Authors: Kristine Smith
Val snorted, denying the inevitable even as he worked closer to admitting to it. “He's not the first good-looking boy to stake me out.”
“No, but he's the best-trained. He's an assassin, Val. Gauging the victim is what he does.” Jani held up two fingers. “Second verseâafter you got used to his coming around regularly, he pulled back. Stayed away for a week or two at a time, then turned up with weak excuses. Just to see how hooked you were.” They came upon a small sitting area wedged between two houses, and she stopped and sat on a stone bench.
“I passed that test.” Val unfastened his shirt collar, then bent over a tiny fountain and let the water spray over his face. “I wasn't a complete idiot.”
Jani nodded. “He figured that out. So when you told him that you were leaving to visit John, his request to accompany you was completely businesslike. Being under orders from
Mako himself, he claimed billet privileges, then left you to mull it over. He knew he had you backed in a cornerâwhat could you do but agree? You already suspected that Cao didn't trust you, that her summons was a warning to you as well as to John. It worried you what might happen if you added to your troubles by tossing out Mako's chosen rep on his perfectly formed ear.”
Val dragged a linen square out of his trouser pocket and wiped his face. Then he sat beside her and sighed. “Janiâ”
“Pressure points, Val. Weakness. Like I said before, he has a talent for spotting them.”
“He's not the only one,” Val said through his teeth.
Jani hesitated. “Now, the chorus. He had set you up so you had to cart him here or risk appearing disloyal. So, cart him here you did. He should have been content, you'd think, but this is Lucien we're talking about. You had rejected his advances up to that point, and that was a situation that could not be allowed to continue. Even engineered sociopaths have their pride.”
“There are only so many places to hide on a ship, and none of them works for long.” Val spoke low, as though to himself. “Every damned time I turned around, there he was. His favorite trick was to catch me in the gym locker room or sauna, wander in stark naked and pretend to be surprised to see me. âI'm
sorry, Doctor PariniâI didn't realize you were here.' Yeah, right.”
Jani grinned in remembrance. “A bit obvious, but a tried and true method with some history of success.”
Val returned her grin, but the expression withered. “After a few quiet days, I thought he had finally gotten the message. Then one ship-morning, about three weeks out, he showed up at my cabin door with a copy of whatever newssheet had been transmitted that day. He was fully clothed, believe it or not. A little rough around the edges, actually. Tired. Distracted. As though he'd given up.” He paused, his eyes clouding.
“He handed me the newssheet,” he said after a time. “I took it. I said âThank you, Captain Pascal,' and he replied,
You're welcome, Doctor Parini.' Weâ” He stopped again, inhaling with a shudder. “We just stared at one another. Might have been for a minute or so. Might have been an hour for all I could tell. Neither of us said a word, we justâ¦” He swallowed hard. “Then he stepped inside, let the door close behind him. Took the newssheet from my hand, folded it, and set it atop a nearby table. Then heâ” He closed his eyes, lips parting ever so slightly. His breathing quickened as his hands clenched and flexed, twisted the linen until it tore.
Then his eyes snapped open. He shook his head as though emerging from a daze and sat forward, elbows on knees, hands dangling between. “You're going to tell me it was an act.” He examined the damage he'd wrought upon the linen square, then wadded it and shoved it in his trouser pocket.
an act.” Jani put a hand on his shoulder. “Trust me, it's better when you accept it. It makes him a known quantity, with no surprises. A certain brand of simple comfort when the real world becomes too complex to deal with.”
Val's lip curled. “Aren't you the understanding one?” He fell silent for a few moments, then sat up and eyed her expectantly. “Your turn.”
Jani considered a display of innocence, but decided confusion more believable. “My turn for what?”
“I'm not the only one laying bare my soul here, am I? Be fair.”
“What do you want to know?”
“The story behind that pearl. He showed it to me on the way here. Told me he bought it, but we both know that's a joke. He never paid for anything in his life.” Val straightened his legs and examined his dust-covered shoes. “I read his MedRec once, remember? I know he keeps souvenirs of events in his life he considers memorable.”
. Now it was her turn to shudder, to hem and haw. “What makes you think the pearl's mine?”
“I have my reasons, which I will explain after you tell me the story behind it.”
Jani felt the heat creep up her neck. “It's from my dowry.”
