4 – 22

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Most of Clarke Tower was quiet as the week drew to a close. Late in the afternoon, as the last red glow of sunset was fading to darkness in the windows, Teal sat at the pianoforte in the small music lounge that occupied the tower’s topmost floor, beneath its conical roof. The mechanisms that powered the tower’s clock face hung suspended from the rafters, shifting rhythmically under a silencing charm. Though their ticking wasn’t audible, Teal had learned to keep her eyes fixed firmly on the keys, or just the motion of the gears would tend to creep into her awareness and change the rhythm at which she played.

A pen sat on the piano’s music stand, untouched for several minutes as she played through the piece completely. It was a soft, sad tune, but not a slow one; it moved with a subdued energy that hinted at anger beneath sorrow. The score sitting in front of her was so marred with corrections and notations that it was beginning to be difficult to read. Teal let the last notes echo in the chamber, frowning at it. She was fairly satisfied with her progress, but the music on the page would need to be cleanly re-scored on a fresh sheet before she could continue working. Well, it was a good stopping point, anyway.

“Beautiful.”

Teal jumped slightly, turning to stare at Shaeine in the doorway, and cleared her throat awkwardly. “Ah…thanks. I’m not exactly happy with it yet… I like the introduction and it wraps up well, but it feels like the harmonies should be deeper during most of it. Like it wants to be more complex. I’m having a little trouble sussing out what the piece needs, though. When I try to add to it, it ends up feeling, I don’t know…tacked-on and kind of busy. Not to mention a stretch for my fingers,” she added ruefully, flexing her hands.

Shaeine shook her head, gliding into the room. “Doubtless your judgment is correct. I fear my knowledge of music isn’t enough to render a useful opinion. All I can tell is that it is beautiful.”

“Well, thank you,” Teal replied, managing a tentative smile and receiving one in return.

She sat, feeling almost frozen, as the diminutive drow approached. Shaeine was watching her with one of those courteous little smiles that didn’t mean anything, though there was an inquisitive tilt to her head. She came to a stop next to the bench, hands folded before her, a picture of serenity. Close enough to touch.

“I heard you conversing with several elves last night, in Sarasio. You seem quite fluent.”

“Um, pretty much, yes,” Teal said uncertainly. “I was taught growing up, and spent some time around elves during the summers. They seemed pleased that a human was interested in learning their language rather than making them speak Tanglish. Enough to help me along, anyway.”

Shaeine nodded. “There is really only one elvish tongue. The language of immortals evolves at a glacial pace compared to Tanglish; there are regional differences, but all are mutually intelligible. The Narisian dialect has, comparatively, idiosyncratic vowel pronunciation, as well as several extra classes of pronouns that reflect the complexities of our society. It is not much beyond the base language you already know. If…you are interested… I would be glad to help you learn.”

Teal had been folding up her music and pocketing her pen, mostly to have something to do with her hands. She paused, now, staring down at the pages in her grip, a faint blush rising on her cheeks. Only with some effort did she make herself lift her gaze to meet Shaeine’s, but the small smile which followed was completely unbidden. “I would really like that, actually.”

“I am glad to hear it.” Shaeine’s smile widened just barely, though her rigid serenity remained fully in place. A momentary pause fell, during which they simply looked at each other, then the drow made a very soft noise deep in her throat, as if clearing it. The sound caught Teal by surprise; she was so unused to any expression of awkwardness from Shaeine that it was almost jarring. “Both my elder sisters have daughters of their own.”

“I…oh?” Teal dropped her gaze, folding her music with much more care than the task required, uncertain what response that comment merited.

“As such, I have a certain amount of…leeway. It will not be incumbent upon me to continue the matriarchal line, barring extremely improbable mishap.” She made that tiny throat-clearing sound again. “Though it isn’t common, there is a precedent of humans being adopted into the ranks of Narisian Houses.”

Teal had gone completely still, staring down at the pages in her hands.

Shaeine continued. “A trained bard would be considered a very prestigious addition to a noble House. And Vadrieny, even stipulating that she does not act aggressively, can be an immense tactical asset. If you are…amenable to…discussing it… I am reasonably confident I could persuade my mother that you would be a suitable consort.”

The music crackled slightly as it creased in Teal’s grip. When she finally spoke, still staring downward, it began with a low hiss. “Sssssssuitable.” She shook her head slowly. “Well. You really know how to sweep a girl off her feet.”

