"Well, actually there was something I wanted to talk to you about." Val fluttered her fingers together a little awkwardly. "Have--you ever heard of something called a pasirel?"
Ebreth thought about it for a few seconds. "No."
"I--thought you might not have," the priestess said softly. "It's something we don't often discuss with outsiders. We don't often discuss it at all, actually. But traditionally, in our past, I mean, elves mated for life." She wasn't meeting his eyes. "Naturally in modern times there's a much broader range of acceptable social patterns... but we're still very susceptible to pair-bonding. Our word for it is pasirel, and it's my, professional opinion as a priestess that Khyrisse has formed one with you."
"And this means..." Ebreth cycled his hand in the air. "What? She can't live without me?"
"Well," said Valende, discomfited, "something like that, yes."
"Aaaaaah, I knew that." He ducked out of the way, grinning, as she whipped one of the sofa cushions at him. "I'm serious, Ebreth," she said, strained.
"Yeah?" He reached back and retrieved the pillow without looking at it, his mouth still quirking a little. "What makes you think I'm not? We humans may not have fancy words for things, right, but we're not totally stupid here."
Val expelled a long sigh. "Well, no one's ever told me a word for it in Dalen," she said, her voice a bit stifled, "so I suppose I just assumed it wasn't the same."
"It's probably not," he admitted. "It's just, come on, Valende, I don't need a degree in the anthropology of the elven culture to know Khyrisse has a lot invested here. Give me some credit. If I wasn't serious about this I wouldn't be doing it. Is that what you wanted to know?"
"I'm not trying to accuse you of anything," said Val, throttled. "I'm certainly not trying to interfere. I just--want you to know what you're getting into. A pasirel is a... very serious thing."
He looked at her for a long moment. "Have you ever had one?"
Val's emerald eyes were misty and very distant. "Not yet," she said softly. "But Khyrisse has. And it's taken her half her life to recover."
"Well, that's not what I'm going to do."
"I don't mean that." She shook her head hard. "No, you--you've been very good to her, Ebreth, that's not what I'm saying at all. It's just that--pasirel is an empathic state. That can be a good thing but it can also be very, very dangerous. Usually its effects are somewhat constrained just by virtue of being a pair bond; it runs both ways by its nature. But that's, not necessarily the case with a partner who's not elven."
Ebreth tapped his fingers on his pants. "Val," he said, "are you asking me if this thing is mutual, here?"
"Well, I must confess I'm curious," she murmured.
He looked away and exhaled. "No," he finally said. "No, I don't have a mystic bone in my body. I love her with all my heart, but I wouldn't know a supernatural elven empathy bond if it bit me in the ass."
"You don't need to," Valende hurried to add. "It's not necessary. But you see why we needed to tell you this."
"Not really. Does it matter? Does it make a difference?" He rubbed his forehead. "Does she even know about this?"
"Not exactly," mumbled Val.
"You've got a long day ahead of you, memsahib."
"Khyrisse's mother is handling that part."
"Good call." Ebreth sighed and leaned back on the Rat Trap sofa. "I think I'll just hang out here for a couple hours till the house quiets down. I don't need empathic powers to know that she's not going to take this real well. Even from Sallie."
"It's important that she know," Val said quietly. "It's important that both of you know."
"The practical implications of this are?"
"On the positive side, a certain sixth sense about your well-being, and an ability to draw strength from the bond. At least I assume so; I've never actually observed an interracial pasirel before. On the negative, a serious system shock should the bond be severed, and a certain... well, suggestibility." Valende looked uncomfortable. "You, may have a little more influence over her than you realize."
Ebreth shook his head. "Sallie already talked to me about that," he said. "It's just not an issue, Val. The one time she thought I was asking her for something she didn't want to give, she said no." He spread his arms. "She said no. If I asked her for something else that wasn't right, she'd say no again."
"Maybe," said Valende, quietly.