She fielded Val's surprised look. “My parents turned over my dowry to me when they first came to Chicago, and one of the pieces was a pearl necklace.” She paused. “Oneâ¦night, I wore it duringâ¦”
“Duringâ¦?” Val leaned toward her. “During a fire drill? During charades? What?”
Jani tried closing her eyes, but images flashed that she didn't want to see at that moment. Instead, she concentrated on a scatter of stones at her feet. “I wore it to bed. I had worn it that evening, and didn't take it off. During a particularly active moment, Lucienâ¦yanked on it, and the string broke. Pearls everywhere. If I'd known they hadn't been tied properly, I never would have worn them. Those damned things turned up under the furniture for months.” She shrugged, forced herself to look Val in the face. “See? No big revelatory episode. Just something I'm sure he saved to embarrass me.”
“Probably.” Val sighed. His mood seemed lighter, as though her confession had bought him some degree of dispensation. “Why did we let him get under our skin? We're grown-ups. We should have known better.”
“They tell you everything you want to hear, and they know how to show you the face you want to see. Even when you know in your bones that you can't trust them, you still try, because you can't accept the fact that they can't feel and that there's nothing they won't do to ensure their survival.” Jani rocked to the side until she bumped against him. “Guess who told me that?”
“Dirty pool, Jan.”
“I'd just let him into my home when I knew he had set me up to be killed. You tried to warn me.”
“But I was wrong. You figured out later that he had blocked the attempt. He pushed you out of the way, took the shot himself. He saved your life.” Val frowned. “Granted, he was the one who got you into trouble in the first place.” He raked a hand through his hair, then sat forward and buried his face in his hands. “Oh,
“He leaves behind wreckage wherever he goesâcompared to some, you got off easy. You're here, in one piece. No one shot at you. You're a bit chastened, but you'll get over it.” Jani held out her hand. “You survived. Congratulations and welcome to the club.”
“Hip, hip, hooray.” Val sat up. “Remember when I said that I knew the pearl had to have belonged to you?” He took her hand and squeezed it, then continued to hold it. “About four days out, he started pulling away. Moved his things out of my cabin. He said that he needed to prepare for Niall, but I knew that was bullshit. As if any amount of prep in that regard would do him any good.”
Jani tried to reclaim her hand, but Val had it locked up tight. “I wonder how Mako was able to shove him down Niall's throat consideringâ”
“Don't change the subject.” Val glowered a warning. “By the time we were two days out,
. Last night, as we were getting ready to dock at Elyas, I lay in bed,
, stewing in my own juice, when it hit me how much of our time together had been spent talking about you. Your accomplishments. Your background. Things you and he had done together. I even recalled a rather spirited discussion concerning the exact color of your eyes.” He regarded her with something akin to pity, mixed with something else that looked a lot like fear. “I'm not very happy being me at the moment, but the one thing I can take comfort in is the fact that I'm not you. I was just something to help pass the time, I know that now. But you, you're his obsession.” He smiled sadly, then held her hand to his lips and kissed it. “I need to get back. I want to talk to John before he meets with his lawyers.” He released her hand and stood, then circled around the bench and headed back up the road to the Main House.
Jani massaged the spot on her hand that Val had kissed. “Welcome to the club.” Problem was, after you paid the initiation fee, you kept paying and paying and payingâ¦
I should have guessed that Lucien would keep a souvenir of that night.
Like most of their eventful evenings, it hadn't
been planned. Lucien had finessed them an invitation to a dinner at one of the ministries, but she hadn't wanted to attend. When she tried to beg off, however, he listed the reasons why she needed to go, all sound business-related incentives of the sort he could recite in his sleep. The issue settled, he had arrived to collect her, passing the time in her sitting room while she finished dressing.
What the hell got into me?
She had donned the requisite undergarments and ridiculous shoes. A conservative gown in dark blue. Removed the jewelry satchel from her armoire and opened it, revealing her dowry, the trays filled with gems, gold, and platinum. Picked through the necklaces, bracelets, and earrings.
Then she removed the gown, the ridiculous shoes and undergarments, and dressed herself in as much of the glittery stuff as she could hang from her neck, loop around her waist, hips, and ankles, and wrap around her arms. Out of fifteen kilos of chains, links, and set gems her parents had brought her from Acadia, she managed to don at least five. Gold, topaz, and emerald. Strings of diamond beads. And the pearls.
