Talan propped his elbows on the table at Chirper’s and looked down at Ari, who gaped in a doggie grin and rolled over onto her back. “Where is everyone, girl? I thought I overslept, but no one is here. I hope nothing happened.” He poked at his breakfast and sighed, then nearly jumped out of his skin when Mal suddenly appeared at his elbow.
“Does this cloak make me look fat?” the elf asked, twirling around and then sitting with a flourish.
Talan shook his head, chuckling. “No, Mal, it doesn’t make you look fat.” Haden walked in, shaking rain off cloak and yawning. Clearly he’d just been outside. He looked tired, and paler than usual.
“Mornin’,” the bard said, sitting down and ordering a pot of strong coffee. He tossed a bag of gold coins and several items on the table.
“Didn’t you get any sleep last night?” Talan asked.
“Do I ask you your business?” Haden asked with uncharacteristic harshness. “And no, I didn’t get any sleep. However, we now know what dweomers these objects possess, so I count it as a win.”
“You know, for a bard you don’t seem like much of a people person,” Mal remarked.
“Don’t worry, Mal, I’m in too good of a mood this morning to care,” Talan said cheerfully.
“They already know me, so I don’t have to pretend to be charming,” Haden replied, gulping down coffee. It seemed to help a bit, and he rallied somewhat. “Besides, I don’t want Talan or Joris getting too attached to me, I might just have to break their poor little hearts and they couldn’t survive something like that.”
“Uh, good morning, you three,” Margram said awkwardly. He was carrying his suitcase. “Yolette is still sleeping upstairs. She said Baltazo never gave her a bed. I think she’s afraid she’ll lose it.”
Haden nodded. “I’d try to stay out of the public eye if I were you. Good luck.” Margram bowed, taking this for a dismissal.
“Thanks. I’ll see you around maybe,” he said, and departed.
“So, what is on our agenda for today?” Mal asked. “Dragonslaying? Crypt crawling? Maiden rescuing?”
Haden yawned yet again. “Sleeping, maybe?”
“Oh, don’t start that . . .” Talan said, breaking off as he yawned hugely himself. “Poor Yolette. She seems to have really taken to you, Haden.”
“It’s always like that at first,” Haden said, “but eventually she’ll realize what a worthless lay about I am and disown me.”
“Shouldn’t take long,” Mal affirmed.
“What are we going to do with her, anyway?” Haden continued, ignoring Mal pointedly. “She needs education and a stable life if she’s ever going to be able to take care of herself. Ah, look, here’s Joris.”
Joris hurried into the room, slightly out of breath. “Sorry I’m late, everyone.” He flopped down at the table and waved for the waiter, ordering a large breakfast and another pot of coffee.
“No problem, Joris, we weren’t really doing anything, anyway,” Talan said. “Just trying to think of what we ought to do about Yolette.”
“What do you think, Joris? I don’t know anything about children,” Haden asked.
“Mmph,” Joris said, trying to avoid choking on his mouthful of coffee. “I’ve got a sister not much older than she is. Let me think . . .”
Haden chuckled. “You’re awfully pale and mussed, you know, did you have an encounter with an amorous vampire or something?”
“Um . . .” Joris said. Haden’s eyes widened.
“Are you okay?” Talan asked.
“You look vexed,” Mal commented as Joris turned slowly pink.
“Something like that, yes, Haden.”
“You’re *joking*,” Haden said in disbelief.
“No. Listen, I have to tell you all what happened. It’s . . . about Raven, the lady I was dancing with at the Masque.”
“She’s a man?” Mal asked. “I knew it!” Talan shushed him irritably.
“A gentleman doesn’t discuss that sort of thing . . .” Haden said, trying to head off any uncomfortable and pointless confessions.
“No, you need to hear this,” Joris insisted. “She’s a succubus.”
“I meant succubus,” Mal said instantly. Haden and Talan stared at Joris. Talan’s expression was concerned, but Haden looked very much like he was still waiting to hear the punch line. Joris waved his hands in the air, trying to find the words.
“She’s Kalisa, also. Or, Raven is one of Kalisa’s disguises, only in her real form she looks like Raven. But she wants me to *redeem* her.”
