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?”


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.”


“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.”


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.

Chapter Five: Richie

Getting the girls ready for the ball at the Grimmesey’s mansion took long enough that Matt and I had to rush getting ourselves ready so we could get there before things were in full swing.  Janice wasn’t back yet, but expected to arrive either during the ball or shortly after it.  Izzy and Rosie were wearing Matt and I out so bad that I had no idea how families that normally only had two parents managed.

The ball had already started when we got there, but things were still pretty calm, and we weren’t quite the last people to show.  I greeted Leoni with a hug and kiss and then headed straight for the refreshments.  We’d eaten at home, of course, but it’d been so rushed that I hadn’t gotten enough.  After a few saenead, Courtney and Marcello came over.  I was just about to greet them when Courtney said, in tones of long-suffering despair, “It’s called a kilt.  Richie insists it’s not a skirt; it’s an ‘unbifurcated male garment’.  I think he just doesn’t want to admit he’s wearing a skirt.”

I stuck my tongue out at my darling little sister while I carefully didn’t think about how I wanted to respond to her while I thought about how to respond to her.  Errr  . . . it’s a telepath thing that this language kind of sucks for describing.  Basically, the part of my mind she could read I kept carefully blank while I reviewed my options for what to say to her with another part.  That’s not quite right, but it’s close enough to give you a decent idea.

It didn’t matter though.  Before I got any words out of my mouth a familiar voice with the slightest hint of a Ruvellian accent said from behind me, “Richie, are you behaving?”

I spun around and wrapped my arms around my wife, pulling her tight for a passionate kiss.  I’d been thinking so hard about what to say and concentrating so hard on keeping Courtney from knowing what I was thinking that I’d completely not noticed Jan coming up behind me.  “Janice!  I missed you, babe.  Didn’t expect to see you here tonight,” I said once I managed to break the kiss.

A smile lit up that beautiful face I’ve so long been enamored with.  “I decided to come straight to the ball once I got back.  It seemed like a better idea than going to bed early.  I trust you know where the girls are?”

“Approximately.”  If I’d been a stronger telepath I probably could’ve pinpointed them in a much bigger crowd, but as weak as my telepathy is the best I could do was tell they were still happy and pretty close by.  “Matt was dancing with them both a bit ago, and as far as I can tell they’re still on or near the dance floor.  Just look for a group of people laughing and Izzy’s probably at the center of it.”

Janice laughed.  “True.  Just like her daddy she has to be the center of attention all the time.”

“Rosie’s dancing with Daddy Rur, and Izzy’s dancing with Kaelee and Dejah,” Courtney said.  Through some weird quirk of genetics, she was a better telepath than our biofather even, but totally not empathic.  “And you are drooling,” she added, looking pointedly at Marcello.

He wasn’t quite drooling, but I wouldn’t have blamed him if he had been.  Janice is always gorgeous; she can’t help it.  The spirits/gods/ancestors/whatever blessed her with loose blonde curls that she wore long and barely tamed, small but perfectly shaped breasts, a tiny waist, and an ass that was sure to get your attention if the rest of her somehow didn’t.  Add to this green eyes and a beautiful smile on an equally beautiful face, and it was no wonder half the people I knew who were attracted to women would’ve gladly traded places with me and Matt.  That night, she made what she usually looks like seem downright ordinary and boring.  Her gown was pretty simple, light purple and flowy with glitter on the top of the bodice but no other decoration, but the way it fit her and the way it moved when she did made her go from merely gorgeous to breathtakingly incredible.  “You are amazing looking tonight,” I whispered.

Now you’re drooling, Courtney thought irritably, putting some extra “volume” behind it so I’d be sure to hear it.

Go dance with your boyfriend, brat, I thought back at her.

“He is not my boyfriend!” she said grumpily.

Janice smoothly defused the situation by taking Marcello’s hand, bowing, and saying, “Janice Esmeralda Fine.  You must be the boy Richie told me about, the one Lance took in.”

I felt a flash of embarrassment from him, and started to lead Jan away to dance before the kid could start feeling too awkward.

“You’re the one who digs up dead people for a living?” he asked, looking and sounding a bit nervous.  I nearly choked on the drink I took as I tried desperately not to laugh.

Janice sighed deeply and glared at me.  I put on my most innocent smile.  “Not quite.  I study dead people and especially what they’ve left behind for a living so as to gain a greater understanding of past cultures.”

“Still sounds creepy,” the boy said.

“It’s not.  It’s really fascinating.”  I could tell she was about to launch into her usual explanation of how archaeology is not creepy in the slightest and is in fact one of the most useful scientific disciplines ever and decided to save the kid, and myself, from it.

“It is a bit creepy,” I mock whispered to him before saying, in a more normal volume, “and your date seems to have wandered off.”

The kid blushed a bit as he said, “She’s not my date!”  He and Courtney were protesting this so much that they must’ve been attracted to each other.  It was cute.

Janice smacked me lightly in the head and told me to behave.  I laughed and hugged her tightly again.  It was great to have her back.  One of the worst things about both of our jobs is how much time we spend apart.  A fast tempo song started, and I turned to my wife, bowed deeply and said, faking the most high class Ruvellian accent I could manage — I couldn’t quite get Quinn’s, but I could at least get something pretty close — “Would you care to have this dance, bellmarevé?”

She smiled as she said, “Of course, bellmaraçé.”

Chapter Four: Quinn

“Lance, do you have a moment?” I asked, in Ruvellian, so hopefully he’d realize that what I wanted to talk about I’d like kept private.

“Sure, was just about to step out for a smoke.  Join me on the porch, if you want.”

He gestured for me to wait while he lit his vile cigarette — a variety that I didn’t know anyone who could afford better smoked until I met him — then leaned back against a porch post, the very picture of casualness, and asked, “So, what’s the deal with you and Ren that you wanna talk about?”

I glared at him.  I knew he was half-Magvinnian and that their brains aren’t equipped for privacy, but he’d lived among Humans his whole life.  He knew better.  “That was rude, and you well know it.”

