No one pointed Harry specifically to coffee, but while Mollin split off to retrieve his comp from wherever he’d spent the last several hours, Captain Marifanne led Harry to a pair of doors and told him to wait inside.
Harry stepped through the doors and gave the room a once over, taking in the privacy-screened window, the gleaming curved desk with its chair upholstered in green. On the opposite end of the room was a curved sofa in a gold-toned brocade with a low round table in front of it. And gracing the wall between the couch and the desk stood a curved copper-topped bar, where Ray was rifling through the available stores of liquor.
Like Harry, the younger operative had a fresh set of clothes. Unlike Harry, Ray’s crisp black shirt and trousers looked brand new, as if someone had run out and purchased a set of clothing in his size that morning.
Ray also had the air of a man who’d spent the last few hours doing more than sleeping.
“Wine. Wine. More wine,” Ray muttered, snatching up bottle after bottle from under the counter, then went digging in the built-in mini fridge. “Vodka?” He pulled out a misted bottle and considered it. “What the hell.” Uncapping the bottle, he grabbed a glass from the rack behind him and poured a hefty splash. “Cheers.” He raised the glass in Harry’s direction and downed the vodka in three gulps.
“So, how’s Jessyn?” Harry asked.
“Fine.” Ray poured more vodka, thumped down the bottle. “I guess. She said the Lady needed her. Speaking of . . .” He looked up at Harry. “How is the Lady?”
“Fine,” Harry replied. “I guess.”
“Does she have a real name?”
“She does,” Harry said and, at Ray’s glare added, “Fayla—Fayla Szado.” As he spoke, two Rasalkans appeared in the arch, each carrying a hefty tray. “Let me help with that,” he said, joining them at the low table next to the couch.
“No need.” The older woman’s smile was bright against the warm brown of her skin. “Though your care is appreciated.”
“I’m always careful where coffee’s concerned,” Harry told her, eyeing the carafe, then the mass of covered platters, plates, and flatware on both trays.
“Not only coffee,” the younger Rasalkan observed as she set her burden on the table. Her red-gold hair slipped over her shoulders as she straightened. “You are careful of women, as well.”
“Tahna.” The girl’s companion shook her head in warning, the graying locks rustling over her robe.
“My sorrow,” Tahna replied with a flush, looking up at Harry. “I did not mean to intrude, it was only—your care is so very loud. And . . . sad.”
“Tahna Echzyn Minjares!”
Tahna, Harry, and Ray all straightened as the older woman delivered the full three name reproach.
“It’s all right,” Harry said quickly. “I’ll try to be more quiet from here on.” Even as he spoke, he shuttered any stray bits of himself that might be flitting out for casual observance.
He must have done a decent job because both women favored him with an approving glance.
“I thank you,” Tahna said, the pretty flush now deep pink, “but Quaila is correct. I was not properly shielded.”
“Tahna,” Ray said thoughtfully, and Harry turned to see him pointing his glass at the young woman. “You’re the one—the voice in my head from last night. Or was it this morning?” He waved it off. “You’re the one who helped Jessyn help me?”
“I am.” Tahna’s head dipped in a nod.
“In that case, I owe you,” Ray said. “Really owe you.”
“You owe me nothing,” Tahna assured.
“That said, Tahna’s efforts on your behalf were tiring,” the other woman—Quaila—pointed out. “Tiring enough that she requires at least hour of csziphaschen to recover. Gentlemen,” she nodded generally to Harry and Ray and then exited the room. Tahna offered a faint wave and followed.
“Zzhiphastchen?” Ray tried the word out, but it came out sounding like a cat horking up a hairball.
“A form of meditation,” Harry explained, moving around the table to park himself on the sofa. From there he poured a mug of the coffee. “Practicing csziphas helps Rasalkans maintain their psionic barriers. If they didn’t, they’d pretty much be walking sponges, picking up emotions or thoughts—or whatever else they might pick up—from every living being they pass. It’s a little to respect other sapients’ privacy,” he said, taking a sip of the coffee while raising a lid from one of the platters, “but mostly to keep a grip of their own sanity.”
“Right.” Ray swirled the vodka in his glass. “So, how is it you know so much about Rasalkans?”
“Case, back in the day,” Harry said, selecting a puff pastry from the platter he’d uncovered.
“And did that case tell you where all the Rasalkan men are hiding?”
Harry’s response was to shove half a pastry into his mouth. “Good,” he said around the mouthful. “Want some?”
It was a deflection from the question, and Harry figured Ray knew it.
Still, the other operative set down his glass and joined Harry on the couch.
“You might want to slow down,” Ray said, pouring himself a cup of coffee as Harry devoured another pastry. “I don’t want to clean up the mess when you puke all that back up.”
“Ha,” Harry replied, then picked up another lid to find a plate of neatly sliced Ócalan pears and grabbed a handful.
“Are you really that hungry?” Ray asked, reaching for a pastry.
“Yes,” Harry said, washing down pear with a slug of coffee and grabbing another pastry.
“The hunger is a side effect of Viel’s handiwork,” a voice, bearing a distinctly Gallic accent, explained.
Ray and Harry looked toward the arch to find a man Harry had first seen in Ankhar—hauling León from the interrogation room—and then again when he assisted Harry out of the car the night before.
The man wasn’t alone, either.