Lucien had turned as soon as the bedroom door opened. Started to say something, then stopped and stared as she posed in the bedroom entry, still and stylized as one of her mother's statues. She didn't speak and neither did heâadaptable animal that he was, he never asked a single question. He simply walked toward her, peeling off his dress uniform along the way until, by the time he reached her, he was as naked as she was.
He called me a goddess.
Among other things he murmured. Whispered. Shouted. So enraptured had they been with one another that they hadn't even noticed the necklace had broken until the morning.
“That was some night.” And now the time had come to pay the price for it. “What have you come to collect, Lucien?” She stood and continued on her way to the meeting house. “And who have you come to collect it for?”
“It does not make sense.” Tsecha pointed to the half-tiled wall, a mÃ©lange of delicate colorings and sketched detail. “What is this? I have never seen anything such as this before.”
NÃ Dathim NarÃ©, Tsecha's secular suborn, stood beside his dominant with the ill-concealed irritation of an artist coping with the criticism of a wealthy but tasteless client. “Through the middle is the line of the cliffs. Drawn there are the houses of Thalassa. If you stood on a craft, out on the bay, you would see this place as such.” Judging from the increasing curve of his shoulders and the stiff set of his jaw, aboard a craft out on the bay was exactly where he wished Tsecha was at that moment.
Tsecha stepped close to the wall. “It does not look like a cliff.”
“It does from here.” Jani leaned against the wall directly across from the mural. “I think you need to stand at least five or six meters away for it to all fall into place.”
Dathim nodded. “At least five or six meters.”
Tsecha took a single step back from the work, shoulders curving in irritation. “It does not help.”
“Five or six meters.” Jani and Dathim spoke in unison.
Then Dathim took the bull by the horns, or in this case the propitiator by the elbow, and dragged him backward, marking off the distance with measured strides.
“Here.” Dathim released his dominant, then stepped back and waited, arms folded, feet planted shoulders' length apart, like a djinn from one of Niall's operas. Tall and broad, dressed in dusty white workclothes that contrasted sharply with his gold-brown VynshÃ rau coloring, he seemed a construct of wood and stone, as one with the buildings surrounding them. “Do you see it now?” His voice, a deadpan rival of John's, rumbled like a seismic shift.
Tsecha stared at the wall, tilting his head to one side, then the other. “I am not sure. Perhaps, nÃ¬a, we should request Doctor Parini's assistance?”
Jani shrugged. “John's the art collector. He knows more.”
“But John has already seen this wall many times. Doctor Parini provides a fresh eye.” Tsecha looked back over his shoulder at Jani and bared his teeth.
Fresh eye, myâ¦
Jani had to smile back. “You didn't ask me here to talk about the wall. I should have guessed.”
“It will not be completed in time for tomorrow's meeting. Such is as it is.” Dathim picked up a square of tile with a glaze like the clear aquamarine of shallow water and walked to his worktable. “I thus have time to seek out the opinions of others.” He inserted the square into one of his array of tile cutters, then bent low over the device and adjusted the settings. “Others, who know more,” he added, not quite under his breath.
Tsecha ignored his suborn's mutterings. He clasped his hands behind his back and walked over to Jani, light mood dissipating with each step. “Of what did Doctor Parini speak? The damned cold of Chicago? His boredom now that his friends have left him?” He paced back and forth in front of her, an older, wiser, more patient djinn.
“Li Cao sent Val here to inform John that he's being bought out. John's opinion on the subject is not being con
sidered. He'll be paid two percent of what his share in Neoclona is worth.” Jani remembered Lucien as he broke the news. Drunk, angry, the information he imparted a payback for her rejection. “Val made matters that much worse by bringing Lucien with him.”
And I hope he heaved his guts out.
“Ah, Captain Pascal.” Tsecha walked a tight circle. “He grew bored in Chicago as well, without you to torment.”
Jani kicked a tile shard across the floor as another scene from the balcony flitted through her brain.
I love you.
Oh, for the days of myth, when djinn walked the land and gods smote liars with thunderbolts. “He says he's here to act as a fresh eye for Admiral General Mako. I don't believe that.”
“Nor would I.” Tsecha touched Jani's arm, then gestured toward the patio located in the rear of the meeting house. “For Mako despises him. This we know, and truly.”
