"And you really think we can get enough international backing?" asked Leo Garbanzo, skeptically.
"Well, it won't be easy," Keri admitted. "Most of the countries of Ataniel seem to be run by villains right now. But Lord Eric has signed a treaty with New Trade forbidding him from interfering with the sovereignty of other member states, and it explicitly includes future states. And the Director of New Trade is a personal friend of Garal here, and she's indicated that she'll admit us as soon as we declare independence."
Garal blushed, but no one was really looking at him anyway. "I'm more worried about economics," said Garbanzo. "We're not a wealthy province. Even a few months of struggling would send us right back into Tremontagne's arms, and then we would be under his jurisdiction, and it'd be the ax for all of us."
"I think you're underestimating the amount of unrest that's been caused by Cynystra abandoning us during the Madness." Mr. Salzar responded coolly. "Our people may prefer living well to dying free, but they still prefer dying free to dying in subjugation."
Garbanzo seemed to be weighing it. Cynystra hadn't caused the deaths here last May, but they had spent massive amounts of resources protecting the human settlements, and not one copper piece on the halflings and gnomes. "Please, Leo?" said Keri. "Just think about it?"
"I'll think about it." He finished his drink. "I'd like to see it as much as you would, Keri. But I don't think it's practical right now. Convince me it is, and I'll be on board. But not till then."
The five members of the fledgling political party watched him go. "I think he'll come around," Keri said optimistically.
"He'd better," sighed Garal. "The Garbanzos are the most respected family in the province. His father may have been crazy, but he was still the closest thing the Little People have had to a real ruler in centuries."
"Ashentes, Garal," said Keri, amused. Garal looked confused. "Not Little People. Ashentes."
"Self-identification," said Mr. Salzar, smiling as he poured her a drink. "One of the most fundamental of rights, eh, Keri?"
"That's not self-identification," Garal objected. "Ashentes is a Cynystran word."
"Well, our own word for ourselves is nom," pointed out Billy Underwood. "Which would be pretty confusing since half of us are halflings."
"We should do something about the word ‘halfling', too," mused Keri.
"There's ‘hobbit,'" offered Billy.
"But we call ourselves halflings!" Garal was aghast. "My parents were halflings... they were proud of being halflings!"
"If the Cynystrans didn't think of them as halflings, Garal, your parents might still be alive," said Mr. Salzar.
Garal felt like this whole independence movement was leaving him behind more and more each day.
Declining To Take Advantage Of Diaria In A Moment Of Weakness (We're nice! We really are!)
"The Diari Empire would like to change its market protection on imported grains to one on yarn," Relan said, not looking at either of them.
Khyrisse, trying to fingercomb her mussed hair without being obvious about it, looked across at the ambassador and blinked. "Yarn?"
"You want market protection for yarn?"
"Total control over all imports," he said. "I know it doesn't fit very well with the imperative of the economic federation, but believe me, the grains market is going to more than compensate."
That was certainly an understatement. "Okay," said Khyrisse, and shrugged. "That's entirely reasonable from our end, Ambassador. I'll send the other nations a report--"
"Whoa, whoa, whoa." Ebreth put his hand on her shoulder. "Hold on a minute here. Relan, no one in Diaria imports yarn."
"I know," he sighed.
"So why do you want yarn tariffs?"
"Because our magnificent Emperor has decided it important to corner all markets beginning with the letter Y," Relan said through his teeth.
Ebreth barked laughter and then stopped. "You're not kidding?"
"Do I look like I'm kidding?"
Ebreth looked at Khyrisse and then back at Relan. "Listen..." he said. "We're happy with Diaria's status in this alliance, aren't we, Khyrisse?" The sorceress nodded, looking carefully at the diplomat. "I don't think we need to mess that up over yarn nobody wants to buy anyway. The grain market's fine the way it is. We decided it was fair this spring, and nothing's changed. Just take yarn and owe us one."
Relan Alliejin exhaled in relief. "Thank you," he said. "You won't regret this."
Cloak Still Owes The Karmic Bank For That Attack On Beliath, Doesn't He...
"What is it now, Thapes?"