“What?” he asked, sounding genuinely confused.  I still didn’t believe he was.

“Thoughts are private, as I’ve heard Viktor explain to you oft enough.”

“I didn’t read your mind.  Why else would you wanna talk to me?  You’re not much of a pilot, so it can’t be about ships.  You’re not lookin’ to quit the Daggers, so it can’t be about the Tezarin.  I suppose you could want some advice about sex, but from what I hear, you’re as talented a lover as me.  Though if you wanna help me do some hands-on research for my book . . .”  He trailed off with a wink.

“You’re writing another book?” I asked, surprised.

He nodded.  “Yep.  My other one’s a best-seller, you know.  Gotta keep my fanbase happy.”

“You do know what sort of person actually reads your book of pick-up lines, yes?  I can’t believe you want to cultivate that kind of fandom.”

“What’s wrong with my fans?” he asked, looking hurt.

I sighed.  “Lance, I’m the last person who could say anything about settling down romantically, but there’s a difference in . . . approach in my lifestyle and that of your fans.”  I was trying to be as delicate as I could.

He shrugged.  “We ain’t all as elegant as you.  Anyway, I just added that part because you make really interesting faces when I proposition you.”

Switching back to Ruvellian, and changing the subject, I said, “You were right.  I do want to talk about Renata and I.  You know she and I have been physically intimate for years, correct?”

“Assumed so.  She likes her guys dark haired, cocky, gorgeous, and handy in a fight.  Figure there ain’t many Dagger men meeting that description she hasn’t fucked.”

“Have you ever considered being less crass?  Even for just a moment?”

He shook his head.  “Why would I?  Anyway, what’s the problem?  I mean, I can guess, but I assume you’d rather I don’t.”

“Thank you.  I’ve always been fond of Renata.  She’s charmingly odd, a brilliant engineer and mechanic, beautiful, an incredible lover, and one of the best swordsmen I’ve ever seen.”  Lance nodded, thus far I hadn’t said anything most who knew and liked her would disagree with.

“I needed a place to stay for a while, and you all were headed off to Earth and needed a pet sitter, so she offered me the spare room.  I’d intended to move on when you got back, but plans fell through, and then I discovered I enjoyed spending so much time in her company.  Well, everyone’s, really, but especially hers.”  I paused as I tried to figure out the rest of what I was going to say.  For possibly the first time in his life, Lance was waiting patiently.  “I’ve known Renata well for years, but I knew Renata the Dagger, not Renata the Person.  I knew, intellectually, she had a couple of dozen children and several spice.  But . . . I guess I’d never realized just how much they meant to her.”  I studied a loose thread on my coat sleeve, unwilling to say the next part.  I cannot be in love!  Not with her, I scolded myself as I’d been doing for some time to no avail.

Lance lit another one of those horrible cigarettes then said, “You’ve fallen in love with her.”

I, reluctantly, nodded.  “Yes, I have.  And that’s the problem.  I can’t settle down.  It’s not for me.  I crave excitement, adventure, and new experiences too much to be tied down with a family, and I know that’s what Renata would want from me if we were to get seriously involved.”

Lance looked more serious than I’d ever seen him.  “I understand.  You wanna be someone who can disappear for half a year then come back and spoil those little guys for korvare, then disappear again.”  He pointed to Kaelee and Dejah as he talked.  I hadn’t noticed them.  I rather hoped they didn’t speak Ruvellian.  There was no telling with the children in that family.  Lance continued, “I really understand.  There are times I wish that’s what I still was.  I love my spice; I adore my kids and grandkids, but there are days when I miss the freedom of just going where I wanted without needing to say goodbye, without needing to worry about what I was missing.  But, it was that freedom or Vik’s heart, and that nitpicky fop was — is — more important to me than anything else.”  He paused thoughtfully for a piclano.  “Well, he’s got some equals now, but . . . gah, words are his business, not mine.  Am I making any sense?”

I couldn’t help but chuckle a bit at him.  He was usually so perfectly self-possessed; it was rare to see him anywhere near this flustered.  “More or less.  I think what you’re saying is I have to figure out which means more to me:  total freedom or having a place in the heart of short, temperamental swordswoman.”

“Pretty much, yeah.  I know which I’d choose, but I ain’t you.  Also, when I made that choice, I was choosing to become the husband of four people and the daddy of three.  You’d be choosing to be the husband — or potential husband, I guess — of eight, daddy of thirty, and grandpa of . . . a lot, I ain’t quite sure how many grandkids I got any more.”

“Exactly.”  I shook my head ruefully.  “Maybe this would be less of an issue for me if it wasn’t someone with such a large family that I was falling for.”

“Or if you were younger,” Lance suggested.

I nodded; fifty is rather old to suddenly consider becoming a family man.


I spent most of the day silently pondering what Lance had said.  My thoughts were interrupted by a hug from behind accompanied by Renata saying, “You’re goin’ to the ball tonight, right?”

“Of course, cartima.  When have I ever missed a chance to dance with beautiful women?”

“T’zort.  You skipped the ball the royals threw to thank us for restoring their throne,” she said after a moment’s thought.

“That was because of special circumstance,” I countered.  “Her Majesty was unhealthily enamored with me.  His Majesty was none too fond of me because of this.”

“And you’d done absolutely nothing to encourage her, of course,” Renata teased.

“Not after I found out she was the queen!  When I thought she was just one of the rebels, yes.  She was beautiful, charming, intelligent . . . you flirted with her too.”

Ren shrugged.  “Maybe.  Don’t recall.  Anyway, it was a chance to dance with beautiful women and you passed it up, so there has been a time you missed the chance to dance with beautiful women.”

“Fine.  I take it you’re going?”

She nodded.  “Yep.  Try not to miss many during Winter Fest season.  They somehow are more fun than most throughout the year.”

