IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT

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Intertwined Lives is on hiatus indefinitely.  I’m very, very sorry to have to do this, but the further in I get revising the clearer it becomes that this story needs more work than I can give it while still trying to post a chapter every two weeks.  I will be coming back to it because I still dearly love it, but for now I’m taking a break from even thinking about it so I can approach it with a clear mind in a few months.

Chapter Eight: Rusark

“Have you even left home except to go to work since you dumped the cheating bitch?” Harrison asked as I once again declined his invitation to go out drinking with him and some of the other guys that night.

“Yes!” I snapped.  It wasn’t exactly a lie.  In the two sulida since I’d broken up with Tanya, I’d gone to my niece’s dance recital and Taralise had drug me out somewhere for dinner one night. But even if I hadn’t, it was none of his business.

“Because your kid made you, or because you wanted to?” Dalrek said, sitting next to me with a plate of what was allegedly dilparid hooves.  Properly prepared dilparid hooves are a nice dark brown; the things on his plate were taupe.

“Does it matter?” I asked, then bit into the mondrath livers on toast Taralise had packed for my lunch.  The food at the SDFSF HQ was better than on some ships I’d served on, but I still preferred to eat my daughter’s cooking when I had the chance to.

“Yes,” they said in unison.

“C’mon, Sark,” Harrison pleaded.  “Live a little.  So whats-her-face cheated on you!  So what!  There’s lots of other women out there.  Some of them Rek ain’t even been with yet, so they don’t have preconceived notions about us SF folk.”

I laid my toast down and tried very hard to keep from losing my temper.  The pair — the closest friends I’d made in my new unit, the Sweytzian Defense Force Special Forces — had been badgering me like this for days already, and my patience was wearing very thin.  I was sure if I’d been full Kivanian, I would’ve gone off on them by now.  Being only half, I was a bit better at keeping my temper.

A bit.

Not enough to stop me from yelling at them.  “I know there are other women out there!  I’ve dated more than I can count since Jenelle died.  I want some time to myself, okay?  Some time to reassess things in my life a bit.  Maybe I’m not meant to find someone to love again.”

Harrison and Dalrek exchanged a glance.  I could see a plot forming behind their eyes.  “Whatever you two are thinking of getting me involved in, I’m not interested,” I said and stood, planning to go eat somewhere alone.

“Wait,” Harrison put a hand on my arm.  “Just hear me out.  You heard of The Sword and Scroll?”

I nodded.  “Tavern in Lus Ville, isn’t it?  Hank plays in a band there when he’s on-world?”

“That’s the one.  How ‘bout you join us there tonight?  I promise we . . . well, I, can’t speak for the rest of these crazies, won’t try to set you up with anyone.  You need a break.  You’re wound too tight.  Just go there with us tonight, have a few rounds, maybe dance a little, play a little kista . . . just enjoy yourself some.  It’s a good place for that.  Lots of people go there even when they ain’t looking to get laid or drunk.  It’s a nice place to just chill.  Which you need to do.”

“It’s in Lus Ville,” I said, as if that settled matters.  Harrison knew by then what I thought of the climate up there.  I wanted to go back to my nice, warm, beach side apartment in New Junil a lot more than I wanted to spend any more time than necessary in the frigid north.  There were about two varjé of snow on the ground at the base, and it was further south than Lus Ville.

He shrugged.  “We can get a transport from the parking lot to the bar if it’s too far for you to walk in the cold, and the place is usually nicely heated inside.  Viktor — one of the owners — is married to a Kivanian, so he knows all about how warm you guys like to be.”

Damn, there goes that tactic, I thought.  “I’m not interested, okay?  I want to go home and . . .”

“And brood,” Dalrek interrupted.  “Very warrior-like behavior, that.  My sect of the Faith specifically forbids it, considering it damned near cowardly behavior.  I’m pretty sure some others do too.”

I shrugged dismissively.  “I don’t care.  I don’t follow the Faith.”  Dalrek followed one of the stricter branches of the Faith, the religion and philosophy that united almost all Mugdarans.  To do something that even brushed against the edge of being cowardly was anathema to him.   My father’s sect wasn’t nearly as strict; I didn’t recall any priest every saying anything about brooding.

“Fine, what do your ancestors think of it?”

I smiled slightly.  I’ve noticed most religious people assume everyone is too.  “I don’t follow Kivanian religion either.”  Many people when they find out that I’m not religious assume it has something to do with my wife’s death, but the truth is I’ve just never much cared.  I was exposed to both my parents’ religions growing up, of course, and many more . . . I did grow up in New Junil, after all, but none had ever seemed relevant enough to my life for me to pay them much notice.

Dalrek suddenly smiled a crafty smile and asked, “What will your daughter think of it?  I’m sure I can get her code.  Maybe I’ll give her a call and tell her you’re turning down a chance to go enjoy yourself to go brood.”

“I’m not going to brood,” I said, perhaps a bit unconvincingly.  “I’m just going to spend some time thinking.”

“Sounds like brooding to me,” Harrison interjected.  “So, what’s your daughter’s name again?”

I ignored him.  He shrugged.  “Be that way then.  Hey, Jill?  How would I find out someone’s comm code if I don’t know her name?” he called over his shoulder to our cryptography and communications expert.