"She did then and she would again. She's stronger than you're giving her credit for. She'd be all right without me." He paused. "But she isn't going to have to be. And not because I'm afraid of what it might do to her pasirel or whatever you want to call it. That's not why I made her that promise and it's not why I'm going to keep it."
Valende made a strangely sad little smile and reached across the coffee table to pat his hand. "I know," she said. "We may have fancy words for things sometimes, but we're not totally stupid."
Ebreth chuckled low in his throat. "Your point."
Araiji was telling their fortunes. Kit had gotten Courage for her past, Exile for her present, and Immortality for her future. That was interesting, but the Exile illustration--a girl fleeing a burning town--was an unpleasant reminder. Kit's trip home had not been a happy one. To distract herself, Kit was looking at her new compatriots with her magic spectacles. Dexy had an aura of power Kit wouldn't have guessed from the gambler's inobtrusive demeanor. Magic seemed to bend weirdly around Ralchar. Crandall was undead. "Are you a vampire?" she asked curiously.
"I'm a revenant," he answered.
"Is that like a vampire?"
"I had a girlfriend who was a revenant once," Ralchar offered. "She'd come back from the grave to kill Algol Demonstar, who was this warlord who'd murdered her family... unfortunately, she crumbled into dust right after we kacked him. But life is short that way, you know?"
Everyone just kind of looked at Ralchar. "Right," said Dexy.
"So how come you came back from the dead?" Kit wanted to know.
Crandall had been going to make something up, but the gypsy turned her next card. "Unrequited love," she announced.
"Well, yeah," said Crandall, a bit embarrassed at how dumb it sounded. "That and a betrayal, anyway."
"Revenge," continued the gypsy, turning a second.
"What'd you do?" Ralchar wanted to know.
"Tricked his true love into cheating on him and told him about it."
Ralchar whistled, low.
"Don't you mean ‘her'?" said Kit.
Araiji turned over Crandall's third card and just looked at it.
The card depicted three lich lords, their hands locked together, shooting a combined blast of necrotic energy as the ground beneath them crumbled into space.
"What are you trying to do," whispered Araiji.
"I have no idea," Crandall Lied.
It was good enough even for Dexy, and the gypsy turned her attentions to Ralchar. "Past," she said, "good fortune. Present..." She blinked. The second care was the same as the first: a leprechaun seated on a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. There had been only one in the deck this morning. "Good fortune," she said. "And future..." She turned the third card. "Good fortune."
"Lucky you," said Kit.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the food chain
Seeker of Places had recovered from his wounds enough to walk, albeit gingerly, on his own. Babe, ever thoughtful, had offered to continue carrying him in the makeshift stretcher they'd slung across the waterfowl's broad chest last night, but the Rat had been starting to get antsy in there, unable to see what was happening, and so he thought he'd try tonight on his own four paws.
Currently the Pets were passing through a small oasis, a surprising abundance of plant life taking advantage of some kind of spring of warm and very mineral-tasting water. None of the plants attacked them, marking an improvement over the Salagian jungle anyway. The five animals were using the last of the day's sunlight to scrounge for food among the reeds and rushes when Peep and the Duck were suddenly struck with a sliding metal panel. Both birds squawked, calling the attention of their teammates. They had stepped into a trap, and it was only now that the young chick noticed the thin bars that confined them.
Melissa took a swipe at the cage trap, but it was clearly too solid to break. "Peep!" peeped Peep, nodding her head in the direction they had been traveling, her small eyes plaintive. Her intention was clear. You must go on, my friends. The fate of all Ataniel's penguins is more important than just the two of us. "Waugh!" the Duck quacked in agreement (though, in all honesty, he hadn't really grasped the fact that he was in a cage). Babe just looked down and honked, reproachfully. He would never leave his friends behind.
Seeker was already examining the trap. It was a simple one, which the mathematically inclined rodent knew made it all the more effective. Extra features meant extra potential weak points. Still, it wouldn't take him long to master the mechanism and free his comrades.