She was right.  Somehow the coldness of the season forcing them all to be indoors added a certain something to them, a touch of elegance usually missing from Sweytzians lives.  I was about to say that, then realized that the odds were that Renata wasn’t fond of them because of their elegance.  No, it had to be something different that appealed to the woman who frequently had to be begged to change out of pants with engine grease on them before going to classy restaurants.  “The faster paced dances?” I suggested, referring to the gavar and sevim especially, dances traditionally done to classic Winter Fest music.

She shrugged.  “Could be.  Could just be that I really like this time of year.  Winter Fest and Jül are both awesome holidays.” Jül, I’d learned, was a religious holiday from Earth.  It involved family, large meals, plants hanging from doorways — these, for no reason I could fathom, you were supposed to kiss people under — and presents under large trees in the living room.  I was also not clear on what the trees had to do with the presents.  Terran culture is very confusing to me.

“Anyway,” she said, “I was just curious.  Look forward to dancing with you tonight.”

“And I, you, cartima,” I said, smiling at the curvy woman before me.  Renata was not, it has to be said, traditionally attractive.  She was very short, a touch overweight, her long brown hair was almost perpetually tangled and unkempt, and her clothes tended to look like she’d just thrown on the first things she found on her floor that morning.  But there’d always been something about her . . . that mischievous twinkle in her eye, the way she carried herself like she knew damned well there was nothing out there that could stand in her way, the way the light danced off her hair when she was coerced to brush it, the curves that even her preferred baggy shirts and jeans didn’t disguise, yes, all of that . . . but something else too, something intangible that had made her stand out to me from the first day I’d arrived on the Asylum.

It turned out that the whole household was going to this ball, so soon all were caught up in the barely controlled chaos that that many people getting ready for something, especially when so many of them are so young, always is.  I, always willing to help with the children even if I didn’t want to be obligated to, had changed Rysia, the youngest of the children, into a precious lace covered petal pink dress and carried her to her parents’ room, in the hopes that she could stay out of anything that might get it messy with that many people around to watch her.  I heard good-natured fussing as soon as I came in the room.

“Oh, good,” Viktor said, half-turning when I came in.  “Someone who might actually be helpful.  Quinn, which of these earrings goes best with this doublet?”  He held up two pair that might as well have been identical from across the large room.

Carefully studying the gold embroidery on his black velvet doublet as I got closer, I said, “The larger ones.  The smaller ones don’t go with how very elaborate the design is.”

“Thank you,” he said.  “See?  That’s how to be helpful,” he added pointedly to Lance who was perched on the edge of Viktor’s vanity.

Lance stuck his tongue out at his husband then hopped down.  “I’m gonna go see if anybody needs any help.  Try to limit yourself to only redoing your hair once and maybe we can get out of here when we’re planning to for once.”  He quickly ran out of the room, a huge grin on his face as he knew Viktor would never catch him.  Everyone else in the room, except Rysia and Arianna who were trying to figure out where Zarilia — Viktor’s pet, an Earth animal called a cat — had gone, either stifled a laugh, or, in the case of Ren and Tera, laughed outright.

“I love you all, just so you know,” Viktor said sardonically, fighting a smile himself.

“Is there anything else I can do to be helpful?” I asked, sitting on the foot of one of the three beds in the room and watching Renata button a wine colored tunic with quite a bit of embroidery.

“I don’t think so,” Jasmine said in very thickly accented Galfarran.  I wished for her sake that I spoke more Allurian so she didn’t have to communicate in the language she still struggled some with after nearly twenty years.  “Lance and Rur are both checking on the kids; Tera’s already gotten Ren’s hair brushed somehow, amazingly,” Renata’s gesture in response to that was far from polite, “so I think we’re just waiting on us to be done.”

“I could help you get dressed, if you need it,” I said, giving the beautiful Allurian a suggestive look.

“You’re as bad as Lance,” she said, smiling as she adjusted the top of her dress while looking in the large mirror in one of the other vanities.

For the first time I realized how starkly the delicate white one contrasted with Viktor’s large, ornately carved wooden one.  This caused me to ponder the rest of the furniture in the house and it’s lack of perfect coordination.  The dining room matched perfectly, which made sense as they’d probably had to have a table that could seat forty specially made — even on Sweytz families don’t tend to be that large, but the library, the parlor, their bedroom . . . in all of those the furniture didn’t clash, exactly, but neither did it match.  Given how particular some of them, especially Viktor, were about appearances in other ways, it suddenly struck me as odd.  So, I decided I might as well ask.  “Pardon me if this seems rude, but I’m curious:  why have you never made more of an effort to have matching furniture?  I know you have the money to refurnish this whole house twice over, at least, even with the extravagant tastes some of you have.”  I smiled at Viktor as I finished speaking.  A sulid before he’d gotten in an argument with Renata over the cost of a new table he wanted for the library.  She had issues with spending such a hefty sum on something that was just going to be used for holding things like vases.  I’d stayed out of it, despite both their attempts to drag me in.

Tera smiled in amusement.  “Can you imagine trying to get all of us to agree on something like that?  Viktor wants ornate dark wood and velvet and brocade everywhere; Ren doesn’t care, but prefers it be something she can scuff up without the rest of us bitching at her; Lance follows the whim of the moment when he buys anything . . . you can see why it was easier for us to just let everyone keep whatever furniture even sort of worked together, right?”

“That makes an incredible amount of sense,” I said, after pondering it for a moment.  “I suppose it’s one of those little things that makes your relationship work when every other one I’ve ever known of with this many people in it has fallen apart over . . . well, I’m not privy to all the details, of course, but it seemed to be over just the day to day stuff, like decorating and what to have for dinner.”  I hadn’t really meant to say that part aloud, but I suppose no harm was done by it.  After all, Lance was the only one who knew why I was pondering things like how exactly their relationship worked, and he was being civilized enough not to blab about it.