“Guys,” I said, “stop.  Fine.  I’ll go to this bar in the arctic with you tonight instead of going home to my nice, warm, beach front apartment and being warm.

“It’s not arctic,” Dalrek said matter-of-factly.  “I live in the arctic.  It’s much colder there.”

“It’s too close to the arctic for my tastes,” I said with a sigh.  “Now, may I finish my lunch in peace, or do you two have something else you want to bother me about?”

“Go ahead and sit back down.  We won’t bother you now that you’re agreeing to do something fun.  We’re doin’ this for your own good, you know,” Harrison said.  “You don’t lighten up some, you’re gonna end up as boring and obsessed with your job and perfecting your martial art as that guy who was our hand-to-hand expert before Bobby . . . can’t recall his name, he was before my time, but I’ve heard about him.  Dude had no life, no hobbies, nothing.  Seems like a miserable way to live, to me.”

“What happened to him?” I asked, genuinely curious.  Loathe as I was to admit it, it was a future I could easily see before me, especially if Taralise moved out when she got married.

Dalrek laughed heartily.  “Telling you that would ruin the tale of woe he’s spinning.  He retired when he and Kira had kids so they weren’t both out risking their necks all the time.”

I raised my eyebrows in surprise.  “Kira?” I asked, gesturing subtly to the top intel  NCO, a woman anyone attracted to women would be happy to be with:  tall; leggy; the right balance of curves and muscles; long, red hair; witty; brilliant . . . hell, if she’d been single or non-monogamous, I would have asked her out.

Harrison looked confused.  “That’s the guy she married?  I thought it was the guy before him?”

“No,” Dalrek said with an amused smile. “It was Jeff.  I joined right after he retired, so I don’t know how true the stories that he’s terribly boring are, but he’s definitely the one who married Kira.”

“Well, shit.  That doesn’t make for a good argument, does it?”  Harrison asked.  “Don’t do this, or you might get the heart of the sexiest woman on the team.”  He sighed then changed the subject to who he should be on for that night’s big gorstak game.

*****

“Quit gawking and go in,” Harrison said, practically dragging me to the door when  I paused to take in the wood and stone exterior of The Sword and Scroll.  I’d been expecting a typical spacer bar since Lus Ville was so near the ‘port, not some place that looked so warm and snug, so inviting.

Inside the place looked as homey and warm as it had outside.  It was bit chillier than I’d like, but there was a large fireplace along one wall with a fire in it, so I headed over there.

Harrison tried to drag me nearer the door.  “Where are you going?”

“Over to where I’ll be warm.”

Kivanians,” he said in annoyance.

“You want to say something a bit more articulate?”

“Nah, just wish y’all could handle reasonable temperatures better.  Fine, we’ll go sit by the fire and roast alive, I guess.”

A rather lovely woman, who Harrison seemed to know and flirted shamelessly with, took our order, then he, Dalrek, some of the other members of the SDFSF, and I sat there drinking and talking for a while.  Despite still feeling like I’d been drug there against my will, it was nice.  Maybe they were right, I thought.  Maybe I am becoming a boring old man before I’m even middle-aged.

The conversation drifted to who was going to win the upcoming local sword tournament and since I didn’t know enough of the competitors to have an opinion, I accepted Noralis invitation to dance.  I enjoyed dancing with her.  She was limber and light on her feet, and the way her light blonde hair swung behind her when she spun was breathtakingly beautiful, but she was much too young for me — I’d have been surprised to learn she was even as old as my daughter — so it was just a dance.

On my way back to our table, Harrison grabbed my shoulder.  “You play kista, right?’

I nodded, a bit apprehensive.  I’d only known the man a few korvare, but I’d already learned that he wasn’t half the gambler he thought he was.

“Good.  We’re short a player.”

“Not teams?” I asked because, as I said, he wasn’t half as good as he thought he was.

“Nah, but we only have three players and you know kista doesn’t work well like that.”

So I shrugged and followed him to the chilly back corner of the bar.  The place had warmed up some by now, probably due to how full it was getting.  That much body heat had to have an affect.  But it was still colder than I liked.

I paused as I was pulling my chair out, caught off-guard by the beautiful woman across from me.  Her eyes were captivating, a rich sapphire with mischief twinkling in them and the elongated pupils typical of half-Mugdarans.  And unlike any other half-Mugdaran I’d ever seen, she had golden hair, which was flowing over her shoulders in casual disarray.

I’d like to be able to say that it was just the color of her hair and eyes that caught my attention so raptly, but I have to admit the ample cleavage on display probably had a lot to do with hit.  The deep v-neck of her sweater — way too deep for how chilly it was in there — framed her cleavage seductively.  There was no chance it wasn’t deliberate.  When she noticed me staring, she shifted slightly so even more cleavage showed.

“Hi, I’m Lyndsey,” she said with a devilish smile.

Snap out of it! I ordered myself.  You’re damned near forty.  That is way too old be staring at an awesome set of tits like a boy seeming some for the first time!  “I’m Rusark,” I said as I took my seat.

The game was cut-throat, but fun.  I won’t mention how much Harrison lost, but it quickly became clear that Lyndsey and the fourth player, a Mondrivian named Threlig, were way out of my league.  I’d been betting conservatively, but I still ended up out 200 credits.  I was about to bow out before I lost more money when Threlig said he needed to go, prompting Harrison to look at his watch.

