Jack Paris hurried into the bachelor party at twelve minutes past eight, holding a can in one hand and a paper bag in the other. “Sorry I’m, uh, late,” he apologized to the men convened in the reception hall. “I was picking up the, uh, stripper.”
“Now there’s an excuse for any occasion,” Asinus grinned around his cigar at his nephew. “Well, what are you waiting for, boy? Show ‘er in!”
“Uh,” said Jack, squinting. “What?”
“The stripper, boy, ya daft?”
“Oh! Right.” Jack put the paint can proudly on the table. “It was really hard finding a hardware store this time of night--I was almost thinking I was going to have to give up, but there were a couple of clerks still cleaning up in Tidman’s, and when I tapped on the window, they let me in even though it was after hours...”
Jack’s voice trailed off. Everyone was staring at him again.
“Oh, no,” said Vas, putting his poofy head slowly down into his hands on the coffee table. “Oh, no, I knew I shouldn’t have left you in charge...”
“Did I, uh, do something wrong?” Jack said faintly.
“I should have gone myself,” said Vas, from the table. “I should have sent Marty. Good God, Jack, I thought you had an 18 intelligence. What in the Nine Hells are we going to do with a can of paint stripper?”
Ebreth looked at the can for a few long moments and then he looked at Jack. “Well, strip this wall, of course,” he said with a straight face, and started rolling up his sleeves. “You bring some brushes or something?”
“Oh!” Jack held up the bag from the hardware store, relieved. “Yes, I got rollers and scrapers... just like it showed on the can.”
“Then we’re in business.”
“We’re--gonna strip the paint off this wall,” clarified Asinus, as if he was still holding out hope that he’d misunderstood something.
“Hey, this is my party,” Ebreth said.
“Dibs on the baseboard!” cried Garal.
“This is not happening,” muttered Vas.
“Give me the ribbon!” cried Mina. “Give me the ribbon!”
Khyrisse opened the box as her young bridesmaid enthusiastically added to the ribbon bouquet she was making. “Gee,” she said. “Racy underwear. I’m so embarrassed.”
“Oh, get into the spirit already, Khyri,” said Rhynwa.
“In case you hadn’t noticed,” Khyrisse said crabbily, indicating her distended stomach, “I am not a virgin.”
“She’s not going to want to play our wedding-night tips game, is she?” Val said to Tila.
“No, she is not!”
“You haven’t heard my tips,” smirked Tila.
“Here’s my honeymoon salad, Khyrisse,” said Thalia, proffering her a plate of lettuce. “Lettuce alone with no dressing! Ha ha ha!”
“I bet Ebreth’s doing something better than this,” grumbled Khyrisse.
“No, Marty, you hold the handle end, and dip the roller end in the pan.”
“The booger customs are sometimes very retarded,” Tarrin confided to Orlen, scraping at the paint on the wall of the New Trade reception hall with the blade of his chisel.
“What... in God’s name are you talking about?” said Orlen.
“Stop muttering about us in Elvish and take a scraper, Vas,” said Ebreth. “Once we finish up here I’ll take you all out to Monique’s for a drink.”
“Monique’s?” said Jack, startled. “The topless place? Won’t Khyrisse get mad?”
Ebreth looked introspectively at their handiwork. “I’d be more worried about her seeing this wall,” he said.
“I hope she likes the natural look,” said Max.
A Life Of Everlasting Adventure
“Oops,” said Kit, smiling her meekest, wobbliest little-girl smile up at the angry general. Kit hated resorting to charming helplessness, but rule number one of being an effective thief was using whatever you had on hand, and right now that was twenty-four bombs, a wand she didn’t know how to use, and a cute smile. “Please don’t hit me, mister officer! It was just a... a dare... I’m sorry...”
“Atajai kiran ne tas kiljhac arat,” snapped the general, sounding even angrier than before. Kit remembered, too late, that she was in disguise as a Diarian.
One of the other soldiers grabbed her by the back of her collar as if he was taking out up a bag of particularly stinky garbage. “Kiljhac are forbidden in the military zone,” said the other one, in cold and faintly accented Dalen. “You have no right to trial. Cooperate with interrogation and your execution will be humane.”
“Oh, nuts,” sighed Kit, and activated the ram-headed wand again.
“She’s taking a long time,” Araiji worried quietly. “I fear she may have gotten into trouble.”