He didn't get the chance, for just then, footfalls announced that a large creature was nearing. Melissa scrabbled up a nearby tree, and Seeker dove into the underbrush. This left Babe, the least nimble on his feet, out in the open, but a penguin's natural undetectability kept him from view.
The creature turned out to be a human being, a tall, grizzled man with leathery skin. He pushed up the brim of his hat, lifted the trap, and apprised its contents with gladness. "Well well, looks like ol' Trapper Joe's lucky day. Gonna be some fine eatin tonight, yessir. Duck. Mmm-mm! Oh, and a li'l duckling, too!"
"Peep!" the chick protested, trying to correct this misconception about her species.
the Pets could muster a counter-plan, the old trapper was walking off towards his hut, thinking about whether he had any good spices in the kitchen.
Leaderless in Nataal
"I wasn't running away," Garal said angrily. "I was positioning for an attack! I'm not a fighter. If I'm going to do anything effective in a fight it's going to have to be dimensionally displacing someone, and I have to sneak up behind them to do it!"
"The ways of stealth are no more dishonorable than those of force," Amatsu defended his friend, "if used justly."
"Whatever," said Thermador. "Look, these hover bandits live around here, right? Even the frog in the embassy knew this was their turf."
"So?" said Garal, hostilely.
"So Arturian wouldn't be too surprised or worried if a few of them came near his hideout, would he?"
Amatsu caught on quickly. "Unfortunately," he said, checking the corpse nearest him, "these robes are too badly torn to provide much in the way of disguise. Has anyone a needle and thread?"
"I'm not even wearing underwear," Thermador chuckled raspily. "But I do have a magnetic tracker, and we should be able to follow the hovercraft the rest of ‘em fled on right back to their camp. I think they might be inclined to cut a deal with the Other White Meat over there."
"There's more white meat around somewhere?" said Pigsy, with excited obliviousness.
"Then all the hover bandits will know what we're doing!" Garal was getting more and more upset. "I could have just found us a Nataale escort in the first place!"
"The hover bandits already know we're here," said Rani. "Making a deal with them isn't going to make them more likely to sell what they know to Arturian."
"This isn't how we'd do this if Khyrisse was here!"
"Then maybe you should have invited her," Rani snapped. "You're the one who put together a party of three thieves and a pig. We're not going to go knock on the fucking door, we're going to creep up."
Garal held his head. "Oh, my," said Pigsy, distractedly. "People seem upset. This never happens when Monkey and I go adventuring. Perhaps we had all best stop and have some refreshments? That always puts me in a better mood."
"I'll just bet," muttered Rani.
Amatsu was watching them stoically, but inside he was increasingly anxious. Rani was a good ally, but she was also... temperamental... under the best of circumstances. Perhaps even more of a concern was that she was currently right. Though the small team was, Amatsu felt sure, up to the task of invading Arturian's fortress, he was less optimistic about their ability to escape the wu-jen's wrath and return to Ataniel without casualties. Amatsu was keeping appearances up as only a man trained in the arts of deception could, but he was not only in physically poor condition right now but also in desperate need of a restoration spell. The tumbleweed had, he thought, drained him of at least three levels, and at a time when his fellows needed his abilities most.
And now dissension and strife were tearing at his teammates, and Amatsu, raised to stay out of others' business, was at something of a loss for what to do about it. "This one suggests we keep our minds focused on our common goal," he tried, humbly. "The rescue of Miss Dare and the Monkey King. For that is why we are all on this strange dimension, is it not?"
"Speak for yourself," Thermador said under his breath.
Pasirel Is As Pasirel Does
"Can you believe it?" Khyrisse said exasperatedly. "Are people ever going to butt out of our lives?"
Ebreth chuckled. He didn't like ties--too close around his neck, Khyrisse thought with a small twinge of sadness--but he'd changed into his blue captain's jacket for dinner at the Jardin, and they made a striking pair together in the candlelight, Khyrisse was not too completely self-deprecatory to admit. "I doubt it," said Ebreth. "But as gossip goes, the rumor that you're madly in love with me is one I think I can live with."