“Shit!” he said.  “I need to go to.  See you tomorrow, Sark.  Rematch next time we’re both here, Lyn?”  The beautiful blonde nodded.

She and I had been flirting — low key, barely noticeable flirting, but flirting nonetheless — the whole game, our hands lingering against the other’s a bit too long when we’d toss our credits in the pot, comments full of double entendre, little things like that.  Nothing overt.  Nothing that meant either of us meant anything by it.

I usually like to wait before getting into a new relationship, some time to make sure I’m totally over the last woman.  But there was something about Lyndsey that had me captivated already.  I have never been able to say quite what it was.  Was it the self-confidence she radiated?  Was it that devilish twinkle in her eyes and smile?  Was it just pure lust because she is an incredibly physically attractive woman?  I didn’t, and don’t, know.  You’re just horny, I thought at the time.  You need to go home before you do something stupid.  You do not need to get involved with anyone right now, Rusark.  You’re going to get up, go say goodbye to your friends, and go home.  You are not going to sit here talking to her in hopes it will lead something more physical than talking.

I pushed my chair back and was just about to say goodbye when a teasing voice in my head, a voice that sounded suspiciously like Jenelle’s, said, Go for it, coward.  I’d never won an argument with her when she was alive.  I wasn’t foolish enough to think her having been dead nearly fourteen years would change that.

“I don’t think we were properly introduced,” I said, bowing my head slightly.  “Ostilin Rusark Kirjarik-Pokth’gher of the SDFSF.”

“Ostilin . . . Special Forces?!”  She looked like she was about to start laughing.

I nodded, confused.  “Yes.  I transferred there from the Fleet a few korvare ago.”

She muttered something under her breath in a language I couldn’t understand before standing and saying, while executing a sweeping, theatrical bow, “Lyndsey Katherine Kavaliro-Blue, Dagger, ninja, and the best fighter pilot in the tri-galaxies.”  The devilish grin came back, bigger than ever, as she added, “And the woman who just won 200 credits off of you.”

I barely noticed the dig at the end.  It was my turn to stammer.  “Dagger . . . Dagger fighter pilot?!”  All Daggers are crazy.  That’s an undeniable fact of the universe as Kivanians hating cold and Mugdarans being carnivores.  Dagger fighter pilots were called crazy by other Daggers . . . and other fighter pilots which is really saying something since I’m pretty sure to become one you have to have a serious lack of important things like a sense of self-preservation.  Don’t do it.  I tried to warn myself.  Too risky.  Do you want to go through that kind of pain again?  

I again started to stand.  She suddenly asked, “Buy you a drink?”

I was down 200 credits, the woman I was in lust with had just declared herself to be one of the most insane people in the known universe . . . a drink sounded too good to turn down.

“Sure.  Bthig’nt,” I said.

She blinked in confusion.  “Part-Kivanian?”

I chuckled and brushed my hair back so my ear showed, pointing to it as I said, “Half.  Can you order it, or do I need to?”  Most other humans can’t pronounce Kivanian, something about the way their vocal cords are shaped I think.

She shook her head.  “Nope.  Got a nephew that can, but I’ve never been able to pronounce it right.  Hey, Dad?” she called to a tall silver-haired man with the bearing of a warrior and a severe limp that didn’t appear to be bothering him at all.

“Yes?” he said in a smooth, cultured baritone.  Before Lyndsey answered, he noticed me and said, with a polite nod, “Viktor Blue — yes, that Viktor Blue — at your service.  I don’t believe we’ve met before.”

“Rusark Kirjarik-Pokth’gher,” I answered distractedly, trying to remember where I knew his name from.  I did a double take when I realized why he’d said “that Viktor Blue.”  It was hard to reconcile my mental image of the Hero of Culs III and the Slayer of Drochslem with the dandy standing there.  He was wearing more silk and jewelry than the Ruvellian captain at the next table.

My expression must have given away that I’d recognized his name because he smiled and nodded before turning his attention back to his daughter.  “Now, I believe you called me over for some reason?”

“Yeah, another Irish coffee for me and . . .”

“Bthig’nt for me.”

“On my tab,” she finished.

With a mischievous twinkle in his eye that looked a lot like the one his daughter had had during the game, he said something to her in a language I’d never heard before.

“Daddy!  Behave!” she said, blushing a bit as he chuckled and walked off.

“What was that about?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said, shaking her head and laughing a bit.  “He’s been spending too much time around Daddy Lance lately.”  When I gave her a blank look she said, “Sorry, not used to SF guys who aren’t well acquainted with my family.  Captain Lancelot Reddige.  I’m sure you’ve heard of him.”

“Lance Reddige?  Commander of the Tezarin?”  When she nodded, I was pretty sure she was just trying to impress me.  “And your mother’s the Queen of Tym, right?”

She laughed.  “No.  One of my mothers is a Dagger, another is Delthakk’s Taredjo, one’s the bar wench over there,” she pointed to the woman Harrison had been flirting with earlier, “and the other’s a housewife.”