“She’s probably just being extra-cautious,” said Ralchar, kicking back against the hedge behind the Enjhas Military Technology Facility.
“Seeing as how that sounds so much like Kit, after all,” Crandall said in a dry voice.
There was a dim roaring, and then the young thief came rocketing out a second-story window with a high-pitched shriek, clutching to an erratically zooming stick with flame jetting out of one end. Pistol shots barked out the window after her, and Diari soldiers were starting to swarm out the front door of the complex.
“You were saying?” said Crandall, rocking to his feet..
“Aaaah, you win some, you lose some.” Ralchar flipped Araiji a gold coin with a grin. “Let’s move.”
Out On The Town
“Hello there, Vas,” smiled the topless dancer, bending over the table in the foppish elf’s direction. “Not often I see you here in a group. Boys’ night out?”
“Ah, yes, something like that, er, Candy,” Vas said, with as much dignity as he could muster. “A fete for a friend, actually.”
“Well that’s just swell,” said the showgirl. “Who’s the birthday boy? Maybe I got a little surprise coming his way.”
“That would be him,” Ebreth said deadpan, gesturing at Garal.
The halfling turned seventeen shades of red as Candy strolled over and put her fishnetted leg on the table in front of him. “Uh,” he said, “I mean, uh...”
“That wasn’t nice,” Max reproached Ebreth, trying not to laugh.
“The one you want to be embarrassing is our good Ebreth, miss,” Orlen said gallantly, directing her attention to the pirate with two of his six fingers. “He is our guest of honor tonight.”
“You don’t say.” Candy gave Ebreth an approving once-over. “Well, I’ll tell you what, darlin’, I do give private showings when the mood strikes me. Care to come back to my apartment with me and celebrate proper-like?”
“An enticing offer,” Ebreth said blithely, “but I’m getting married in two days.”
“Yeah, to my sister,” said Karel. “You better not.”
The dancer laughed merrily. “What about you, cutie?”
“I’m, uh, married too,” Karel said, a bit reluctantly. “And he’d tell on me.”
“I would,” said Ebreth.
“Too bad, that.” Candy gave them both a saucy grin. “Well, me and the girls have one more little number coming up and then my shift’s done for the night. Forty coin and we can make it a real special number. If you can’t touch you might as well look, ey?”
“That’s the ticket!” brayed Asinus, before anyone else could demur. “Give us the stag-party special, chippie! My treat.”
“Isn’t this all kind of... demeaning?” Jack said uncomfortably, as the dancer’s scantily clad derriere retreated.
“Well, yes,” Flicker admitted.
“But it is traditional,” said Vas.
“I think probably I should not tell my wife we were here,” concluded Tarrin.
Inherit The Earth
Amatsu stepped off the Trade Carriage and into the streets of Shanghai.
It had been more than a week since the daimyo’s death, but white scarves still fluttered in the crowd and offering candles burned in many windows. Lord Haito had been a beloved leader. And with good cause, Amatsu thought. The daimyo had been both wise and kind, and Amatsu himself owed him much gratitude for giving refuge to the clanless ninja after the bloodbath of the Madness.
This was not why Amatsu had returned to Shikintu from his low-profile spying operation in Dalencia, however. The dead could be grieved, and honored, from any corner of the world.
Amatsu was here for the living.
He found her in the courtyard of the Order of Redemption, dressed in the flowing white robes of mourning and accompanied--of course--by Shaolin. “Miss Haito,” said Amatsu, bowing before his bereaved friend. “This one is grieved to hear of your loss.”
“Thank you, Amatsu,” Hou-Hsieh said quietly. “Perhaps it is better this way. He has been ill for a long time... now at least he is free of pain.” She paused. “But I will miss him.”
“He was a wise and good man,” Amatsu said, for once needing no dissembling at all to flatter. “All of Shanghai will miss him.”
“As will his friends,” said Shaolin. He, too, had a white scarf tied to his arm. Were courtship rituals any more expeditious in Shikintu, Shaolin would have counted Lord Haito his father many months ago, Amatsu was well aware. The daimyo had made no secret of his approval of the samurai, and Hou-Hsieh’s feelings were plain enough to the blind. “I have long thought it unfair, Miss Haito, that women are discounted from leadership. You would have made a fine daimyo in your father’s place.”
Hou-Hsieh blushed. “Oh,” she said, “I have enough to occupy me with my magical studies, Shaolin... but thank you. My father’s province is in good hands with Todd, anyway.”
