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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 14

Alarm

"We've had a security breach, sir." Thapes licked her lips. "The control room's been compromised."

"What?" Omeria's eyes narrowed. Things failed to go her way sometimes, of course, but it was almost always due to the failure of a calculated risk. Omeria was a hard woman to sneak up on, and she didn't like surprises. "Beneath my detection? How long ago?"

"Not sure, sir. They were magically cloaked. Some of the passcards seem to be missing... no word yet on anything else that might have been tampered with. Hallorran's running a full security scan now."

Omeria put her fingers together. "You're sure this isn't psi?"

"The trace energy's definitely magical, sir."

Damn. Omeria wasn't thrilled with the prospect of dealing with psionicists, but a mage powerful enough to shield from her was worse news. The only one springing to mind was Arturian, or possibly the lich lord Shalak. Khyrisse might have swung it, but it would have meant developing a spell expressly for that purpose, which wasn't the hero's MO. She was much more of a straight sorceress. Besides, she'd been adventuring in Rimbor and couldn't have had time for such research. That meant this was probably extraplanars, whose different brands of magic were harder to trace. And Omeria was very well aware that she had not yet cleared the matter of her outstanding warrant from Hell. "I will handle this myself," she said.

"Yes sir."

Will You Remember Me

The first few trials had gone pretty smoothly. They got through the shifting sands with a minimum of fuss. The fire pit didn't cause Ebreth to have a seizure, which Jack had been worried about. Getting across the river hadn't been bad. Jack was especially proud of the rolling boulder trap. Estimating the curvature of the boulder grooves to a few decimal points, he'd been able to plot the lead the boulder on the inside groove would have over the others and they'd all jumped in behind it before the one in the center groove could smash them. The ladies at the checkpoint had cheered and waved their handkerchiefs. Jack was having fun.

It was at the rock fall that things started to go downhill. Perry, by far the most athletic of the four, was not the surest of foot, and he triggered one of the mines. He didn't have much trouble keeping the falling rock from landing on him or Jack, but neither Ebreth nor Brett was as strong, and Ebreth had badly strained his shoulder diverting a small boulder. None of them had healing powers. Then when they were galeriding across the chasm, Brett had struck a bad current and gotten blown back across. She'd called to them to go on without her, that she'd just join up with the next group through, but the three men hadn't wanted to leave her, and they'd lost nearly twenty minutes retrieving her. And though they hadn't succumbed to any of the dangers of the marsh, they hadn't had any luck finding a quicker way across it than slogging through, either. The upshot was that it was ten of noon and the four friends weren't even halfway through the course. Perry had reluctantly acknowledged that they didn't have a chance of winning the race anymore, but optimistically hoped they might still be able to come in in the top third if they hurried. Brett had pointed out that since the Minotaurs were entering the course in ten minutes, they'd better hurry anyway. Unless, she laughed, they wanted to be gored. Jack wasn't sure he understood why that was funny.

He was struggling up the cliff face now. Ebreth was the best climber, but Jack had topological perceptions none of the others did, and the illusions laid over the rock wall had the least effect on him. Jack was starting to wonder why he'd thought of this as a vacation. It seemed like an awful lot of work. He made it to the top, half-wishing he could perspire or pant or do something else human to release the tension of the physical exertion he'd just made. He pulled out the spike Perry had given him to anchor a rope for the rest of the team... and almost dropped it. "Gabriella?"

"Hi, Jack." She gave him her little smile. She was standing on top of the bluff.

"What are you doing here?" Jack stammered.

"I came to see you," she said, almost shyly. "It's been years, Jack..."

"It... has," said Jack. "How have you, uh, been?"

"All right," she said sadly, something glimmering in one of her eyes. Gabriella was about the mentally unstablest person Jack had ever met, which given Jack's social circle was saying something. She'd been that way before Jack had ever met her, he knew, but he couldn't help feeling a little guilty about it anyway. There must have been something he could have done to help her. Jack just didn't have any idea what. "My parents killed each other in the Madness."

"Oh, Brie... I'm sorry..."

"I'm not," she whispered, and drew her shawl around herself, her eyes faraway. Gabriella had not had a good childhood. Jack had never known the details; he hadn't wanted to ask her. Marty, her apparent brother, had made a few comments about his parents being oppressive overlords or something, but Jack was never sure how seriously to take anything Marty said. He wondered if maybe he should have asked her about it. Maybe they could have faced it together. Then again, he'd asked Val about her Madness thing, and that hadn't helped her. Jack felt more in his depth with the Running than he did trying to navigate relationships. Much less ex-relationships. "Do you, uh, want to talk about it?" he tried.

