“I have a bad feeling about this,” murmured Araiji, holding her shawl around herself as she watched the mists swirl eerily about Day of Judgment Mountain.
“Will you stop saying that?” Kit said annoyedly. “You’re going to jinx us!”
“Fate does not work that way, little one.”
“Fate works no matter what we do,” said Ralchar, and shrugged. “Prophecies are always going to get fulfilled somehow. Trying to futz with fate just makes it happen in some way you’ll like a lot less. Trust it, and it’ll work itself out for the best.”
“That only works for you, Ralchar,” said Crandall.
“I’ve been trying not to say anything,” said Ralchar, “but if people around here were a little more optimistic and respectful of fate, your world might have turned out a little more like mine.”
“Enough,” Dexy said in a tired voice. “I have found them. They pass through the elemental plane of air.”
“That would have been a pretty bad one to detach,” Kit admitted. “I kind of like breathing.”
“And you’re sure they’ll be coming here?” said Crandall.
“Positive. All roads for them lead here.” Dexy closed his eyes. “There is only one thing they want.”
“Then we just have to want it more than they do.”
“That’s the spirit,” said Ralchar.
“It’s like my master always said,” Kit agreed. “A good attitude and lots of stolen Diari explosives can make just about any gambit work.”
Araiji didn’t say anything.
“How long until they get here?”
“Tomorrow,” said Dexy LaRue.
“Perfect,” said Crandall, leaning back on a rock to unscrew his flask of bourbon. “In the meantime, then... who’s up for a game of cards?”
“That went well,” Ebreth offered.
Khyrisse blinked and shook her head. “What?”
“Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” she lied. “What did you say?”
“The rehearsal luncheon. I thought it went well. You’d been worried. Remember?” He took her wrap for her. “Is that one of Alliejin’s?”
“What?” Her fingers went reflexively to the white and scarlet flower she’d pinned to her dress strap. Khyrisse was ready to be touched by such a sweet gesture from her estranged son, definitely not ready to admit being touched by it. She answered Ebreth’s other question instead. “Yes, it went fine. The Rat Trap was big enough after all.”
“You worry too much.” Ebreth grinned at her, folding the wrap onto the dresser. “Tomorrow will go fine too. So what’s next? Do we get to rehearse the wedding night?”
“I, uh, wanted to talk to you about that, actually,” Khyrisse mumbled. Ebreth raised an eyebrow at her, and she cleared her throat a little self-consciously. “Mina invited me to spend the night at her place tonight,” she said. “It’s, traditional, not to stay at your fiancé’s house the night before the wedding.”
“Technically,” Ebreth pointed out, “this is your house.”
“It’s our house. This is a ridiculous rule from the days of arranged flarking marriages or something...” Khyrisse twisted one hand in the other, trying to hide her embarrassment. “But they--say it works even if you don’t believe in it. And anything that might bring us a bit of luck... would you mind, very much?”
“Me?” he said, and laughed. “I think I can live without you for one night.” He hesitated a long second. “Are you--sure that’s what you want, though? I know this whole thing’s been rough on you; if you wake up and I’m not there...”
“I promise not to run away,” said Khyrisse, with a wry smile.
“I don’t want this to be harder than it has to,” he said softly, “tonight.”
Khyrisse expelled air. “It’s going to be hard,” she acknowledged. “Whether you’re there or not... I can’t help that.” She looked down at her own hand. “But I’ll be all right. Maybe... it’ll even be better. Some things it might be easier to explain to Mina anyway. Maybe it’ll distract me.”
“Maybe.” Ebreth tapped his fingers on the bureau introspectively. “So I’ll tell you what, Khyrisse--while we’re on the subject of superstitious traditions. If I wanted to exchange wedding pledges with you, what do you think you’d ask for?”
She blinked at him. “Wedding pledges?”
“Yeah,” he said. “A favor, or something like that. Something each of us promises to do for the other. Sort of like wedding presents for each other.”
“I--have no idea. What do people usually ask for?”
Ebreth shrugged. “Something small, I guess. People who still need to ask each other for something major probably aren’t getting married. Some favor you’d like me to do for you by tomorrow, some token to fetch for you. Anything you want, really--I have to pledge to do it before I know what it is. Just try not to make it anything too hard, because if I don’t get it done by tomorrow, you’re off the hook.”