“I just mean that—”

Teal stood up abruptly; Shaeine took a reflexive step back, watching her wide-eyed. The bard refused to meet her gaze. “With all due respect, upon consideration, I think this needn’t be discussed any further. I’m turning in. See you tomorrow, I guess.” She turned and made for the stairs.

“Teal, wait.”

“Good night, Shaeine.”

“Please wait.”

Teal stopped short. After months of learning to read the tiny emotional cues that slipped through Shaeine’s mask of calm, hearing naked pleading in her voice was startling. Almost against her will, she turned to look back. The drow was all but wringing her hands, staring at her with arresting intensity. When she spoke, her voice was composed again, but soft. “Fross is spending the evening at the library pursuing a personal research project; I have the room to myself. May I speak with you in privacy?”

Teal hesitated, her uncertainty doubtless apparent on her face.

“Please,” Shaeine whispered again.

She swallowed the confusing mass of emotions trying to rise up, and nodded.

“All right.”


Trissiny stepped out of the bathroom, absently tugging her damp hair back into a loose braid for sleeping. She glanced around the room. Everything was stowed away properly—well, on her side, anyway. Ruda’s profusion of rugs and pillows made excellent camouflage for the discarded clothes that were tossed here and there. Trissiny’s half was neatly arranged, though; shield and sword on their hangers, armor on its stand, boots by her bed, everything else in the appropriate hamper. She had taken the extra time to oil and polish everything after coming back from her run down and up the mountain and before showering. It was something to do. Unfortunately, nothing had been in need of mending, so she had eventually run out of things with which to keep her hands busy.

“Okay, what’s with you?”

Ruda was slouched in her bed as usual; she had lowered the copy of Varsity Princess she was reading to rest on her stomach and was staring at Trissiny with a faint frown.

“Nothing,” Trissiny said shortly.

“Don’t give me that. You usually parade around like you’ve got something jammed up every orifice. You’re hunched; you look like somebody just kicked you in the gut, except it’s been going on all day.”

“I’m fine,” Trissiny snapped, straightening her posture. “Just a cramp.”

“Bullshit. Just cos we don’t cuddle each other to sleep doesn’t mean I don’t know you after four months of sharing a room. Spill.”

“Can you just mind your own business?” she exclaimed, turning her back.

“I am. Once again, yes, we’re not exactly sisters, but we’re part of a team and sharing quarters. It does concern me when you are obviously in pain.”

“Why is it you’re only interested in me when you smell weakness?” she snarled, stalking over to sit on her bed.

“Okay, are you not hearing how weird you sound right now?” Ruda threw aside the magazine, sitting up fully on the edge of her own bed. “You’re acting more like me. I’m sure you understand why that’s kinda fucking disturbing. Come on, what’s up? You were fine yesterday in the fight. Did you get shot and you’re too stubborn to ask for healing?”

“Oh, don’t be ridiculous.”

“So what the hell is it? What’d you get into between that and hitting the Rails? You were weird in the caravan, too.”

“Nothing happened!” Trissiny shouted. “It was a perfectly norm—calm day. I got up, ate, talked to Tob—” she clamped her lips shut, fixing her stare on the far wall, helplessly aware of the blush rising in her cheeks. To her horror, something welled up in her throat, too, along with the prickle of incipient tears behind her eyes. Horror turned quickly to fury. How dare her own body betray her like this?

Fury heightened into true rage when she chanced a glance at her roommate. Ruda was gazing at her with a knowing, sympathetic expression that was just begging to be smacked off her face.

“Oh,” she said. “I see.”

“Oh, what would you know about it?”

“Quite a fuckin’ lot more than you, I’m willing to bet,” she said wryly. “I may not be in Juniper’s league, but I’ve had my share of lovers. Did you ever even talk to a boy before coming to school?”

“What is your problem?!” Trissiny raged, jolting to her feet, fists clenched at her sides. “When is it ever going to be enough for you? Can you for once just stop picking every time you get—” She broke off, choking. Tears were threatening even harder, and Trissiny would be damned if she’d show that to her smug thug of a roommate. She tightened her whole body until every muscle practically vibrated, trying to force it back under control. This tidal wave of emotions was not something she was well versed in dealing with.

Ruda rose much more calmly to her feet. “Well, there’s a time-honored tradition here, roomie. Across cultures, creeds and enmities, all can band together and agree over a beer or ten that boys suck.” She stepped over to the cold box at the foot of her bed, opened it and began rummaging inside. “Of course, you don’t do the beer thing, being a professional stick-in-the-mud. Luckily for you, I’m prepared for all eventualities.” She stood, turned, and threw something.