As they entered the patio, the heat hit them full force, untempered by the breeze off the bay. Tsecha inhaled deeply as soon as the sun fell on him, as though he could breathe in the light. “Cao fears John will become an HaÃ¡rin, and will use his money to support HaÃ¡rin enclaves, and HaÃ¡rin companies. That he will rebuild HaÃ¡rin docks destroyed by humanish bombs. This, I most believe.” He sat atop a pallet of floor tile. “Such shows her lack of understanding. John would never be accepted as HaÃ¡rin. It would be an impossibility.”
“HaÃ¡rin would take his money, though. If he offered it. Which he hasn't.” Jani leaned against a stone wall, then slid down to the patio floor.
And so it begins.
The back and forth. The sifting of data until a conclusion could be reached. The hardest process, but in the end, the most educational.
The glib, inadequate word that described the many faceted relationship between Commonwealth and worldskein. “Lucien said that John was being made an example. âIf we can destroy one of the most powerful men in the Commonwealth, what could we do to you?'” She slipped off the jacket that she'd donned back at the Main House, then leaned back
against the wall and let the heat absorbed by the stone seep into her shoulders. “My concern is that she's heard rumblings about Elyas' desire to secede.”
Tsecha shifted as though he sat on a sharp edge of tile. “Talk of colonial secession. I heard such even when I served as ambassador in damned cold Chicago.”
“But here we have an actual plot, with names attached.” Jani picked at a jacket seam, stopping when she yanked too hard and the material split. “John is so far removed from all that. All he's done since he arrived here is perform research and hybridize the willing.” She imagined faces seen every day at the Main House, on the cliff road and the other enclave streets. Eager, hopeful faces. “Some of them will die if he can't treat them anymore, if he can only use the technology he's already developed. We're all moving targets, constantly changing. A treatment that will work on us one day could kill us the next.”
Tsecha nodded, an exaggerated up-and-down. “So, he is needed to keep Thalassans alive. Such is an ethical issue. If Li Cao destroys him, she destroys others as well. Innocents.” He brightened. “Would you like me to write a treatise on the subject, nÃ¬a?”
Jani ignored the question, and instead dreamt of thunderbolts striking far-off prime ministers. “How can she do this? We aren't Commonwealth citizens anymore. We can't vote. Half of us started life as idomeni. It's notâ”
“You have not answered my question about the treatise, nÃ¬a.”
“Let's not do that right away. Your treatises tend to shear off the tops of heads. It's bad enough when you take on idomeni. Your style may backfire with humanish.”
“Ah.” Tsecha ran his finger across his forehead and bared his teeth. Then he stood and strolled across the patio, eyes fixed on the sunburst murals with which Dathim had covered the floor. “So. John will no longer be able to treat hybrids. The hybrids of Thalassa, whom I esteem greatly, even when my nÃ¬a claims I do not.” He glanced across at
Jani. “My nÃ¬a, whom I also esteem greatly.” He stopped and raised a hand, index finger pointing upward. “Li Cao deems this. Tomorrow, we meet with those who work against her. It is most simple. If Markos and his other secessionists wish my support, they will see that John can continue to do that which he does. Even now, they will support him by telling Cao that she cannot do that which she plans.”
Jani worked to her feet. “They'd be taking a risk.”
“They take risks now.” Tsecha shrugged. “One more will not make their chance of death any greater. They must agree to support Thalassa, which means that they must work now to help John. Or they may swing.”
Tsecha mimed looping a rope and putting it around his neck. “Swing.” He yanked his arm upward and stuck out his tongue.
“Thank you for that visual.” Jani managed a laugh. “Can you give John your support even if Markos and the others can't? Can the Elyan HaÃ¡rin do anything to compel Li Cao to back down?”
Tsecha raised a hand to chest level, then curved it in question. “She would demand, I think, that the HaÃ¡rin leave the Outer Circle, which is something that would most please CÃ¨el as well. He starves his colonies, allows them no supply or repair. Samvasta, NÃ¨ae, Zela, with their broken Gate-Ways and half-empty enclaves. He drives the HaÃ¡rin who live there to the humanish, and now Li Cao would drive them back to him.”
“What if you pledged to sink your teeth deeper? Take over more businesses, more docks?” Jani sighed. “That might scare her, which will cause more problems than it solves.” She tied the sleeves of the jacket around her waist, then walked to the entry that led back into the house proper, boots scuffing against the inlay with a sound like sandpaper. “God, this is a mess.”
“We will think of something, nÃ¬a.” Tsecha moved in beside her, his soft boots silent on the stone.
