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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 6

Ill Tidings

Schneider stood in the New Trade Carriage Depot, waiting for the 8:05 that would take him back to New Lianth. Unfinished business there. And, hopefully, a reunion with his soul.

Mina's creepy friend Jane wandered past, her blue-black wings fluttering behind her. "You remind me of someone," she announced without provocation.

"That's groovy," the jester answered. He knew he should be friendly, the woman had done nothing wrong by him. But, like Aithne, she sent a chill up his spine.

"The man with a face like a pizza still wearing the box," Jane continued. "There's a woman he's in love with, but he made her lose her face, so she left. Don't you think that's ironic?"

Now she had his full attention. "Jane... are you talking about... me? And Roxy?"

"It gets even more ironic," she said, conversationally. The friendly-small-talk tone in her voice was somehow more unnerving than a malicious or ominous one would have been. "Wait till he sees what she forgets to tell him. They're going to meet again, you know."

"Uh, if you can see the future, I'd really just as soon not know." He backed away from her, stumbling. He found himself unable to avoid falling over.

"All's fair in love and war, I guess." Jane shook her head fondly. "And she doesn't really care what he thinks anymore anyway."

"I'm not hearing this!" Schneider buried his head in his hands and closed his eyes tightly, trying to disbelieve Jane Crow's existence. The next thing he remembered hearing was a voice saying "What the devil did you do?" and the impression that someone was standing over him.

He opened his eyes to see Janther's daughter looking at the jester and the winged woman. "Me? Done to him? Nothing," Crow answered innocently.

"Nay, I'm not talkin' t'you." The young woman shook her messy head, peering curiously at Schneider.

"I know," Jane Crow said complacently. "I was answering his question. Not yours."

"Whatever," said Siobhan, who didn't have much patience for mysterious madwomen. She extended her hand down to Schneider. "Siobhan MacLir. The last of the old Celtic warriors, it seems."

"Alain MacLir's daughter?" said Schneider hopefully.

She stared at him. "Now how the bloody hell did ye know that? You can't know about the time differential--wouldn't ‘sister' or somethin' have been a better guess?"

"Sometimes his arms bend back," suggested Jane.

"My friend Maxwell Silverhammer told me about it," Schneider said meekly.

"Ach! Well, that explains it, then!" Siobhan grinned and pulled him to his feet. "So what did you do to the woman Crow-girl's talkin' about? Wasnae born yesterday, you know, not even by your timescale."

Lost at Sea

"All right, Callie," spoke Otter, pulling the battered anomalocaris girl out from the fallen debris. Her skin felt a bit like a shark's, if one was stroking the shark in the right direction: somewhere between rubber, silk, and steel, a false impression of delicacy. One of her feeding arms had broken off and was trailing thin white strands of muscle. Otter scanned the dark water for the broken appendage. "Where are we?"

-I don't know,- Callie's voice wobbled in her brain. -We are in the Labyrinth. I have never been here before.-

Otter opened her mouth, closed and opened it again like a baleen, and then closed it, realizing she didn't even know what questions to ask.

-I brought you through the portal with me,- Callie explained without explaining anything. -The turbulence was too strong for us to make it out of the trench without being crushed. Entering the Labyrinth was our only chance to survive.-

"Who," said Otter slowly, "in the Nine Spheres collapsed an undersea trench?"

There was a flutter of light and dark, as if of shadows passing through much, much shallower waters.

-The Fallen Ones,- Callie almost whispered in her mind.

Otter slowly straightened. "I... see."

Half

Schneider had left a rose in her mailbox for her.

Naturally, this made Rani a little suspicious, but the card attached to it seemed to be more of the "Sorry I couldn't have been any more help, glad things worked out for you" variety than a mash note, and when she took her glove off to get a better reading from the flower there was no sense of lingering obsession, just a bit of social anxiety. So Rani concluded that Schneider probably did not have romantic aspirations where she was concerned, and had instead just left a flower for everyone, as people's mothers tried to teach them to do with Valentines. She broke the long-stemmed rose neatly in half so that it would fit in the trash can in the front hall of the Federal Building as she entered.

