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Chapter 8

Girl Talk, Revisited

“That is nice,” Khyrisse admitted, snuggling into the comforter and bathing her entire face in the sweet smell of the hot chocolate. Mina’s pajamas were one-piece and had feet. There was something childish about it all, like the sleepovers Khyri and her brother had when they were kids. It helped distract Khyrisse from the fact that she was in bed with another woman. Latent lesbic undertones reminded her of Ariath, anymore.

“I hope I’m not being too presumptuous, but...” Mina peered curiously at the older sorceress. “You’re not really going to keep wearing your old wedding ring now... are you?”

Khyrisse blinked in confusion, her hand moving to her empty ring finger. “What? I--I took that off months ag--” She looked at her right hand, and the Godmaker ring winked back. “I mean,” she said, “it wasn’t just my wedding ring, Mina. It’s also all I have to remember my time as a goddess by. I, I took it off the finger Eric put it on. I can’t believe it took me so long to do. But I can’t just get rid of it. It’s part of who I am, the marriage and the divinity both... I don’t want to just toss twenty years of my life in the trash bin.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t expect you to,” said Mina. “It’s just... well, doesn’t Ebreth mind?”

“I don’t think so,” said Khyrisse, her brow crinkling. “He’s never said anything about it... and it’s not the kind of thing he usually gets worried about. Fretting over pointless symbolism is more my thing, I think.”

“He is more the down-to-earth sort,” Mina conceded. “And it’s not like anyone would really think it meant you honored your first marriage more than your second... it just seems a little odd, that’s all, you wearing Eric’s ring and not Ebreth’s. I guess it’s the kind of thing that would bother me if I were him. But I’m not, of course. I guess he and I never had much in common, in most ways...” She shook her head, and laughed. “I couldn’t imagine making a pass at a woman with a wedding ring on in the first place, personally!”

Khyrisse laughed back, startled. “I--I guess I did, didn’t I?” she said. “And a ten-year-old boy in tow, too! What the flark were all those guys doing circling around me like vultures? Ebreth, Vas, Asinus, Pieret, Ixhriy...”

“Well, I don’t think Uncle Asinus would have cared,” Mina pointed out, giving her mentor an embarrassed grin. “He does that to everybody. Including nuns.”

“Oh, Grendel,” laughed Khyrisse, trying to suppress that image.

“Especially nuns. One of the major reasons Jack and I grew up without religion, I think--my mom was afraid to take us to church.” The young mage snuggled into the comforter, grinning. “So you nervous?”

“Nervous is a word for it,” sighed Khyrisse, looking into her hot chocolate. “What I wouldn’t give for a few fingers of brandy tonight...!”

“If it’s any reassurance,” said Mina, “when my cousin Ariel Paris got married, her train caught on a nail on one of the pews and her entire wedding gown ripped. You could see her underwear and everything. I was six. The entire children’s section was in hysterics.” Khyrisse groaned and covered her face with one hand. “And,” Mina continued cheerfully, “one of her bridesmaids just came around and held the train for her so you couldn’t see the rip anymore, and she got married, and the pictures look gorgeous, and she tells the story at every family reunion. No matter what happens, a wedding is always wonderful.”

Khyrisse sighed. “Of the three weddings I’ve been to in the last twenty years, Mina,” she said, “two of them were awful enough that they had the bride in tears.”

“You’re kidding,” said Mina, blinking. “Really? Did the grooms not show up or something?”

“I wish,” Khyrisse muttered, and shook her head. “No, in one a bunch of assassins attacked the ceremony and killed the groom and he turned into a zombie, and in the other the... bride was afflicted with a horrible wasting curse.”

“Wow,” said Mina. “So much for the pep talk, I guess. Which one was yours?”

“The curse,” sighed Khyrisse. “How... much have I told you about my first husband?”

“You said he betrayed you for a magical experiment... but I thought that was after you’d been married to him for five years.”

