Theoretically

“I’d say,” Gevuyn’s voice came through the kitchen door before the man himself appeared, dressed in the bare necessities, hair still wet from the shower, “I’d say it smells like salt bread.”

“And you’d be correct.” Yurtoril fetched the skewers from the firekeeper.

“Do I get one?” Gevuyn leaned over across the kitchen table, water from his hair dripping down onto the surface.

Yurtoril watched the puddle form for a moment and raised his eyebrows.

“What?” Gevuyn looked down. “Oh.”

“Never mind.” Yurtoril handed him a skewer. “Here. Figured you could use some, too.”

Gevuyn took the skewer and hastily pulled off a piece of salt bread. “And you’d be correct.”

They devoured their bread skewers in silence.

“I had a thought in the shower,” Gevuyn said, laying down the skewer on the table.

“Yeah?”

“About the director.”

“Didn’t you want to be done with that?”

Gevuyn furrowed his brows just a bit. So there was more.

Yurtoril sighed. “You know, after today’s farce, I wouldn’t mind being done with it myself.”

His partner’s look got probing. “Farce, huh.”

“Well, yeah.”

“So you thought so, too. Came to me late.” Gevuyn pointed down to his bare skewer. “How much more do we have?”

“Plenty. I put in the whole package; wasn’t thinking too straight.”

Gevuyn grinned at him. “All the better.”

It was uncomfortable in a different way. He returned the grin. The heaviness seemed lifted for now. Yurtoril got the remaining four bread skewers out of the firekeeper and laid them out on the cutting board. “We can still drop this if you want.”

Gevuyn’s hand halted on the way to the cutting board. “If I want? You mean… Don’t tell me.”

“You wanted to be done with it. The order is happy. There’s no need to pursue it further.”

His partner’s hand was still hovering above the board. Then he was hit by a beaming smile. “Well, we can have a little chat about it. Just to compare.”

“Just to compare,” Yurtoril agreed. “Living room?”

Gevuyn nodded swiftly, his wet hair falling into his face, and picked up the cutting board to carry it over.

Yurtoril held open the door. “Bit well-prepared, wasn’t she?”

Gevuyn balanced the board with the skewers out into the living room and sat it down on the usual book stack. “Have you ever seen an air dryer? I’ve only seen them in books in the academy.”

“Once, in the Eastern district. Shortly before they released me from training, in a practical mission. I accompanied a seasoned knight; was a smuggling case. The stuff we found was from before the war.”

“And the print on the ones today was…”

“Eastern, yeah.” Yurtoril sat down on the couch and reached for the salt bread.

Gevuyn wedged himself in between, blocking his access. “Could you read it?”

Yurtoril raised his eyebrows. But fine. “Same company, long since defunct.”

A snort. “You… Alright. Alright.” Gevuyn picked up a skewer but held it out of reach. “So would you say this was something that a grieving widow could pick up easily, in the…” He twirled the skewer around a few times. “In the twelve days since her husband died?”

Yurtoril smiled. “Even with her connections, it’s highly unlikely.”

Gevuyn returned the smile and finally handed him the bread skewer. “So…” He picked up one for himself.

“So the director being an ally to the order is also highly unlikely.”

Gevuyn laughed that raspy laugh of his. “Figured. And the water filtering systems… and the window cloths… All recent, right?”

“Plausible deniability but not likely.”

“She tried to tell us something, didn’t she? I wonder what.”

Yurtoril tore off a piece of bread. “Nothing we could have acted on in our current position.”

“Figured.” Gevuyn looked at him. “You could have said something.”

“I was trying to…” He paused. In fact… He inclined his head slightly. “I could have.”

Gevuyn’s posture relaxed. “Don’t worry. I could have…” He picked at his bread. “Paid attention right away. Shown more interest. Something.”

“I could have not made her shoot herself.”

His partner broke into laughter. “I couldn’t believe it when Suradin was so happy with our work.”

“We did what we were supposed to.” He mustered the other. “Theoretically, we could still go out now, secure something. In the study maybe. Before they clean it up.”

Gevuyn seemed to ponder it, then leaned over to rest his head on Yurtoril’s shoulder, drenching his shirt with his wet hair. It wasn’t so bad. “It’s comfortable here. And I’m wiped. There’ll be more directors.”

He smiled. “Of that we can be sure, yes.”

“Besides, I’m not going to pass on a gift like that.” Yurtoril could see the corner of his grin. “Not going after a case like that. Whatever got into you?”

“Is there a problem?”

“Not a one.”

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De-briefing

It was night time, and Yurtoril had a headache. He usually did after these outings.

Peace and quiet would fix it.

It would, but it seemed today his partner was more displeased than usual with their work. That look he’d given him when the last light in their target’s eyes had faded in the rain and been replaced by contentment. It was getting critical.

Yurtoril would have to fix that.

It would take contemplation. He didn’t want contemplation. He wanted to end the day and all thought and this damned headache.

He turned off the light in his room and lay down askew on the crisp blanket.

He frowned and adjusted his position to be parallel with the bed.

Better.

But not much.