“Redeem her for what, a stuffed animal?” Haden demanded. Joris glared, offended. “Sorry, that was uncalled for. I was thinking this was a little far-fetched, but it *is* Sigil after all. Silly me.”
“Uh . . .what exactly does ‘redeeming’ entail?” Talan asked.
Mal grinned and leaned over toward Joris. “Redeem me, oh redeem me!” he squealed in a falsetto voice. Joris hid his flaming face in his arms.
“It means she wants me to bring her into the light, to the cause of good,” the cleric explained, his voice muffled.
“Sorry about the joke, I couldn’t resist,” Mal said gently.
“Neither could I,” Joris mumbled. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, it was all so . . . overwhelming.”
Haden shrugged. “It’s a bit unusual, but I hardly see that it’s a problem, as long as you think she’s honest. Succubi can be trouble, but I expect you knew that already.”
“She told me her True Name,” Joris explained.
“Then she’s probably honest,” Haden replied.
“What?” Talan asked. “Explain that to me?”
“A being’s True Name is its most treasured secret,” Joris said. “It’s not like the names we use every day . . .they’re just labels. A True Name *is* the person it names. If you know someone’s True Name, you hold in your hands everything that they are, were, or ever will be. It’s a terrible power.”
Haden nodded. “You did go to bed with her?”
“Yes,” Joris said, sighing. “Like I said, I couldn’t resist.” Haden pinched the bridge of his nose and grimaced, staring at the table. “What? I hardly think you’re the one to be making judgments about *that*, of all things.”
“It’s not you,” Haden said shortly. “I can’t see why you should even try to resist.”
“Well consorting with fiends is *supposed* to be an unforgivable sin,” Joris said sharply. “But they’re all supposed to be evil, too. I don’t know. Kalisa may not be good, but she isn’t evil any more. Anyway, I just wanted to tell you, I thought you should know. And it’s just as well Sheen isn’t here. I’m afraid she won’t . . . approve.”
“How is she doing, anyway?” Mal asked.
“She seemed all right,” Haden said diffidently.
“You will eventually have to tell her about this,” Talan cautioned.
“I know, I will,” Joris said. “I’m still just, you know, working through it all.”
“Well, just remember that you’ve got nothing to feel guilty about,” Talan said. “For that matter, neither do I.”
Joris brightened. “Yes, how did that turn out?”
“Sheen, good to see you!” Talan announced, his voice tinged with desperation. Sheen blinked, startled at the greeting. Her hair was damp, like she’d just had a bath. She didn’t say anything for a long moment, simply stared at Haden like she hadn’t heard Talan at all. Haden didn’t look up at her, but he didn’t quite avoid her gaze, either, he simply rose to his feet and held out a chair for her. She held her gaze on him for a moment longer, then slowly sat down and turned to regard Joris and Talan.
“Are you feeling better?” Joris asked, trying to look sideways at Talan without being obvious about it. He suspected that Talan was wearing the same ‘what the heck was that?’ expression.
“Yes, I’m fine,” Sheen said. “I’m sorry I’m late, but Dr. Rhas had some work for me and I thought I’d get cleaned up before I joined you. In any case, I think I have a solution for our little problem, at least for the time being.”
“Which problem?” Joris asked blankly.
“Yolette, of course. Why, is there another problem I don’t know about?” Sheen asked. Talan coughed, looking around the room.
“Hey, Mal, what’s so interesting over there?” the ranger asked hurriedly and scurried away from the table. The elf was staring into the flames with an entranced expression on his face.
Joris opened his mouth and closed it several times, before finally squeaking out, “Itookasuccubustobedlastnight.”
“What?” Sheen asked. She heard Haden snort with laughter beside her and struggled not to turn and look at him.
Joris coughed. “Sorry. I took a succubus to bed last night.” He started to explain, but Sheen held up her hand, forestalling him.
“I don’t see what you expect me to do about it.”
Joris’ eyes widened: he was taken aback. “I . . . nothing. I just . . . thought you should know.”
“Well, I appreciate you being so up front about it, anyway. Is that why Talan’s hiding over there? Come back, you, I’m not going to bite anyone’s head off.” Talan returned to the table somewhat sheepishly.