She glanced across at him, startled out of her lost remembrance, and laughed softly. "Oh, Jack," she smiled, shaking her head. "Now? Aren't the Minotaurs coming?"

"Oh," said Jack, confused. He'd almost forgotten. "Uh, yes, I guess they are. Do you, uh, want to join us? Perry's here, and Brett..."

"Are you asking me out, Jack?" she said, amusement ranging beneath her mysterious sad voice.

"Uh," Jack balked. "No, I'm, uh, I just wanted to know if you, uh, wanted to, uh, finish the Running with us. You know, join our team?"

Gabriella leaned in close. Jack could smell her perfume; it was an almost overpowering memory. The mist in her eyes had cleared somehow, and for a second he had the familiar illusion that he'd almost reached her. "I have always been on your team, Jack," she whispered, kissed him, and pushed him backwards off the ledge.

A Life Of Danger

Vickie monitored the four-dimensional chamber. Across it, she could see a variety of figures doing the same. Some, she knew, were herself on past recons. Others seemed to be the Monkey King, continuing to thumb his nose at orderly time. Still others seemed to be reflections of past fr--allies. And, of course, there was the strange Bone Demon that kept popping up. Vickie still wasn't certain why Arturian picked her for such odd duty. Most of what she saw and recorded was beyond her comprehension, but he seemed pleased with her work so far.

And, to Vickie's knowledge, he still didn't know about her other investigation.

She was walking a thin line, and she knew it. Still, with the Monkey King paying attention everyplace but his human prison, things were going smoothly. Now, just as long as nothing unexpected happened...

***

"So how exactly are we getting to Eyebrowland?" Rani wanted to know, stepping out of the ether onto the streets of Tobrinel.

"I can take us there," said Garal. "But first we have to get our papers in order."

"Are you lawful neutral," muttered Thermador, "or lawful lawful?"

"And would you mind explaining what finding a hooker has to do with it?" Rani took a dim view of prostitution. She allowed as how there might be some women who sold their services when and if it pleased them without ultimately being exploited by it, but she'd certainly never seen it in Rimbor City.

"Oh..." Garal blushed deep, deep red. "No, we're, uh, we're not looking for a hooker exactly... I mean, we're looking for a woman named Silverlace, who's a well-known courtesan, but we're not looking for her because she's a courtesan. I mean she has, uh, other skills..."

"Planeblazer excuses," sneered Thermador. "Call a spade a spade."

"The problem," Garal continued, ignoring his interplanar rival, "is I have no idea where she is now."

"Well, the Lady Inez' brother is a man of no small repute in this city," suggested Amatsu. "Perhaps he might be able to help us find the, er, geisha whose assistance we seek, if she is as well-known as you say?"

"Maybe he'd meet us for dinner," Pigsy said hopefully, looking down the strip of Tobrinese restaurants with beatific eagerness.

Jailbreak

"Whoa, bigass evil," groaned Marty, staggering against the stone wall of the dungeon.

"Oh, that's just the Render of Souls," said Dee. "Omeria imprisoned her in here a couple of months ago... just don't look at her and you'll be okay."

Valende frowned. Dee consistently mispronounced the evil sorceress' name "Ooo-meria," as Ariath had once done trying to convince the Rat Pack she was unfamiliar with the members of Bloodscar. It seemed like a particularly stupid and counterproductive lie for Ariath to be trying to keep up, and a particularly implausible lie for an unrelated woman to stumble onto by accident. Even more confusingly, Val's truth spell was proclaiming it not a lie at all. "Are you sure you know where you're taking us?" she asked.

"No." Dee made an apologetic smile, shrugging. "I know the dungeon pretty well, but I don't know where they've got Mordecai. We just kind of have to keep look--"

"Shhhhh!" Vas clapped his hand over her mouth and pressed back into the shadows. Two guards strolled past in the corridor beyond, laughing and talking in Tobrinese. Dee's hazel eyes widened above Vas' hand. Once they were safely gone, he released her. "Stealth is of the essence," he reminded.

"Dude," said Marty. "Maybe we could ask those guys where Mr. Decay is!"