Khyrisse was in a meeting in the Director's Office, but her door was ajar, signaling, presumably, that intrusion was more or less acceptable. "You have full formal sanctuary as long as you need it," the archmage was saying. "I hope things calm down enough at home that that won't be long--but you're welcome here." She looked up as Rani rapped on the doorframe. "Come in."

Tarrin and a pregnant Diari woman were sitting across from Khyrisse's desk, looking solemn; Skitch was sitting in the windowsill, drumming his heels on the wall. The woman looked up at Rani, screamed, and ran out the back door. "Coyri!" cried Tarrin, grabbed the citizenship papers off the desk, and hurried after her. Skitch jumped down from the sill and shouted "Don't scare Lorrini's mom, you stupid sranjhac!" in an oddly protective voice, and followed them. Rani watched the exodus, blinking. "Okay," she said, after a moment. "Believe it or not, this has nothing to do with why, but I'm, uh, going home."

Khyrisse exhaled. "I'm sorry," she said. "Coyri's having some--adjustment problems."

"The technical term is ‘racism'," Rani helped her. "Anyway, that's not why I'm leaving or anything. It's not, uh, because Officer Rakirna suspects me of trying to assassinate Marty, either. It's just, I realized why I've been putting off going home, and I really have to just go do it." She shrugged a little. "I'm not going to get anything else off your girl Sallie, either. You'll have better luck with a psychiatrist at this point, if you can find one who's not evil. I'm not a mentalist, and I'm not going to be able to dig details out of a long-ago event that isn't strongly impressed on the body."

"That's okay," said Khyrisse. "You've been a tremendous help already... what do I owe you?"

Rani shook her head, her ponytail flipping perfectly. "Nah, don't worry about it," she said. "You handled Rimbor for me. Look, if you need a good psychometrist sometime, you know where to find me."

"Thank you, Rani," said Khyrisse, and paused. "Rani, what... does sranjhac mean?"

"Half-person," she said, and looked out the window, hooking her gloved thumbs through her belt loops, one eye narrowing a little. "It's--not a bad description actually." She shook her head again. "You take care of yourself," she said, and went out the front door of the office, listening to the fall of her boots echo sharply through the halls.

Growing Pains

Skitch appeared in Tarrin's doorway, looking slightly sulky, as if he already knew he was in for it. Lorrini peeked out of the hall behind him.

Thank you," Khyrisse told Tarrin, with a chilly look for the boy. "I would like speak to you in private tomorrow, Tarrin. I have a question I think only a member of your clergy would be able to answer."

Tarrin hesitated. "I can come to your office tomorrow," he finally offered.

"That's fine. I'm sorry Coyri was startled earlier; I hope she's feeling better." She looked back at Skitch and pitched her voice so that it would carry into the silent house behind him. "You are grounded. You do not leave the house, and you do not receive visitors, until further notice."

"MOM...!" Skitch wailed. "How come?"

"You know very well why. Be thankful I don't give you the spanking of your life. I am deeply ashamed of your behavior today." She reached out and flipped up his unruly hair, exposing the pointed ear. Her eyes blazed. "I warned you once not to throw stones, my racist little sranjhac... March your butt home. Now."

The One Where Schneider Was On A Break

"Aye," Siobhan said. "So, what happened? You left some lass heartbroken by cheatin' on her?"

Schneider sighed. "It's--a rather strange story."

"Believe me, I know from strange."

Schneider looked at her, poised but with bright green eyes that looked explosively intense, and decided she probably did. "Okay. Well, Roxy and me started out friends. Good friends for a long time, see? But we, uh, we fell in love with each other near the end there. Then the Madness came."

"Know all about that."

He was glad not to have to explain it. "So afterwards, I was trying to pick up the pieces of my life, and Roxy and I sort of put things on hold for a while till I got myself, uh, together. But before I could I ran into a sort of ex-girlfriend."

"And you did her, eh?"