She laughed shakily, her mind racing. “I--do you know, I can’t really think of--I don’t know if there is anything else I want...!”
“Something you want me to do for you tomorrow, maybe?”
Khyrisse shook her head firmly. “I’ve been over tomorrow with a fine-toothed comb, Ebreth. And you’ve been so good about letting me plan everything... anything I want for the ceremony is already happening.” She hesitated. “Maybe--maybe a token, then, I guess. For luck.” She looked out the bedroom window, down onto the street. “Something I could hold with me tomorrow morning, to remind me of you. A worry stone or something.” She turned her head and smiled at him impishly. “How about a panther fetish, from the Princedoms.”
He chuckled, low in his throat. “Consider it done.”
“Whew!” She flopped down on the bed. “For a minute there, I didn’t think I was going to be able to think of anything... What do you want?” She smiled up at him coyly.
“Hhhhh. You promise, now?”
She hesitated just a moment. “Yes, I promise.”
“Good.” He flipped his robe off the bedpost and onto her, grinning. “Take this to Mina’s with you, and wear. It.”
Khyrisse sputtered and pushed the silk out of her face, caught between a laugh, an indignant gasp, and an utterly incomprehensible desire to cry. “Ebreth!”
“You promised,” he reminded her, his eyes twinkling.
“That’s not fair!” She rolled over and buried her fingers in her hair, shaking with muted laughter. “I--what about you?” Ebreth’s dreams were bad enough even with the sigil of hope.
He waved it off. “I’d rather know you’re all right tonight,” he said. “Besides, this way if Mina hires some strippers or something, I’ve marked my territory.”
“I’m so sure Mina’s going to hire strippers!”
He laughed. “Well, I’d better get going,” he said, and slung his pack over one shoulder. “If I’m going to find a Fossic stonecarving by tomorrow morning. You have a good time with Mina, all right?”
“Ebreth,” she said, as he started out the door. He cocked his head at her over his shoulder, and she drummed her fingers on the bed, her eyes slanted. “Is--this really a tradition at all?”
He gave her one of his astonishing crooked grins. “It is now,” he said, winked in her direction, and was gone.
A Fadeout At Last
Aithne opened the door in her nightgown. “Uh,” said Jack, reddening. It was a very diaphonous nightgown. “I’m, uh--sorry, Aithne, I didn’t mean to, um, bother you...”
“You are not bother,” said Aithne.
“Oh,” said Jack, his eyes awkwardly fixed on the doorjamb, “well, I guess you must have, uh, forgotten... we were talking about going out tonight, but you’re not exactly, uh, dressed for it.”
Aithne looked down at her nightgown. “You don’t like?” she said, a little forlornly. “The dress isn’t pretty?”
“Oh,” Jack hurried, “no, Aithne, it’s very pretty, it’s just, uh... well, around here that’s a kind of dress that you only wear when you’re going to bed.”
Aithne leaned drolly against the doorframe, tapping the fingers of her left hand on her right arm. “Yes, Jack,” she said. “I know.”
“Uh,” said Jack, balking for real now. “So I, uh, think I’d better be going now. I’ll see you, uh, tomorrow--”
“You like me or not, Jack?” said Aithne, starting to sound upset.
Jack put his hand over his face. “I like you, Aithne, I just don’t, uh, think,” he stalled for time, scanning his memory for a few perfect words from Ebreth or Khyrisse or one of Lita’s ridiculous romance novels that might somehow make this right while still giving him the chance to escape and regroup. The only things he was coming up with were from Valende’s talks with his Other, and Jack didn’t want to be cribbing from those notes. “That the time is right,” he tried. “For, uh, me.”
Aithne frowned. “You mean the time is not right like I am pick a wrong romantic moment,” she said, with her usual direct astuteness, “or like it is the wrong time in your life?”
“Damned if I know,” sighed Jack.
Aithne’s eyes were sad. “Please come in,” she said, standing away from the door.
Jack shuffled over to the sofa, feeling like more of a heel than he had since Gabriella. Here was poor Aithne going out of her way to try and prepare some ‘romantic moment’ for them, and he was making her feel like she was doing it all wrong. Jack wished he could just rewind the evening and start over. Robinson hadn’t given him control over space and time, though, so he was going to have to deal with it himself somehow. Jack wanted nothing more than to flee, but he’d already done enough damage for one night. “It’s not you,” he tried, weakly. “It’s me.”