Trissiny’s reflexes kicked in and she caught the cold object one-handed. She found herself holding a pint of frozen custard. With her other hand, she snagged the spoon that Ruda tossed somewhat more gently.

“Ruda,” she said, her outrage draining away in a sudden rush of exhaustion, “sometimes I think you go out of your way to be as much of a cliché as possible.”

“You’re goddamn right I do,” the pirate said, grinning. She sat down on the edge of her bed, prying the lid off another pint. “An’ fuck me if people don’t buy it every time.”

“Do you actually expect me to sit here crying over a boy and stuffing my face with frozen custard like some sexist caricature in some awful piece of fiction out of one of your so-called women’s magazines?”

“No, I more’n half expect you to turn up your nose at it, like you do everything else you haven’t tried before. Look, I know dick all about spirituality or whatever it is you use to compensate for your lack of worldly experience. All I know is gettin’ your heart hurt fucking sucks, and nothing but time makes it better. Stuffing your face with ice cream is a pretty damn good short-term treatment, though.”

“What is ice cream?”

“Somethin’ I’m gonna import to Tiraas and become richer than Verniselle, unless some asshole beats me to it. Eat your custard.”

“Just let me go to bed,” Trissiny groaned. The pint was beginning to make her fingers numb.

“Hey.” Ruda’s face was serious, her voice more gentle than Trissiny had ever heard it. “You threw my ass to the ground out there in the Golden Sea and made me agree to come to your little sparring practices. And y’know what? I’m better off for it. Since we’ve both pretty much established I can’t beat you compliant—yet—let’s skip that part an’ you take my word for it, all right? Consider it a return favor.”

Trissiny twisted her mouth skeptically, staring down at the cardboard pint. Condensation had started to form, making it somewhat slippery.

“If it helps, you can look at it as a cultural experience.” Ruda grinned at her over a spoon loaded with golden custard. “Pirate diplomacy. A trick you can use later in life to subdue the wild Punaji.”

Trissiny heaved a sigh and pried the lid off the pint.

“There ya go!” Ruda crowed, pumping her spoon hand in the air. “For freedom! For equality! For diplomacy!”

Trissiny scooped up a heaping spoonful of the frosty confection and stuffed it in her mouth.

“Wha’eva’.”


Teal stopped in the center of the room, folding her arms around herself and setting down her folded papers on one of the two desks. Shaeine and Fross’s room reflected both their sensibilities; it was markedly cooler than the rest of the tower, its walls hung with silken tapestries of abstract geometric patterns in such dark shades of primary colors that they seemed almost to be shades of black. In fact, they were quite beautiful; in addition to the color of the thread used, there were subtle patterns of texture that caught the dim light in different ways. Patterns upon patterns. Between them, potted plants grew, mostly of the succulent variety, each under a small, weak sun crystal. The light in the room was warm and golden, but dim, like early dusk.

Shaeine had paused at the door, fiddling with the exterior knob, before pushing it shut. She stood in silence for a moment with her back to the room. Teal had an urge to clear her throat awkwardly, but was hesitant to disturb the quiet.

“I really am the worst diplomat I’ve ever heard of,” Shaeine said finally.

“I think that’s a little harsh,” Teal said carefully. “You’re easily the best diplomat I know.”

The drow shook her head, finally turning to face her. “All members of House Awarrion receive training in the arts to which our House is dedicated, but not all of us are expected to serve directly in that capacity. I am a cleric; I have trained my whole life to serve in the House chapel, with only a basic grounding in negotiation and conflict resolution. I was a last-minute substitution for the Tiraan exchange program. I had less than a year to learn what others have spent their lives studying.”

“I didn’t know that,” Teal said quietly.

Shaeine shrugged. “It isn’t something I commonly discuss, for obvious reasons.”

“Well. Still.” In spite of herself, Teal cracked a grin. “You represent Tar’naris much better than Natchua.”

If Shaeine was reassured by the humor, she didn’t show it. She dropped her gaze. “All these months, I’ve proceeded on so many bad assumptions, taken so much for granted. I never communicated to you how my cultural framework causes me to interpret our interactions, nor taken the Tiraan perspective fully into account. I…fear to imagine how disappointed my mother would be. All I can offer as explanation is that… I feel comfortable with you. More as if I can be myself, without second-guessing everything as I do with nearly all my other interactions here. And with the best of intentions, I’ve ended up abusing that gift.”