"Uh, yes. But only because this shellfish thingee that belonged to some goofy lord of the jungle made everyone go crazy with lust."

Siobhan eyed him thoughtfully. "I never call a man a liar ‘less I know it to be so... And I'd like to think if ye was lying you could at least come up with a story a bit less ludicrous."

"Welcome to my life. Anyhow, that was the only time, and..."

"Didn't tell her, did you."

"No." He looked down. "I thought it would be pointlessly stressful... it wasn't gonna happen again. And technically Rox and I weren't even going out when it happened, so it wasn't even exactly what you could call cheating. And I didn't think she'd ever find out." Schneider rubbed his neck. "But it turns out my ex is pregnant and I'm one of the two guys who might be the father, and--"

"Got it. She thought you was gonna dump her off for old girl and child."

"Maybe. But I wasn't! I mean, if it's my kid, I've gotta be there to be his father, or hers. But I love Rox. My ex--" He was studiously avoiding getting Khyrisse involved, rumormongering had caused enough headaches. Still, for no reason, he wanted Siobhan to understand. "--I mean, she's a good friend and all, but it's not like there's any of l'amour left between us."

"So why didn't ye tell yer woman this?"

"Well, I did, but see, this other guy had found out about the situation and started this betting pool about who the father was."

"I hope you broke the scoundrel's jaw."

"Nose. And actually it was my ex's boyfriend who did that." He felt a pang of sadness--not so much because he was happy about something Ebreth Tor had done as that he and Vas had once been buddies. Now...

"Nose bleeds more, yes," Siobhan reflected, "but a busted jaw would teach the bugger a lesson about when to keep his trap shut."

Ah Yes, Adolescence

"Skitch is not a sranjhac, is he, papa?" Lorrini asked in Dalen, as Tarrin shut the door on the archmage dragging her loudly protesting son off towards home. "He has only five fingers..."

"No, Lorrini," Tarrin assured her. "He is not a sranjhac. Just a foreigner."

"Then why did Miss Khyrisse call him a sranjhac?"

"I think she does not speak the Diari very well," he frowned.

"Just Diari, papa. Not the Diari."

"Oh yes."

***

"Mom!" hollered Skitch, pulling at her grip on his wrist. She didn't let go. Her face was very grim. Skitch was furious. "You embarrassed me in front of my friends!"

"You embarrassed me in front of mine," she shot back.

"I did not! I just told Rani to leave Lorrini's mother alone!" He struggled with the archmage, who was apparently wearing a strength spell. "Leggo!"

"You called a colleague of mine by an insulting racial slur that has no place in this city or in my family," hissed Khyrisse. "You are a half-breed and my unborn child is a half-breed. Don't you ever say anything like that in my presence again."

"What are you talking about?" Skitch yelled. "I'm not part-Diari! Neither is your baby!"

"It doesn't matter," Khyrisse barked. "There is nothing more wrong with being part Diari than there is being part elven. How would you like it if we got a Sturtevant ambassador and he followed you around saying you were some kind of freak of nature?" Skitch squirmed uncomfortably. "I won't have any more hypocrisy out of you while you're living under my roof, young man, and that's final."

"I was trying to protect Lorrini's mom," he whined. "She's pregnant too! Ebreth always says pregnant women shouldn't have stress, and--"

"Insulting other people is not part of chivalry, Skitch!"

Skitch slanted his eyes away from hers. "I was just trying to help her," he mumbled. "She's all lonely and sad here. Rani shouldn't scare her."

Khyrisse sighed. "It was good of you to want to make Coyri feel better, Skitch," she said. "But you should have done that without yelling at Rani, especially in my office. Rani didn't even do anything rude. Uh, this time," she quickly amended, before Skitch could gainsay her. "It's not her responsibility to hide from Diarians so they don't get upset by her existence." Skitch didn't say anything, by which Khyrisse took it that he disagreed and just didn't want to argue with her. She gritted her teeth. "Next time something like that happens, go after the frightened person and tell her she doesn't need to be afraid. Comfort her. Listen to her. Don't yell at and insult someone who didn't do anything wrong." She paused. "You're still grounded."

