Ugly labor, she started bleeding out and Maggie couldn’t stop it. Father ran for the town doctor in the snow, but it was too late. She was their only child. Nothing ever the same after that.” Val and Vas looked down, a little ashamed at their previous callousness towards the unpleasant old woman. Khyrisse, herself, wasn’t finding much sympathy. “Good impressions of the daughter, nothing on the boyfriend so far. Reaching.”

Silence again, for almost a minute this time. “I’ve got her admitting she’s pregnant,” said Rani. “Sort of. I’ve got the father beating the crap out of her for getting herself pregnant with a half-breed. So sorry I missed that prizewinner of a male specimen.”

Skitch’s mouth twitched. “Was... that why she had trouble with her labor?” Val whispered.

“I doubt it. This was maybe three months in. If it had done serious damage she probably would have miscarried.” Rani’s eyelids fluttered. “Before that... nothing.” She opened her eyes, and took her hand away from the woman’s pasty cheek. “That’s all I’m getting,” she said. “No impressions of the man. She never met him as far as I can tell; he was probably already gone by the time Maggie knew about the pregnancy.”

“Is she going to be okay,” Skitch asked despite himself, twisting one six-fingered hand unhappily in the other as Rani came out onto the porch and flipped her casebook open on her pants leg.

“It’s just a sleep spell,” said Vas.

Ebreth finished picking the lock shut. With luck, she’d think she fainted after she already sent the foreigners packing; even if she didn’t, she’d have no proof. “So,” Val asked Rani, “what next?”

“City hall,” said Rani, scratching away with her pencil, “and then around town a little. Emmeline may not have brought this guy home to meet Mom and Dad, but I’m sure some of her friends saw them around together. Town this size doesn’t keep secrets very well.”

“Could we have an interlude where we kick something’s ass first,” Khyrisse muttered, her fists still half-clenched.

“In this line of work, you don’t find those, I’m sorry to say.” Rani shoved her casebook in her jeans pocket. “They find you... and usually not at the times you want to see them.”


Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Khyrisse paced agitatedly in front of the city hall. Rani had gone in to see if there was anything noted on Skitch’s birth certificate. The boy himself looked terrible, half-flushed and half-pale, but Khyrisse was much too angry herself right now to offer useful comfort even if they were still on good terms, and she knew it. Valende, eventually, went over to squeeze the boy’s hand.

“Khyrisse,” Ebreth finally said in a quiet voice, catching her tightly folded arm mid-pace. “Relax.”

“Did you hear what she said about us?” she hissed, her eyes flashing furiously.

“She’s a bitter old woman living alone in some one-horse town in Peteser, Khyrisse. Does it matter?”

“It matters to me. Grendel, she’s as bad as the Diarians! We defile them???”

“You can defile me any time you like,” Ebreth offered, grinning down crookedly at her.

She was too upset to laugh, though part of her wanted to. “And the things she said about Skitch! No wonder the kid’s a mess... a mangy half-breed? What kind of world is this we brought a baby into, Ebreth?”

“Khyrisse,” he sighed, “I don’t even think that woman’s representative of most trailer trash in Peteser, okay, much less Ataniel at large. Max Silverhammer’s half-elven, and 95% of the planet thinks he’s the greatest thing since sliced bread, right?”

“95% of the humans,” Khyrisse said, turning her shoulder.

“Well, yeah,” said Ebreth, “but the Diarians think everyone else sucks.”

“I’m not talking about Diarians.” There was quiet for a moment. “My brother,” Khyrisse said, “Karel? He’s... not really my brother. He was my Aunt Eleni’s. She died when we were children, and my mother took him in. We grew up together, we always thought of each other as siblings... but we’re not, not really. Karel is, his father was human. And they never let him forget it, not even in Dyved. No one tried to kill him, for gods’ sakes, or hit him, or any of the other awful things some of our friends have had to put up with, but...” Khyrisse bit her lip. “But they thought he was inferior,” she said in a small voice. “They thought my aunt was at fault. They didn’t say it. They didn’t have to say it. When Karel was sixteen he left elven society and he hasn’t looked back since. Ebreth, I don’t want her to have to live with all this.”

He sighed and took her in his arms. “Khyrisse,” he said into her hair, “no matter who you are, there’s someone out there who won’t like you for it. We can’t stop that. Not everyone in the world is going to be a nice person. But there’s plenty of decent people too, and there’s more people who are going to give her a chance than not. And Karel turned out fine, you know. Even Rani turned out fine. Skitch is having some bumps in the road right now, but I think he’s going to be all right too. It’s tough growing up for any of us, no matter what race we are. She’ll make it through just fine, I promise.”

“I know.” Khyrisse hung her head. “She’s just so little, Ebreth, and she hasn’t done anything yet... and that old hag hated Skitch as a newborn baby!” She shivered. “I miss her, Ebreth. I wish she was here. I want to hold her.”

“We’ll be home soon.”

“We’d better.”

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