“Huh,” Rani said around a mouthful of ravioli. “And you don’t know what caused it?”
“No.” Val looked down, her emerald eyes misty. She’d never gotten over the fate of the first Jack Paris, Rani knew; never forgiven him for sacrificing himself, never forgiven Rani for being in the right place at the wrong time, never forgiven her friends in the Rat Pack for giving her grief about it. Rani understood. She’d never quite forgiven Val for ditching her, personally. “He’s, it, it may have something to do with what I... I told you about last week.”
Which would be that the Jack Paris Equation was going to run out in September. Val hadn’t told Rani, exactly, so much as Rani had figured it out and confronted her with it over their Wednesday lunch. Val felt guilty about Rani knowing, though, so she’d internalized it as having ratted on Jack. You couldn’t pay Rani enough to be a priestess. “Look,” she said, “why don’t you try talking to Arturian about this? If there’s anyone who’s gonna understand all this math mumbo-jumbo, it’d be him, right?”
Valende sighed. “I, don’t know where to find him,” she murmured. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into taking the case...?”
“Probably, but I doubt you’d like the results. I’m still on Arturian’s shit list for springing Danger Monkey, remember?” She took a swig of her beer. “Tell you what I will do, I’ll set you up with Pluvious Sturoster. He owes me one like nobody’s business. I bet he could get you a meeting with the old gasbag. Flatter him and offer him your soul or something, maybe he can get something worked out for you.”
“Thank you, Rani,” Val said quietly. “I... think I may do that.” She paused a long moment, stirring her soup in small circles. “So... what’s been up with you, anyway? Are you seeing someone?”
Rani’s mouth quirked. “Why?” she said. “Are you asking me out?”
“After what happened last time?” An old sorrow fluttered in Val’s eyes. “No, I--I just thought you looked happy, that’s all. Almost fulfilled. And I thought--I mean I hoped--” She shook her head. “I was just wondering,” she said quietly, and then, more mischieviously, “not to mention where all those bruises came from.”
“What?” Rani grabbed her sleeve down over her forearm defensively. She was cursed with delicate skin, the fault of her elven ancestry rather than the Diarians for once. “No, that’s--I’ve just been working out, that’s all.”
“Ah.” Val nodded. “Actually, that--could explain it, too. You’ve rather shamefully neglected your physical side, Rani... according to the elven philosophy, correcting that imbalance could certainly bring one happiness.”
“And without anyone stealing the sheets at night, too,” Rani concluded, knocking her beer bottle into the side of Val’s wine glass with a grin.
The door of the bistro swung open on Val’s brother, looking even more than his usual amount of distracted. “Valende,” he said, and then, almost as if he hadn’t noticed her at first, “ah, Rani. Good evening, lovely ladies. Do you think I might trouble you with a... hypothetical question?”
Rani raised an eyebrow at him. Vas was the most ridiculous person she had ever met before in her life, but he wasn’t as dumb as he sometimes put on... nor as good an actor as he apparently thought. If Vas had wandered in here randomly, Rani would eat her bra. Val, apparently coming to the same conclusion, murmured “If this is about Jack, brother...”
“Jack?” Vas looked confused. “What’s happening with Jack?”
“Never mind,” Val sighed. “What’s on your mind, such as it is?”
“It’s a, uh, situation with Ieshala and Nynia,” Vas lied. Rani hadn’t worked twelve years as a Rimbor City PI for nothing. “I’d rather not get into the details. But I was wondering how you felt about people keeping... little secrets... from those close to them? If someone were to have such a secret... ”
Rani’s eyes flicked narrowly to the elf’s, and his gaze skittered away. He knows, she thought.
“...is one always morally obligated to share it with one’s loved ones?” the elf finished.
“No,” Rani said shortly. “Some things are secrets because they need to be.”
Val, who’d looked like she thought she knew what was going on, now looked at her ex-girlfriend in confusion. “It really depends what kind of secret, Vas,” she said.
“What if it’s something the person definitely thought was the right choice, but you know other people may well disagree with that assessment?”
“Is it other people’s business?” snapped Rani.
“Indirectly,” said Vas.
“Well,” Val tried to moderate, “without more specifics, I really couldn’t say, Vas. If it’s something that would hurt people...”
“People are going to get hurt whether I pass this information along or not, Valende.”
