“Lord Eric!” Aloysius Wemble hurried anxiously into the laboratory, inclining his head before his liege. “The Little People... they’re revolting!”
“I do hope you’re not expecting me to make foot-hair jokes,” Eric said drily, without looking up from his spellcraft.
“Uh... n-no, your grace, I mean they’re rebelling...”
“I took your meaning, Wemble.” The master illusionist sighed and glanced up at the bureaucrat. “How long would it take to crush?”
“Two days if we divert all our troops to the region, lord. Probably a few weeks if we don’t. Shall I call in the Commander of the Guard for you?”
“I didn’t say I wanted to do it,” said Eric. “I said I wanted to know how hard it would be.” He wound wire precisely. “Put out an Imperial decree magnanimously granting the Little People their independence as requested. Word it as condescendingly as possible; I’m sure you’re good at that.”
“Ti’Ashentes province doesn’t do much for the Empire, Wemble. I’m only breaking even on them by using them as a dumping ground for our merchants’ surplusses, and Rissa’s little economic coffeeklatch has been taking up that slack of late.” Eric moved his hand in crisp dismissal. “All I need is some good intelligence in the region to ensure they don’t get used as a base by any of our enemies. Have Malisho Minarye schedule an appointment with the Cloverleaf woman at her earliest convenience.”
Wemble cleared his throat uncomfortably, and Eric looked up, frowning for the first time. “My lord,” said Wemble, “there’s--more.”
“You mean we went through all that and talked to my stupid grandma and desecrated my mother’s grave all because you have a bad memory?” Skitch hollered furiously.
“I am truly sorry, Skitch. It was a brief encounter long ago, and since I’d never been to Tramsen... I think I remember her now, though. Red hair?” he asked Rani.
“Dyed,” Rani conceded.
“I don’t believe this! You just left?”
“Welcome to the world of having a penis,” sighed Rani.
“That is not true!” Skitch turned on her. “Khyrisse had two men waiting for her baby... Tarrin stayed for Lorrini and her brothers. And Luthien!” He turned back to Vas, angrily. “What’s the matter with you?”
“Skitch,” Vas said quietly, spreading his hands, “I didn’t know she was pregnant. She never told me.”
“Well, how was she supposed to tell you?” Skitch yelled, exasperated. “Did you leave her a forwarding address? Did you check back up on her? Did you ever even send her a postcard?”
“That’s what I was trying to say about the penis, kid,” said Rani. “If they were already planning to stick around anyway, I’m sure men can make great fathers. If it was just a roll in the hay it takes a private eye to find ‘em again. They’re all like that. Trust me. There’s no guy in the world who comes back checking to make sure every quickie he had in a bar somewhere got her period the next month. It ain’t malice, it’s biology. You’re built to sow your seeds and move on.”
“Even if everyone did it, it still wouldn’t make it right!” There were angry tears in Skitch’s eyes. “You made me as much as my mom did. You should have taken me with you! You left me with those, those pakazhari, and they treated me like crap, and I wound up living in the street. I didn’t even have enough to eat most of the time, and you never even looked back! I hate you!”
He escaped up the stairs to his inn room, sobbing furiously.
“No luck?” said Alderon, poking his head into the room where the group had stashed the cocooned woman.
“I doubt it, but be my guest.” Chloe turned her head to Justin Moore. “You know her?”
“I know... friends of hers.”
“Could they get it open?”
“It’s--possible,” Justin said slowly. “One of them is an archmage, but she’s... unreliable... the mathematician may be a better bet.”
“Have adventuring parties always required the services of mathematicians,” Berryn asked no one in particular, “or is this new since the Madness?”
“No go,” Alderon said, disappointed. “Too bad, she looks like she’d be fun to kiss.”
“Get a life,” muttered Chloe, and poked the young fighter in the back. “Come on, Alderon, Berryn. We’ve done all we can here. We’ll look for a mathematician in the morning.”
“But why--” started Berryn, looking even more befuddled than usual. He broke off at the look Chloe was giving him, and followed her meekly out, leaving Thalia and Justin alone with the roseate cocoon.
