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Her Instruments, Book 1
“Oh, hush,” Reese said. “I’ll come with you. Isn’t that enough?”
Sascha snorted and flowed out the door. She followed, looking in vain for the bloody footsteps Zhemala had mentioned; she supposed they’d already been wiped up. Past the Lizard Garden, it was a twenty minute walk to the hospital, where Sascha plunged into the grounds with a grim determination that did more to unsettle Reese’s stomach than anything he’d said. They pushed through overgrown bushes, investigated secluded copses, trudged through flower gardens and over ornamental bridges. Reese had no idea how much time had elapsed since they began their hunt, but by the time it ended she was sticky, thirsty, and completely unprepared for the sight of Hirianthial.
They’d been apart for weeks, she reasoned. Doing separate duties. He’d been rooming somewhere else; she’d had no opportunities to see him, not easily… all a rationalization. Had she made the effort to check up on him, she would have seen this deterioration.
Reese stood in front of him, struggling to keep her uncertainty from transforming into anger. Sascha stood well behind her, nearer to the pond than to the bench where Hirianthial rested. He was too long for it; one leg rested against the ground, the other curled on top of it. His arms were furled against his breast. She wasn’t sure if he was sleeping and she wasn’t glad of the chance it gave her to see he’d lost weight, that there were real hollows in his cheeks. It made him look half-dead. It was terrifying.
“Hirianthial,” Reese said. She stopped when her voice fluttered and rubbed her throat. “Are you awake?”
He didn’t stir. She didn’t want to touch him. Instead, she crouched across from him and addressed him face to face. “Hirianthial?” She thought of her romance novels. “Lord Hirianthial, awake.”
His eye opened. Behind her, Sascha said, “Damnfeathers! That worked?”
She ignored the tigraine. “I need your help.”
That opened both eyes. He didn’t blink or look away. He usually let her go after a few minutes. Maybe he knew his gaze made her uncomfortable.
“Please,” Reese said. “I need you to come with me to run an errand off-world. To get us some money.”
“I—” He stopped, licked his lips. This time the words had volume. “I have duties.”
“I’ve canceled your contracts,” Reese said. “This was more important.”
He stared at her.
“Will you do it?” she asked. On a hunch, she added, “It has to be you. You and Sascha. One of you to drive me insane and the other one to keep me from joining him.”
He didn’t answer immediately. Reese tried not to fidget, but her heart was beginning to hammer when he finally said, “Which one for which role?”
“I’ll let the two of you figure it out on the shuttle,” Reese said. “Go to the hospital and pack your things, then meet me at the port in a couple of hours. No, one hour, in front of the Long Bird. We’ll eat before we leave.” She took a long breath. “Please.”
She didn’t have the heart to take offense at the title. Sascha joined her as she retreated from the pond, and together they walked off the hospital grounds.
“You handled that better than I thought you would,” the tigraine said once they’d started down the path back to the house.
“Yeah, well, I’m not all bad,” Reese said. She sighed. “Thanks for doing what I told you to.”
“I’m all over the delegation, boss,” Sascha said, grinning.
“Right. Well, Mister Delegation, you go pack. I’m going to tell the rest of the crew where we’re off to.”
“Sounds good,” he said. “Where are we off to, anyway?”
“Home,” Reese said. “To Mars.”
Hirianthial ate because arguing with Reese about not eating took more energy than doing what she wanted. He followed her off-world because following her constituted a course of action, and he had no energy to formulate one of his own. The beginning of the trip involved several shuttle transfers that kept him tracking wayward baggage and investigating new quarters often enough to drive all other thoughts from his mind.
It was a form of meditation, in the end. He concentrated on the minutia of the trip, moment by moment. New flight numbers glowing on a board. The musk and sweat of a busy space station. The tinny sound of poorly-insulated insystem drives. Cheap carpet, barely soft enough to cushion metal floors. Beds too short for his body; ceilings too low for his height. Reese and Sascha arguing, out of affection, out of exhaustion. Their auras, tingling bright and dimming after too long cooped in a tiny shuttle.
The second-to-last leg was scheduled to bring them to Pluto’s welcome station, a trip of two days. It was the longest of their rides and the most confining. There were passenger liners that connected there that would have brought them in lush comfort, but the best Reese could afford for their passage involved a single dormitory with bunk-beds and a passenger mess that doubled as a recreation room. Hirianthial avoided it, but Sascha and Reese took turns hiding there.
“The closer we get, the more irritable she is,” Sascha said as he entered the dorm. “Angels on the fields! Even I want to throttle her. What on Mars could possibly be so scary?”
Hirianthial turned onto his side to look at the tigraine.
“And you’re not helping,” Sascha said. “You’ve said maybe two words this entire time. You want me to handle her alone? The least you could do is distract her from me on occasion so I don’t have to deal with the brunt of it all the time.”
That pang in his chest… guilt. Yes, he recognized guilt. “You seem to do well enough.”
“Of course I do. If I stop talking, she’ll brood and the longer she broods, the more explosive she is when she snaps out of it. My only hope is to keep her from getting too introspective.” The Harat-Shar stopped across from their bunks and folded his arms, ears flattening. “Don’t tell me I have to do the same thing with you.”
“No,” Hirianthial said after a moment. “I don’t explode.”
“No,” Sascha said. “You dwindle. You implode. That’s no good either. I wanted this trip to get away from this kind of behavior, not get socked in the face with it again.”
That sparked something in him. “There was trouble?”