"Mom!"

"For a week."

"You suck," he yelled, through tears, and stormed into the house and up the stairs to his room.

You Picked An Ironic Person To Share This With

Siobhan twirled a piece of her long red hair, leaning back in the carriage seat opposite Schneider. "So you're sayin'," she said, "that you and your S.O. were apart for reasons of circumstance, and you fell in with your ex and a baby resulted?"

"That would be about the long and the short of it, yes," mumbled Schneider.

"Ah, never happen." She grinned and gave him a friendly punch in the shoulder across the aisle. "I'm teasin', pay me no mind. If I can presume to speak for the bairn-to-be, though, is there some particular reason why you feel you have to be around to be the kid's father if the paternity test comes out in your favor and not if it doesn't? I mean, a baby's a baby, isn't it? There's more to life than genetics--" She interrupted herself before Schneider could answer, shaking her head quickly. "Ach, I'm stickin' me nose in where it's not wanted again. Pay me no mind. What be ye travelin' to Lianth for?"

"I'm, uh, looking for my soul," said Schneider.

"Roxy?"

"Uh, no, my literal soul."

"Never a dull moment for you, is there?"

"Apparently not. How ‘bout you?"

"Well, I'm lookin' for me country, but I won't be findin' it, so I'll settle for Eren, McGee, and the bottom of a good pint, and I know I'll find one of the three at the Mithril Dagger, and the other two'll be by ere long," she said cheerfully. There was something infectious about her exuberance. "I'll let you know if I find any souls along the way. Any friend of Max is a friend of mine. ...Say, have I told you the story of how we battled the monsters that breathed chain lightnin' together?"

"In the ten minutes we've been talking?" said Schneider.

"You'd be surprised. Me mum--well, me adoptive mum, but I'll not burden ye with more tales of that kind--always used to say I could fit fifteen minutes of story into five of silence." She laughed. "It does pass the time, though, and it gets the mind off things. Sit back and let me shorten the road." She put her feet up next to Schneider. "It was not long after we'd forced our way into the Temple of the Weird Sisters..."

Coda: Well, It's My Birthday Too, Yeah...

Marty Hu finished knotting the ribbon on the terribly-wrapped package. The knot had taken up most of the roll of ribbon, but he was fairly sure that this one wouldn't untie and loosen the wrapping paper. He got up, put the package under his shoulder, and headed down the street to the post office.

The postmaster nodded and smiled at him when he entered, then noticed the package. "You... you aren't thinking to mail... that... are you?"

"Yup!" said Marty. "I wrapped it myself!"

The older man looked down at his shaking hands. "Just... just give me the address, and I'll make sure it's packaged safe for travel."

"Oh, okay," Marty said, pulling a ratty piece of paper out of his pocket. "It's to go to the... um... ‘Keep of Imminent Darkness', in Southern Grindar."

The postmaster blinked. "Grindar? Like the folk tale? You do know that's not a real place, son... it's like sending mail to Fairyland or to the North Pole."

"Oh, no, it's real," Marty said determinedly. "I've been there." The look on his face was dead serious.

The postmaster decided to humor the boy. "Okay, son... and who's it for?"

"Gabriella Hu, Imperiator of the Wakening Shadows."

"Is this some sort of joke?" asked the old man, almost pleading.

"No," said Marty. "It's a purple wrap. She likes the color purple."

"No, I mean why you're sending something to Grindar... to this Imperiator of Wakeful Darkness or whatever? Are you pulling my leg?"

"It's her birthday," Marty said, and the open forthrightness in the young man's eyes caused the postmaster to simply nod.

"That'll be two silver, three copper post," he said.

"Um, do you have change for a platinum?"

Smell of the Sea

Ebreth Tor had never actually sailed the Vadril.

