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Her Instruments, Book 1
Waitress-work didn’t agree with Reese, particularly for clientele that half the time was more determined to invite her home than to order cake and coffee. She left the cafe for her mid-day breaks, struggling with her foul mood, and returned only because she didn’t like any of her alternatives. If she lingered too long with the twins, they might feel compelled to introduce her to the rest of their family and she wasn’t sure she could handle the culture shear. Nor did she want to trap herself in her room, staring at a list of bills that her paltry tips did little to reduce. Living here was cheaper than any other choice she could have come up with, but nothing would be cheap enough to make the repairs go faster.
Every other day she stopped at the port to see how the first set of mechanics were handling the Earthrise. She’d just finished one of those inspections when the sky let loose a wall of rain. Cursing, Reese darted under the awning of a pastry-seller’s cart.
“I didn’t think it rained here!” she said.
The man laughed. “You spacers are so funny. Of course it rains.”
Reese glowered at the sky. Why did planets have to have weather along with all their other unsavory characteristics? “But there were no clouds when I went inside!”
“There were clouds,” the man said. “They just weren’t rain clouds yet. We’re just touching the rainy season now. In few weeks we’ll have storms all the time. I hope you like being wet.”
Reese glared at him. He chuckled. “Guess not. Why don’t you wait it out at an ale house?”
“I don’t drink,” Reese said.
“They have food,” he said. “Or do you also not need to eat?” When she didn’t reply, he went on. “It’s going to last a good half hour, forty minutes. You’re a pretty girl, but if you’re not going to buy anything I’d prefer you moved on. Unless you want to pass the time some other way?”
“An ale house sounds good,” Reese said. “Thanks.”
His laughter rang in her ears as she darted into the shifting gray veils. They looked sort of pretty when you weren’t in them… as if they’d be soft and cool to the touch, not at all wet. Naturally she was drenched almost instantly. Rain drops smacked her face and eyelids. She felt trapped between the steam rising from the ground and the falling water, and she was sure she’d never smelled anything as nasty as hot rain on pavement.
The first dim shape she rushed for turned out to be a parts store. The second smelled like fried fish and Reese traded the rain for an entry that worked like an airlock, releasing her into a tiny antechamber that gave her a chance to shake herself off and wring her braids. Even so as she stepped into the crowded room she started shivering. She took the only seat left in the place, squeezing between two taller men at the bar, and ordered hot coffee.
She’d barely had time to dilute the stuff with cream before the Harat-Shar on one side of her said, “There are rooms upstairs.”
“That’s nice,” Reese said.
He canted his ears. “Is that a brush-off?”
“Yes,” Reese said. “Thanks for asking.”
The human on the other side of her laughed. She glared at him, but he said nothing.
The coffee had little power to warm her while her clothes remained wet. Reese resigned herself to shivering. It wasn’t even good coffee. She could have gotten better from the cafe she’d abandoned.
The Harat-Shar beside her forced his way back into the crowd and another man took his place. Reese was just beginning to notice that the clientele was a little rougher than she liked to deal with when the newcomer said, “You look shoved out.”
“Come here often?”
“I’m not interested,” Reese said, disgruntled.
“I wasn’t asking.”
“Oh,” Reese said. “Good.”
“You must not be from around here,” he went on.
“What gave you that idea?” Reese asked.
His turn to shrug, a hitch of one shoulder. “You have the spacer look. You got a crate here?”
“Yeah,” Reese said.
“Hauling freight or people?”
“Why do you want to know?” Reese asked, a scowl forming despite her best efforts. The man had a craggy face, but he kept it shaved and his rough clothing seemed clean enough. She had no reason for her wariness except that she was wary of everyone and so far paranoia had kept her out of trouble.
“I’m looking for freight haulers. Got a job for someone with grit.” He eyed her. “You got grit.”
“Yeah, well,” Reese said. “I don’t just do jobs I pick up in a bar.”
He glanced at the coffee, then shrugged again. “Pays a lot. We’d make it worth your while.”
“We?” Reese asked.
“I’m agenting. My boss’s off-world. Always looking for reliable merchants.”
Her wariness ripened into a nice, juicy suspicion. “I don’t work with go-betweens.”
“I can arrange a meeting, if you’re interested.” He smiled. “It would be worth it.”
“Oh? How worth it?”
He dunked a finger in her coffee before she could object and scrawled a figure on the bar, dark liquid on dark wood. Reese gaped at it as he wiped it away. She said, “I don’t run illegal cargo.”
“It’s not illegal,” he said. “It’s just way far out in the frontier and getting it requires some legwork. Most people don’t want to bother.”
“Nothing in the frontier is worth that kind of money,” Reese said, hardening herself against hope. The amount the man had written would take care of the repairs and then some. She wouldn’t have to ask for the loan.
“Money’s where you make it,” the man said with a shrug. “If you’re interested—”
“—I’d need more details,” Reese said.
“No,” the man said. “You sign the contract. You find out what the boss wants. You get paid half. The other half on delivery. Those are the terms.”
“You want me to agree to do something without telling me what it is?” Reese asked, staring at him.
He grinned. “We pay enough for it. And it’s not illegal.”