“I don’t…feel…abused,” Teal said, well aware of how lame it sounded. She couldn’t think of anything better to contribute.

Shaeine glided across the room to her desk, where she picked up a flat wooden box, ornately carved with black-stained patterns of vines and spiderwebs. “In hindsight… I think my conduct recently has made it seem I am completely passionless, motivated only by calculations. Even in…matters of the heart.”

“That’s…maybe a little harsher than I would have put it,” Teal hedged.

The drow gave her a rueful little smile. “And that is not a denial.”

“…no, it isn’t.”

Shaeine stepped slowly toward her, holding the box in both hands. “The Narisian concepts of respect and reserve fill our social interactions with lines of demarcation. There is no such vagueness as prevails among Imperial society; we know precisely with whom we may express what, and it is explicitly clarified when an acquaintance moves from one classification to another. It is a matter of how we express sentiment, not how we experience it.”

She held out the box. Hesitantly, Teal reached up and took it from her hands; Shaeine stepped back, giving her space. After a silent moment, the drow nodded encouragingly, and Teal carefully raised the hinged lid.

Within, on a cushion of black velvet, rested a pair of shredded rubber sandals in light blue. She recognized them as the ones ripped apart by Vadrieny’s claws the night they had had to separate Trissiny and Gabriel—the pair Shaeine had collected and offered to dispose of.

Teal lifted her eyes from the box. Shaeine was staring at her, eyes wide, and there was something achingly vulnerable in her gaze despite the stillness of her expression.

“I think,” she said very softly, “I am as sentimental as anyone. Perhaps more so than some.”

“I…” Teal swallowed and tried again. “I’m just confused how… I don’t understand.”

Shaeine nodded. “And for that, I will accept blame. We are surrounded by your culture, and I have failed to explain mine. Just…know, please, that…that… If I seem standoffish, it is not an expression of how I feel about you.” She actually swallowed. That little sign of vulnerability made Teal’s heart ache in several different ways.

“Okay,” she replied, nodding.

“If…you are willing to have the conversation… May I try to explain?”

“I…would like that very much.”


“I just don’t get what I’m even supposed to do,” Trissiny said, gesticulating with her empty spoon. “And that’s the thing that gets me, I guess. I’m used to being good at things. Well, the things I care about doing, anyhow. How in the world are you supposed to learn how to deal with boys?”

“Pretty much exactly the way you learn anything else, Shiny Boots,” Ruda said, grinning. “Practice.”

“Ugh,” Trissiny groaned. “No, thank you. Whole lot of stress and, and…frustration, no real benefit.” She scooped up another dollop of custard and stuck it in her mouth. For some reason, her pint seemed to be running low. When had that happened?

“Aw, don’t quit something just because you got hurt the first time you tried,” Ruda chided. “Helll, if that was standard policy nobody would ever learn how to do anything. Back on the horse!”

“I’m serious,” she grumbled. “All this is a waste of time anyway; I shouldn’t be distracting myself with…with nonsense like this. I have a calling. Maybe this is the goddess’s way of nudging me back onto the right track.”

“Okay, I’m gonna have to shut down that line of thinking right there,” Ruda said severely, pointing a spoon at her. “You may be the doctrinal expert and whatnot, but I have read my history, and I’ve got a basic grounding in the broad strokes of theology. I know I make fun of your religion, but seriously, Avei isn’t a malicious bitch; she’s not gonna punish you for liking a boy. Hell, Hands of Avei have had all kinds of lovers. Some were married. I’m pretty sure you know this. Don’t make that your excuse to shut yourself down, kid.”

“Don’t call me kid,” Trissiny said sullenly. Ruda barked a laugh.

“Ah, yes, the refrain of everybody who knows they’re in the wrong.”

“Whatever,” she growled. “I’m still not getting back on any horse.”

“Well, not right now. Yeah, a lot of people I’d tell to go out and get laid by way of heartbreak therapy, but I think we both know by now you just aren’t wired that way.”

“I’m glad that much is apparent.”

“Wasn’t a compliment,” she said dryly. “In seriousness, though, Triss…don’t be so quick to just give up on a huge swath of life. I bet when you find the right guy, it’ll all seem worthwhile.”

Trissiny scowled, scraping her spoon through the dregs at the bottom of her pint. “…is there any more of that chocolate fudge custard you made me try?”

“Hell yes there is! I am stocked.” Ruda straightened from the cold box again, waving a cardboard package in one hand. “In fact, you’re in luck; I just got out a fresh pint.”