“Exactly,” Viktor said, braiding his hair elaborately in a way that wove a ribbon matching the embroidered panels on his doublet through it.  “A big part of why this marriage works is because we long ago decided not to worry about petty stuff, like coordinating furniture.  We discuss things, of course, and all of us have some furniture we dearly loved from before we were together that’s been relegated to kid’s rooms, storage, or Ren and Tera’s old house . . . or Don’s now too, forgive me for forgetting you momentarily, dear . . . but for the most part we decided it’s not something worth worrying too much over.”

“Do you hear this?” Ren said to Tera in very disbelieving tones.  “Him making it sound like it’s not an idea we had to browbeat him with before he’d agree to it?”

“Excuse me, dear,” Viktor said, “but just because I thought something was a bad idea nearly thirty years ago doesn’t mean I think it is now.  Besides, I do still think we could’ve agreed on a more uniform look back when it was only the four of us.”

“Five,” Ren corrected.  “Me, you, Tera, Rur, Lance.  That’s five.”

“I wasn’t counting Lance.  When we moved in here, he and I had hardly started dating.”

Renata shrugged.  I admired the way her arm muscles looked under the diaphanous sleeves of her tunic.  “It was pretty much a foregone conclusion from the moment you two first admitted how you felt about each other that you’d end up together.  You ready to go yet, or do you need to change all of your jewelry again?”

“For that, you’re not getting the first dance,” Viktor said, standing.  It always amazed me how gracefully he still managed to move with one leg that was all but useless.

She shrugged again.  “Oh well.  I’m sure Rur’ll have the first dance with me,” she said, going to the large Kivanian and snaking an arm around his waist as he entered the room.

“I’m sorry,” he said, his accent not quite as thick as Jasmine’s but still very noticeable, “but I already told Tera I’d dance with her first.”

Time to be the charming gentleman, I thought.  I stood even more gracefully than Viktor, crossed to Renata, took her hand in mine and said, “I, on the other hand, would be delighted to be your first dance partner this evening, bellmarevé.”

She smiled at me very fondly.  I pretended not to notice the knowing look Tera and Vik exchanged.  There would be time enough later to worry about how this . . . thing . . . between Renata and I would work out.  For now, I was going to concentrate on enjoying the ball.

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Chapter Three: Vincent

Markig had a huge smile as he walked out of rehearsal, a huge smile that turned into one hell of a pissed off glare when he saw me there.  I shrugged at him and mouthed, “What’s wrong?”

He pointedly ignored me for a few while he talked to some of his friends, cheering up again so that by the time he headed over to me his huge smile had returned.  “You don’t have to walk with me, Tollur.  I’m not a little kid.”

Oh.  That’s why he’s pissed, I thought, rolling my eyes at the conclusion he’d jumped to.  What the fuck is it gonna take to get through to him that I don’t think of him as a little kid? I wondered for the thousandth time that sulid alone.  Since he’d decided not to do the tagreeth, he seemed convinced that I was never going to see him as the young adult he was; nothing I said did a damned bit of good to convince him otherwise.  “I ain’t walking with ya cuz you’re a kid.  I’m walkin’ with ya cuz I was headed this way anyway — was in town running an errand for Kanji — and thought maybe we could snag lunch together.”

“Oh,” he said a bit sheepishly, looking at his feet.  Then his smile got bigger than ever and he said, “I have some great news!”

“I’ll never guess,” I said as we started walking towards a bistro I knew he loved.

“Emmerich has goifa!”

I stopped walking and turned to my son, shocked.  From Chess, I could believe this.  Hell, even Maggie had one hell of a vindictive streak at times.  But Markig?  My eldest boy was one of the kindest people I’d ever met.  “Your friend has a nasty ass virus, and you’re happy?!” I asked incredulously.

He laughed.  “No!  That’s not why I’m happy!  Lurlur, who was his understudy?”

I had a feeling I should’ve known this.  Luckily, Markig’s smile gave me the answer.  I racked my brain trying to remember who Emmerich had been playing.  I’m pretty sure my smile equalled my son’s when I realized the answer.  “You’ll be playing Roderigo?”

He nodded.  I hugged him as I said a quick, silent prayer of thanks . . . and one for Emmerich to get better soon, but not too soon.  Didn’t want the kid to suffer, but wanted my boy to get his chance too.

“I think that calls for somethin’ a bit better than Xavis for lunch, don’t you?”

He got a mischievous twinkle in his eye that was a bit too much like looking in a mirror and said, “Carazot’s?”

I sighed heavily.  I hate Mamiof cuisine; Markig loves it.  “If it’s what you really want, sure.  I’m sure they’ve got something I’ll eat.”

He hugged me tightly and said, “I’m just kidding.  I’d like to go there, but it can wait until Poppa can go with me.  Xavis is fine for lunch.”

“You sure?”

He nodded.  “Besides, Maggie’s making hygliak for dinner, so I don’t want to be too full.”

“Why does no one tell me these things?”

“You were out of the room helping Chess find her shoes.”

“Still, you’d think someone would’ve told me later.  Anyway, let’s get to Xavis.”  I smirked at him as I added, “I’ll let you have some time alone there so you can tell Najara the good news.”

“I can tell her with you there.  I just can’t celebrate it with her with you there.”

I laughed.  It was one of the rare times he sounded like he was my kid.


That evening, while Markig was outside with Najara, looking at the stars — allegedly; it hadn’t been so long since I was fourteen that I believed that’s all they were doing — I said to Kanji as I sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.  “I’m feeling really fucking old right now.”

She gave me an incredulous look.

“We have a kid old enough to play Roderigo Malsereno, and it ain’t even our eldest.”

She kissed my cheek and said, “If our kids didn’t get older, we wouldn’t get grandkids.”

I looked over at Tirzah, happily playing on the floor nearby and smiled.  “You got a point.  I kinda like bein’ a grandpa.”

“I know.  Besides, Roderigo is a teenager.  When we have a kid old enough to play Xavier, then you can feel old.”

“Yeah, I suppose so, but I don’t think we’ll ever have a kid playin’ him.”