That was certainly an understatement. Amatsu, too, respected Hou-Hsieh, but his eye was unclouded by young love, and he knew that the bookish sorceress would never have been able to command the respect necessary to lead such a major citystate. Lord Praxis, on the other hand, had power, presence, wisdom, and loyal allies the world over. Amatsu could hardly have imagined a more promising successor to Lord Haito.
“Amatsu,” came the new daimyo’s deep voice from the pagoda archway. “You made it.”
“This one lives to serve,” said Amatsu, bowing deeply before the man who was now both his spiritual and secular leader.
“He means you made it in time to ride with us to New Trade, silly,” smiled Lady Inez, joining her husband on the stairs. She was dressed in a fancy green kimono, embroidered with her totemic dragon. “You are going to Khyrisse’s wedding, aren’t you?”
“This one would not miss it for the world.”
“Then you can give us the Dalencia report on the way,” said Praxis, straightening his tie in one of the polished bronze plates that decorated the courtyard. Though the distinguished psionicist had as noble a bearing as the late Lord Haito, it could hardly escape the trained eye of one such as Amatsu that he had not been born to the aristocracy; that titles and obeisances, like formal clothing, made him subtly uncomfortable, and that the social graces of upper-class Shikintu did not come naturally to him. This did not diminish him in Amatsu’s eyes. It was a great man, went the Shikinti saying, who could rise above his station. “Our Carriage should be here in forty-five minutes,” said Praxis.
“I shall be ready, my lord, as always.”
“Fortuitous that you arrived when you did, then,” said Praxis. “And Amatsu? Stop calling me ‘my lord’, okay?”
“As you wish,” bowed Amatsu, and did not tell him that fortune had had nothing to do with it, or that the Order of Redemption would no more dream of letting the new daimyo attend a foreign function without a capable bodyguard than Lord Haito’s honor guard would have let him travel unattended. Lord Praxis did not want to know these things, but they were there nonetheless. “I shall,” Amatsu Mikaboshi said, “be here.”
Flutters of the Heart
Khyrisse flitted nervously around the Rat Trap lobby, rereading the catering list for the twelfth time. She’d gone back and forth on the lunch menu so many times that the caterers would probably have quit if she hadn’t been city Director, and she still wasn’t completely happy with it. The chicken and fish dishes were fine, but the pasta seemed like a weak third option, and Khyrisse had been vacillating about switching it for lamb, of which Ebreth was fond. She couldn’t remember if any of her friends were vegetarian, though, and the lamb dish seemed more likely to come out badly than the pasta, and going to four lunch options would have required a seventh buffet table, which would have ruined the entire pavilion setup she’d spent weeks perfecting. Hans had informed her that this afternoon would be the absolute last chance for her to change her mind, since he was going to pick up his supplies today. Khyrisse knew, with the self-aware part of her wizard’s acuity, that this choice was going to have no effect on the reception that even the most persnickety of her guests had a chance of discerning, but she was under too much stress to give up her micromanaging techniques now.
So she dithered, simultaneously worrying about the catering list, the possibility of an attack by the Web, and whether she should try on her wedding dress one last time (gods only know if I’ve grown since yesterday, she thought, looking woefully at her lumpy belly), all while trying to prepare the Rat Trap for another party it wasn’t really designed for. The rehearsal luncheon had been going to be in the reception hall of the Federal Building, until the men well and truly trashed the place last night. It was too funny to get pissed off about, but it did give the bride-to-be a whole host of other things to fret about, and Khyrisse was a master at finding such things in the first place, especially when there were more important issues she was trying to avoid, such as the fact that she would rather have been dragged backwards through a Salagian bramble than undergo a second wedding, for instance, or that she was more irrationally afraid of some kind of horrible ulterior motive on Ebreth’s part than of the cake falling. Khyrisse bit her lip and threw herself into disposing of the detritus from last night’s bridal shower, even though she knew the maid service was coming at three. Better to have the place in order. You never knew what they might think was part of the decoration.
Khyrisse stopped up cold as she passed her mailbox cubby. There were two letters in it and one small package, but the package was inscribed in a hand her mind recognized before her heart could stop itself, a wobbly “Khyrisse” printed with the overcompensated care of an eleven-year-old graffiti artist. On the side of the box was the stylized triangular seal of the Diari postal service.
She opened the package. Inside was one perfect ajhilia blossom.