"It's not that, it's the affront to my free will." She poked her lakefish crossly with her fork. "If you're in love, that's your business. If I am, it's magic elf hormones. What the flark is that about?" Ebreth laughed. "I've been a goddess. They haven't. If I say I'm here of my own free will, then I AM!"
"I should certainly hope so," Ebreth said, grinning. "Because we've really beaten the aphrodisiac compulsion angle into the ground, you know?" He reached across the table to mess her hair up. "Happy anniversary, baby. May our next year be a little less confusing than the first one."
"Oh, that's likely on Ataniel."
"Then may I get used to it enough for it not to give me a headache." Ebreth went back to his filet mignon, cutting the steak in smooth diagonal strips. "This is kind of fun," he added, his eyes twinkling at her. "I've never actually had an anniversary before."
"I have," Khyrisse said quietly, that sad distance plucking at her heart.
"Well, we're not a couple of teenagers, here." Ebreth shrugged. "Either of us. It's the first time we're getting it right, and that's good enough for me."
"Easy for you to say. You've had how many, again?"
"I have no idea," laughed Ebreth, rolling his eyes at himself. He'd cavalierly mentioned ‘hundreds' once, and Khyrisse wasn't sure if he was exaggerating then or lying now. The idea had bothered her too visibly for Ebreth not to drop like a hot rock, and he hadn't talked about it since. She guessed it was possible. The last Ebreth Tor had spent a decade in a position of power with a tendency towards brief relationships. "But you're the only woman I've ever loved, and the only one I've touched since the day I met you."
Khyrisse made a rueful noise. "You're the only man I've loved who deserved it," she said. "I don't think it should have to count that someone duped me into loving him...!"
"I'll strike it from the record if you will," agreed Ebreth.
"You've got yourself a deal." Khyrisse speared a piece of asparagus. "I just wonder," she said softly, "sometimes... Why me? I mean, I can't have been the best you've had."
Ebreth raised his eyebrow at her over his wine. "I wouldn't know," he said. "I don't have a very visceral connection to those days." He paused. "Maybe you are and maybe you're not. But you're my favorite. And if I could have any woman on Ataniel in my bed tonight, you'd be the one." She smiled a little at that, and he reached across the table to turn her face gently up. "Who cares why?" he said, seriously. "Some things just are. Back on the Islands, you know, they say the human heart is really half an organ, that you need to find someone whose heart, fits, yours. To be whole. I never gave it a lot of thought. Till I met you."
Sometimes Khyrisse's eyes seemed to take up most of her face. This was one of those times. "You... feel that way about me?" she whispered.
"Yes," he said. "Yes, I do. I feel--complete, Khyrisse. Now are you the only woman, in all of Ataniel, who could ever have fit me this way? Probably not. But you're the one I found, and I am never, never going to let you go, because no one could ever be more than you are to me. Does that answer your question?"
"Does that answer my--" She made wobbly laughter. "Yes," she said. "Yes, it does."
"To codependency, then," said Ebreth, and clinked his wine glass into her sparkling fruit juice.
"To codependency," Khyrisse murmured, with a particularly rueful smile.
"I'm not saying he doesn't have sincere feelings for her," Sallie sighed.
"Well, that's a step up for her, Mom."
"Marriages aren't based on someone being a step up from some abusive talinou, Karel!" The newly sane matron brushed a piece of still-ragged hair behind one pointed ear irritably. "Or, for that matter, on someone being a step up from nothing. These are serious commitments. You shouldn't charge into them with the wrong people on the spur of the moment."
"Look, Mom, don't even start on Miyrr--"
"Miyrr is a sweet woman who has given me two very lovely grandchildren," Sallie said, readily. "But you do not have a pasirel with her and you know it, Karel."
"So what?" Karellion was exasperated. "We love each other, we love our kids, and we're happy. What is the matter with you, aniu? You're upset because I don't have a pasirel, you're upset because Khyri does--"
"I'm upset because the both of you rushed off into marriage at obscenely young ages, Karel, with people who were not necessarily good matches for you at all!"