“May I have some?”

“Ah, ah, ah.” With an insane grin that verged on a leer, she waggled her spoon reprovingly. “How do we ask?”

“Ruda, I’m not saying that. It’s just ridiculous.”

“Oh, so now you’re mocking my culture? Dirty pool, paladin.”

“I’m not—no, I’m not getting into this. You’re just trying to make me sound foolish.”

“There is no sounding foolish at custard time! C’mon, Triss, like I taught you.”

“No!”

“You can do it! I know you can!”

“You are such a pain!”

“Well, if you don’t really want any more, I guess I can put this back…”

“Oh, for—Gimme the damn fudge!”

“There’s my girl!” Ruda crowed, tossing the carton to her.

Trissiny wrenched off the lid, stuck in her utensil and dragged out a heaping pile of fudge-speckled chocolate custard, almost too much to fit on the spoon. She sighed heavily before shoving it in her mouth.

“I’m goin’ straight t’hell…”


“So… Wait. You go from being basically strangers, to engaged, and then your mother decides if and when you can be married?”

Shaeine actually winced—faintly, but distinctly. “It seems I continue to muddle my explanations. That was an ill-considered metaphor. Engagement and marriage, as you mean the terms, are concepts that don’t exist in my culture; they are simply the closest Tiraan parallels to what I was trying to explain.”

“How does it work, then?” Teal asked. “You don’t need to water it down for me; I might have to go over it multiple times but I’d rather understand the real concepts than work with more misconceptions.”

“You’re right, of course.” Shaeine stood from where she’d been sitting on the edge of the bed and paced back and forth a few steps. Teal, seated in the desk chair, watched her silently. Finally the drow came to a stop and turned back toward her, seeming to have gathered her thoughts. “Though politically arranged unions aren’t uncommon, it isn’t quite right to say that we customarily start as strangers. It’s just that… Everyone outside immediate family belongs in the category of people to whom one does not display emotion. One does not move, ah, naturally, or organically, into the classification of an emotional intimate, as seems to be the norm among humans. If one is to be taken on as family, it is formally agreed to by all parties involved.”

“There’s…a ceremony?”

“Well, sometimes. Mostly in the case of the aforementioned political unions. What’s important is the unambiguous understanding; how much pomp and circumstance need surround the event depends on the situation and the individuals. But even keeping outside the category of acknowledged intimates, there are gradients. I have many acquaintances in Tar’naris with whom it would be shockingly inappropriate to…ah, to laugh with, or hug. That does not mean I don’t know them, or that I don’t value them, or they me. It is simply a way for us to understand where we are, and what is expected of us. Drow are no more likely to become romantically involved with strangers than humans.”

“Except for the political unions.”

“Yes, of course. But there, too, the comparison holds. That is really only done among the nobility, and doesn’t account for all or even most unions.”

“You’re right,” Teal said, nodding. “Human nobles do that, too. And pretty much no one else.”

“So I have observed.”

“So…how does it work with the, uh, not-quite-engagement, then?”

Shaeine drew in a deep breath and let it out. “The concept is a sort of…provisional adoption. If two people feel an attraction and have established basic compatibility, they can agree to elevate one another to a more intimate status that exists only between them. For the most part, one’s intimates are the business of one’s entire family, which is why we don’t rush to become that close with others. In this case, though, a pair who are courting will…lower their defenses, so to speak, but only with each other, and only in private. There’s really no other way to learn whether you are truly compatible enough with someone to form a lifelong bond.”

“Well, that’s certainly true,” Teal said ruefully. “Actually this all sounds like a very sensible system.”

“We have done our best to make it so,” Shaeine agreed, nodding. “Our cultural institutions did not develop haphazardly; they were carefully crafted to help us succeed under harsh conditions. Beyond the courtship phase, there need be no more formal acknowledgments between a couple…unless, of course, they decide to terminate their relationship, in which case it is best to establish this explicitly so as to avoid awkwardness later. If they do agree to continue on as mates, though, the next step involves adoption into one another’s families.”

“And that’s where the mothers come in.”

“Just so. The bond between two people is no one’s business but theirs, but a matriarch has the right to determine whether someone is a suitable member of her family.”

“Hm.” Teal frowned into the distance. “What…what happens if the matriarch doesn’t approve?”

“In most cases,” Shaeine said quietly, “that is the end of it. Some do defy their mothers for the sake of love, but…that is risky, and carries a heavy social stigma. We are a matriarchal culture, and place a high value on family. A person who abandons or betrays their family is…not trusted.”