“Four mothers and two fathers?” I asked, a bit incredulous.  Of course I’ve met people in multi-partner relationships before — this is Sweytz — but rarely anything bigger than a quartet.

“Four fathers too, actually.  The other two are a vataredi and a coffee shoppe owner.”

I was momentarily speechless, trying to imagine a relationship with that many people in it working.  I’d been having enough trouble the past several years trying to manage one with only two people in it.  Our drinks arrived before I’d figured out how to respond.

“So what about your folks?” she asked, setting her cup down after a long drink.

“My mother owns a Kivanian grocery and my father’s a vataredi in New Junil, which is where I’ve lived my whole life.”  Northerners sometimes had issues with New Junillians, so I figured it was best to get that established right off.

Sure enough, she sounded utterly disgusted as she asked, “You’re from New Junil?”

I nodded.

“You like it there?”

I nodded again

“Eh, I guess nobody’s perfect,” she said with a shrug and a wink.

“Enough about our parents,” I said.  “What about you?  What do you do when you’re not out saving oppressed people and doing your part to keep the tri-galaxies free?”

“Besides kicking people’s ass at kista, I mostly just spend time with my kids these days.  Val turned three today, and Soshanna will be one in a few days.”

I nodded and smiled at that.  “I’ve only got one kid myself.  Well, one and a half I guess . . . my daughter’s engaged.”  I was drunk enough to be getting a little melancholy, and talking about Taralise’s eventual wedding was always bittersweet for me anyway.  There was a very large part of me that would never stop being sad her mother wasn’t there to share in special times like that.

Lyndsey reached out and gently touched my hand.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” I said with a slight sigh.  I paused, trying to decide how much I wanted to say right then, how seriously I was wanting a relationship with the beautiful woman across from me.  Do it! ordered Jenelle’s voice in my head.  “Her . . .” I paused.  This had never gotten easier to say.  I suspect it never will.  “Her mother, my wife, died almost fourteen years ago.  It’s . . .”

She interrupted, squeezing my hand as she said, “You don’t have to finish that.  I remember Dad when Ginny — my eldest sister — got married.  I’m sorry.”

“Thank you,” I whispered, then after a moment of sitting their in silence, said, after resolving to quit drinking for the night before I lost the evening to melancholia, “You mentioned you’re a fighter pilot.  What do you fly?”  The Daggers, I knew, had an eclectic fleet.

She described a heavily modified ancient Razith so glowingly that it sounded like she was describing a lover.  Fighter pilots are weird.  “So you know about fighters?” she asked finally, after I’d nodded and looked amazed in all the right spots.

I nodded.  “A bit.  Spent a lot of time fixing them, but my specialty was big ship’s engines.”

“Cool.  I’ll introduce you to my mom some time and you two can geek out over that sort of stuff.”  Right then her comm chimed.  “Shit!”, she said as she looked at it.  “I hadn’t realized how late it’d gotten.”  With a huge, somewhat fake looking smile, she answered the call.  “Hey, babe.  I’m sorry.  I . . .”

“Save it for later,” said a very tired sounding woman.  “Val woke up and wants to know why you’re not here.”

Lyndsey winced.  Soon a little boy with adorably disarrayed black curls appeared on the comm, saying scoldingly, “You’re late.”

“I’m sorry, baby.  I made an new friend and lost track of time talking to him.  I’ll be home in a nulair, I swear on my honor.”

“You better be!” he yelled before hanging up on her.

“Uhmmm . . . well, I guess I need to go,” she said, looking equally amused and chastised.

“I heard.”  We sat there silently for a moment, both waiting for the other to say something.  “Are you free on the 12th, say around 17?” I asked finally.

Her smile was huge as she said, “Sounds like I have plans now.  I’ll check with my spice to make sure I’m not forgetting something, but if not that night, we can reschedule.”

“Provided I don’t end up on a mission any time soon, that sounds like a good plan.”  I was smiling too.  It was too soon, I was still half-convinced I was just in lust with her, but I wasn’t going to miss the chance to spend more time with the intriguing gorgeous woman.

She suddenly started laughing, hard.  I cocked an eyebrow at her, wondering if she was suddenly feeling the effects of how much she’d had to drink or what.

“I . . . it . . .” she stammered.  “I just . . . me . . . Special Forces . . . it’s . . .”  She took a deep breath, clearly trying to compose herself.  “I’ve made some comments about you guys before.  Bit infamous among your fellows for some of them, in fact.  Including saying that none of you — with the exception of Jill who I’d never slight and not just just because I’m afraid of what Tech’d do to my computer if I did — would know what to do with a lover.”

I’d already experienced a bit of the, usually, friendly rivalry between the Daggers and the Special Forces.  I suppose it’s only natural that it exists.  Put two groups of highly competent professionals in very similar fields near each other, they’re going to get competitive.  Lyndsey was the first person I’d known to make it so personal though.

I smirked.  “Well, in a few days, maybe you’ll get to find out just how wrong you are.  Good night, Lyndsey.”

“Good night, Rusark,” she said, standing.  Sitting she’d looked short, but it wasn’t until she stood that I realized just how short she was.  She didn’t even come up to my shoulders!

As she walked past, I touched her face.  “May I?”

She nodded.

The kiss left her breathless and moaning.  I winked.  “Just a little preview.”