Kanji looked at me quizzically.

“I think even on Sweytz it’d be hard to get people to accept a Mugdaran Xavier Flores.  Every Ruvellian around would be all ‘I am quite certain there was a Ruvellian man who could have played the part much better.’”  I thought I’d done a pretty good imitation of a high class Ruvellian accent, to judge from Kanji’s opinion, she felt differently.

Walter poked his head around the doorway and asked Kanji, “Why is our husband doing bad imitations?”

“It wasn’t bad!  I sounded just like Quinn.”

“Ren’s boyfriend?” my husband asked.

I nodded.  “Fucktoy, actually, but yeah, him.”

“He sounds nothing like that,” Walt said as he came in the room.

I studied him for a piclano.  “You look different.”

He and Kanji both looked at me like I was nuts.

I smirked and said, “There’s something missin’.”  I pretended to contemplate it for a moment, then said, “I’ve got it!  Your hands ain’t got a book in ‘em!”

He made a rude gesture but smiled.  “I’m taking time off over the holiday.  I’ll get back to work on my dissertation in Unua.”

“Good,” I said.  “You need a break.  So, you just gonna stand there, or can those hands that ain’t occupied by a book come give me a neck rub?”

He laughed and joined Kanji and on the couch.  “So, why were you doing a bad imitation of Quinn’s accent?”

“It wasn’t bad!  You two just don’t pay close enough attention to how people talk!”

Walt kissed my cheek.  “Vince, I love you.  I love you very much.  You’re an incredibly talented man, in several different ways.  But please, for the sake of everybody who can hear, leave the acting to Markig.”

“Kanj, back me up here.  It wasn’t that bad, right?”

She kissed my other cheek and said, “He’s right.  Leave the acting to Markig.”  Then to Walter, “He was showing how he thinks Ruvellians would react if Markig were ever cast as Xavier Flores.”

Walt shrugged.  “On Ruvellia, yeah.  Around here . . . I doubt it.  That trip to Earth for their Jül rattled your brain, love.  You’re seeing prejudice in places it isn’t.”

“Eh, maybe you’re right.  Anyway, hopefully by the time he’s old enough to play Xavier, Markig’ll have moved on to better things than plays at the local faire.”

“I hope so,” Kanjetta whispered softly.  She’d always been content to perform at small, local things, but our son’s dreams were bigger than that.  I’m pretty sure all three of us were praying for them to come true in the silence that followed what she said.


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Chapter Two: Quinn

I’d missed dinner.  That was disappointing.  Sven had cooked it, so I knew it had to have been good.  Oh well, I thought as I walked across the parlor, attempting to sneak up on Renata.  Maybe there’s some left.  And even if there’s not, it’s not like there’s ever a shortage of food in this house.

Lyndsey saw me, but just smiled and went back to studying her cards.  No one else noticed me.  “Boo,” I said quietly, touching the shoulder of the wonderful woman who’d been kind enough to let me stay in her house for the past few korvare.

“Hi, Quinn,” Renata said, amused, as she tilted her head back to kiss me.

“Hello, cartima.  Lyndsey, good to see you again.  Nice bruise.  I take it the other person looks worse?”

“Oh, yeah, definitely,” the young woman said, tossing a handful of credits into the pot.

“How’s the game going?” I asked as I pulled up a chair.

Kris and Courtney grumbled, Lyndsey shrugged, and Renata said with a grin, “I think you can guess.”  I was rather amazed they were playing with Courtney.  Telepaths are banned from the majority of professional games for a reason, after all.

I whispered a suggestion in Renata’s ear.  “She doesn’t need your help, sivak,” Lyndsey said, calling me what I was sure was a very rude word in some language.

“Who said what he was saying had anything to do with this game, kid?” Ren said, lying smoothly.  “Maybe he was making a suggestion for after the game. Did you ever think of that?”

“Mom, Quinn’s never bothered to be subtle about propositioning you before, why would he start now?”

I chuckled.  Lyndsey did have a point, loath as I was to admit it.  Once upon a time I’d had too much class and decorum to have propositioned someone blatantly in front of their children, but that was before I spent many years as a Dagger.  Some of the less savory behaviors of my fellows had rubbed off on me.

“You know, he could have been suggesting something that had nothing to do with kista or sex, child,” Renata said, tossing another fifty into the pot.  Internally I smiled approvingly.  She was taking my advice.

Everyone else at the table looked incredulous.  “He coulda been!  Just because it’s not likely doesn’t mean it’s impossible!”  Ren argued.

“Suuuure, Momma,” said Kris, before shaking his head sadly at his cards, folding, and saying, “I need to get going, and I’m already out more money than I wanted to be so good luck convincing me otherwise.  Good night, everybody.”

I started to ask if I could join the game in his stead, but before I got the first word out, both Lyn and Ren gestured to the seat he’d abandoned.  It was an enjoyable game.  Courtney apparently couldn’t quite read our minds well enough to get much of an advantage . . . Lyndsey was probably doing that bizarre ninja thing where she keeps an annoying song in the forefront of her mind to help, I was thinking in Ruvellian as I almost always do when I play kista, so that left just Renata, and she was having such incredible luck that no amount of knowing what cards she had or what she was thinking would’ve helped anyone much.  Eventually Courtney left the game, deciding that helping Crystabel do someone’s hair was more fun.  Kista does not work well as a three person game — it twists the odds in weird ways — so I was about to propose looking for a fourth player when Martoz came over, Soshanna sleeping in his arms.

He kissed Lyndsey’s cheek and said, “I think we should get home.  She’s sound asleep, and Val’s not going to be awake much longer.”  Lyndsey looked so maternal right then, so unlike the woman I’d seen easily dispatching foes so many times, as she kissed her baby’s head with a soft, sweet smile.

“Okay,” she said. “I’m gonna go tell other people goodbye.”

“So I guess it’s getting late?” Ren asked.  The large Mugdaran nodded.  Renata smiled at me seductively.  “Maybe we should head up to bed too.”