The aide licked her lips. "It's--the vampires, sir. Their... their attacks have renewed."
"What?" Duke Omeria stood furiously. "Cloak and I have a deal--"
"There's no word from him on it, sir. All we know is that there have been sixteen reported vampire attacks this week... historically, that means there've actually been many more."
"I know how vampires operate, Thapes," Omeria said coldly, turned to the window, and clasped her long, slender hands behind her waist. "Get me Bloodscar. It looks like we'll need to have another little meeting with Mr. Cloak."
"Sir?" Omeria glanced over her shoulder at Elya, frowning. "There's--a pattern, sir. The first three attacks were all in Moyenne. The next five were within a ten-mile radius of Moyenne, and the last eight within a thirty-mile radius. It's--spreading, sir."
"Oh, yes, Cloak will pay for this treachery," said Omeria, under her breath.
Past Child But Not Yet Man
Thalia knocked on the office door. "Khyrisse? Are you really busy right now?"
"I'm a little backed up..."
"Then I'll just take a minute." Thalia cleared her throat self-consciously. "It's just that, as the wedding gets closer, you're probably going to want to be alone with Ebreth some and maybe you'll need a babysitter. And I just wanted you to know that, if you do, I'm around. Okay, you can get back to work now."
Khyrisse blinked in surprise, putting her list down again, but Thalia was already out of her office. "Oh. ...Thank you, Thalia!" she called out the door.
A babysitter--she meant for Skitch. Skitch was so self-sufficient that the idea that he might need watching had actually never occurred to Khyrisse. He didn't even have a curfew.
He's eleven, Khyrisse.
...Okay, but he's been taking care of himself since he was five or six.
That doesn't mean he wants to keep doing so. Or that it would even be good for him.
She looked down at the list of New Trade business, the notes for magical artificing that she had to work on this week. Not to mention the huge stack of wedding planning stuff lurking ominously in the center
of her desk. She picked everything up and dumped it upside down in her ‘In' box. "Flark it."
"Wow, you can see the whole city from up here!" Skitch hopped up to sit on the low wall of the belltower, looking down the mountainside. "There's the fountain in the square... There's the police station... Hey, look, there's Thalia!" He rolled his eyes. "Vas is flirting with her outside of Brunhilda's."
Khyrisse laughed. "You don't miss much." She reached out and affectionately ruffled Skitch's hair, the highlights a distinctly metallic gold in the sun. "You know, I wondered in the Cynosure if something was funny about your coloring, but I thought it was the light," she said thoughtfully.
He grabbed another cookie from the white paper bag between them and grinned at her. "Isn't it bitchin'? Maybe I'll get doofus powers, too...!"
"It looks good on you, I've got to admit..." Khyrisse sighed and changed the subject. "Speaking of doofus powers, how are Tarrin and his family settling in?"
"Fine! Though Lorrini's kinda worried--she says her mom is really homesick." He kicked his heels against the stone wall. "Hey Mom... is there any way to make flowers grow a different color?"
She blinked at him. "Y--es, there is... you mean permanently?"
"Sure. But you need either a high-level polymorph, or smaller spells but more time. Why?"
He looked down, kicking harder with diverted embarrassment. "Lorrini says they have something like jasmine at home, but the flowers are blue," he mumbled, barely audible. "Her mom had some growing in their garden."
Khyrisse laughed out loud, and her son blushed furiously. She bit her lip in apology. "No, really, that's a great idea, Skitch. We'll ask Val to help us make some blue jasmine, and you can surprise Lorrini." She winked conspiratorially at him. "I'll tell Val it's so Coyri will feel a little less homesick."
"Cool!" Skitch crowed and threw his arms around her.
Khyrisse hugged him back, hard, with a rueful smile that he didn't see.
The Night Unfettered: This Is The Dawning Of The Age
"I think Cloak must have been destroyed," hypothesized Pierre.
"I think Cloak is incompetent," said Vèronique, lounging languidly across the divan.
Pierre, Madeleine, and Michelle laughed. Thierry didn't. "We--are playing with fire," said the oldest of the Moyenne clan.