Justin watched them go with a droll expression, tapping his fingers on his sleeve. “Does she do this to you often?”
“Does she do what?” said Thalia, frowning after her friend in confusion.
“Never mind. That was excellent work with Slade back there. You really saved the day... you’ll make a fine hero.”
Thalia flushed happily. “Thanks,” she said shyly, dragging the toe of her shoe along the floor.
Justin cleared his throat. “Thalia,” he said, “you--do know--” He coughed a little, awkwardly. “My, uh, respect for you and pleasure in your company is, um, strictly platonic... right?”
“What?” Thalia’s cheeks burned. Can’t I even have a crush in peace? “I--I never thought--”
“Not,” Justin hurried on, “that you were acting presumptuous in any way, or...”
“No!” said the princess. “We’re just friends! Did... Chloe didn’t try to set you up with me or something, did she?”
“No...” Now Justin looked embarrassed too. “You just... well, never mind. I just didn’t want to, uh, lead you on, or anything. Because I’m really not available for that kind of relationship. That’s all.”
“Well, neither am I!” Thalia folded her arms. “I’m waiting for my True Love. And if I can’t have that...” She looked out the window, into the haunting pale light of Bane. “I don’t want anything at all,” she said.
Brett Astra dreamed on silently.
And Sometimes There’ll Be Sorrow
Khyrisse came down quietly into the main room of the inn, her hands in her pockets. Skitch didn’t look at her, and after a little while she sat down next to him. “He really is sorry,” she said.
“I know,” Skitch said heavily.
“Some relationships are just--like that.” She spread her hands helplessly. “If it was what they both wanted... it’s not like she was in love with him and he abandoned her. It was just a fun kind of fling while he happened to be in town, that’s all.”
“I know.” He pushed his scrambled eggs around on his plate with his fork. “I just always thought my father was... well, dead. Or at least a villain. Or a captive on another plane, or something.” He stabbed at the eggs. “Not just some stupid playboy with attention deficit disorder.”
Khyrisse was torn between giggles and defensiveness. “It could be worse,” she finally said, with a rueful grin for her ex-apprentice. “It could have been Signet.”
“Don’t remind me.” Skitch mashed tine indentations into the eggs. “Vas isn’t that bad, I guess. He’s been a good friend. But he was a really crappy father... and now I don’t even know about being his friend anymore. Being nobody’s son was better than this.”
Khyrisse stiffened despite herself. “Well, not all of us are up to Tarrin’s standards,” she said tartly.
“Tarrin has his own family to take care of.” Skitch’s voice was sad. “Just like you.”
There were a few beats. “Skitch,” she finally said, “you--didn’t really think we wouldn’t care you ran away, did you?”
He looked up at her for the first time. “Oh,” he said, uncomfortably, and went back to mutilating his eggs. “Yeah. I guess I knew you’d be mad. I’m sorry I took your artifact. I only did it because you smashed up mine when you got pissed off that time. But it was still stealing.”
Khyrisse took a breath. “Yes,” she said, “yes, it was, Skitch. But... you really thought that was the only reason I’d be upset by you scarpering off to Diaria without saying goodbye? After more than a year... leaving me with a flippant note and a stupid cat to take care of?”
Skitch looked down. “Well, you were having a baby of your own anyway,” he said.
There was that old familiar pang in Khyrisse’s stomach, some combination of guilt and the sense of passing herself in a mirror. She wasn’t the most empathetic woman in the world, Grendel knew, but she could hardly have missed this. She’d done as much to Max: constructed an excuse to leave before he could, once she realized how much his rejection could hurt, and that it might happen. How long had it taken her to really believe someone could love her again, twenty years? Skitch hadn’t even lived that long yet.
“I think,” she said, “family is what you make of it, Skitch.” She was thinking of Ebreth, the rock she’d anchored her unsteady world on, but also of her touch-and-go parents; of Karel, the cousin she called brother; of Jack, who would have been her cousin if he’d been flesh and blood, and Val and Vas, who weren’t related to her at all but might as well have been. “Family isn’t just who you’re born to,” she said, “it’s something you build, out of all the people you care about too much to leave behind.”