“Anyway, what about Yolette?” Joris asked awkwardly.
“Yeah,” Talan said. “We were all sort of wondering what would be the best thing for her, anyway.”
“Dr. Rhas has a second room available across the hall from mine. I thought that she could come stay there. She can learn forging and other useful mechanical skills if she’s willing to work in the shop as an apprentice. It’s a good trade. Really, she’s almost old enough to be out on her own, but a public inn is no place for a child to live.”
“She’s pretty small,” Talan said. “Do you think she’d be up to the physical aspects of the work?”
“She’s almost as tall as I am,” Sheen said, “and I’ve been working in a forge since I was seven. The largest part of the work of an apprentice involves maintaining the tools and pumping the bellows. She’ll put on a little muscle, but none of the tasks are terribly onerous.”
“If Haden tells her it’s a good idea, she’ll probably jump on it,” Joris offered.
“Maybe. I’ll go get her and we’ll find out, then,” Haden said, and stood up. His sleeve brushed Sheen’s back and she shivered. Mal returned to the table from his solitary fire-contemplation and regarded Talan.
“You carry a Weapon of Legacy,” the elf intoned.
“Um . . . okay?” Talan said when Mal failed to add anything to his pronouncement. The elf just stared. “You and I are going to have to have a chat sometime soon,” Talan announced. Haden returned to the table, ushering Yolette in front of him. He pulled out a chair for her and bowed her into it. Sheen found herself smiling involuntarily. The young girl perched nervously, shrinking a bit at all the attention.
“Yeah?” she asked.
“I live above a shop across town a ways, and the man who owns it has another room available,” Sheen said without preamble. “I thought you might like it, and there will be work for you so you can earn some wages.”
Yolette ventured a smile. “Great! I’d like to pay you back for all your help . . . to be useful, to you. I started cleaning the room last night before I got sleepy . . .”
“You don’t have to clean up after these savages!” Sheen said, offended. “You don’t want them to start getting ideas.”
“It’s the only thing I know how to do,” Yolette quavered.
“We’ll make sure you learn something else, then,” Joris said.
“Well, eat some breakfast and we’ll go meet Dr. Rhas. Then we should probably do some shopping so that you have proper clothes and so forth.”
“Yeah, okay,” Yolette said, chewing rapidly. Sheen busied herself with some coffee so the girl wouldn’t choke herself
“I’ll come with you,” Haden said quietly.
“You don’t have to do that,” was Sheen’s instant reply. “I mean, you can if you want, but if you’d rather not . . .”
“I still know more about where to shop in this city than you do,” Haden reminded her. “I’d like to go, unless you’d rather I not . . .”
“No, nothing like that,” Sheen insisted.
“All right, then.” Both of them stared at the table. When Yolette had finished eating they got up, collected their cloaks, and left in silence.
“All right, did I miss something? What is going on with those two?” Joris demanded when they were gone. Talan shrugged.
“I’m not sure, it’s like they’re in one of their moods, but . . . not, somehow. What do you think?”
“I don’t know. They must have had an awful fight last night.”
Talan nodded. “Something like that. Look, I’m going to take Ari for a walk. I’ll meet you back here around lunchtime.”
“All right,” Joris said. “But what about Mal? Wait, where did he go?” They turned around in their seats, craning their necks to look over the breakfast crowd. Mal was ensconced at a table with two middle-aged women in a far corner. They appeared to be gossiping. Then they erupted with squeals and excited giggling.
“Oh, Rose, you are a mischievous one!” Mal bellowed, his voice carrying over the crowd.
“Well . . . at least he’s entertaining himself,” Talan offered weakly.
Haden was glad to return to Chirper’s. His awkward attempts to make conversation had fallen flat, and Sheen’s grim, silent presence was becoming almost physically painful to him. He found an open table under a window and sat down, deciding to give it one last try. “You know, I think you’ve corrupted me.” Her brows drew together and her face took on a familiar pinched look that heralded some sort of explosion, so he hurried to add: “I don’t really feel able to enjoy having nothing to do. It feels strange. It almost makes me wonder whether I ever really enjoyed it to begin with.”