"Those were ducal guards, Marty," Dee whispered. "They won't help us!"

"Maybe if we catch," offered Aithne, "we can make them help. Val can know if they are lie."

They all looked at Valende. She hated being in charge even more than Khyrisse did. "Fine," she sighed. "Let's make it quick. Witch magic or no witch magic, Bloodscar's going to notice those passcards are missing soon."

Misled

Hotspur handed a small crystal ball to Duke Omeria. "Surveillance picked up several members of the Rat Pack arriving in Tobrinel this afternoon. Two have been positively identified as Garal Tinderhook and Rani the psychometrist. No word yet on the Kyoko-Ryan--"

"That man is Shikinti," K'Mar corrected the dwarf testily.

"Sorry. No word on him yet, or the other two."

"The scruffy man is Dave Thermador," Omeria said. "Bounty hunter. Specializes in other-planar work. Never seen the pig before. How did they arrive."

"The planeblazer led ‘em in. But they just walked out into a main street of the capital city in broad daylight. Then they went into a Shikinti restaurant."

"The Golden Lotus is a Kyokota restaurant," K'Mar said, folding his arms.

"Sorry. Anyway, they sure ain't looking like they're up to anything covert, know what I mean?"

The Duke nodded. "K'Mar, I want you to handle this yourself," she said. "Find out what they're doing here and how they're connected to the break-in this morning. If they come within two city blocks of the palace contact me immediately." The ninja bowed his assent. "Hotspur, I want you scrying those passcard zones continuously." The stolen passcards corresponded to the secret laboratory, the dungeon, the Senate chambers, and Omeria's private study. She wasn't sure which worried her more as a potential target. "I'll contact Ari and Marhault myself," Omeria said. "This is a cabinet emergency. The Rat Pack arriving here today might be some kind of coincidence, but if they do anything remotely suspicious..."

"If they do?" Hotspur asked. "Are we ready to rumble with the New Trade people?"

"We can always send Beliath," Omeria replied, smiling.

Remind Me Again Why We Brought A Giant Sentient Pig Into A Chinese Restaurant?

"Well, I must confess," said Ian, passing Pigsy an egg roll, "when Amatsu's missive first reached me, I thought you were a rather woefully underinformed lot. Silverlace having died two years ago and all that."

Everyone turned around and looked at Garal, who managed a weak smile.

"Imagine my surprise," Jardin continued, "when my contact--" it was better not to spread Endicott's name around when there was no reason to-- "informed me that you were the ones in the right. The lady is apparently very much alive, simply pursuing business of her... own."

"She's a vampire," translated Rani.

"My source didn't imply that at all."

"I've been to Tobrinel before. Missing persons who mysteriously turn up alive are pretty much always vampires."

Ian Jardin didn't look amused. "At any rate," he said, "my contact has been able to secure a meeting for you at the Rose de Chelly. Silverlace was apparently rather interested in what your business in Nataal is. However, I've been asked to tell you that the meeting must be held in the strictest confidence."

"All right, fine." Rani eyed the stir-fry chef uneasily. "But can we get out of here? I don't like the way that guy's looking at Pigsy."

True Colors

Bloodscar ran his hands appreciatively over the sheer silk stockings. This whole last week, he'd been finding something--comfortable--about women's clothing. He wasn't entirely sure where it was coming from. He'd already had to kill a lab assistant who'd walked in on him unexpectedly once.

"Lord Warrior?" said Hallorran from the intercom.

Bloodscar cleared his throat. "What is it?" he demanded, in his most assertively masculine voice.

"Sorry to disturb you, Lord Warrior... but there's a vampire assault in progress downtown. Duke Omeria wanted you to take care of it."

"On my way."

"Lord Warrior?"

"What?"

"The Duke instructed me to ask you to take one alive, Lord Warrior."

Bloodscar sighed. "Done," he said. The intercom was quiet. He reached for his sword, made to rip the hose off his muscular legs, hesitated, and then put his armor on over it.



Valende had finally succeeded in extracting information from one of the guards. It had taken a very long time. Aithne did not have the kind of magic that could tear information from men's minds, and apparently the elves didn't either. They really should have brought one of the Diarians along, Aithne thought. But she trusted Val's spiritual magic on the matter of truth and lies, so once the priestess seemed satisfied that she had the right answer, Aithne was ready to follow.

"What now, Miz Val?" Marty asked.