Chapter Seven: Vincent

As I hung up the painting of a jülnisse Chess had worked so hard on, I smiled.  I admit my opinion might be a bit biased, since she’s my kid and all, but I do know art, and she was a pretty damned talented little kid.  I’d helped her some with the lay of the hat, but the rest was all her work.  I made a tiny adjustment to how it was hanging and noticed that her signature was slightly misspelled.  I chuckled over that — there were people who claimed I signed my work with my initial instead of my name because I couldn’t spell my name still, so it was kind of fitting for my kid — and resolved to work a bit with her on that after the holidays.

I stepped back to take in the whole effect of the room, from the bright red tablecloth with the white embroidered reindeer to the mistletoe hanging in the doorway, and suddenly found a pair of very familiar, very masculine arms around me.  “Hey, hon,” I said.  “Where you been all morning?”

“Library.”

He let go and I turned towards him.  “I thought you weren’t working on your dissertation during the holidays?” I asked, seeing the pile of books he’d set on a table by the doorway.

“I’m not.”

I picked up the top book.  A Treatise on Capital Ships‘  Weapon Systems was blazoned across the front.  “This is your idea of recreational reading?” I asked, a bit worried that my husband was an even bigger dork than I’d realized.

“Yes,” he said.  “And considering some of the things you read for pleasure, you’ve got no room to talk.”

“I have no idea what you’re talkin’ about,” I said.

“That book on Idalian painters you got when we went to Earth?  The one that you had your nose stuck in for most of the next korva?  The one you wouldn’t fucking shut up about for another two korvare?”

“Italian.  And that’s different.  That was interesting.  This ain’t.”

“Says you.  By the way,” he said as he took the book from me, “I like what you’ve done in here.”

“Thanks,” I said.  “I figured I’d do Jül stuff in here and we can do Winter Fest stuff in the living room this year.  I’m gonna run to Bil’s later and see if he still has some of this gorgeous powder blue silk ribbon I saw there last sulid.  I think it’d make a really nice garland with . . .”

Walter interrupted me with a kiss.  “You know I don’t care one damned bit how you decorate the place for any holiday, right?  Do what you want.  I’m sure it’ll look lovely.”

“You’d say that if I decided to cover the whole house in papier-mâché chihuahuas painted garish colors.”

“You know how little of that sentence I understood, right?”

“Chihuahuas are a small annoying dog.  Papier-mâché is . . .”

“Vince, you’re as bad as Vik sometimes.”

“Hey!”

“Anyway, I like the decorations.  I was beginning to think you weren’t going to decorate this year.”

I shrugged.  “Wasn’t as much of a priority since we weren’t havin’ a party.”  I’d been a little disappointed that we hadn’t thrown our usual Winter Fest season kickoff party, but with Kanj and Markig both getting ready for high profile performances at the Faire, Walt barely having a saen where he could get his nose out of a book, and Dulzom and Maggie having their hands full with my darling little granddaughter, it would’ve all fallen on my shoulders to plan and organize and I ain’t that enthusiastic about that kind of stuff.

Like he’d read my mind, Walt squeezed my shoulder and said, “I’m sorry.  I’d lost track of the date until Professor Sal’ntri basically ordered me to take a break during the holidays.”

“I’m glad he did.  You been workin’ way too hard, babe.”

“I’m nearly done.  Only another semester or two and I’ll be Professor Walter Franklin.  Has a nice ring, doesn’t it?”

I shrugged again.  “Your name ain’t one of the most aesthetically pleasing things about you, hon.  But I don’t care.  I’d love you regardless of your name.”

“Vince, you are one weird man.  But I love you too,” he said and gave me a peck on the cheek.

*****

“You decorated without me,” Maggie said with a pathetic pout when she saw the dining room.

“Only in here.  Need to run to Bil’s to get some stuff for the living room, thought you might be interested in coming with me to help choose stuff even if you can’t snag enough toddler free time to help decorate it.”

My eldest daughter’s face lit up.  “Dulzom can handle Tirzah alone for a bit.  I’ve got some ideas.”

I smiled at her.  “Good.  Then just let me know when you’re ready to go; I’d like to get this done today.”

“Sure, Lurlur,” she said, pecking me on the cheek as she ran to tell her husband she was leaving.

It was still hard for me to believe she was married, harder to believe she had a kid.  Hell, I’d just barely gotten used to the idea she was a facilitator at the school instead of a student and she’d been one for a few years.  Wish they didn’t have to grow up, I thought sadly.  I liked the young adults my oldest two had grown up to be, but I missed the kids that they’d been.

Soon Maggie was back and dressed up far more than I’d ever dream of for something as simple as trip to a store.  She gets that from her mom.

“So, Bil’s for decorating stuff, then I want to go to this little boutique I found in Dayvlis for some stuff.”

“What sort of stuff?”

“The surprise sort of stuff,” she said with an impish grin.

“Alright.  Maybe stop at Zaka for lunch?”

“Hmmm . . . there’s a bistro in Dayvlis that has much better crisnot.”

I made a face.  “Yeah, but only people with no taste eat crisnot.”

She crossed her arms over her chest and glared at me.

I smirked and shrugged.

“You know, I don’t have to give you anything for Jül, Tollur.”