“I see.”

“I really do think my mother would like you,” Shaeine said softly. “I…would not have dared raise the subject if I did not.”

Teal nodded, dropping her gaze. She could feel the blush rising in her cheeks. “It seems like there’s a lot to learn.”

“I…think…you understand the immediately relevant basics,” Shaeine said tentatively. “There is plenty of time for us to discuss more details in the future.”

Teal cleared her throat and stood, nervously rubbing her palms on her trousers. She made herself meet Shaeine’s eyes, and then found she couldn’t look away. “So, then, uh… What’s…involved? In this ‘conditional adoption,’ I mean. There’s a ceremony? Something exchanged?”

Slowly, Shaeine shook her head, keeping her gaze fixed on Teal’s. “It is somewhat like your Imperial engagement customs, from what I’ve read. It’s…nice…to add a touch of romance to such things. In the end, though, what’s important is the agreement.” She swallowed. “In…a case which has already been something of a comedy of errors, it might be…wisest…to keep it as simple as possible.”

“And… That, then, is formally courting. It’s not, like, engaged.”

“Correct.”

“But close enough to be…well, intimate.”

“Exactly.” She smiled ruefully. “I can only imagine that this must seem as strange to you as many of your customs do to me.”

“Well, I wasn’t gonna figure all this out on my own, that’s for sure,” Teal said, unable to repress a grin.

“I’m sorry, Teal,” she said quietly. “I should have been… I should have done better. Just, please believe I am not being arbitrarily weird. These matters are deeply ingrained in me. To set them aside would be to discard much of what makes me who I am.”

“I would never want you to do that.” Teal stepped toward her before realizing she was going to. “I like who you are, Shaeine. Very much. And…” She paused to swallow. “If you will too, I… Agree.”

Shaeine slumped forward suddenly as if the energy had gone out of her, clenching her hands in fistfuls of her robe.

“Shaeine?!” Teal exclaimed in alarm. “Are you—”

And then the drow flew across the space between them, wrapping her arms around Teal and squeezing her fiercely, her face buried in her shirt. Her voice was somewhat muffled, but clear, and so much more passionate than Teal had ever heard her that she couldn’t help but hang on every word.

“Teal, I’m so sorry, I made such a wreck of everything and I’ve been terrified I’d ruined it all for good, I just can’t…I don’t know how to… I’m sorry! You just make me so confused and frightened and happy and alive. I never wanted to hurt you, it was like stabbing myself in the heart when I thought… Goddess, I love you so much it aches. Please don’t—”

“Hey.” Firmly, tenderly, Teal took her face in both hands, tilting it up till they were eye to eye. Tears glistened on Shaeine’s gray skin, her garnet eyes glistening, wide, and full of feeling like she’d never seen them before. It was so beautiful she could hardly breathe. She gently traced her thumbs over Shaeine’s cheeks, wiping away tears. “It’s okay, love, we figured it out. I’m right here.” She grinned, hugely, madly happy. “You’ve got me.”


Ruda carefully took the empty custard carton from Trissiny’s hand, tossing it into the wastebasket with a soft plunk. With a corner of her sleeve, she rubbed a smear of fudge from the corner of the paladin’s mouth. Trissiny muttered and turned her head away, but didn’t wake.

She was stretched out on top of her bed, one leg hanging off; there’d be no way to tuck her in without waking her. It was the work of moments, however, for Ruda to gather up the white bearskin from her own bed and drape it over her roommate.

Ruda stood for a moment, just looking down at her quizzically. Then, with a faint smile, she shook her head and padded across the room to switch off the light.

“G’night, y’crazy bitch. Welcome to being human. It gets better, I promise.”


“Smoke.”

“Hmm?”

Shaeine pulled back slightly, gazing up adoringly. Her unguarded, joyful smile, the passion in her eyes…it was intoxicating. Teal could hardly even think, couldn’t do anything but look at her and savor the way the drow fit into her arms, as if she’d been molded to be there.

“You taste like smoke. I like it. It suits you.” She giggled. It was music.

“Ah…”

Shaeine tasted…clean. Like moonlight, like a clear spring, like a cold breath of cave air. Before Teal could sort out the words to express it, though, an insistent little hand reached behind her neck, pulling her head down, and she found a much better use for her mouth.