I inclined my head in agreement, took her hand, and escorted her to my room.


We were woken up much too early by an enthusiastic small child clamboring onto the foot of the bed and crawling her way up between us.  “Morning, Mommy!” a tiny voice said.

It’s a testament to how much Renata loves her children that she forced a smile and said, “Good morning, Arcielle” instead of growling and spewing a torrent of epithets worse than most spacers of my acquaintance knew, which is what she’d done every time I’d woken her that early.

“Play?” the happy little girl asked, clearly already wide awake.

“After coffee.  Why don’t you go see if Daddy Vik is up?”

She frowned.  “Writing.”

I took pity on the beautiful woman next to me.  “I’ll go play with you, sweetheart.  I think your mommy might need some more sleep.”

“Oh,” the tiny girl said as she took my hand in a surprisingly strong grasp and pulled me towards the door of the large room.

Ren shot me a thankful look, tucked the duvet closer around herself, and looked like she was quite ready to stay in bed for another few nulaire.

Soon other children joined Arcielle in the playroom, so I drifted downstairs to help with breakfast.  Viktor’s husband, Donovan, was making a pot of coffee; Tera was pouring tea; and Lance was sitting on the counter talking.

“Don’t you ever do anything useful?” I teased as I started cooking some sausage.

“I am being useful.  I’m entertaining people,” the former space rat said.

“Oh?  That story was supposed to be entertaining, was it?” Donovan said, his accent still terribly thick despite having lived on Sweytz for years.  Poor man seemed to have no head for languages.

“Yep,” Lance said, smirking.  “You just didn’t appreciate it cuz you’re a prude.”

“Decorum keeps me from saying what you are,” the Terran countered.

“You know I can tell what you’re thinking so that does no good, right?”

“I can’t control what I think.  I can control what I say though.  You should try it some time.”

I tuned them out; I’d heard variants of this argument several times before.  Donovan was usually a very easy-going man, but Lance always managed to get under his skin.

They were still bickering several saenaed later when Viktor came in, ink stains on his fingers.  It always amused me how primitive his preferred writing tools were, but having seen the man struggle with the simplest computer, I could understand why he used something even Terrans considered old-fashioned.  He sighed and gave his husbands a significant look, a look that suggested they should shut up now or, at best, they’d be sentenced to one of his lectures about proper behavior and setting a good example for the children.

Lance hopped off the counter and embraced Viktor, saying, “Good morning, sexy.”

“You’re not getting out of trouble that easily, dear.  Why were you tormenting Don again?”  Viktor sounded more like a father scolding a child than a husband right then.

“I wasn’t!” Lance said indignantly.  “He was tormenting me!”

Viktor looked at Donovan pointedly.

“I wasn’t tormenting him any more than he was tormenting me, Viktor, so keep that damned glare to yourself.  Now, could you come here and tell me if I got the coffee right?  I’m thinking it might’ve come out a wee bit too strong.”

After sampling the coffee and declaring it perfect — which warned me to stay away from it, as Viktor’s taste in coffee is vile — he helped all of us finish making breakfast.  Right as we were about to serve the meal, Renata came in looking groggy.  Wordlessly, Viktor handed her a cup of coffee that he’d roughly half filled with sugar.  “Good morning, love,” he said.  She grunted inarticulately in reply and downed the coffee quickly enough that I’m surprised she didn’t hurt her tongue.

I stared at her in disbelief, despite having seen her do this countless times before.  Viktor noticed my experssion and said, “I suspect she’s immune to pain this, ahem, early in the morning.”

She stuck her tongue out at him and poured herself another cup of coffee.


I’d just stepped out onto the porch for some peace and quiet — or as close to it as can be had at Renata’s house — when Lyndsey arrived, alone.  “Martoz and Ana got tired of you so quickly?” I teased.

She smiled.  “Nah.  They apparently haven’t done all my Jül present shopping yet, so they went to do that today.  Ana’s folks wanted to show the kids off to some friends of theirs, so I had nothing better to do than come over and pester my siblings, parents, and assorted hangers-on.”

“Assorted hanger-on.  That’s a new one for me to be called.”

The younger, blonde Renata clone shrugged.  “It fits.  So, wanna help me gather up some of the small fry for an epic snowball fight?”

“Sounds fun,” I said.

I found myself volunteered to be the captain of one team while Lyndsey captained the other.  The game was fun, if a bit marred by Viktor storming outside at one point to lecture Lyndsey for climbing on the roof and encouraging her team, even the very young members of it, to join her up there.

I concentrated on trying to get my team to pay attention to me and the other team instead of Lyndsey’s punishment so I only heard bits and pieces of what was said, but I still got the very distinct feeling that Viktor’s reaction wasn’t solely about this incident.  Lyndsey’s behavior had been . . . erratic . . . for some time.  All Daggers are cocky.  It’s a survival trait in our line of work.  Lyndsey, for the past several korvare, had been pushing the boundaries of good sense more than normal even for a Dagger in her quest for adventure and fun.

I was, I must admit, a bit glad she was receiving this lecture.  I was beginning to worry about her.  I’d lost too many friends to heedless overconfidence over the years.


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Chapter One: Richie

Somewhere out there in the tri-galaxies, one of my older sisters was headed home after fighting to free a world from a tyrant.  Somewhere out there, one of my other older sisters was headed home after a bit of smuggling.  I, on the other hand, was in the nursery of my own house trying to convince my daughters to take a nap.

“Izzy, c’mon, sweety.  I know you’re tired,” I said, putting her in bed for the fourth time in a nulair.  “Boris is sleepy,” I said, handing her her pale purple stuffed luriset.  “Why don’t you cuddle him?”

“Rosie’s up!” she argued.

“Only because you kept poking her,” I said, fighting the perfectly understandable urge to throttle my eldest daughter.  She wasn’t feeling the slightest bit of remorse for waking her sister up.  “Now, back in bed, both of you.  You need to be well rested for tonight.  We’re going to my parents’ house for dinner.  You don’t want to be too sleepy to enjoy that, do you?”