I chuckled.  “How’s the bistro’s garbanik?”

“Dulzom says it’s good; I’ve never tried it.”

I shrugged.  “Works for me then.  C’mon.”

*****

Bil was flamboyant, even by Ruvellian standards, so it was hard not to smile when you saw him.  His outfits made my brother Vik’s seem tame, and Vik wears silk ruffled shirts to play in a bar band.  “Vincent!  Magdeline!” he exclaimed as we came in.  “I haven’t seen you in a while.  What brings you here today?”

“I’d like to get some of that powder blue ribbon you had the last time I was in here,” I said.

“And I’m going to help him decorate for Winter Fest tastefully,” Maggie said with that impish grin making another appearance.

That kinda hurt, even though I knew she was joking.  “My decorating is always tasteful, little girl.”

“Says you.”

“Yes, says me.  You know that threat you made earlier about Jül presents works both ways.”

“You wouldn’t not get me anything; I’m your sweet little girl.”

“You’re only sweet compared to your sister.”

“I’m sweet compared to a lot of people.”

“Name one.”

“Lyndsey.  You.  Bobby.”

I made a gesture of defeat. “Fair enough.  Now, behave.”  Turning to Bil, who seemed quite amused, I said, “Sorry about that.  Now, the powder blue silk ribbon you had last time is what I’m wanting.”

“Hmmm . . . I believe I’m out of that, let me check.”  He looked where it would’ve been if he’d had any, then just to make sure, checked his computer.  “I’m sorry, but I won’t be getting any more of it in until after the holidays.  I do have this lovely baby blue though.”

“Whatcha think, Mags?  This with some fir boughs . . . yeah, I know they’re not traditional, but I think they’d look good . . .  and those fake pearls that are left over from decorating for Summer Fest?”

“How about,” she said, going over to a display that had some silver ribbon, “this, and some boughs from that dark blue tree near the back door of your parents house, along with those pearls?”

I shut my eyes for a piclano, picturing it.  “Brilliant!  That’d look really nice, I think.  Darker than I’d planned, but the shininess of the silver makes up for that some.”

“And we can hang those solani carvings you made a few years ago from it.”

I nodded with a huge smile, getting enthusiastic about her idea.  “That would look awesome.  I was going to put them on the mantle, but your idea’s better.  You tell Bil how much of the ribbon we need while I look around for some other stuff.”

We got the other things we needed from Bil’s, working out together what we needed and occasionally talking over each other in our enthusiasm.  Using those tree branches had given us both a focus for the overall effect we wanted.  They were much darker blue than usual Winter Fest colors, but the effect was going to be so wonderful that that didn’t matter.  We talked and planned through the trip to Dayvlis, but when we got to the little boutique she’d wanted to go in there, she told me to stay outside.

“Funny, doesn’t look like that kind of boutique,” I said with a wink.

“You have a filthy mind.  Besides, my favorite boutique that carries that kind of stuff is in New Junil.”

“Xara’s?”

She looked at me, aghast.  “You’re sick, Lurlur.  Kalazor’s Pleasure Emporium.  It’s a lot nicer than the name would make you think.”

“I’m not sick, just adventurous.  Anyway, go on.  I’m sure I can find some way to keep myself occupied.”

“Don’t draw on the walls.”

“Get, brat,” I said, giving her a playful push.  I hadn’t drawn on non-family member’s walls when bored since long before she was born.

She came back very shortly with a grin.  “Okay, that’s done.  Now I’m ready for lunch.”

“What did ya order me for Jül?” I asked, noticing that she wasn’t carrying anything.

“What makes you think I got you anything?  I could’ve been shopping for anybody.  I could’ve been shopping for myself, even.”

“Anybody else, or you, you wouldn’t’ve made me wait outside.”

“Lunchtime, Tollur,” she commanded, grabbing my arm and pulling me gently in the direction of the bistro.

Chapter Six: Quinn

Renata was as light on her feet when dancing as when swordfighting.  That’s not very surprising, really.  Most people don’t realize it, but a great deal of the true skill in a talented swordfighter is in how they move their feet.  I gave her the promised first dance, then another, then politely excused myself to bestow my charms upon other women.  It is the height of rudeness to monopolize one lovely woman at a ball, though exceptions are made for the young or the newly in love of course.

I was staunchly determined to do everything I could to keep people, especially myself, from thinking that the second applied to Renata and I.

After I asked her to dance, Brynja, another one of my fellow Daggers, looked incredulous.  “You want to dance with me?  What’s the matter?  Did Renata finally come to her senses and dump you?”

“What are you talking about?” I asked, confused.  I was sure none of the Daggers had reason to think there was more between Renata and I than a very deep friendship.  Sure, her family knew that there was . . . something . . . going on between us, but I couldn’t think of a single time in the past two korvare when on the Asylum or at Dagger HQ we’d given anyone reason to think anything had changed.

“Please.  You think it’s not obvious you two are dating?”

“But we aren’t!”

“I saw you two at her husband’s bar the other night.”

Oh, I thought, that explains that.  “Which other night?” I asked, hoping it wasn’t the one where she and I had both had a bit too much to imbibe and had begun behaving in not strictly appropriate ways.

“Last sulid, you two were bickering like an old married couple.”