Sound hardly traveled in the steeply curving staircase of Clarke Tower, with its thick, echo-eating carpet. The tiny buzz of pixie wings was inaudible a mere few feet from where Fross hovered outside the door to her room, staring at the sock hanging on the knob.

“You have got to be shitting me.”

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24 thoughts on “4 – 22

  1. If you support Fross’s expanding vocabulary, vote for The Gods are Bastards!

    And so ends Book 4. This chapter I have been looking forward to writing since before I even started posting this story online. Though it may not look like it from this perspective, the tale up till now has been basically prologue in a lot of ways, establishing what’s going on and who’s gonna be doing it. Here, specifically, (in addition to paying off two Fross-related brick jokes), we see the establishment of two relationships that are going to form cornerstones of everything that comes after.

    I feel like it’s a good note on which to end the book.

    These four books are also collected into one Volume. My divisions and categories may be a bit arbitrary, but the story is planned out this way in advance. There’s a short timeskip to follow before we rejoin our heroes (and antiheroes and villains and whatnot), though first there’ll be an Epilogue to the Volume, which goes up Friday. I think part of the main benefit I get from these Volume divisions is the use of prologues and epilogues to separate them; these are each going to be little vignettes that would be distracting if dropped in the middle of a thematically consistent set of chapters, but which are important to the story as a whole.

    Gosh, it’s been over six months. This experience has been nothing short of wonderful, and I have my readers to thank for it. You guys are amazing.

    On that note, an update on my situation:

    My brother is driving down on Friday to bring me a loaner car, with which I’ll be able to go back to work until I can get my own up and running again. That means I’m missing a whole week of work, but my manager was understanding; I’m not fired and they’ll see me on Monday. The loss of income definitely hurts, of course, living from one paycheck to the next as I do.

    You wonderful people have made all the difference in the world. Thanks to the generosity of readers, I’m funded enough to keep me afloat during the week of missing income and to pay for my diagnostic and towing fees I’ve already had to fork over for the car (I had to have it dragged 17 miles this morning; if I’d left it in the parking lot any longer it likely would’ve been towed, and getting it out of impound would’ve been worse).

    I still have to come up with money to actually repair the thing, and I’m basically back to square one in terms of saving up to move to a better living situation where I’m not terrifyingly vulnerable to mishaps like this, but in the immediate term, you have really pulled my butt out of the fire. I’m not in any danger of losing the roof over my head, or my Internet access, or the time I need to write my chapters.

    TGaB is not going anywhere, is what I’m saying, and I’ll survive. I’m not fully sure yet the details of how, but the help of readers has pulled me back from the brink.

    I love you guys. Thanks, so much, for everything.

    See you Friday!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. In the vein of “a little late this time”, look into adding towing reimbursement to your car insurance. For me it was so cheap that I only had to use it once in 5-6 years in order for it to pay for itself. My agent said that was basically the same for most insurance providers.

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  2. Excellent ending to the chapter, I’m happy Shaeine and Teal got things worked out. Ruda and Trissiny were sweet, too.

    I’m glad your situation is more stable for now and I hope that it will improve soon.

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  3. AND, as of this morning, I have another toothache. In another wisdom tooth. Of the aspirin-resistant, pain-beyond-description variety that will not let up no matter what I do.

    Never mind how the holy hell I’m going to shell out to deal with this. I can’t even drive to get medicine.

    Sometimes I feel like there’s some celestial department in charge of making sure I never make any progress. The crises aren’t even waiting to happen one at a time anymore.

    Seriously close to giving up on life.

    And to think I was gonna use the enforced time off to work ahead and get some chapters done. I can’t even think straight, there is only pain. All I’m managing to do is pace back and forth cursing.

    Edit: Hokay, I have consumed dangerous amounts of ibuprofen and brought the constant screaming agony down to a constant dull ache. This isn’t a long-term solution, but it lets me think clearly at least.

    I’ll try to keep the histrionics to a minimum henceforth. A big downside to being bipolar is it’s hard to handle setbacks with equanimity, and this double-whammy would be a doozy even if one of the whammies didn’t involve me being in constant pain. Which, needless to say, is distracting.

    I’ve got enough mental clarity at the moment to keep working, so that’s what I’m gonna do. How I’m gonna scrape everything together I don’t yet know, but I’ll manage somehow.

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    1. Is getting treatment for a toothache that expensive in the US? Can’t you go to the ER and get it seen to without bankrupting yourself?
      Are there perhaps free clinics?

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      1. It really is, I really can’t, and there aren’t in my area.