Val winced. She was seeming more and more anxious on this trip. Aithne guessed she was worried about the trouble they might cause her elder sister. "Could you please not use our names down here?" she beseeched Marty. "It would be much better if Bloodscar never even finds out we've been here, okay?"

"Dude," Marty nodded. "Like, an undercover mission. You can count on me." He used his left hand to wink his right eye at Val. Aithne hadn't figured out what that was supposed to mean.

Valende sighed. "Okay, okay," she said, drawing her sword again. It was glowing faintly with magical light. "Aithne, Dee, bind the guards. I don't want them raising an alarm. Marty, cover them. Vas and I are going to secure this corridor. We've wasted too much time already."

Aithne balked at it for an instinctual second. This was men's work. The elves viewed things differently, though, she reminded herself. Vas used magic, and Val a sword; Khyrisse even drove the carriage. Human and elven alike, Aithne's new clan seemed to admire versatility as much as expertise, and had little use for gender roles. So Aithne took her dagger out and carefully slit the man's throat.

Loved and Lost

"Do you think you could have flarkin' warned me, ya harpy?" Asinus demanded brokenheartedly.

Lora sighed. "I'm sorry, Asinus. I assumed you'd already know... and I didn't want to bring it up again, since I thought it might be a sore point."

"Sore is a word for it." The donkey plopped his back end down on his sister's good carpet, looking at her inconsolably. "There's so much I never got to tell her..."

"Did you try?" Lora said gently.

"Now? There's a bright idea, sis. Nothing so bad a little explicit rejection of your deepest feelings can't make it worse." He laid his head down on the coffee table. "No, of course I didn't tell her. Flarkin' A. I didn't tell her when she was completely available, I'm supposed to tell her now that she's gettin' hitched to some hunk? She's a goddess, Lora. I'm a farm animal. I never had a chance."

"Oh, Asinus," sighed Lora, and put her arms around him. "It hurts, doesn't it? It just keeps on hurting."

Asinus didn't say anything. If anyone understood loss it was his sister Lora. He almost felt guilty complaining about Khyrisse Flarkin' Starshadow's marriage in the same breath. Almost, but not quite. "The worst part," he said quietly, "is there's no one to blame but myself. How the hell was she supposed to know? Every time the moment started to get serious between us all year I'd make a joke about edible underwear or something. What is wrong with me? If I'd told her in the first place she was the most amazing woman I'd ever laid eyes on and my life would never be complete without her, well, maybe. Instead I told her I had a twelve-inch tongue." He closed his eyes. "I can't blame Tor-boy for falling for her, either. Who the flark wouldn't? And it's not like he doesn't treat her well, or anything. I don't know what the hell he's doing off on vacation while she's dealing with her kid taking off on her, okay, but other than that... she's been happy, she's been less tense, hasn't even been as self-absorbed." Asinus sighed. "He's good for her," he admitted. "She doesn't need me," he admitted.

"There'll be others," said Lora, stroking his neck. "Life goes on, Asinus."

"Right now," groaned Asinus, "I wish it would just get up and go on without me."

"But it's not going to, so you might as well let me make you some pudding, hey, brother?"

"Yes, Lora."

Double Cross

"Jeez!" said Dee, her eyes large, looking up from where she'd been tying up the other guard.

"Aithne!" said Valende, in a strangled voice. "No!" She fought down a surreal urge to whack the girl on the nose with a newspaper. "No, don't kill prisoners!"

"Don't kill?" Aithne's hands flew up over her mouth, her eyebrows lifting in a charming portrait of surprise. "Oops! You still needed prisoners? I thought, you wanted they wouldn't raise an alarm?"

"I wanted..." Val pressed her forehead with her shaking hand. "Look, Aithne, you can kill people in a fight, okay? But when there's no fight, when there's enough time, ask me first."

"I'm sorry," wailed Aithne. "I didn't know you still needed. Next time, I will ask."





Hotspur scanned the Senate chambers boredly. The secret laboratory, where the wild magics were contained, was the most likely target for a break-in in the dwarf's opinion, but Omeria wanted him to scan all four locations repeatedly, so he was doing it. He guessed it was vaguely possible someone might have wanted to plant a bomb or something. He wasn't seeing anything, though. Senate chambers looked clean. He sighed and switched the view to the dungeon again. This was the most boring thing he'd had to do since Hell, when some sadistic devil had made him catalog a pile of rocks for two weeks straight. By the end of that Hotspur had been begging to go back into a pool of oil, all right.