So it hadn’t been that night.  It had been the one before, the one where Renata had had the audacity to insinuate that I was miscalculating the odds in a kista game.  Me, the man who’d made quite a nice living for a number of years gambling professionally!  “We were not ‘bickering like an old married couple’, thank you!  We were having a minor argument over odds.”

The large woman shrugged.  “Whatever.  So, if you two aren’t dating, why’d ya move in with her?”

“She had a spare room and I needed a place to sleep.  If I’d moved in with Darrien instead, would you think he and I were dating?”

She snorted inelegantly.  “Defensive, aren’t you?  Okay, okay, keep up your pretense, though I don’t know why you’re bothering.  Anyway, you actually know how to dance, right?”

“Madam!” I said in hurt shock.  “I am a gentleman!  Of course I know how to dance.  I was schooled in the art of dance by one of the finest dancemasters on Ruvellia, in fact.”  To suggest that a noble didn’t know how to dance was a terrible insult, as it implied that their family hadn’t cared about them enough to make sure they knew all the gentlemanly arts.

“So that fancy accent isn’t fake?”

“Of course not!  I’m a Tormestrel, son of Tristán, descendant of Saviero Tormestrel.  I have no reason to pretend to be someone else.  I’m, frankly, offended that you’d even suggest such a thing.”  I knew she hadn’t known me for long, but that was no excuse!

“Damn, you’re defensive about this sort of stuff.  Sorry.  Didn’t mean any insult.  Anyway, you can dance, so, sure, let’s do this.”

I have no idea why she was so worried about whether or not I could dance since she wasn’t particularly good herself.  I was happy — though of course I didn’t show it — when the song was over and I could seek a new partner.

I found one who definitely was more my calibre near one of the large arched windows lining one wall.  She was attempting to wheedle her husband into dancing.  “Anastasia!” I said brightly coming up to her.

We greeted each other with a fond kiss and hug, then I took her hand and said, “Fair lady, would you do me the honor of being my partner for the next dance?”

Martoz gave me a thankful look.  Silly man hates dancing.

“Well, I was hoping to have a dance with my husband, but since he’s being even stubborner than usual, yes, I will dance with you.”

She was an even better dancer than Renata, better, even, than me, I admit.  She’d danced professionally once upon a time and still performed sometimes in the theater she’d opened a few korvare before.

“Monopolizing the hot guys again, babe?” Lyndsey said as she passed us during our second dance, a complicated veristil.

“Hardly,” I said before Ana could respond to her wife.  “This is only our second dance.  If you wish to dance with me next, I’m sure I can work you in,” I said teasingly.

Her partner spun her just then, but when she was holding still again she said, equally teasingly, “I don’t know.  You did just mess up that turn.  I might want a better partner than that.”

I’d made the mistake because this particular dance was one I’d not quite perfected, having not seen it for the first time until two years ago, but, ever the gallant gentleman, I said, “I was too enraptured by the beauty of your wife to pay proper attention to my feet.”

Lyn rolled her eyes and laughed outright.  Anastasia reacted in a more restrained manner, limiting herself to a soft laugh before saying to Lyndsey, in tones that I would’ve believed expressed real hurt had I not known her so well.  She was, possibly, an even better actress than she was dancer.  “Are you saying I’m not beautiful enough to be distracting?”

Lyndsey laughed and rolled her eyes again.  “Babe, you’re the most gorgeous woman here, and I’ll fight anyone who says otherwise.  But Quinn wasn’t even looking at you when he fucked that turn up.”

Her partner, a man I didn’t know who, to judge from his attire, had apparently thought he was going to dance night at one of the local spacer bars instead of a ball, spoke for the first time.  “And why were you looking at him instead of me?  You make a guy feel damned good, geesh.”

Lyndsey drew herself up onto her tiptoes and pecked him on the lips.  “I wanted to make sure he didn’t hurt my wife, that’s all.  I swear I’m paying more attention to you than him.”

“Yeah, you didn’t say anything about me being a hot guy when you asked me to dance either, you know.”  He wasn’t as good an actor as Anastasia, very far from it.  It would’ve been obvious to all but the tiniest of children that he was faking being upset.

“I didn’t think I needed to after the other night,” Lyndsey replied with a wink.

He laughed and they moved away from us, deeper into the flow of dancers.  After that song, I made my apologies to Anastasia and sought another partner.  This one was a young woman I didn’t know, but she was graceful and charming, so I made sure we knew where to find each other in the future, should she wish to get to know me better.

I danced with a couple more people, a song or two each, and then needed a rest.  I made my way over to the refreshment tables and was pleased to see my employer and friend there, favoring one arm, but not looking bad at all for a man his age who insists on being on the front lines.

“Darrien, what an unexpected pleasure!” I said, bowing slightly when I was near him.

“Hi, Quinn,” he said.  “You look like the past few korvare have been kind to you.”

“They have,” I said.  He’d been on a mission for the better part of the past three korvare; I’d been on one of those periodic breaks from missions he insisted we take.  They, I must admit, did wonders for our mental health.  Few Daggers, despite the sort of situations we got into, ever suffered from severe mental trauma, and of those who did, it tended to be the ones like Viktor who’d suffered things too horrifying to think of.