"So what?" flipped Michelle, the youngest, playing with her nose ring. Madeleine had Turned her only this week. It was the first time in Thierry's long undead existence that he had heard of a vampire bringing a mortal to the dark side without the consent, even the knowledge, of her Lord. Troublingly, Michelle seemed to show no more allegiance to Madeleine than any of them did to Cloak anymore. "What the hell's he going to do to us? We're already dead."
Pierre laughed. The others loved this, and Thierry had to confess, the newfound freedom of the lack of vampiric bonds was--exhilarating. He had already been hunting twice. He had been around far longer than the other four vampires of Moyenne, though, and he knew what serious consequences could befall. "Cloak," he said, "is a very dangerous creature, little one."
"So he's dangerous," yawned Vèronique, stretching her curvaceous body like a cat. "His empire's over nonetheless. Every single vampire we've talked to thus far has been able to disobey Cloak's direct
command. Face it, Thierry, the old fossil is irrelevant to our New Age."
Pierre squinted at her drink. "What... is that, Vèro?"
"Milk," she shrugged. "I've been craving milk more than blood lately. Bane knows why."
"That's disgusting," said Pierre.
"Oh, I've still been hunting," she assured him quickly. "I've just--found myself unable to live without milk. It's very strange."
There was a little pause. "I was in Saint-Jean's today," said Madeleine, softly.
They all turned to stare at her. "What?" cried Pierre. "Cool!" said Michelle. "That is consecrated ground!" exclaimed Thierry.
"I know," said Madeleine, quietly. "Things are changing."
"We have our own saint now," smiled Vèronique, drinking her milk luxuriously. "Saint-Madeleine."
Thierry put his hands over his ears. "Do not mock that religion that has ways to destroy us, child!"
"Destroy you," said Vèronique. "We're all different now, Thierry. Don't you see? That which destroys you does not destroy Madeleine, and that which destroys her does not destroy me. We are entering the Age of the Vampire now. There are no more panaceas the mortals can hope to use against us. We are individuals now. And we shall never be slaves again."
"I am what I am," said Madeleine.
"I'll drink to that," grinned Pierre.
Come Let Us Be Married, Too Long Have We Tarried
"The end of July?" said Khyrisse, trying not to hyperventilate.
"Jack's deadline is September twelfth, Khyrisse," sighed Ebreth.
"Oh, Grendel." Khyrisse pulled her hair. "You're right. We're going to have to do it before the baby's born. Flark it all, now everyone's going to think we're getting married for her sake!" She held her head. "Like it matters if we're married before she's born or not!"
"It matters to me," Ebreth said quietly.
Khyrisse blinked. "It... does?" she said, trying to backpedal from her irritation with the paternalism of it all. She didn't entirely succeed. "Why, Ebreth? We're getting married anyway. Why does it matter if she's born in wedlock or not? We're going to be married anyway!"
"It matters because I want you to marry me before you know whose child this is," said Ebreth.
Khyrisse looked up with a small, strangled sound. "Ebreth," she managed, "of course I--"
"I know," he said. "But I'd rather everyone in the city thought we were hurrying it up for the sake of the baby's legitimacy than that they thought we were putting it off till we saw who the father was."
"I never even thought of that." Khyrisse buried her fingers in her hair, half on the verge of tears. "Why can't any of this be the way it should be?"
"I don't know," Ebreth said quietly, and put his arms around her. "It hurts, I can't pretend it doesn't hurt. But the parts that really matter, those are exactly the way they should be. You're everything I want. All the rest is commentary."
Khyrisse made a long sigh and rested her head on his chest. "It doesn't matter what any of them think," she agreed in a small voice, "not really. As long as there's us."
"As long as there's us," said Ebreth, holding her.
Some Folks Just Build What They Need Without All The Meta-Philosophy About It
Eren Messala was technically a thief, but you wouldn't know it from the contents of his rucksack.