Sheen put her arms on the table, her hands gripping each other tightly. “That’s . . . good?” she ventured. Haden almost screamed. He couldn’t think of another time in his life when he’d felt so at a loss for something, anything to say.
“Everything all right?” Joris asked, edging up to the table. He was surprised to see Haden and Sheen both straighten immediately and smile at him.
“No problems,” Haden said immediately. “Do you feel strangely at loose ends now that no one is immediately trying to kill us?”
“Well, maybe,” Joris said. Ari scrambled across the floor and dove under their table, followed moments later by Talan.
“Hi, guys! How’d it go with Yolette?”
“It was fine up until the building burned down and the screaming hellspawn appeared,” Haden drawled.
“I couldn’t bed them fast enough,” Joris added apologetically. Sheen gasped and ducked her head, laughing helplessly at the cleric’s incredibly awful joke.
“How much have you had to drink?” Talan asked. “Because I think I need to catch up.”
“We need to start looking for a portal to Arvandor before this leisure thing gets any more out of hand,” Sheen announced.
“Yes,” Joris said. “Kalisa is convinced that Baltazo was working for someone else. Of course, we, ah, didn’t talk about it much.”
Haden grimaced. “It wouldn’t surprise me. One thing you learn in this city is that there’s always another snake.”
“You don’t have to get involved with this,” Sheen said. “Gyderic is a bit . . . personal.”
“I saw what he did to Haden,” Joris replied grimly. “Whatever he did to you, I’m with you.”
“Well, he didn’t really do anything to me, exactly,” Sheen said. She peeked over at Haden. He nodded gravely and made a slight, open-handed, encouraging gesture. “He . . . sort of . . . we were, well, lovers.”
“Nothing wrong with that,” Talan said quickly.
“There is when he tries to kill the Elders of the Elan council, gets caught, and they torture me for days because they think I’m an accomplice!”
“You didn’t do anything wrong,” Talan insisted. “There’s nothing wrong with falling in love with someone.”
“I don’t think I really did love him,” Sheen said quietly. “That’s what makes it so awful. He called me his pawn, like I was some kind of . . . of useful pet. You heard the message! Anyway, so like I said before, I’m going to ruin whatever scheme he’s got going, and when his lies are collapsing around him, I’m going to spit in his face.”
“Is this about justice, or revenge?” Joris asked.
“Revenge,” Sheen said promptly. She waited while Joris looked uncomfortable, but he didn’t say anything.
“You need to stop doing that,” Haden said, nudging the cleric. “Say what’s on your mind.”
“I don’t think I can condone revenge, not when I’m trying to set an example for someone.”
“I’m not planning on torturing him to death and dancing on his grave, Joris,” Sheen said, frustrated. “I meant that I’m in this because he hurt *me*, not out of some dissociated impersonal sense that it needs to be done.”
“All right, then. Do we know where Lissandra is?” Joris asked.
“We can go check at Vander’s again, if she’s still got her kip there,” Haden suggested. “Maybe Jazra or Hexla know where she is.”
“You know,” Sheen said suddenly to Haden, “I’m . . . surprised that you aren’t more upset over what happened to you, to be honest. With Gyderic, I mean. You’re not . . . anxious to go after him?”
“I think I was more upset than you were,” Joris said.
Haden frowned, considering for a moment or two. “To be honest, it’s almost like it happened to someone else. It’s like remembering when you fell and broke your leg. It hurt, and you know you never want to go through it again, but you’re detached from it, now.”
“You looked horrible,” Talan said. “I think you scared all of us.”
“The worst of it was thinking no one knew where I was or what had happened to me . . . that no one cared, even. Well, that and . . .” Haden glanced at Sheen, then looked away quickly.
“If Dalla hadn’t found us, it might have been a lot tougher,” Joris said. “Anyway, shall we?”
“I think we’ve had enough uncomfortable admissions for one day,” Haden said bracingly. “Unless you want to do one, Talan?”
“No thanks, that’s what I’ve got Ari for,” the ranger insisted, grinning.
Haden grinned as well. “Well, we don’t want you to feel left out or anything. Come on, let’s grab our strange new companion and scoot.”
Book reviews, art, gaming, Objectivism and thoughts on other topics as they occur.
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