He closed his eyes and inhaled the cool briny air as Jack examined the skiffs for let at Andy's Boathouse, looking for the one with the best mathematical advantage over a twenty-foot-long fish. The Northsea was a fine body of water, subject to inexplicably sudden squalls, but she was freshwater, and Ebreth did miss the smell of the sea. The wind whipped his cloak around even here on the shore, and Ebreth was glad of the scarf he'd brought. It would be cold out on the water, even in summer. Ebreth could already tell. There was no gulfstream to warm this inland sea, the way there was in the Archipelago and the southeast coasts of Ataniel. But it was the same salt yearning in the air, and he itched to be out in it.

This was a good idea, mused Ebreth, as Jack happily ran through calculations of stability and yar.

Soul Quest: Traders

"So then Janth says ‘They were white? I hadn't noticed.'"

Siobhan MacLir laughed. "Good to know the old man was real people. I was talkin' about him with McGee, and bloody hell! The scot would probably suck pa's dick if you asked politely."

"That's an image I'm going to suppress starting right now if you don't mind."

"Aye. So anyway, we remainin' sons of the emerald isle are gatherin' at the Mithril Dagger tonight for the fifth anniversary of the homeland crossing over." They were just pulling into New Lianth. The city was looking good, and Schneider was glad to see that. "So I must be off now. Good luck to you, findin' yer soul."

"Thanks." Schneider strolled in the direction of the Mithril Dagger... and ran smack dab into Mephisto. "Just the man I've been looking for," said the ex-archdevil.

"Aaaah!" Schneider replied.

Mephisto looked surprised. "Why, Mr. Schneider, are you... afraid of me?"

"Yes."

"But, I'm here to make amends. To go on a quest to balance out my evil past. To help people."

"Bullshit! If you're trying to get my soul you are so shopping in the wrong store."

"Really--I'm trying to use the skills and knowledge I once plied in the cause of evil for good now. For instance, I can't help but notice that you've... misplaced your soul. I still have a few favors I could call in with, er, some beings who are experts at locating such things. I could have them get it back for you."

"And you want something in return, right?"

"Well, yes, my associates do have to work that way," admitted Mephisto. "But I thought I could use Hell's system to forge a kind of justice here on earth. All you'd have to do is help my associates redistribute the souls of some evil people. We could make it John Tucson if you like. I should warn you Ebreth Tor's soul is contractually off-limits, but I'm sure I could still whip something up to turn the screw on h--"

"Crack a window, Mephy, your brain isn't getting enough oxygen." Schneider backed away from him. "Just stay away from me!" Now he needed to go to the Mithril Dagger not only in hopes of getting a lead on his soul, but because he really needed a drink.

Monas' blood! Mephisto thought. This is a lot tougher when you're only human. It's throwing off my timing. He had failed with the jester, for now at least, but there were other souls on the edge out there, just waiting to be corrupted. He would find them, turn them to the dark side, and his self-appointed work as Hell's agent on Ataniel would eventually get him reinstated by the Intendant.

The former Lord of Lies vowed it would be so.

To See Your Native Shore No More

Callie flattened her skatelike body against the ocean floor in submissive terror as the eerily out-of-place reflections skimmed across it. Actually, Otter wasn't all that sure this was the ocean floor anymore; it felt strangely porous beneath her boot, as if she were resting it against a live coral, or even a sponge. The depth, though, was disorienting, even to her naiad senses. Otter moved her fingers through the black water before her as if it were a spider's web she could brush from her vision. It did not occur to her for several seconds how little sense the gesture made underwater. "Who are you?" she addressed the dapples of light and dark, directly. "What do you want with me?"

Callie made a low moaning vibration, swinging her chitinous head back and forth abjectly. The lights flickered, and Otter could have sworn the water was saltier than it had been. -We should not have come here,- Callie half-whimpered in the nymph's mind. -This is their domain now.-

"Then we'll leave," Otter said, still directly at the shadow-beings. "We're not here to fight with you."

The waters hissed as if with rain. -Yes, you must go,- whispered Callie. -I must remain and face punishment for my disobedience.-

"Over my dead body," said Otter. The Fallen Ones reacted to that more strongly than Otter would ever have expected, strobing dissidently in the suddenly brackish waves. "You captured me," she pressed her advantage without wasting time trying to understand it. "This is your fault. If you don't want us here, send us back."