In fact, you'd be hard pressed to guess he was an adventurer at all. Not only wasn't his pack brimming with the unidentified magic items Tila or Signet would have somehow have found time to scrounge off various dead illithids and Shilree analogs, there wasn't even the usual stash of gems and gold. From the epic fight against Shadow, Flicker had emerged with only the spent Torch of Souls. He kept it, to remind himself of the price of failure. From Norna's alternate realities he had taken only the evil black blade he now carried, in place of the Kjallensword he had lost there. From the sojourn to planet Gila, nothing at all. Truth was, looting dead bodies wasn't all that honorable in Riklandir, and Flicker didn't have a very expensive lifestyle anyway. The honor-gifts his countrymen kept embarrassing him with every time he returned there were more
than he rightly knew what to do with.
All this, more or less, was why Flicker had arrived in New Trade with a good forty-seven gold pieces in his bag with which to open a ski facility.
He had a strong back, though, and Janther Moria's carpentry and architecture proficiencies. Most importantly, he had the friendship of the city's ruler, which gave him the piece of land he wanted just to the northwest of town. A local trapper lent him an axe, and Flicker had the foundation to his cabin well on the way to built by the time Praxis and Jason dropped by.
Praxis was on his way home with Inez and the others, and would be back in Lianth soon for the party he and Siobhan were planning. Jason had decided, tentatively, to stay on here in New Trade. Flicker was beginning to suspect the boy was wanted for something graver than homosexuality back in Sturtevant; he wasn't doing a very good job at concealing his interest in New Trade's lack of an extradition policy, and Flicker didn't believe that a country like Sturtevant would have any interest in extraditing gay youth. Whatever it was, though, he was sure it wasn't anything terrible. Flicker had an intuition for good hearts, and he felt the young nobleman had one. So the three of them passed a pleasant lunch together inside the low, square frame that would soon be Flicker's new house. Praxis helped him lay stone for the fireplace, and Jason went into town to pick him out some curtains. He came back with some very nice fabric, actually. Jason fit the Riklandic stereotype of the effeminate gay man uncomfortably well. It was a talent, though, and Flicker praised it. Maybe, once he was giving enough lessons that a ski lodge would make a good addition, he'd hire the boy to decorate it.
The sun was starting to dip in the sky and the chimney was stacked a good bit taller than Flicker by the time Praxis finally, almost reluctantly, left to catch his coach. He was, in a way, the most Riklandic of Flicker's friends--quiet, self-contained, deep--and one of the most comfortable to spend time with. Flicker gave him a standing invitation. Jason headed back into town, where he was renting a room at the inn, and offered to help the Norseman shop for rugs when he got the floor finished. Flicker thought that sounded nice. The trapper, whose name was Karl, said he reckoned Flicker could just hang on to the axe till he was done with the house, since it was a spare anyway, and that he and some other local fellers might come by tomorrow to lend a hand if he was the kind of man who didn't mind trading favors like that. Flicker reckoned he was. They shared some of Flicker's aquavit as the sun finished setting. It was quiet on the mountainside there, the stars glittering overhead and the lights of New Trade glittering beneath them. Karl thought the city was a good thing. Wyndar's too blamed far, he said. Used to take me all week to get to town and back to sell my pelts. This means more time with my kids. Nothin' wrong with a city. They shook hands and Karl loped off for home in an easygoing, woodsman's gait. Flicker sat in the silver light of Bane, relishing the last of his drink in the cool summer's night.
Then he rolled up his sleeves and got back to building his house.
From the Wreckage
"Are you okay?" Otter crawled out from the broken wreckage of the force bubble that had contained her, scrabbling to uncover the young anomalocaris girl's body from the rubble that had her pinned. "Callie? Are you all right?"
-I think so-, wobbled her reedy voice in Otter's mind.
"Thank Doris." The hard-armed nymph rolled debris away in the chill depths of neither knew where.
So You Say It's Your Birthday
Marty opened one eye tentatively. Nothing appeared to be lying in wait for him on his pillow, so he committed to the action and opened the eye completely.
From his position in bed, he could see no ninjas waiting in the room, nor poisonous animals. He sat up in bed slowly, taking in the usually fear-free room. He couldn't see any overt changes, so there probably wasn't going to be a repeat of last year's boarding-room-of-traps. Gabriella was nothing if not creative.