Skitch thought about that, quietly, swinging his legs. “I guess,” he finally said. “I mean, I guess I’ll talk to him.” He paused again, longer this time. “Before I go back to Diaria,” he said, “do you--think I could come over and meet the new baby, maybe?”
Khyrisse sighed and nodded. “Yes, Skitch,” she said softly. “Yes, I think that would be all right.”
“I am truly sorry, Skitch. It’s never... exactly happened to me before. I assumed she was using birth control.” Vas rubbed his neck very uncomfortably. “It surely was not my intent to abandon you. My sister and I would gladly have provided for you if we’d known.”
“Well, it’s a little late now,” muttered Skitch, his arms folded tightly.
“It is. I do apologize.” Vas hesitated, and took his purse from his breast pocket. “Skitch... at least let me help with your school expenses. Late though it may be, I’m not one to hoard my ownings to myself.”
Part of Skitch wanted to yell at the elf and throw his stupid money back in his face, but then he remembered Sherren and his greasy smile, and it stuck in his throat. Skitch took the purse slowly, not
meeting Vas’ gaze. At least he’s trying, he told himself. At least he wasn’t a jerk like my grandfather. He was just a big flake. “Well,” he said a little lamely, “be more careful in the future, will you?”
“So I shall,” Vastarin pledged, raising his right hand.
“And nobody else needs to know about this yet.” Skitch put the purse in his pocket. “All right?”
“Sometimes it helps to talk about things, Skitch,” Vas said gently.
“Sometimes it helps to keep your big mouth shut when other people ask you to nicely.”
Vas sighed. “As you wish,” he said. “But when you find yourself ready, Skitch... I would like to have more of a relationship with you. Unusual though the circumstances may be, you are my only child.”
He said it with the same blithe serendipity he used to greet everything that fell into his lap, but there was something wistful in his porcelain face, and Skitch didn’t really have the heart to hurt him with the blistering rejection part of him wanted to. “Maybe someday,” he said minimally.
“That is all this wayfarer can ask.” Vas gave a grave bow.
Blast From The Past
“Okay,” Jack said, holding his forehead in one hand, “but you didn’t have to, uh, resort to violence... I mean, couldn’t you just have told her how you felt?” Aithne squinted at him. “Or maybe just, uh, ignored her or something?” he tried hopefully.
“You hit Vas when he tried to make me go with him,” Aithne pointed out.
Jack winced. “That was different--”
“Only different because of your culture.” Aithne was relaxed; the matriarch had already forgiven her for the disturbance, and Jack was more embarrassed than angry, she could tell. “In my culture, woman must also protect the man. That bad Gabriella tried to kill you and then she tried to make flirting with you even when you told her you don’t want. So I must protect. You do a same thing for me.”
“Uh,” said Jack.
Jack looked almost grateful for the interruption. It was the timid blond girl who had defected from Talaria. “Hello, Thalia,” Jack said. Aithne, who still hadn’t figured out whether she was supposed to call the princess Constance or Thalia, just smiled and nodded. “Can we help you with something?”
“Well, not me exactly...” The girl twirled a piece of her fairy-gold hair around one finger self-consciously. “You see, we rescued this woman, and she’s in some kind of suspended animation... anyway, Justin thought you might know her.”
“Justin Moore?” Jack looked blank, and the Talarian shook her head. “He’s a hero... it doesn’t matter, really. The point is, we think she’s a friend of yours and you might be able to help.”
“Well, I’ll do what I, uh, can,” said Jack, with his characteristic modesty. “Who is it, anyway?”
“He said her name was Brett.”
“Brett!” said Jack, standing from the low wall. “Gabriella didn’t...”
“We don’t really know,” the princess admitted. “You’ll come with me, then?”
“Of course we will.” Jack looked awkwardly at Aithne. “Uh... I mean, I will, anyway...”
“We will,” Aithne said tolerantly, and put her hand in his. Jack was so silly sometimes. Besides, Aithne was already curious to see what suspended animation meant. “Lead us, and we will follow.”
