“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.