Hotspur was reaching his hand out to switch the view back to Omeria's study when a strange noise floated through the air, somewhere between a rustling and a tinkling, like the fluttering of something made of crystal. His dwarven senses alerted him to the presence of magic, too. Hotspur moved his hand slowly to his belt, his fingers brushing across the button that would activate his battle-armor and the one that would sound an alarm to Omeria. He sat poised for action, his eyes bright, and waited for something to move.

Nothing did. But in the viewscreen, the empty hallway of the dungeon wavered and dissipated like an unconstant mirage, and Hotspur gaped at the Rat Packers revealed as their magical cloaking dispelled.

The Mistral watched his handiwork for a few seconds more and then melted back into the shadows.



"Cindy?" gasped Mordecai.

"W-ho?" Dee looked confused for a second, and it might have been a trick of the light, but Valende almost thought her outline seemed to waver a little. She frowned, but couldn't be sure if she'd imagined it. "No, I'm Dee. We're here to rescue you."

Mordecai looked from one to the other. "Who are you?" he whispered.

"It's a secret," Marty explained. "But you can call me... Arty." He winked manually. "Arty Hu."

"Arty who?"

"Yeah. It's spelled just like Marty, but without the M..."

Valende held her head and hoped there weren't surveillance cameras down here.

"Does anyone know knock?" Dee wanted to know, jiggling the lock on the door with an ineptitude even Ariath hadn't been able to fake.



"Milord Cloak," said Umbra.

The vampire king sighed, looking out through the double windows at Bane ascending. "Yes, what is it, child?"

"It's... Ginger." Umbra looked distinctly uncomfortable, shifting from one daintily-shod foot to the other. "She's... surrendered to Bloodscar, Milord."

Cloak glanced at the grandfather clock. "Only twenty minutes after I sent her out? How expeditious of her. I was sure it would take her at least half an hour."

Relief vied with confusion on Umbra's pretty face. "Those were her orders, then?"

"Of course not. But I sent the least obedient of my immediate circle for a reason, you know." Cloak uncorked a bottle of chilled wine. "If her betrayal of me were not genuine, Duke Omeria would surely be able to ascertain that, after all. As it is, Ginger will tell her what she needs to know." Cloak poured himself some of the wine. "After that, it is of little consequence to me what she does with her. The double-cross is not a newly invented art form, after all, Umbra. And everything is going exactly according to plan."

Touch-Me-Not

"I've been the official ambassador to Nataal for--close to eight years now," said Silverlace, with a gossamer laugh and a toss of her head. "This is the first time anyone's ever approached me about it. How very resourceful you must be," she added, with a naughty little smile for Garal. The halfling blushed deeply, and Rani rolled her eyes. Silverlace was certainly ungodly attractive, but her woman-of-every-dream act was playing better with the guys than with Rani, who was frankly getting bored. "Your quest sounds reasonable," Silverlace continued, "and unlikely to damage the fragile land you seek to visit. I give you my blessing."

"Great," Rani said impatiently, pushing the courtesan's cat away forcelessly with her boot. It had apparently identified Rani as the person who least wanted a friendly kitten winding around her legs, and was industriously applying its feline perverseness to the task. "How about travel papers? Do you give us those?"

Dave Thermador just assumed Rani wasn't a cat person. Pigsy thought Rani probably secretly felt a lot of affection for the kitten, and was just hiding it for now. Garal hadn't noticed there was a cat there yet. Amatsu, though, was watching the detective with his usual unobtrusive perceptiveness, and it occurred to him that she really didn't like to be touched at all. He'd never seen her offer more contact than a quick firm handshake or an affectionate thwack on the shoulder or so, both through gloves. More than that, she avoided incidental contact, staying out of jostling range on the street and dropping coins into people's hands instead of placing them there. Amatsu himself was from a culture not very comfortable with public displays of affection, but there wasn't much sense of personal space in Shikintu either, and it would have been prohibitively difficult to spend a day on the streets of Shanghai without being bumped into, hand-patted by, and squeezed next to on a park bench by a good dozen strangers who weren't even trying to pick your pockets. He'd initially assumed Rani's unusual resistance to this sort of touching was Rimborese paranoia, but there was clearly no paranoia in her attitude towards Silverlace's kitten. Interesting, indeed.