Marty slowly dressed, shaking out each piece of clothing before donning it. No scorpions, no poison needles, no evil magical gems. After making sure no glyphs of cursing had been placed on his Sword of
Truth's Light, Marty hugged the scabbard to him and crossed the room to his door. There were no strange
strings or devices attached to the doorknob so Marty risked opening it a crack to peer into the hallway.
"Hey, Marty!" said Ebreth, passing by on his way to Jack's room just as Marty opened the door.
"Aaugh!" Marty screamed and tumbled backwards into his room.
Ebreth scratched his head. Marty was scared of many things, but this was the first time he had actually been scared of Ebreth. "Are you okay, Marty?" he asked, opening the paladin's door.
"No," said Marty, wiping his brow. "I thought my sister had, you know, sent you to kill me."
"Why would she do that?"
"Oh, like, she does that every year on my birthday."
"It's your birthday?" said Ebreth. "You never mentioned."
"Man, you never know who Gabriella knows. Anyone could be one of her evil minions. I, y'know, don't like to advertise it."
"Well, uh..." said Ebreth, unsure of where to go with this one, "happy birthday, I guess."
"Dude," Marty said, looking around nervously, "they never are..."
The Rat Trap's Filled With Soul Crusaders
"Whoa!" said Schneider, almost colliding with Mina Paris in the lobby of the Rat Trap. "Sorry ‘bout that. I was just dropping some stuff off in the message boxes. Nifty idea, whoever thought of it."
"That would be me," smiled Mina. "Though I suppose we'll have to build some more, what with the way we've got new people streaming in."
"The more the merrier, I always say. Anyhoo, just wanted to let folks know I'd be out of town for a bit. I've got some, er, stuff to take care of."
"You mean finding your soul?" Mina asked astutely. "Do you need any help?"
"I'm not sure," admitted the jester. "I have no idea how I even lost it in the first place, much less what I have to do to get it back. I was just going to go to the Mithril Dagger and hope for a lead."
"Well, if you find one, just let the Pack know if we can do anything."
"Thanks. Really." He'd been unsure whether anyone wanted to help, or if they just didn't care.
Mina smiled, picking up on that too. "Hey, I know you've had some rocky times, but you're one of the team, Schneider. You're a friend. Of course we'd be there for you if you needed us."
What a babe, commented Duke Faraker, appreciatively. Make a pass, fool!
Are you loco, boss? After what happened when I made passes at the last couple of women who bothered to call me ‘friend'? He turned away from Mina with a mumbled "Thanks" and a self-absorbed sigh... and ran smack into Khyrisse Starshadow. Irony was not the jester's favorite form of humor. "Oh, hi, Schneid," she said, smiling. She had Skitch in tow, who was, as usual, looking warily at him. "I'm glad I caught you. I've been talking to a friend of yours... Sister Jane?" Schneider fidgeted uncomfortably, wondering what the nun had told her about. "She's the abbess of the Church of Tal in New Trade now... anyway, I've endowed an orphanage in New Trade, for children whose parents died in the, Madness." She cleared her throat. "The Church of Tal has graciously assigned four nuns to work in the orphanage fulltime,
but for church-state reasons, the orphanage needs to be headed by a layman. Sister Jane suggested you."
Schneider's jaw dropped. He picked it up manually, eliciting a nervous giggle from Khyrisse. "Would a George W. Bush presidency be a disaster for the environment?" he said. "No, wait, don't answer that, too depressing. Shit yeah, Khyri. That's like my dream job. You, ah... you're sure you want me in town?"
"Yes, I'm sure," sighed Khyrisse.
"Just don't tell the other orphans they don't understand about losing people like you do," Skitch said. "It isn't going to make them feel better."
"I'm sorry," said Schneider.
Skitch opened his mouth and then shut it. He'd had more to say, but the jester's unexpectedly simple apology had undercut it pretty terminally. "It's all right," he said. "You didn't mean anything bad."
Marty Hu crept down the stairs into the lobby then, looking more than his usual amount of fearful. He froze when he saw Khyrisse, his eyes widening with dread. "Oh, no! It's my other evil sorceress sister!"
"Marty," sighed Khyrisse, "I am not evil!"
"Oh," said Marty, edging nervously back toward the stairs. "It's just that every year on my birthday, Gabriella, like, tries to kill me... And now that you're my sister too..."