“Ten years,” Khyrisse said quietly. “Yes, but he’d been planning it all along. My wedding ring was cursed.” She looked at it there on her right hand, and for a moment her old anger was enough that she almost considered getting rid of it after all, but there had been too much she had loved as well. “Cursed and blessed,” she amended. “It turned me into the Goddess of Trade, but it also... destroyed two decades of my life. My marriage ended with Eric pushing me through a plate-glass window one night, yes, but it started with him marrying a fifteen-year-old orphan for the sole reason of creating a goddess beholden to him.” She closed her eyes. “The curse drained my color. I looked like a scarecrow. Eric--wasn’t so cruel to me yet. He even reassured me I still looked pretty. That time.” She shook her head. “But I still have nightmares about my wedding day, and I’m--I’m not looking forward to having to make my way through another one.” She held Ebreth’s robe around her tighter, blinking back tears she didn’t really want to share with Mina.

“Well,” Mina offered after a moment, “I don’t know if this will help or not, but... I think I can say pretty surely that Ebreth’s not going to betray you. You, uh, know how in the old days he betrayed my cousin Lita, right?” Khyrisse nodded expressionlessly. “Well, he’s so different with you. He never really pretended Lita meant more to him than that... it was more like, she wanted to believe it anyway. He liked her, in his way, but she thought she could make him love her. It just doesn’t work that way. You can’t change men. I had to learn that myself the hard way, with Roland.” Khyrisse made a puff of a sigh. “But they can change themselves, if they try hard enough... and Ebreth has. That’s really clear to me. If he was going to betray you, this isn’t how he’d be acting. I don’t know if that, uh, makes you feel better or not.”

Khyrisse was quiet a moment. “Did you know the old Ebreth Tor, Mina?”

“Me?” she said, something a little uneasy in her voice. “No, I never met him, per se... I was just a kid then. But I knew Lita.”

“You just talk like you know a lot about the two of them.”

“Jack does too,” Mina evaded. “We were very close cousins. Lita’s mother and mine were twins, and we were almost like sisters.”

Khyrisse frowned. This was reminding her of Ariath a little too much now: a strangely identical family member with just a little too much inside information to be believable. But why would Mina lie about such a thing, really? She obviously wasn’t afraid of Ebreth, and if she was looking for some kind of revenge, she’d had opportunities already. And besides, the entire Paris family would have had to be conspiring with her on this story, including Caimen and Lora, Asinus, the traitors Tora and Dar, and Jack. It was too much for even Khyrisse’s paranoia to take seriously.

The archmage swirled her cup slowly, watching the hot chocolate settle, mix, and settle. The moment’s pause had restored a bit of perspective to the situation, if nothing else. The panicked thought that someone might be plotting against Ebreth made her second-hand fears that Ebreth might be plotting against her seem very remote. “Rhynwa and Luthien’s wedding frightens me more,” she said, because if Mina was part of some byzantine wedding conspiracy she wanted her to hear this and if she wasn’t Khyrisse wanted to say it. “If anything happened to Ebreth tomorrow... I wouldn’t stop at killing them. You haven’t seen my evil side yet. I... I sort of hope you never do.”

Mina’s brow crinkled in the way it did when she had a philosophic argument to make, but she hesitated, and then visibly decided it wasn’t worth bothering Khyrisse with over such a hypothetical situation. “Well,” she said instead, “you’re a head of state, Khyrisse... and this is an international function. I really don’t think Eric would pull anything. He can’t afford the enemies he’d make.”

Khyrisse sighed again. Eric trying anything at the wedding was something she hadn’t even gotten around to stressing over yet; it wasn’t his style. She’d spent long years learning not to underestimate him the way Mina was, though. “If Eric pulled anything, Mina,” she said, “no one would ever know he was involved.”