“Maybe it depends on who the people getting hurt are, then,” Rani said. “Maybe it matters more if some people get hurt than others do.”
Vas blinked at her, and the detective couldn’t quite place the expression on his finely chiseled face. “Really?” he said. “Do you think so, Rani?”
“Hypothetically,” Rani said.
Val was frowning at both of them now. “What are the two of you talking about, Vastarin?”
“Nothing of great import, sister, I assure you. Rani’s point is well taken, the difficulty is only...” He rubbed his forehead. “What was originally done was not such a bad thing. But if certain people were to learn about it, they would be very upset indeed. Perhaps even devastated. Entirely out of proportion with the deeds.”
“You had better not have slept with Khyrisse,” said Val.
Vas looked insulted. “What do you take me for?”
Rani was missing a piece and she knew it. If this was about her secret identity, was Vas implying that learning about it would devastate Val? Rani knew the priestess pretty well by now, and though she probably wouldn’t approve of vigilantism, she was hardly the kind of person to be torn up over it. She hadn’t seemed to mind Octavian’s presence that much in the past. Khyrisse, maybe? Rani didn’t see why; it wasn’t like she was operating in New Trade. Who, then? Or was he talking about something else entirely? “Look,” she generalized, just to be on the safe side. “If it wasn’t all that bad, then keeping it a secret can’t be bad. Why tell somebody something that’s just going to cause trouble and hurt people?”
“If continuing to keep it a secret is also going to cause trouble and hurt other people?”
“If people are going to get hurt either way, then you just have to decide which people deserve to be hurt less,” Rani said resolutely.
“No one deserves to be hurt,” Val interfered.
“Maybe not,” said Rani, “but some people deserve it more than others. You make that call every time you take your sword out, Val.”
“That’s different,” said Val.
Rani shrugged. “Only Vas knows that,” she said, and looked at him.
He looked back. “Thank you, Rani,” he said. “I think that’s actually what I needed to hear. I shall go and... think about this.”
“You do that,” said Rani, and finished her bottle of beer..
Smoke And Ashes
“What are these?” Khyrisse gathered the white and scarlet flowers curiously and inhaled, almost needing to steady herself against the intoxicating richness of their scent. “I’ve never seen anything like them before...!”
“Hm?” Ebreth glanced over his shoulder at her somewhat sorry attempts to make the Rat Trap look more like a locale for a bridal shower. Khyrisse had never been much with flowers, regrettably enough. One of the few traditional Cynystran femininities she’d always wished she were better at. Ebreth looked as distracted as she was, in his own way; privately she suspected he wasn’t sure she was going to show up at the altar, but she couldn’t think of a feasible way to assure him she was without sounding silly. “They’re ajhilia blossoms,” he said, finally locating the object of her query. “They’re traditional wedding flowers in Diaria, romance flowers in general, really. I made presents of more than a few in my day.” He shook his head. “I think Don Alliejin sent us those.”
“Ajhilia,” said Khyrisse, touching one of the velvety petals. “Relan calls me that.”
“The hell he does,” said Ebreth. “He called you my ajhilia once. Big difference. If he calls you ajhilia, tell me and I’ll kick his ass.” Khyrisse made a startled laugh, and Ebreth grinned at her and reached a dark hand over to muss her hair up. “It means ‘beloved,’” he said. “There’s some kind of Diari myth associated with it, young lovers who died in the jungle somewhere or something. I don’t remember the whole thing.”
“Well, they’re beautiful,” Khyrisse admitted. Much as I hate complimenting something Diarian... She moved across the Rat Trap for another vase while Ebreth turned his attention back to the portraits adorning the northern wall. He was thinking, Khyrisse knew, of Jack. “Hnh,” he said, though, instead. “I have the strangest memories of Ember and Kerouac. That was--I wasn’t at my, most stable, just then. Did Kerouac really turn into a feathered woman?”
“Uh, well yes, actually,” said Khyrisse.
“Really,” said Ebreth. “Truth is stranger than fiction. Did Ember really come into my room in the middle of the night and sing to me?”
Khyrisse dropped the vase and it shattered all over the floor of the Rat Trap. “Oops,” she said, strained, and knelt to clean it up, trying not to shake. “I don’t know... did she?”
“Or I imagined it,” he said. “My memories from those days are kind of, fragmented.”