"Is it your birthday today, Marty?" asked Mina.
"Auuuugh! You know! How did you know?" Marty turned and fled up the stairs in panic.
"I can't believe what passes for humor around here," sighed Schneider.
"Schneider will care the children?" Aithne boggled, and then blurted out "Is he gay?"
Khyrisse spewed tea. "Ah, no," she said, trying not to bust up laughing. "No, Schneider's not gay."
Then Aithne didn't understand at all. "You will keep him as a consort?" she said dubiously.
"No," Khyrisse snapped, and then more kindly as the girl flinched back from her in fear "I'm getting married, Aithne. I don't need any more, uh, consorts."
"Good," Aithne said, relieved. Schneider was a nice man, but what an embarrassment it would be to the clan for a nanny to have sexual privileges with the queen! Already everyone was snickering over Khyrisse's liaison with the male showgirl as they did not snicker about others, and Aithne was embarrassed by it. If he wouldn't bring shame to her matriarch, though, Aithne supposed he could be a male prostitute for all the difference it made.
Valende tilted her dark head into the office. "Khyrisse?" she said. "Can I talk to you for a moment?" Her eyes met Aithne's briefly. "In private?"
Aithne caught it immediately. "Bye!" she said, bowing her head to her adoptive aunt.
Val closed the door behind her. Khyrisse was giving her a suddenly wary and alarmed look, and the priestess sighed and nodded. "Aithne is evil, Khyrisse. Only slightly so, but... still. She does read very lawful, though, so I have a hard time believing that her attempts to make friends and fit in with us are false."
"Grendel," muttered Khyrisse. "I was afraid that was why she could pick that gem up. We had a hard time believing it of Ariath, too, Val." The archmage sat down and stared into space.
"Ariath was most certainly not lawful... nor only slightly evil." Khyrisse's mouth twisted, but she said nothing. "What do you want us to do?"
"I'm not sure yet," Khyrisse sighed. "I like Aithne."
"I do, too." Val sat down across from her. "I have a... theory, I suppose, that might explain this..."
"If you have a theory that explains the presence of evil in the world, Val," her employer said, with an extremely wry smile, "I'd love to hear it."
"Only in this case." Val tapped a finger against her lips. "Look at what we know of Aithne's homeland... a culture that had conquered most of the known world, loyal to the Weird Sisters, with a code of behavior towards men that almost anyone today would consider inhumane and priestess-leaders with nearly limitless power over the lives and deaths of their citizens..."
"You're saying this is a cultural gap?"
Valende nodded. "It might be. Khyrisse, her culture is from so long ago, was so completely different, that what Aithne has been taught is the right and moral way to behave probably opposes, to some degree, the prevailing moral code. But that doesn't necessarily mean that she's a danger to us, or that she'd mean to be if she were. Aithne has made it perfectly plain that you are now her matriarch."
Khyrisse covered her eyes. "I'm a powered-down Trill. Okay, well; I knew that. Val... are you sure about this?"
Val looked at the ceiling. "...No." Her employer laughed. "But I think I can find out."
"Sure, I can assign somebody to him," said Chief Averdale. "It would help if you could tell me what sort of incident you're worried about."
"I don't know," said Ebreth. "An attempt on his life. Apparently it's different every year."
"How many ways are there to kill someone?" joked the chief, flipping through her folder.
"You'd be surprised," said Ebreth.
"Mark Rakirna," she said, pulling a record and placing it on the desk. "He's an eight-year veteran. I knew him in Wyndar. If he's a plant by your evil sorceress, I'll eat my badge."
"Thank you," he said. "I really appreciate this."
Now Ebreth just had to convince Marty that his new bodyguard was actually on his side...
Skitch took the stuff out of his mailbox. There was a note from Mina saying goodbye to the team, a white rose with a card on it from Schneider also saying goodbye to the team, and a photocopy of a design for
a secret decoder ring from Jack. All stupid Rat Pack stuff. Skitch had been hoping for a letter from Lorrini.