Cold ripples dispersed through the water. Otter folded her arms. She had no delusions that these shadow-beings would be bound by her commands, since Callie was not and Callie was clearly their subordinate; if they wanted her dead they had already had ample opportunity, though, and since Otter still lived, she put her faith in the simple logic of her solution to their mutual problem and waited. The water coiled around her, somehow appraisingly, subtle shifts in its flow and texture skimming across her surface. -They send me with you to guide you from the Labyrinth,- whispered Callie.

Otter frowned, for there was a faint metallic taste to the water that the anomalocaris girl was not translating, some hint of blood, of a threat, but now was not the time. "That's fine," she told the deep-sea apparitions. "We'll take the quickest route back, and we won't bother you again."

The current shifted, inexorably, and Otter didn't need Callie to explain it to her. A slow prickle ran down the naiad pirate's spine. -We cannot go back the way we came,- Callie lisped redundantly. -We must pass through the Labyrinth and enter the Elder Oceans. We will be safe there.-

Otter hesitated, trying to decide whether to argue or not. There didn't seem to be any point; the portal Callie had dragged her through was undoubtedly crushed beneath tons of rock on its other side, and so if the two of them were ever to see their home waters again, they would need to find a different way regardless.

"Fine," she said.

In her heart of hearts, Otter knew it didn't matter anyway. She had never had a home.

And In Brendan Behan's Footsteps, I Danced Up And Down The Street

Siobhan MacLir grinned her thanks at Kevin the bartender and took a good swig of her Guinness.

She gave Duncan MacAlpine a thumbs-up across the room, and he didn't stop playing his harp to return the gesture, but he nodded his head at her to show he understood. McGee had found the bard somewhere, Siobhan didn't really know where. He was really quite good, she thought.

Siobhan leaned back on her barstool and put one of her feet on the empty stool beside her, relaxing. She'd liked meeting Schneider on the coach over. She felt she'd cheered him up a bit. The gift of the gab, they used to say she had back home. She looked at herself in the bar mirror, Irish as a shamrock, bright eyes in a small fair face framed with careless waves of red hair. Siobhan wondered what kind of man her father must have been. Schneider'd had an entertaining tale or two to tell, but he'd not done a very good job hiding the fact that he, like Eren, like Todd, like the little fey in the Traveller and even the necromancer Luthien, was as much in awe of the man as anyone she knew back on Brytannwch--as much as everyone seemed to be but Siobhan's own birth mother, the one it would seem he'd loved more than any other, but that was a taboo subject between the two women, and Siobhan doubted she'd ever know the truth of that.

She looked herself in the mirror as Kevin filled her glass. He'd been a mystery to her all her life, a handsome stranger from old pictures who looked more like Kelly than like Siobhan, always just a bit beyond her reach. And now Siobhan was realizing that when the last of Ataniel's Celts gathered here in New Lianth it would be her father they would be reuniting, she with his blood in her veins, Eren with his soul in his, Todd, whether he'd admit it aloud or not, with his legacy across his broad shoulders.

And Siobhan was realizing, too, that it wouldn't be her father at all; it would be Eire.

She had slipped off the barstool before she'd realized it and was dancing to MacAlpine's music, heel and toe, her eyes shut, an entirely private dance, as concentrated as if she were alone.

All her life, Siobhan MacLir had been dreaming of leaving Brytannwch.

Now that she had left, she realized she had never known it.



Wheree'er we go we'll celebrate
The land that makes us refugees
The hand of opportunity
Draws tickets in a lottery
And we'll dance to the music and we'll dance

Just the Facts, Ma'am

Skitch tapped quietly on Khyrisse's bedroom door... then stuck his head around the edge, with a puzzled look on his face. The music box was cranking out something bouncy and loud from the bedside table. Khyrisse was lying upside down and slantwise in the bed, wearing a shirt of Ebreth's that was much too large for her. "And I may be greasing the wheels of a noisy factory," she sang along, tapping her feet on the headboard, looking up at a messily sketched blueprint. "And I may be hunched over metal machines..."