“Don’t wanna sleep with her!” Rosie said, clutching the pink stuffed dragon she carried with her everywhere to her chest.  “She’s meanie!”

“Fine then.  You can go nap on my bed.  Izzy . . . Rosie, what’s wrong, sweety?” I asked, having felt fear from my baby girl and caught a glimpse of her thoughts.  There was something about monsters in them, but I couldn’t make sense out of them beyond that.  There are times being only a quarter-Magvinnian is really annoying.

Rosie started to speak at the same time I noticed Izzy running off.  “Isabella Gwenneth Reddige-Fine, get your butt back in here!”

Izzy looked at me and apparently decided she didn’t like what she saw, as she climbed wordlessly back into bed.  “You’re cranky,” she informed me.

“Because you’re being a brat today.  Now, Rosie, what’s scaring you, baby girl?”

“Monsters under bed!” she yelled, clutching her dragon tighter.

I sighed heavily, wishing once again that I was telepathic enough to know who was to blame for this.  “Why do you think that?”

“James said so!”

I silently swore to kill my younger brother then said, “James is wrong.  Come with me, and we can look under the bed, okay?  Or you can climb up there next to your sister and sleep in here.”

She chose her sister over the monsters.  “Monsters eat little girls.  Izzy just pokes,” she informed me, as she scooted as far away from her sister as she could.

I ran my hands through my hair and shook my head as I walked back down to the living room.


They got done with their naps very shortly before it was time to get ready to go.  I’d spent their nap doing the less than fun parts of being a somewhat popular musician . . . arranging interviews, decling invitations to perform on worlds too far from home for me to be back with the girls in a reasonable amount of time, all sorts of really exciting shit like that.  It was tedious and annoying, but it was worth it.  The only thing in the universe better than the way I felt when performing was the way I felt when my little girls looked at me like I was the best thing in the universe.

I got them and me dressed without much incident . . . little things like Rosie somehow poking her sister in the eye with the hairbrush not counting.  That’s just the sort of thing that happens when you have an energetic four and two-year-old.

As soon as I got out of my speeder in my parent’s garage a very familiar one pulled in beside me.  “Serena!” I said, excitedly running over to hug my best friend.

“I feel so loved,” said Georgia, her wife and my sister.

“You are loved.  Just not as much as her,” I said with a teasing grin.

“Don’t worry, dear.  He’s just been missing me because I make his band actually sound good,” my darling best friend said, her lilting accent making the words sound even more sarcastic somehow.

“Nah, I do that.  You do help it look good though,” I said, smiling at the way the pants she was wearing showed off her long, shapely legs.

That we can agree on,” Georgia said, helping their daughters out of the speeder.

I was always amazed by Kaelee and Dejah.  They were a few korvare younger than Izzy, but always seemed so much older to me.  They were so much calmer than my little bundle of energy.  Izzy had held still for more than ten saenead at once only once in her life . . . when she had byopid fever.  Georgia and Serena’s daughters though, they sat quietly just because sometimes.  It was weird.

And I was a bit envious, but I’d never tell them that.

I hugged Georgia and her daughters, and then the kids wanted to build a snowman, so I went with them to help while Georgia and Serena caught up with other people.  Delthakk University classes had just ended the day before, so Serena had been busy giving and marking finals for the past sulid.  The sulid before that, she’d been under the weather.  So it’d been a fairly long time since she’d seen most of the people there.

After a bit, I felt someone coming up behind me who was nervous.  I also felt some very familiar minds.  Daddy Lance was here, with the stray space rat he’d taken in.  I’d talked to the kid on the comm a couple of times.  He seemed like a nice kid who’d just had shit luck up until then, so I took it upon myself to make him feel a bit more at ease.  Some people get overwhelmed by my family.  I’ve never been really sure why.  Janice, my wife, says this is because I grew up in it.  She might be right, I guess.

“Hey!” I said to the boy.  “This is Izzy, my little girl.” I gestured to her.  She was concentrating intently on placing rocks for the snowman’s mouth, otherwise she would’ve tackle hugged him by now I was sure.  She loves to meet people.  “Izzy, you want to meet someone new?” I asked.

She squealed, “Yeah!” then ran over and hugged him.  She didn’t, amazingly enough, tackle hug him.  I guess she was learning a bit of self-control.  “Hi!” she yelled.  “I’m Isbella Gwinif Reddige-Fine.  That’s my Daddy!”  She pointed excitedly at me.  What can I say?  I’m her favorite person.

Okay, one of them.  Her other daddy or her mommy or any of her grandparents and most of her aunts and uncles would’ve gotten introduced the same way.  Enthusiasm is Izzy’s defining trait.

The boy, laughing a bit, bowed and said, “Marcello Vilenti, at your service” in a Ruvellian accent thick enough to make Daddy Lance’s seem barely noticeable.

“Hi!” Izzy said again.  “You wanna help?  This is Kaelee and Dejah,” she pointed to the identical little blondes whose faces were practically hidden in their fur trimmed hoods.  “They’re Georgia and Seeny’s kids.  You can find somethin’ to use as a nose.  Rosie was supposed to, but she wandered off.”  An adorable thoughtful expression passed across my little girl’s face.  “Daddy!” she yelled after a piclano.  “We’re gonna be in trouble!  We lost Rosie!”

I know it was mean of me to laugh when she was so worried, but I couldn’t help myself.  “We didn’t lose her.  I was watching her.  She’s over there listening to the story Don’s reading.”

“Oh.  Building snowman’s more fun.”  She leaned toward Marcello and said, “My little sister’s kinda silly.”  He and I both laughed at that.  She joined in, though I’m pretty sure she had no clue why we were laughing.

Kaelee and Dejah, who’d been standing there perfectly calmly waiting for a chance to introduce themselves did so and then the five of us finished the snowman before joining in the game of tag going on around us.