“Good!  There’s something building over near Sustis that you’ll be perfect for if it turns out they need our aid.”

“I look forward to it,” I said, meaning it.  Spending my days charming lovely women, amusing Renata’s children, gambling, and dancing was undeniably fun, but actually doing my job, saving and protecting those who couldn’t save and protect themselves from tyrants and the like . . . there was a thrill to it that went far beyond the mere fun of the adventure itself.

“So, where’s Renata?  I understand you to have been spending quite a bit of time together.”

I shrugged.  “I’m living with her family right now, that’s all.  The last I saw her, she was dancing with Tera.”

He gave me a shrewd look, probably guessing at the conflict raging in my heart and mind about Ren.  He swears he’s not an empath or telepath, but I’d like to know how he knows and figures out half of what he does if that’s the truth.  He swears he’s just good at reading people, but I’m good at reading people.  What he is, is telepathic.  I don’t care how strongly he argues that he’s not.  It’s the only logical explanation.

I hurriedly changed the subject.  “So, will you be entering the Sword Tournament?”

“I was planning on it, but it depends on how my arm feels by next sulid when sign ups end.  I pulled something rather badly dodging a blast the other day.”  He paused for a moment and when I said nothing, said, “And you’re the first person to hear that and not make a crack about my age.  Thank you.”

I smiled slightly.  “After the way I got injured doing the same thing on my last mission?  What would that imply about me, hmm?”

“No one would ever think you were too old for something.  You don’t look your age at all, Quinn.”

“Thank you,” I said with slight bow.  When I looked in the mirror, I certainly saw a middle-aged man, so it was nice to know other people didn’t.  Renata, and many of my other lovers, had of course insisted I still looked quite young, but one cannot trust a lover to tell the truth about things like that.

He and I conversed a bit more as we ate, then Lady Salyrissa herself insisted Darrien dance with her.  I mingled some with other friends and acquaintances, flirted with beautiful women, helped Elizabeth reach some food she couldn’t so she wouldn’t climb on the table to get it — I swear, that child is entirely too much like Renata some times!, and then made my way back to the dance floor, dancing on my own at first, until my favorite short, tempermental, swordswoman put an arm around my waist.

“Care for another dance?” she asked, her eyes sparkling with merriment.  She was, very clearly, enjoying herself quite a bit.

I made a show of looking around, pretending to be seeing if I had any other prospects, before putting an arm around her and saying, “I suppose I can settle for you.”

I probably deserved the kick to the shin she gave me.

*****

That night I got more smug, knowing grins from Tera and Lance as I helped Renata tuck the smaller children in to bed and read them stories and such.  I ignored them as well as I could, but at the back of my mind, I couldn’t deny that it probably was beginning to be obvious to everyone who saw us together at all that she and I were more than friends.  It bothered me.  I prided myself on being able to keep relationships casual.  I’m not a cad, far from it.  I have, truly, had feelings of a least friendship for every woman I’ve bedded.  But, always before . . . save one time in my impetuous youth . . . I’d managed to keep it friendly.  Both of us knew we were nothing more than, as Terrans crassly call it, “friends with benefits”, and both of us were fine with that.  Always.  I’d conducted my life that way for over thirty years.

Now though . . . this was something more, something less than she had with her spice to be sure, but something more than friendship nonetheless.  I wasn’t sure I liked it, but I wasn’t sure I didn’t like it either.  I was confused and conflicted, more than I’d been in years.

The conversation with Lance the other day hadn’t really helped matters any.

I resolved to talk to Renata about it soon as I pulled the ornate comforter up around my shoulders and drifted off to sleep.

*****

Renata looked more lovely than ever, standing in a bower outside the local temple to Vestina, dressed, for once, in a dress; a light burgundy strapless thing that fit tightly across her ample breasts and at her waist, but had a skirt that looked like it was floating in the slight breeze.  I looked rather nice myself, in a new blue and gold brocade doublet with slightly darker blue pants with gold trim.  Our friends and family were all there, all watching.  I was a bit apprehensive as I took her hands in mine and said those sacred words, promising to love her for all of eternity, promising to both Vestina and Kilij to never betray or harm her in any way.  A part of my mind screamed, Stop!  This is not what you want! but I ignored it, thinking of nothing except the woman who was about to become my wife.  Renata said her oaths to me as well.  The priest was just starting to speak her blessing when the momentous mistake I’d made suddenly hit me.

“Stop!” I cried.  “This isn’t what I want!  I’m sorry, Renata.  I do love you, but this . . . no.  Marriage isn’t for me.  Fatherhood certainly isn’t.  I can’t go through with this, cartima.”

She nodded with a savage look, pulled a sword from somewhere inside her dress  — I was too shocked to notice the violation of physics happening right in front of me — and swung for my mid-section.

*****

I woke up in a cold sweat.  I was rather relieved to find I was still alive.  I didn’t take the dream that seriously, certain that if I’d ever taken it into my head to marry Renata — an incredibly unlikely event! — I’d not have a sudden change of heart at the literal last moment.  I was equally certain that she could not hide a sword in a dress like that.  But just the fact that I’d had a dream like that bothered me.  What was my subconscious trying to tell me?  Did I want to hear whatever it was?

Bothered by these questions, I slept restlessly the remainder of the night.