"I was eighteen!"
"Young even by human standards," Sallie fired back. "Khyri was practically a child."
"Well, we're in our forties now, Mom." Karel poured himself another drink, resolutely. "Adult even by elven standards."
"Hardly too old to make mistakes."
Sallie paused a long moment, and then favored her son with a very Khyrisse-like smile. "No," she said. "No, I suppose not."
Today, Trapper Joe; Tomorrow, the Lich Lord Shalak
Seeker of Places inched slowly closer to the cage confining Peep and the Duck. His sides still ached from the partially-healed stab wounds the owl had given him. The things we endure for this planet, he was thinking. The trapper was at the stove with his back turned, whistling to himself and firing up the coals. There was a large cleaver on the counter beside him. Engrossed in what he was doing, the outdoorsman didn't notice as the Rat slipped up to the latch on the cage and scrabbled at it with his paws.
Then the trapper's dog lifted its head from the wooden floor.
Time seemed to stand still for a terrifying moment as the canine looked right at him, and then Seeker fled in utter primordial panic as it charged. Somehow the wounded rat managed to leap from the table to the shelf, his side stinging with the exertion, and squeeze himself behind a couple canisters of flour. The dog, thankfully, was too large to pursue, but it stood its ground beneath the shelf, growling. Seeker of Places was treed.
"What is it, Yeller?" Trapper Joe sauntered over and scratched the dog's neck. "Don't tell me we got mice again. Well, it won't be fer long, not after the work you made of ‘em last time, heh heh!"
Just what Seeker needed to hear. He looked at his feathered friends in the cage with anguish, knowing that he'd be swallowed in one bite if he ventured anywhere near them. It was smarter, the Rat had learned in his observations of the Rat Pack, to keep your efforts practical as well as noble. Alphred's impulsive bravery in rushing off after the mushroom man, for instance, had only gotten him killed and left his friends in a position of weakness. If he had waited for the rest of the Rat Pack, maybe they could have defeated Ta'al together and not suffered the casualties they did. Even Jack, charging into the Remnant to sacrifice himself for his friends, would have been better served by a less pyrrhic plan. The Rat still wished the equation had talked things over with him--he felt sure he could have helped him figure out some math that didn't involve destroying himself. Still, though dashing out into the path of destruction did not serve anyone's cause, neither did leaving your friends to their fates. And the Rat was not succeeding in thinking of a plan to save the Duck and little Peep from the trapper's stewpot, not with Yeller there and ready to pounce. He felt more helpless than he had since that flood in Rimbor City.
Trapper Joe had opened the cage now, grabbed Duck by his neck and closed the door again on poor Peep. With a deep breath, the Rat scampered back out onto the shelf. He had to do something, dog or no dog.
Then there came a pert little "meow" from the door. Seeker's head turned, the dog's head turned, the human trapper's head turned, even the captive Duck's head turned. Melissa was sitting primly on the doorstep, giving them all a rather coy look. "Mrrrao," she elaborated, almost smiling.
There was half a heartbeat, and then the dog galloped off after her. "Yeller!" shouted the trapper. "Ya darnfool dog!" Seeker of Places scrabbled frantically down the molding for the cage. He had to free Peep before the dog came back. "Ah, it don't matter none," growled the trapper, putting the Duck on the counter and picking up his cleaver. "He'll have himself home afore mornin'. More dinner for me, hey, li'l duck?"
"Waugh," the duck answered, dimly comprehending that his life might be nearing its end.
Seeker finally got the latch on the cage open, and Peep hopped out of it to freedom. "Peep!" she wailed, looking up at the mortal danger the bigger bird was in. Down came the cleaver...
And then Babe had bravely snatched a coal from the stovebed with his long beak and thrust it into the seat of the trapper's pants. "Yee-owch!" screamed Trapper Joe, dropping duck and cleaver alike to grab at his derriere. "Waugh! Waugh!" honked Duck, flapping wildly around the kitchen and knocking tins of flour everywhere. "Waugh!"