“Oh, come on!” Mina waved her hand, laughing. “Half the high-level mages on Ataniel are going to be there; psionicists, heroes, spies... you don’t think anyone would figure it out? Omeria’d be on the line blackmailing him inside of ten minutes, and Pluvious Sturoster would be on his trail. It would be much too risky. No, he’s just going to have to accept the fact that you’re over him, for crying out loud. And won’t that be fun?” Khyrisse made a startled shout of laughter, and Mina reached across to squeeze her hand, grinning. “Everything’s going to go fine tomorrow, Khyrisse,” she said. “Let’s forget about our rotten evil exes and talk about something fun for a change.”

“Well,” Khyrisse said hesitantly, “like what?”

“Well,” said Mina, “Tila and Jarth! Are they an item, or not?”

“Uh,” said Khyrisse. “I, uh, don’t think I want to think about that too much.”

“And what about Waterloo? She’s not really going out with Signet the Significant, is she?”

“Well,” Khyrisse began, “there’s kind of a story there, actually...”

Mina smiled and settled back into the comforter to hear it.

Lead Me Not Into Temptation

Rani finished stuffing the last of her valuables into her duffel bag, kicking the door to her flat innocuously open behind her. Locking up in Rani’s neighborhood was nothing but an invitation to burglary. If you left the place open usually some local pushers would have a little party in there over the weekend or something; if you locked the door every guildie in town would think you were on vacation and there wouldn’t be a piece of wallpaper sticking to the walls when you got back. Rani could afford an apartment in a better part of town by now, but she knew this city too well to think it would be anything but fooling herself. At least in the Marbles Rani knew what the price was. Downtown she’d be paying one of Johnny’s goons protection fees and one day when she’d gone and let her guard down someone would break in anyway. Illusions of security were nothing but heartache down the line. Rani’d learned it in her personal life and she’d learned it in the streets of Rimbor.

The sun was setting over the harbor, and Rani turned onto Eighth, her boots making the subtle leather scrape against the sidewalk that they did when she was off-duty. She’d effectively been working two jobs this month, and she was tired. Tracked down some deadbeat dad for a client this morning, arm-twisted him into paying back child support. Built a case for Jonathon, couple of minor hoods who’d been terrorizing some old folks in Kingston. They’d get a nice little surprise tonight all right. Rani felt like Octavian’s secretary sometimes. She did all the legwork, and Jonathon got to do the ass-kicking. Story of her life.

Rani turned the corner and flattened against the wall, her crackling instincts alerting her to the boys’ presence before her imperfect infravision ever had a chance. They apparently had the benefit of neither, and didn’t notice her at all. Four young thieves, leather armor, probably low-level mooks in Tucson’s employ. Could be slavers for all she knew, could be pickpockets. Rani listened in.

“Didja hear about Rawlins?” one of them was saying uneasily. “Found ‘im down by the docks.”

“Dead?” said one of the others, trying to sound cavalier.

“Worse’n dead,” said the first thief. “Like... Renee.”

One of the other thieves shuddered. “When the hell is the Scorpion going to take that creep out? I thought he was supposed to fucking protect us.”

“I heard it’s a demon,” said the fourth thief. “Maybe it’s stronger’n Tucson.”

“Oh, bullshit,” said the second thief, unconvincingly. “It’s just some pissed-off lieutenant or something. They’ll find him and kill him and this’ll be over.”

“Not soon enough for me,” muttered the first thief. “I knew Renee. She... weren’t much left of her. Scorpion don’t do something fast, he’s gonna be out a bunch of thieves, lemme tell you. I ain’t the only one running scared.”

“You keep talkin’ like that and you’ll have more to be scared of than demons,” his mate warned sternly.

But the other two were nodding.

Rani stayed in that place for several minutes after the gang members had moved on, trying, trying not to think it, the effectiveness of that one mystery killer’s simple brutality, the hoops and circles she and Jonathon struggled through each day to get the same results less well.

Then she moved sharply on down Eighth Street to the station to catch her coach.

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