"Well, isn't somebody in a hurry," murmured Silverlace, smoothing her gown over her hips and giving Rani a playful look. "We're getting to that, darling; in my country, when you inconvenience a busy woman to ask her for a special favor, you spend a little bit of time on niceties."

"Thank you," Garal offered meekly, trying not to stare at her legs.

"A reasonable start," smiled Silverlace.

"We're going to be here all night, aren't we?" sighed Rani.

For Those Who Mistakenly Think ‘Matriarchal' Equals ‘Feminist'

"You're sure you don't want to come back with us?" Vas asked.

"I'm sure." Dee sighed. "I can't spend my life running... I have to stay here and face the music. I need to know what happens to my sister." She looked down, and then back up. "I'm glad you're all right," she told Mordecai, a little shyly.

"Your bravery and kindness have well eclipsed your sister's treachery," the scientist said gallantly.

Dee looked touched. "Well, you guys had better get going," she said. "I know it's late, but if you can get out of Tobrinese airspace before turning in for bed, you'll be safest."

It was driving Valende crazy trying to figure out what the girl was up to. She wasn't trusting the repeated ‘good' aura she was getting off of her. She hadn't said an untrue thing all mission, so far as Val could tell, but the priestess' instincts told her there was something else beneath the surface somehow, and that it wasn't something she'd like. Val was a mediocre conspiracy theorist, though, and when it came down to it there was every reason not to linger in Tobrinel. The Mistral still wasn't back yet, but Valende didn't miss him. "Okay," she sighed, and climbed up onto the driver's board beside her brother.

Dee watched the Carriage until it was no longer visible in the darkened Tobrinese sky.

Then she just stood watching the stars for a little while. "You and me, Dyre," she said quietly.



Across the Dalen River, no more than twenty minutes from Tobrinel City by Carriage, the Rat Pack strike force touched down for the night. Aithne was flushed and rather excited. They had succeeded in rescuing Khyrisse's stolen citizen! He appeared to be in reasonable condition, and it didn't seem that the rival sorceress had detected their presence. Khyrisse would be pleased. Now, if only the Mistral would return with good news.

"Dear... Camaro..." Marty said aloud, squinting as he wrote. They were sitting around the fire in the common room of a small Dalencian inn now, having a late supper together. "Today we... secretly invaded... the Tobrinese... dungeon."

Val frowned. "Marty, would you please not tell everyone that?"

"Whoa," said Marty, "do you like, mind? It's private." He moved a little further away from the elven woman, tilting the letter to shield it from her view. "I have... a secret identity... now," he continued, writing. "So I think... maybe I need... a costume. Like Silverblade's. Or Schneiderman's..."

Aithne still didn't speak the language well enough to have any idea what Marty was talking about most of the time. She hadn't figured out if this was because he said things that were particularly complicated, or particularly incoherent. "My shoe is break," she said humbly, showing Val the cracked pump. She'd gotten the low heel caught in the grille on the way out of the dungeon. Aithne wished she weren't so clumsy. She'd been constantly doing things like this back at home, too. "I think, I need another. I will pay from my allowance."

"Let me see, Aithne." The elven priestess took it gently out of her hands. "This isn't so bad. I think my brother can fix it with a mend spell. You should ask him."

She held the shoe back out. Aithne just stared at her for a moment, frozen in the firelight. "My brother," repeated Val, misinterpreting her expression as confusion. "Vastarin. He can fix it." She illustrated "fix" with her hand as what remained of Aithne's world came crashing down around her.

She had known, in her heart, that the effeminate magician was Valende and Khyrisse's brother. Her eye for social interaction was too good to really convince herself otherwise. But it wasn't until this very moment that Aithne realized how desperately she had been hoping he was not, or at least that she could go on indefinitely pretending not to understand.

It was all over now.

"Vas can fix," she said heavily, taking the pump back. He was her master, just as his sisters were; her uncle, in a way. Aithne would hear, and she would obey.

And if she drank a few glasses of wine that night to make it a little easier to follow Vastarin up the stairs it was nothing women in Celtia hadn't been doing for millennia now. And if she took him a little bit by surprise by reacting to his advances, this time, by pulling her shift off over her head, so much the better. Aithne was the daughter of a queen, and she was too proud to be passive in her submission, too polite not to smile. Aithne had not been raised to be bad company.

But inside, her heart was crying, and it went on crying till the night surrendered to day.

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