“You are afraid you will hurt me?” Aithne guessed, twisting one slim hand unhappily in the other. “I am strong girl, with good magic.”
Jack wasn’t entirely sure how those two sentences were related. “Well,” he said, “I, uh, guess I am a little worried after everything that happened with, uh, Vas... I don’t want you to feel, you know, pressured or anything.”
“I think, you are pressure me to leave you alone,” Aithne said quietly, looking down. “That is not anything like Vas.”
That, at least, was true. If Aithne didn’t want to be going out with Jack, she’d had more than enough excuses to stop pursuing him. “I don’t want you to leave me alone,” he protested. “I like you a lot, Aithne... I think we’ve been having a great time together.” He moved his hand in desperate circles, trying to get any of the nice things about Aithne he’d talked about with Ebreth to fit into the mood he’d dropped on them. “You’re fun... you see the world in a new way.”
“I have a nice personality?” Aithne summed up, like she wasn’t entirely pleased with that.
“Uh,” said Jack. “Well, yes, but I didn’t, uh, mean... I mean, you’re also beautiful. I just wasn’t quite, uh, ready for the surprise thing with the nightgown, that’s all. I’m, uh, sorry for overreacting.” Jack rubbed his aching forehead. “I, uh, kind of suck at this,” he added. “In case you hadn’t noticed.”
“You are not ready,” Aithne said slowly. “You are going to be ready other time, Jack? Or I should stop trying? There is not much time left. If I wait very long, you will be gone.”
“No,” said Jack, “I just--” He held his head. “I don’t know,” he admitted. “At first when I realized I was going to, uh, die, I wanted to experience everything before I left. To live life the way I see my friends live it. But I don’t want to spend my last weeks trying to be someone I’m not, either. And this, uh, kind of thing... it just isn’t something I think people should do if they’re not in love.”
Aithne sighed and put her hands on the coffee table. “What is love, Jack?” she asked quietly. “What is a difference between ‘like’ and ‘love’? In my country we used them the same. I love my friends, I love my mother, I love these shoes. In here love seems like some strange and special thing. I don’t know if I love you or not because I don’t know what you mean when you say.”
“Oh,” said Jack, “we--we use it that way too, Aithne. I love my family and friends. But you can only be in love with one person... at least that’s, uh, what I think,” he mumbled, thinking of Val and his Other despite himself. “When two people are in love, it should be like... they should be more important to each other than anyone else in the world. Like Ebreth and Khyrisse are.”
Aithne frowned. “Khyrisse will have a baby,” she pointed out. “How he can be more important to her than her baby?”
“Babies are different.”
“And,” said Aithne, “I think you are just as important to Ebreth as Khyrisse is, Jack.”
“Look,” sighed Jack, “the point is this, Aithne... being in love is a major parameter shift. It’s something someone would know if it happened to them.”
Aithne considered that, and then she gave Jack her winsome little smile. “You read many books, Jack?”
“Uh,” said Jack, “what?”
“I think, that is an idea from reading books,” she said. “Or maybe watching people. We are two strangers here, I think. We watch a lot and try to guess. But I think maybe love is something that happens to people and they don’t know it right away. Maybe they look so sure about it because nobody else notice it until after they do.” He thought about that. “Jack,” she probed, “you don’t wanna sex with me because you are worried you don’t love me?”
“That would be about the long and the short of it,” Jack admitted.
“You will,” she said, nodding. “I am not afraid. You are a different kind of man, but I think I can see you very well. You are a little bit like me, I think. Maybe we will find we loved each other all the time.”
Jack was quiet a moment. “I--think I’d like that,” he said.
Aithne sat hesitantly next to him on the sofa. “If, I look back when you are gone and see I loved you,” she said, “I would like have some good memories of us to keep in my heart.”
Jack cleared his throat nervously. “I haven’t exactly, uh, done any of this before,” he mumbled, wishing he didn’t blush so flarking much.
Aithne was unexpectedly unsurprised by that concept. “Then,” she said, “I will show you.”