Marcello and I were debating the attractiveness of various holo stars during a lull in the game when Sven came out and said, “Dinner is ready.  I think I made enough for everyone, but it looks like more people than I was expecting got here while I was cooking, so if you want to be sure you get to eat, go in and get some food now.”

“C’mon,” I said to Marcello, putting my hand on his shoulder to gently guide him through the throng headed inside.  “You don’t want to miss a dinner made by Sven.  He’s a gourmet chef.”

I swung Rosie onto my hip and was about to tell Izzy to stay near when Serena picked her up.  “Thanks,” I called.

“Not a problem.  Wouldn’t want this tiny thing to get trampled.”

Once inside, you didn’t have to be an empath or telepath to notice that Marcello was overwhelmed.  The house I grew up in can have that effect on people.  Actually, I was gaping a tiny bit myself.  My parents had just redecorated and the new carpet and reupholstered furniture in the parlor made them look even richer than usual.  The new carpet was light blue with a faint purple vine design and the furniture, which had been mostly maroon for years, was now covered in blue fabrics of various shades.  It was still the same eclectic mix of styles it’d always been, but more of it matched better than ever before.

I, personally, thought it’d looked better with more of it not matching and, especially, with more of it maroon, but no one asked my opinion.  And if I’d offered it, they would’ve just told me I had no taste or accused me of being colorblind probably, because people don’t appreciate my style choices.

Marcello just stood there, gaping.  “You okay?” I whispered after a moment.

“Yeah, just . . . how rich are you guys?!”

“I’m honestly not sure.  All I know is we get 500 credit a korva allowances until we’ve got a job that pays better.”

The kid stared at me in utter disbelief.  I didn’t really blame him.  I mean, my music was popular enough that I made decent money, and Janice’s job paid well, and Matt’s helped, but my girls weren’t going to be getting 500 credit allowances any time soon.  “But, aren’t there something like thirty of you?!”

I nodded.  “Yeah, but most of us make more than that now.  I don’t get an allowance any more; Lyn’s a Dagger, so you know she makes more than that; Ria’s a pirate captain . . . I think the oldest of us that gets an allowance still is Sal, and even she might . . .”  I trailed off.  He wasn’t paying attention any more.

“Pirate captain?  Ria?”

I gently pushed him towards the dining room; we’d barely made it inside.  “Yeah, or ‘honest trader’ if she’s running from somebody.  She’s supposed to be here already; I hope she’s just running late.”  It’d really put a damper on the holidays if she spent them in jail.

He started to say something and stopped abruptly when we walked into the dining room.  The redecoration hadn’t reached this far yet, but someone had decided this counted as a meal fancy enough for the best dishes apparently.  Silver plates and crystal goblets were in front of most of the seats at the huge table, and the little kids were being gently guided to the seats with less breakable drinking things.  Marcello sat on one side of me and Rosie on the other.

I couldn’t spare any attention for him during the meal, being occupied by helping my kids and feeding myself.  I was really glad Janice would be back from her dig soon.  Matt’d been having a lot of gigs lately that went over dinner time, so with her gone, I’d been feeding the kids alone a lot.  I was getting used to eating cold food.

Rialanna got there during the meal.  “Oh, good!  I was afraid I’d missed dinner!  Momma Ren, if you could take a look at my hyperdrive later, I’d appreciate it.  It’s not been acting right since the last fight I was in.  Wow, Lyn, nice bruise!  Forget how dodging works again?”

I hadn’t really paid much attention to Lyn when she’d gotten there so until right then I hadn’t noticed the very dark bruise under one eye, taking up almost all of her cheek.  It looked really painful.  There’s a reason that, while I admire the Daggers, I’d never be one.  Pain is a bad thing.

“Screw you,” Lyn said good naturedly.  “Some jackass Neo-Imperialist hit me in the face with his blaster after it malfunctioned.  Damned near broke my cheek bone.”

“Ow,” Rialanna said, filling her plate.  “Still, you should’ve been able to dodge it, shouldn’t you, with all that fancy ninja stuff?”

“Oh gods!” Lyn said, desperation radiating from her.  “Kenshin is going to give me hell for this.  Thanks, sis.  I hadn’t realized that yet.”

Rialanna bowed mockingly.  “All in a day’s work for little sisters.”  Then she noticed Marcello. “Oh, hi, you’re new.”

“Marcello Vilenti, at your service,” he said with a slight bow of his head.  Kid had manners, that was for sure.

“Mrrsharan Rialanna Nahirim Sullockalonesk-Evans at yours,” she said, rising to bow with a deep flourish.  For some reason she and Lyn never just introduce themselves, there’s always a deep, flourishing bow involved.  And people say I’m too flamboyant.

“Aren’t you a little . . . unfurry . . . to be an Aslith captain?” he asked.

“Yes, but a lot of my crew is Aslith.”

I tuned out there conversation as well as I could with it taking place right next to me.  Don’t get me wrong, I find piracy as fascinating as anyone, but this conversation seemed the sort that was going to end up discussing intricate details of ships and shit that I didn’t care about.  Besides, I had the start of a song in my head and wanted to get done eating so I could get to writing it.  Rosie was already done eating, and Izzy nearly so.

Sure enough, the next thing I heard was Rialanna and Marcello discussing why ships like hers aren’t made any more.  Seriously, why does anyone find things like that interesting?  I quickly returned to not paying any attention to them.

After dessert, Daddies Lance and Vik went out to smoke; Momma Jazz and some other people went to the living room to play an Allurian game I can’t recall the name of; and Kris and Courtney were feeling brave enough to play kista with Momma Ren and Lyn.  Most of the littler kids, my daughters included, had headed to the downstairs playroom and were making a racket.  Some people find the amount of noise made by that many kids annoying, but having grown up with so many people around, too much quiet makes me edgy.  I was happy for all the noise.  I stretched out in front of the large fireplace in the parlor and started working on the song.


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