He was glad Schneider had apologized to him, of course. Most grown-ups didn't bother apologizing to kids, and Skitch appreciated it. The jester still scared him--he had mood swings like nobody's business--but maybe Khyrisse was right that his heart was in the right place underneath it.
What was really disturbing Skitch, oddly enough, were the parting lines between Mina and Schneider. I know you've had some rocky times but you're one of the team, Schneider. You're a friend. It was a nice thing to say, but was it true? Mina had met Schneider for the first time this week, and exchanged a sum total of probably twenty-five words with him. Did that really make him a friend? Should Skitch be feeling like all these people were his friends?
Tarrin answered the door. "Little Skitch!" he said. "The Lorrini is not home."
"I wanted to talk to you, Tarrin," said Skitch, shuffling from one foot to the other. "Can I come in?"
There was no sign of Tarrin's wife. She rarely came out of what Skitch guessed was the bedroom. She must be very homesick for Diaria. "What can I help you with, my little booger?" said Tarrin, getting him some wine. Skitch always felt like such a grown-up at Tarrin's house. "It's the Rat Pack," sighed Skitch, dumping the contents of his mailbox on Tarrin's coffee table. "I got three form letters to the team today."
"What a nice flower," said Tarrin, admiring the white rose.
"Schneider gave one to everybody. It doesn't actually mean anything." Skitch expelled air. "Tarrin, the Rat Pack doesn't mean anything anymore. I miss when it was you and me and my mom and Ebreth and Jack and Val. Sometimes Vas and Alphred, and Kit. Now I feel like all these other people came along and joined it and made it into something I don't like that has votes and rules and secret decoder rings and departmental messages in my mailbox... And people keep acting like it's the same. Now I feel guilty for not feeling the same way about all these total strangers as I do about you. Mina said we needed to add more mailboxes. Who else are going to be members of the Rat Pack now, Thermador? Octavian? Mephisto?" Skitch kicked the sofa leg. "Kingfisher's already got a box, and I met her for the first time this week and she's never said anything to me ever. If I had a birthday party I wouldn't invite any of these people. We all cooperated to save Rimbor City, but now I feel like they're all part of my life I can't get rid of. I looked at all the boxes in there. Only half of them are people who ever even interact with me at all. And that's counting Schneider and Rani." He looked down. "I wish I could just go to Diaria with you, Tarrin."
"The Diaria is not a good place to go right now, little Skitch," said Tarrin gently. "That is why I came here." Skitch wiped his nose. "There are many kinds of friends," said Tarrin.
"The kind you have to be friends with because they have a mailbox in your team headquarters is the worst kind." Skitch drank his wine unhappily. "And everyone just keeps talking about Khyrisse's wedding."
Tarrin was watching the boy's face carefully. "Skitch," he said, "are you jealous of the Ebreth?"
"I dunno." Skitch swung his legs, looking down. "Maybe a little. I mean, I'm glad they're getting married. He's cool and all, and he's really nice to Khyrisse. And it's good for the baby. I know they don't think it matters, but it isn't any fun being a bastard." He looked into his glass of wine. "It's just... well, everybody's so excited about the three of them being a family. I mean they're having a big party and everything. Nobody's having a party for me."
"You are part of Khyri's family too, little Skitch."
"Not officially," Skitch said sadly. "I'm really just her apprentice. Now she decided to make Ebreth her real family. But I guess she decided not to do it with me."
"Always she calls you her son." Skitch didn't say anything. "In Diaria," said Tarrin," that is enough."
"Not here," said Skitch. "Here if you want someone you have to adopt them."
"Have you talked to her about this?" Tarrin said gently.
Skitch shook his head. "It wouldn't be the same," he said. "She'd probably do it just to make me feel better. But it wouldn't mean anything. It would be just like this stupid flower." Skitch paused, then looked up at the psychiatrist. "So don't tell her about any of this, okay?"
"I will keep it our secret," promised Tarrin. "More wine, little Skitch?"
Tarrin was lying, of course. He had every intention of telling Khyrisse--not anything Skitch had confided in him, of course, but making it clear to her what the boy's needs were. To do this without making Skitch suspicious, though, involved waiting about two weeks before approaching the archmage. And by two weeks later, everything had been well and truly blown to hell.