The tigraine wavered, eyeing him. Then with a sigh he dropped onto the floor and pressed his back against the bunk frame. “Ah, Angels. My siblings are going to drive me crazy.”
“So it was as you feared,” Hirianthial said.
“And worse. They want me to stay, and playing with them again has reminded both Irine and me about how nice family is.” Sascha stared at his folded hands, resting on his knees. “Nice becomes cloying. And then smothering.”
He could have sensed the shape of the wound in Sascha’s words even if he hadn’t felt the dull red shimmer under the flat gray in the man’s aura. When Sascha didn’t volunteer more, Hirianthial said, “I didn’t know you had other siblings.”
“With my father having seven wives?” Sascha laughed. “He’d have to be chaste. There are seventeen kits in the family, not counting me and Irine. Most of them are nice enough. It’s just there’s… well, there’s some politicking. Even if we don’t like to admit it, a woman wants her children to have the best of everything. Six other women with children makes it a competitive field.”
“Your family seems prosperous,” Hirianthial said.
“Oh, they are,” Sascha said. “Thank the Angels for that.” He scratched his ear. “It’s so hard to say ‘no’ to family. You know?”
A wave of cold anger and mingled regret washed to the forefront of Hirianthial’s mind. He remembered steel and brown blood. “Yes, I know.”
Sascha sighed. “Sometimes you just have to get away. I didn’t want to do anything I’d regret.”
“Wise,” Hirianthial said. “Of course, we’ll be back in less than a week.”
“Hopefully with the money to cut short our visit,” Sascha said. “I can’t imagine you’ll be sorry to leave either. And don’t go all silent on me. I’m not going to get offended if you tell me you hate Harat-Sharii.”
“There are very few things I hate,” Hirianthial said. “Your homeworld is not among them.”
“None of us belong there,” Hirianthial said.
“Except Irine,” Sascha said. “And I’m going to have to drag her away. She’ll forgive me for it and the excitement of traveling will distract her, but I’ll know in my heart that I took her away from her family. I don’t like that. I don’t like deciding for her, even though she won’t mind.”
“Perhaps Harat-Sharii isn’t the best place for her,” Hirianthial said.
“How do I know?” Sascha said; his aura had flattened to a morose black, sticky as tar.
“You don’t,” Hirianthial said. “But she’ll choose to go with you and that’s all that matters. It is her choice, alet.”
“Right. Follow me or get left behind.”
“No. To choose the love of her brother or the safety and familiarity of home. Do not belittle her by diminishing the choice just because you know what she will choose. Instead be honored that her love for you is so constant you know what she’ll choose before you even offer her the choice.”
The black lightened to gray, more like rain than tar. After observing his own hands for a while, Sascha said, “I guess that’s love.”
“Such love is rare even in an Eldritch’s lifespan,” Hirianthial said.
“If you say it, it must be true,” the Harat-Shar with a flush of green humor. He twisted to look up at Hirianthial. “I hope you’ve known love.”
Faced with such friendly eyes and the suffusion of warmth in the tigraine’s aura, Hirianthial could no more remain silent than he could stop breathing. “Yes.”
“Good,” Sascha said. He took a long breath. “I guess some people are always the actors and some the followers.”
“Sometimes,” Hirianthial said.
“And I’m an actor,” Sascha said.
“And you’re a follower.”
Hirianthial paused, which gave the tigraine time to fill in the space. “So I’m telling you to pay more attention to eating. And to sleep better. Just looking at you makes me ache. And no more hiding away from the two of us, because Reese wasn’t kidding when she said she’d need us both. I get the feeling it’s going to be even worse when we finally get to Mars.”
Startled, Hirianthial said nothing.
“So start being more intrusive, okay?” Sascha said. “I don’t know how someone six and a half feet tall and dressed like a foreign prince can disappear at will, but you’ve been doing it for days now and it’s not helping. Not Reese, not me and not you. Will you promise?”
“To be more intrusive?” Hirianthial said, finding humor in it despite himself.
“Yes,” Sascha said. “To be more helpful.”
“My help is not always enough,” Hirianthial said quietly.
“Is that any reason not to offer?” Sascha asked.
“No,” Hirianthial said.
Sascha nodded. “Good. So promise. And I mean that. I want to hear it out loud.”
Hirianthial found a short laugh. “You aren’t going to give up, I see.”
“No. And trust me, we might not be very patient as a race, but we’re certainly obsessive. You don’t want me to get obsessive about you giving me your word.”
“I certainly don’t,” Hirianthial said. “Very well. I promise I’ll be more intrusive.”
“Good,” Sascha said. He stood and shook his head. “I don’t know where you get this idea that you’re no good to anyone, you know. Only a few minutes of talking with you and I feel better about everything.”
Hirianthial thought it best not to respond to that and was doing well on that course when Sascha threw a pillow at him.
“Stop what?” the Eldritch said, sitting up.
“Withdrawing. You think you’ve got all the answers and that you’re always right. Well, you’re not. Keep that in mind. And go drink some milk before your bones get too old to hold together anymore.”
“Dubious science at best,” Hirianthial said, but he stood anyway and straightened his clothes. “Where did you learn biology?”
“In school, like most people,” Sascha said. “Unfortunately, the teacher was really really cute. I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying; I was too busy posing him in my fantasies.”
“Harat-Shar,” Hirianthial said.
“To the marrow,” Sascha agreed cheerfully.
Are you ready to meet Reese’s family? Coming up next…
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