“What--did she sing?” Khyrisse cantripped up the pieces of porcelain, her heart thudding.
Ebreth laughed, soft and embarrassed. “She sang a sea song.” Khyrisse put her hand over her throat. “I--wasn’t a very well man just then, Khyrisse.”
“Oh, Ebreth,” she sighed, disguising her emotional turmoil, with partial truth, as sorrow for him, and stood to put her arms around his waist. “Will you--sing it for me?”
“I’m not much of a singer.” He ruffled her hair. “It was just an old sailor song. I probably got crossed up on a memory from, the old days, you know, of a woman singing in a nightclub or something.”
“Will you sing it for me anyway?” she whispered.
He laughed a little and held her to him. “Take me back on the bay, boys,” he sang softly, “clear away in the morning. I don’t want to go ashore, boys, oh, bring her round. Captain don’t you leave me, clear away in the morning. Captain don’t you leave me, oh bring her round.”
Khyrisse closed her eyes.
What Killed The Cat
Kit slid carefully through the back window of the Enjhas Military Technology Facility. It had been almost stupidly easy sneaking across the Diarian border. For all the isolationist empire’s bluster about sealing the border to kiljhac, no one wanted to get to Diaria from Oranda in the first place, so the border patrol was completely ceremonial and the five thieves slipped past without any real effort at all. Getting into Enjhas, an army town near the border, was no harder. Kit still had the shapeshifting pills she’d stolen from the mind flayers, so they disguised themselves as Diarians and let Araiji do the talking for them. The military base would ordinarily have been the toughest part, but now that psionics were illegal in Diaria, they just climbed the wall in the cover of twilight, their thoughts kept safely to themselves. And as for the building containing the explosives Crandall needed for his plan, well, it was no match for the Greatest Thief on Ataniel.
Kit tiptoed down the hall, keeping to the shadows and listening carefully for guards. She was disguised as the little red-headed girl who had played tag with her in Shilree’s dream, presumably Shilree herself as a child. Kit really missed Shilree. She was still kind of mad that the Diarian had gone and sacrificed herself just to save some stupid alternate Shilree. Fine, so the Shilree Kit had known was really a clone planted by the evil Gilans and the one living now was the original hero, but she wasn’t Kit’s friend anymore, and that sucked.
With a sigh, the young thief squeezed into the room labelled CONTROLLED AREA: TRESPASS PUNISHABLE BY DEATH OF PERSONALITY. That didn’t sound good, but Kit wasn’t planning on getting caught anyway. Yup, there they were: bombs. Just like the bombs Shilree had used on that Gilan portal. Kit made a wisdom check and didn’t test one to see if it worked the same way, instead stashing all twenty-four of them in her backpack. There wasn’t much else interesting-looking in this vault--mostly papers written in Diarian, probably state secrets or plans for weapons or something else Kit wasn’t much interested in. Enjhas was a small base, according to Araiji, and not likely to have much in the way of cool artifacts. Kit headed back for the window.
Her attention was diverted, though, by three Diarian soldiers talking in the hallway. Two looked like other soldiers Kit had seen in the complex thus far, but the third, a striking man with black hair, was wearing an elaborate green uniform with decorations and medals all over the chest. He must be a general, Kit thought, creeping closer. She couldn’t understand what they were saying, but it certainly sounded important. Kit wished she hadn’t lost the Ring of Tongues last year.
Before she could scoot around them for the exit, Kit’s eye was caught by something hanging from the general’s belt. It was a wand, and it looked to be fashioned out of black and red marble, twined together. At its base were twin gold rings, at its top the carved gold head of a ram. Through Shalak’s glasses it nearly throbbed with magical energy, and Kit found her hand moving to it as if of her own accord. The general was absorbed in his conversation with the other soldiers, and he did not notice as Kit slowly and carefully lifted it from his belt. As she turned it admiringly in her hands, though, it lit up and propelled her violently across the room, a roar of flame gushing from each of the glowing rings beneath it. Kit’s head cracked hard into the metal wall of the hallway, and the ram’s head of the wand struck her painfully in the shoulder.
“Ow,” she moaned, rolling.
Standing over her was the general, pointing a pistol at her head and looking most unamused by the whole thing.
“Stupid items of power,” muttered Kit, and raised her hands in surrender.