Mollin was at his side, comp in hand. “Harry, Ray, this is Arrion Degas,” Mollin introduced his companion. “Arrion, Ray Slater, and Harry Finn.” He paused, seemed to consider saying something else, then rolled on the balls of his feet and hauled his kit to the desk by the window.
Arrion watched the Cherrii with a glint of amusement in his dark eyes.
“Looks like every member of the team got lucky, last night,” Ray murmured.
“Go team,” Harry said, sipping his coffee as Arrion crossed to the bar, a study in urban sophistication, from the wavy hair gathered in a short tail to the bespoke suit to the subtle hint of the shoulder rig under his jacket.
“Who’s Viel?” Ray asked, after swallowing the last of his pastry.
“Healer,” Harry replied.
“A healer, yes.” Arrion stepped around the bar and pulled out a bottle of a New Verdun Shiraz. “She may not be able to see with her eyes, but I believe she senses more than the most advanced medical scanners. And the hunger you are experiencing,” he added, looking at Harry, “is caused by Viel’s ability to accelerate your cell renewal.”
“Say that five times, fast,” Ray muttered.
“Voice of experience?” Harry asked Arrion.
“Too much experience.” Arrion opened the bottle and sniffed the cork with every appearance of satisfaction. “But better a dent in the larder than a box in the ground.”
Ray and Harry shared a glance.
“Interesting,” Harry said, turning back to Arrion, “seeing an offilan working for a Rasalkan House.”
“Almost as strange as a human knowing the Rasalkan word for ‘outlander,’” Arrion countered, pulling a goblet from under the bar.
“I had a case that involved some Rasalkans,” Harry fell back on the same explanation he’d given Ray as he contemplated another pasty and went for the coffee instead. “Picked up a bit of the lingo.”
“Of course,” Arrion replied as he poured himself a glass. “But to your point, while it is unusual to see offilan working for most Rasalkans, the Black Rose—and House Szado in particular—has a less xenophobic view of outlanders. Lucky for me, as I have served far less admirable commanders than Captain Marifanne.”
Harry whistled. “If you impressed her, I’ll say Fayla’s lucky to have you.”
Apparently Arrion wasn’t used to offilan, or perhaps anyone, speaking the Lady’s given name, because on hearing Harry say it, he choked and spluttered.
“Problem?” Ray asked.
Harry sipped his coffee.
“Maird.” Arrion looked at the wine stain on his cuff. “I like this shirt.”
“It is a nice shirt,” Mollin commented from behind his holoscreen.
Arrion turned to Mollin who met his gaze, and the two men smiled.
Which was all well and good, but Harry was more taken by Mollin’s holo. “What is that?”
“A 3D Sudoku Domina Tahna developed. I found it in the game room last night while you two were being healed.”
“Which reminds me,” Ray said, “I hear I have you to thank for the save. So, thanks.”
“It was a team effort,” Mollin said, then turned to Harry, who was still staring at the holo. “Do you want a copy? It’ll kick your ass.”
“I can pretty much guarantee that Tahna’s 3D Sudoku will never get the chance to kick my ass,” Harry said with a grimace. “And besides that,” he added, dusting crumbs from his jeans and unfolding himself from the couch, “it’s time to stop playing and get back to work.” He ignored Arrion’s speculative look as he gestured to Mollin’s comp. “I need you to run a search for me, names and dates, eight all told.”
Mollin tapped the keypad and closed out the game, which collapsed in on itself before disappearing in a blink. “Got the names written down?”
“I memorized them.” Harry joined the Cherrii who tapped another key and looked up.
“Recording. Go ahead.”
“Malef Esperenz, Universal System Date oh-eight, one-four, seventy-one.” He began with the oldest of Neishi’s gruesome souvenirs, dated seven Standard months ago, and continued on while Mollin entered the data.
From the bar, Ray watched, curious. “That’d go faster if you could use my setup on the Gypsy Moth.”
Mollin looked at Harry. “It is a top flight setup.”
“That’s a generous offer,” Harry said, “but this is a pretty straightforward search. I’m just looking for bodies to go with some names and—parts—I already have.”
“Ack,” Mollin said, looking at the data streaming over the several holographic screens with much less enthusiasm.
Ray’s eyes widened, but it was Arrion who spoke. “Just as well,” he said, tapping the bar, “given it is the Lady’s desire you remain within her apartments, at least for the present. In part for your safety—”
“I think we can take care of our—”
“—but mostly for hers,” Arrion continued over Ray’s rising objection. “And Domina Jessyn’s, and Viel’s and Tahna’s . . . or did you not wonder at the secrecy we used to bring you into this sanctuary?”
Ray and Harry looked at each other. “I was pretty out of it,” Harry admitted. “But I’d guess someone up the ladder won’t be too happy knowing one of the Black Rose pulled our fat out of the fire.”
Arrion nodded. “The man who took you, Mr. Finn, is of great value to Mariska Breeshandra, and what Maris—”
“Wait,” Ray began.
“Did you say Breeshandra?” Harry finished.
As you may have noticed, this website is ad free, and depends upon the generosity of its readers (that’s you!), so if you are enjoying, please Like, Subscribe, or Share on your favorite social platform, using the handy buttons below. Lastly, and only if you can afford to, consider buying the authors a coffee. Or buy an ebook. Every little thing helps.