        I could swing this if it weren’t for the car situation happening concurrently. One or the other I can have done. I may possibly have some help from a relative with the car; hopefully so, cos that’s the only way I’m gonna make it through this.

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    2. More help coming. On the dental problems, nothing works like professional help. On the transportation problem, a scooter is far less costly both initially and long-term than a car, but your commute situation may make that impractical.

      Side note: do not consume dangerous amounts of Tylenol / acetaminophen / paracetamol if you run out of NSAIDS (e.g. ibuprofen). With NSAIDS you have a good chance of noticing side effects before they actually do serious damage. Acetaminophen is seriously hepatotoxic at high doses and the harm generally doesn’t come with serious side effects until it is far too late, at which point people die slowly of liver failure. High dosages of either category of painkillers is not a good idea, but acetaminophen is worse because it can doom you to a slow death even before you know you are in serious danger.

      This is not a substitute for professional medical advice, just an attempt to keep you from blindly walking into danger. Short form of a long story: I lost an acquaintance to a different over-the-counter drug because the people who should have known better didn’t communicate the danger properly.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m sticking with ibuprofen and in lower volumes. The pain’s not as bad today, as I’ve been resupplied with oral anesthetic, but I’m still being as leery as I can with painkillers. I did have more yesterday than is usual for me, but I was in a place where I’d have paid just about any price to stop the pain right then. Unfortunately I do need something to function when it gets bad, but I’m holding it down as best I can.

        Thanks so much, to you and everyone, for the donations. I should be able to make everything work, financially; at this point it’s a matter of arranging the timing. One way or another I’ll have to live with the pain for a few more days, but as long as I can keep it from getting like it was yesterday, that’s doable.

        Going right back to the dentist as soon as I can; it’ll be tomorrow at the very earliest, and likely not till Monday.

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  4. Poor D.D.; that really is a horrible thing to happen. I hope in the future you’ll be able to look back on this as the worst week of your life (meaning you survived and it didn’t get worse). So they are wisdom teeth….this explains why it is recommended to have wisdom teeth all extracted. Best wishes for a resolution to this situation.

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  5. Reactions:

    There are some implications to Shaeine’s commentary about her sisters and Narisian culture that weren’t as clear as before. Primarily, Shaeine seems to discount two possibilities for children that immediately occurred to me: artificial insemination and adoption. Neither of those should be foreign concepts, so it would appear that adding children to the family line by those methods is significantly frowned on.

    It is much more likely that diplomacy works if the parties involved establish some common ground and personal contact a little before serious negotiation. The fact that Narisian cultural reserve gets in the way of that should be clear to their diplomats at least. The fact that Shaeine admits she isn’t the best diplomat perhaps explains why she can’t occassionally loosen up in the service of diplomacy (or interpersonal interactions) like she should.

    “Within, on a cushion of black velvet, rested a pair of shredded rubber sandals in light blue.”
    The line between “crush” and “creepy stalker” has been crossed or at least heavily blurred. Fortunately, Teal didn’t take it that way, but I think most people’s reactions to that would not be good.

    “You have got to be shitting me.”
    Someone’s picked up a useful phrase from Imperial culture.

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    1. I think you’re being too harsh on Shaeine here. The sandals were the only thing of Teal she could keep as a memento without stealing something. Not the most romantic thing to keep on velvet in a box, but it was that or nothing.

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      1. It’s all cultural. People keep locks of hair, vials of blood…hell, toenail clippings of loved ones. Daemion has the right of it; the sandals are kind of a lousy keepsake, but they’re the only thing Shaeine could (ethically) get her hands on.

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  6. Well, I know I’m late to the party, but I feel like commenting anyway.

    Going forward, I hope more time is spent adding depth to Teal’s character. Not because I like her, but because I feel like I should since she’s an important character. So far she just seems to be a big ball of NICEness. That’s literally all there is to her so far. Seriously, how many important individuals have gone out of their way to comment on how she’s just the NICEst person ever? It kind of spoils her relationship with Shaeine(who I really like) for me since I can’t really understand why everyone seems so drawn to her in the first place. Expanding her character, perhaps with a viewpoint chapter, would be beneficial in the long run.

    With all that said, I liked the interaction between Ruda and Triss. It’s very heartwarming to see their friendship grow despite, or perhaps because of, how fundamentally different they are.

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  7. I really am inordinately fond of this chapter. Huge emotional payout, big bonding moment with Ruda and Triss (and the “wha’eva'” was hilarious), and the sock brick joke. Love it.🙂

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