She wondered if its legality was due to some convoluted loophole. The chill in her bones was not solely her clammy clothing. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
He handed her a card. “If you decide, give us a call.”
“Right,” Reese said. The man slid off the stool and was replaced by a Tam-illee pilot who drooped so far over his beer Reese wondered if he would dunk his muzzle in it. She ordered a fresh cup of coffee and drank it black, but instead of warming her it just made her feel wet on the inside to match her skin.
The rain let up and she headed back to the cafe. The money was tempting, but Reese knew better. As embarrassing as her trip home would prove, a known quantity won over anything as potentially risky as entangling herself with nameless merchants who had too much money and required too much secrecy.
“Do they bother you?” Jarysh asked.
Hirianthial lay with eyes closed in the playroom adjacent to the ward. Two Harat-Shar children were using his long torso as a pillow; another sat near his foot, puzzling at a series of colored rings that had been interlocked a moment before. The sleepers dreamt in fragile washes of color, such delicate constructs they barely held the two minds unconscious; the pressure of their heads on his ribs seemed too heavy for the frailty of their slumber. “They’re children,” he said after a moment, keeping his voice too low to disturb the dreams.
“And that means they’re exceptions to the rule for you?” Jarysh asked.
Hirianthial didn’t reply. Even worked to exhaustion he’d been trained too well to accidentally tear the Veil Jerisa had decreed for the Eldritch. When he did not answer the direct question, Jarysh assumed agreement and said, “Here too. Children are very special for us. I think people think we don’t love our children because we treat them so differently.”
“Perhaps,” Hirianthial said.
The man poured himself onto the ground, boneless in his own exhaustion. Hirianthial thought he had spots beneath his shapeless tunic and pants, but he’d never seen Jarysh out of hospital scrubs. He knew very little about his coworker beyond the Harat-Shar’s medical competence… which was fine. Jarysh probably knew even less about him.
Staring at the ceiling, the Harat-Shar continued, “My wives are very angry with me. This is a change.”
Hirianthial could not muster a response to that, but his silence must have seemed receptive, for Jarysh said, “They’re usually too busy being angry at one another to be angry with me. It’s because I have two. One wife is bearable. Three work together well. With only two there’s no peace in the house. They rival for my attentions. I have very few attentions to spare.” His sigh whistled through his nose. “They want me home more often. They want babies. They want my time. I told them that the residential contract was a temporary thing… but the longer I’m here, the more I realize I like it better than being home.”
“You do not love your wives?” Hirianthial asked after a moment.
“Better to ask whether I loved my life,” Jarysh said. “The wives are only incidental.” He sighed. “Do you ever get the feeling that you got knocked off a nice, simple life path, but that once you got off it you couldn’t figure out how to get back? Or even if you wanted to?”
Hirianthial forced a curl of a smile, though why he had no idea. Perhaps he felt compelled to at least make an effort to appreciate the many ironies of his life. “I am acquainted with the situation.”
“Now that I’m here,” Jarysh said, “now that I’m working like this… I don’t want the wives. The babies. These patients are my babies. What am I supposed to do now?”
“The honorable thing,” Hirianthial suggested.
The Harat-Shar snorted. “Honorable. For whom? Me? Them? By what standards?”
“Perhaps then the just thing,” Hirianthial said.
Jarysh rubbed his temples. “Kajentarel shield me. The ‘just’ thing. As if I knew what that was. I should probably divorce them, let them seek a husband who cares better for them.” After a while, he said, “You don’t talk much.”
“You ask counsel on a topic for which I have no adequate advice,” Hirianthial said.
“Is that because you have no wives, or because you’re an Eldritch?”
“Neither,” Hirianthial said. “It’s because I’m not Harat-Shariin. I may know enough to keep from making any egregious errors, but I cannot begin to guess what would be fair or just for you or your family. Your customs are too different.”
“Probably,” Jarysh said and rubbed the bridge of his nose, his temples. “Still, I wish I had the wisdom of your years.” He managed a grin. “You probably have children older than my grandparents.”
“No,” Hirianthial said, surprising himself with the admission. “I have no children.”
“None?” Jarysh asked, eyes widening. “But you’re so good with them.”
“Children ask very little and what they need is simple,” Hirianthial said. “To be good with them is easier than to be good with adults.”
The Harat-Shar snorted. “You’d be surprised. Too many people grow up embarrassed at their own naiveté. They think to be sophisticated they have to cut themselves off from anything that seems simple. There are plenty of people who are bad with kits.”
“I suppose that might be true,” Hirianthial said.
“You should have children before you die,” Jarysh said. “It would be a waste for you not to be a father.”
As stunned as he was by the assertion, he was saved by habits cultivated to shield against the venomous barbs of bored courtiers. He answered before he knew he’d formulated a reply. “As it would be a waste for you to not be a father?”
The Harat-Shar’s voice lowered. “Well. I guess when you put it that way, it makes me sound a little hypocritical.”
A soft beep sounded from near the ceiling: not a monitor, but the hospital comm line. Jarysh answered.
“Soft Fields Hospital.”
“Yes, I’m looking for an Eldritch doctor….”
Hirianthial nearly sat up. “Sascha?”
“Doc, come quick, will you? Mom says there’s something wrong with Miri Salaena.”
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Mirrored from MCAH Online.