Then the dog came back in.
If this wasn't such a life-or-death situation for the five small and rather unassuming animals, it might have been slapstick: the grizzled old trapper with his pants on fire, the yellow dog, frosted white with flour, leaping at the careening duck with his jaws snapping, a wooden clock crashing from the wall in a cacophony of cuckoos as one or the other of them banged into it. "Thank you!" screamed the Rat, fleeing madly.
"What?" coughed the trapper, fanning his burned behind, blinded with flour dust. "Who's there?" He turned in the direction of Seeker's voice, and knocked over a ladder right on top of Yeller, who howled.
Panting, his side starting to bleed lightly with the strain, Seeker made it out into the moonlight. Melissa was perched on top of a nearby saguaro, her tail so puffed out it was almost as big as the rest of her. The Rat marveled that she'd been able to get up the huge cactus, even if its spines were few and far between. It had to be fourteen or fifteen feet high. "Mrrrraooo!" she called to him.
Behind them, the chaos continued, as Babe seized another coal and flung it into the trapper's laundry hamper. The clothes immediately started smoldering. "Fire!" yelled the hapless outdoorsman, stumbling for a bucket. That ought to keep him too busy to pursue the five Pets, Seeker thought with relief. Unfortunately Yeller, who had disentangled himself from the fallen ladder, had no such commitment to fire safety.
The Duck, though, was free of the confines of the cabin now, and he dive-bombed the dog mercilessly, flapping out of the reach of his vengeful bites. Meanwhile Babe, slow but steady, had caught up and was adding his own sharp pecks, pecks all the more effective for their bewilderingly appearing to come out of nowhere. Yeller finally retreated, whining, to his master's cabin. Seeker breathed a ragged sigh of relief. A long, light leap down by Melissa, and the Pets were on their way once more; battered, but together, and ready to face whatever else the desert might throw their way.
"Whoa!" said Tila, almost bumping into Khyrisse on her way out of the Jardin. "Geez, look at you! You're huge!"
"Thanks ever so much, Tila," sighed Khyrisse.
"Hey, pregnancy is like the only time in our lives when being gigantic is a good thing," said Tila. "Enjoy it for our whole gender. Have you seen George? We're supposed to be having a joint meeting with some Diarian shmoes about Javinese shipping lanes, and he's already half an hour late, and you wouldn't believe the rulers these guys have up their butts."
"I haven't seen him," Khyrisse said, trying not to resent her inability to sense the state of the city and everyone in it with a single mental twitch.
"Pisser," said Tila. "Hey, I heard about the wedding. I now officially hate you. Can you believe I'm the only single Dagger Hero? Signet the Significant has a steady girlfriend, and I still can't get a break!"
"Yeah, it's gotta suck being the only gay man on the planet, huh?" Tila pursed her lips. "Well, the only vaguely attractive gay man on the planet, anyway. I think Spiffy Garbanzo's probably gay... and Umbra Seeford, of course... and anyone who thinks Odn doesn't have the secret hots for Knighty, man, they're in some major denial right there."
"Aughhh!" yelled Khyrisse, putting her hands over her ears. "I hold you personally responsible for getting that completely unnecessary image out of my mind, Tila!!!"
Tila laughed and shook the sorceress affectionately by the shoulder. "Congratulations, really." She poked at Ebreth with her left foot. "You too, hottie. Hey, do you guys know who the father is yet?"
Khyrisse could have sworn she heard Ebreth's eyes crack.
"Not yet, Tila," she said, a little stifled. It's not her fault. It's a reasonable question. Ebreth just looked down, all the pride gone from the set of his shoulders, and Khyrisse disentangled herself from the thief to slide her arm around his waist. "It's not important right now, okay?"
The rest of the walk home felt very silent, and the stars, as they began to twinkle to life in the night sky, were duller somehow than Khyrisse had wanted for this night.