“Why do we have to?” Jani paused at the entry. “NÃ¡ FeyÃ³ is your secular dominant. NÃ¡ Gisa is mine. Technically. When she sticks her head out of whichever greenhouse she's working in long enough to give me the time of day.”
Tsecha regarded her calmly, as though they discussed the weather, not political subterfuge and rebellion. “I most esteem FeyÃ³, but she worries too much of authority, and the opinions of the other enclaves. Power has made her cautious, and this is, I most believe, a time to be daring.”
Jani leaned against the entry so that she stood half in and half out of the house, one side in shade, the other in sun. “You want daring, you should bring Gisa with you to tomorrow's meeting.”
“OK, she's irritating, but she merits some regard. She helped create Thalassa.”
“She did that of which she was capable. Now her time is past.” Tsecha stood in the comparative darkness of the entry. “Rebellion requires focus if it is to be worth anything, and Gisa lacks focus.” He leaned forward, the edges of sunlight striking him, highlighting the lines on his face. “If you say black, she will argue white simply to argue. Such is not an attitude that is needed. Not now.”
“So you and I can continue to do all the diplomatic dirty work, then hand off all the pretty decisions to our dominants, wrapped up and ready to go.”
Tsecha nodded. “Yes. Such is what we do.” He reached out and tapped the top of her hand with his fingertips. “As we did in Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a, and in Chicago. As we will always do.”
“Something to look forward to.” Jani reached up and struck her fist against the top of the doorway as she passed through into the cool of the entry. “Any feedback yet on your latest broadside?”
Tsecha hesitated, hand once more curving in question. Then he bared his teeth. “Wholeness of Soul.” He walked farther into the meeting room, stopping to study the floor,
a room-spanning blue and white whirlpool. “It is too soon. I would not expect even an acknowledgment of receipt until tomorrow or even the next day.” He dragged the toe of his boot along one of the blue-white borders. “Does it still worry you?”
“Everything worries me.” Jani lowered her voice as two coverall-clad hybrids entered the house and began carrying stacks of tile to the table where Dathim worked. “Niall doesn't think it will be a problem.”
“Colonel Pierce.” Tsecha offered a more humanish-looking, close-lipped smile. “To whom you tell everything.”
“Not really.” Jani felt the heat rise up her neck as she thought of all the things she would never think of telling Niall. “I tell you more than I do anyone. Including some things I hope you don't understand.”
Tsecha did a decent imitation of a humanish throat-clearing. “I understand more than you believe, nÃ¬a.”
“Great.” Jani covered her eyes, then let her hands fall. “All my idiocies exposed.” She felt more welcome laughter bubble up, until an all-too-familiar figure entered the room and stopped it dead. “NÃ¡ Meva.”
“NÃ¡ KiÃ¨rshia. Glories of the day.” NÃ¡ Meva Tan bustled in, a headmistress on a mission, the long tail of her bright green wrapshirt flaring in her wake. “NÃ Tsecha. Glories of the day to you as well.” Her grey-streaked horsetail swung out as she spun around to survey the entry. “More than yesterday, but not yet complete, nÃ Dathim!”
“Everyone is a critic.” Dathim turned to face them. “But I see no one picking up a cutter.” Tile dust streaked his face like paint. “Until they do, they can shut up.” He gestured to one of his hybrid helpers to bring another stack of tile, then turned back to his table.
“Hah.” Meva bared her teeth as the hum of the tile cutter filled the room. “NÃ Dathim is as he always is.”
Aren't we all?
Jani stepped back as Meva and Tsecha fell into a discussion of the patterns Dathim had chosen for the meeting house floors. Meva stood as tall as her religious
dominant, her face as stark, her eyes as gold. Like Tsecha, she projected implacability, the inevitable progression of a wave. Rauta ShÃ¨rÃ a Temple had cast her out just before Morden nÃ¬Rau CÃ¨el locked her up, and Tsecha had offered her a place without first confirming with nÃ¡ FeyÃ³ that such would be acceptable.
Meva treads on toes.
Such was her way.
I do like herâ¦for the most part.
But she provided Tsecha the opportunity for theological debate that he had lacked for years, and like a desert plant after the first rain of the season, he had flourished.
Then came the first treatise. The second.
And now this one.
The rhetoric escalating as the subject matter cut closer and closer to the heart of what it meant to be idomeni.
“The significance of thisâ” Meva gestured toward the spiraling whirlpool, then turned to Jani. “You recall such, from your instruction?”