Little Creatures of Love
Khyrisse was nursing the baby when Valende tapped on her office door, but she smiled through the window and waved the priestess inside anyway. “Well?” she wanted to know. “What happened?”
“Vas went to Dyaromn with Skitch.” Val sat down with a rueful puff of a sigh. “What else could he do? Hopefully the gene therapy will be effective and that will be an end to this. I don’t like him in Diaria on his own, but he was adamant that I stay. I think he’s hoping to bond with Skitch a bit.”
“I think there’s only so much bonding Skitch really wants to do with people like us,” Khyrisse said, still a little shortly.
“I really don’t think he means it that way, Khyri. He’s not a hateful child.”
“No,” she acknowledged. “No, he’s not. I just can’t stand this racism, Val, and I don’t think he sees it in them. The way they treat Rani is no different than the way his miserable excuse for a grandmother treated him. And he still won’t see that.” She shook her head, and shifted Lissa to her shoulder to burp her. “I can put up with a lot of stupid bullshit,” Khyrisse said. “I’ve accepted a lot of character flaws out of people I cared about, including--some I probably shouldn’t have. But the idea that someone should be inferior, just because of a circumstance of birth! Would he let them say that about my child? Would he think it himself?”
Valende didn’t answer right away. She didn’t believe in ‘inferiority’--what an awful word!--but neither had she ever met a half-elf who hadn’t been disadvantaged by it, alienated, pained. Val was hoping Khyrisse’s daughter would be the exception. “How is everyone handling it, anyway?” she shifted the subject slightly, indicating the baby with her chin. “The paternity issue, I mean?”
“Oh...” Khyrisse raked a few loose strands of hair out of her face tiredly. “Well, it hasn’t been easy, obviously, being jerked back and forth the way we were... I really should have had this divined immediately, I just, I was afraid, I guess. Of how they’d react. Of how I would.” She gazed down at her daughter’s drowsily peaceful face. “Ebreth is--he’s wonderful with her, but he’s, uncomfortable about it, in front of people. Like if he acts silly with her in public it’s picking a fight somehow, or at least setting himself up for a blindside. He, still has some self-esteem issues from the whole mess, I think. But at least it’s behind us now. And Schneider... well, it’s hard for me to read Schneider, anymore.” Her voice sounded sad. “But I think he likes the godfather arrangement. He seems happy enough with it, anyway.”
Val nodded. “And you?” she asked. “It must be something of a relief, knowing she, ah...”
“Came from the manly loins of my husband?” Khyrisse said wryly.
“I’d been going to say she was ‘his’,” murmured Valende. “But that’s rather unfair to adoptive parents, isn’t it? Such a decisive word, over such a little piece of DNA.”
“It shouldn’t matter this much,” Khyrisse acknowledged, with a sigh. “But you know it does, Val. Not... for me so much. If it was only me I wouldn’t mind, not really. But I didn’t want it to keep hurting Ebreth. And then Schneider... well, he wanted to be the father, obviously, but if he was, I was terrified he was going to flip out again, like I was rejecting him or something. You can’t tell me he doesn’t think about it that way anymore.” Val didn’t try to. “And... and then there’s Lissa.” She brushed the side of the infant’s head so softly with the back of her finger. “I look at poor Skitch, having conniptions because he was an accident... Max spent years blaming himself because his father raped somebody while Malcar was possessing him. I was going to have to explain to her, someday, that she was conceived in a mind-controlled orgy. At least I don’t have to do that anymore.” Khyrisse sighed again, and squeezed her child to her tightly. “It was an act of love. Every child deserves that. And I--I’m so glad I can give it to her. After all this, I can look her in the eye. It was an act of love. And that’s all that she or anyone needs to know.”
And maybe it was, at that. Humans might not form pasirel bonds, but they certainly fell in love like anyone else; Valende had seen it. And maybe that was what mattered more, maybe that was the lack that left Rani and Skitch and countless others with hungry souls crying out in the night. Not that they weren’t the children of pasirels, simply that they weren’t creatures of love. There was something gentler about that, more hopeful. “Maybe it is,” Val said aloud, and put her hand on the little girl’s head, a connection, a blessing. “Maybe.”