Skitch giggled in spite of his stress. She tilted her head back to look at him, upside down, and smiled. "Hi, kiddo. Come on in."

He edged into the room. "Whatcha doing?"

"Enjoying single life," she said ironically, and rolled over, turning the volume down. "One night alone's kind of relaxing, actually. By tomorrow night I'll be so mopey Sennett won't want to be summoned. How about you?"

"Just thinking." Skitch took the blueprint from her and squinted at it. "What are you building?"

"Oh," said Khyrisse, "it's a, uh... You remember Monique, don't you?"

Skitch thought. "Oh! Yeah! She was a stripper on Import Avenue. She bought me breakfast once."

"She thought you were going to be a real ladykiller when you grow up." Khyrisse chuckled. "Anyway, I'm pursuing a private partnership for a... red light district nightclub, so I can name it after her."

"A strip club?" Skitch bounced on the edge of the bed."Why don't you just open one yourself?"

"I don't know enough about running a business like that. And I don't exactly want to ask Ebreth for advice on this one."

"Oh." Skitch grinned. "That would be kinda, um..."

Khyrisse grinned back. "Awkward is the word you're looking for." She took a swig of her ginger ale. "So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"

"Oh." He looked down at his feet, sobered by the unwelcome reminder. "Um... I wanted to say sorry," he finally said. "For yelling at Rani in your office."

Khyrisse studied him for a long moment over her glass. She didn't look angry, exactly, but Skitch squirmed anyway. She sighed. "Skitch, why are you apologizing?"

The boy blinked. "Because you're mad at me. Aren't you?"

"Mmm... Fair enough. But that isn't why I think you should be apologizing. Nor do I think that I'm really the one you should be apologizing to."

Skitch stared sulkily at the toes of his boots and said nothing.

"Skitch, someone's racial makeup does not make them more or less of a person," said Khyrisse, levelly. "Tarrin is a very nice man, and very wise in some ways--but he's wrong about this."

"How do you know?" he asked stubbornly. "You make mistakes sometimes, too. How do you know Tarrin's not right and you're not wrong?"

Her mouth quirked ruefully. "True enough," she admitted. "All right, let's look at it logically, then, shall we? What reasons did Tarrin give you to explain Rani being an abomination?"

He thought about it. "Well, Tarrin said when Diarians have babies with other people, the kids are bad because of a genetic problem. And Rani is bad. So it seems like he's right so far."

He looked as if he'd expected her to blow up at that. She didn't. "How is Rani bad?"

"She's mean to everyone, and she says all kinds of words you won't let me say," he protested defensively. "She's even mean to Jack."

"Personality isn't determined by genetics, kiddo. You can look that one up anywhere you like; you don't have to take my word for it. My father is the most peaceful, non-violent person you'd ever like to meet." She sighed and sat up, changing the subject. "So did Tarrin specify what this genetic problem with half-Diari kids was? Or did you just assume its result was Rani being mean?"

Skitch balked a little at that. "Uh... actually he didn't say exactly. He said half-Diari people have bad personalities. And Rani does, so it made sense. Maybe I should ask him."

Khyrisse gave him an odd little smile. It gave Skitch the creeps. She got the same smile sometimes when she was talking to Ebreth about Eric Stupidhead. "Maybe you should. I'll tell you what, Skitch. I'll be talking to Tarrin tomorrow about my Diari memories from Trade. You can come with me and ask him then."

"Okay! So are we not mad at each other anymore then?" he asked, in a little voice.

She sighed again. "No, I'm not mad at you, Skitch. It just--hurts me, to see you absorbing the bad things about Diari culture along with the good ones... and I really believe that this is a bad one. But I love you, no matter what." She reached over and gave him a hug.

"Okay," he said, with a huge sigh of relief, and threw his arms around her neck. "I love you too."

Let's hope you still love me by this time tomorrow, kiddo, Khyrisse thought, and closed her eyes.

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