He didn’t always want to be the human element, Gevuyn had said. And that Yurtoril didn’t understand the toll it took on him.

He sighed. Then quieted himself. Couldn’t have that heard across the wall.

Gevuyn thought Yurtoril was making it easy on himself with his distance.

Obviously, he didn’t understand a thing.

Unwelcome consideration: Then why did he keep giving him that part of the job? The understanding part.

Yurtoril pressed his fingertips against his forehead, slowly rubbed up and down, and across, to no avail. This one wanted to stay. Damned headaches.

So perhaps he’d have to shift the balance somewhat. The biggest pain would be admitting to his mistake. He didn’t make mistakes.

Wrong. He hated making mistakes. Yes. Better. Less welcome, more accurate.

So.

“Sarvino!” a shrill woman’s voice rang from the living room, startling him out of his thoughts. “You can’t! Our baby!”

What the hell was this now?

“Our baby?” a man’s voice yelled. “Our baby? You mean Aranno’s baby! Don’t you, Lurria? Ah, to think I loved you!”

Yurtoril laid one hand across his face, then another, inhaled, then let them both drift down to his chest.

Fine. There wasn’t going to be sleep now anyway.

He felt woefully underprepared.

Might be an idea. Might be some of that human element that his partner claimed to see an imbalance in.

Going out now was a dreadful idea.

He got up, put on a fresh pair of socks, and his slippers, and went out into the living room.

 

Gevuyn was sprawled on the couch watching television with a half-empty bottle of red wine on the stack of books next to him, and a half-filled glass cradled against his chest.

He looked up to him. Yurtoril’s chest clenched. The venom was still there.

He grit his teeth. “Did…” Wrong beginning. And too quiet.

Gevuyn reached for the remote control and silenced the television. Expectant look.

Fine, deliver. But what? “Is it Aranno’s baby?”

His partner was taken aback. Then a probing look. Not the kind he normally got. More like the kind the targets got. The one before he turned on the fake warmth. Was that what they felt like? Couldn’t be. Couldn’t be, because…

“Sit with me.” Gevuyn’s voice was slurred as he sat up, careful not to spill his wine. “Bring a glass. And I’ll explain you all about Lurria.”

This was still a bad time to smile. Nothing was sorted, nothing was fixed. It would be counter-productive. But his lips betrayed him. He walked over to the cabinet and got out a glass. He looked at the couch and faltered.

Gevuyn scooted to the left corner and patted the space to his right. “Sit.”

So he sat. The cabinet’s door was still open.

“So.” Gevuyn filled his glass, more than was usual, and added more to his own glass for good measure. The bottle made it safely back to the book stack.

Yurtoril raised his glass, then cursed himself inwardly. He wouldn’t want that yet, and getting blown off would be…

Gevuyn gave him another one of his probing looks, then clanked his glass against his. “To Lurria.”

He failed at getting rid of the smile, again. “Lurria seems like an unfaithful kind. Maybe someone else. Is anyone there better at this?”

“No. Well, you’d think Sarvino would, for all he’s yelling, but… oh.” Gevuyn grabbed the remote control and turned the volume up again, filling the room with crying voices. “He actually had a thing with Natrija when Lurria had her brain tumour. Aranno was there, but then he caved to the family obligations. And Ninna had the fortune from the tax fraud. So…” The look turned probing again, but this time like the ones Yurtoril normally got. “You don’t normally smile that long.”

Did he? He felt caught. “I… I wanted… You said, I…” Damn this all.

It did get him a smile in return, at last. Not a target smile, either. A real one. For all he knew.

He swallowed. “To the baby. May it grow up to be a better person.”

Gevuyn clanked their glasses together again. “If it survives.”

They drank in silence while a new couple provided the backdrop argument.

“Can I ask what this is?” Yurtoril asked at last.

“This…” Gevuyn looked almost embarrassed. But he caught himself and brushed his hair off his shoulder. “This is our reward.”

He knew he looked confused, and there was no helping it.

Gevuyn poured them both more wine, and they drank in silence again.

“This is approved television,” the explanation went on at last. “This, and the rain, killer combination. Not like the serious stuff we get at the order, with all the actual information and background. Well, that’s a cliché. Our stuff is just as filtered for what they want us to see. But this.” He pointed at the screen with his barely filled glass. “This without the rain. We can do this. They can’t.”

Yurtoril frowned, trying to grasp it. He looked down on his wine glass and downed the rest, then held it out to his partner. Then halted when he realised what he was doing.

Gevuyn looked at him, and reached for the bottle. “It’s funny,” he explained as if to a child.

Yurtoril snorted, looked at the screen, at the glass, briefly at his partner, at the screen.

His glass was being filled.

The other, too.

The empty bottle went down on the floor, and another full one surfaced and took the place on the book stack.

“So you like the faithful kind, huh?”

“What?”

“Lurria.”

Yurtoril blinked. “Oh. That. I…” There was no uncompromising answer here. “I suppose.”

“Don’t worry.”

He blinked again.

Gevuyn looked down on his glass, looking almost vulnerable for a moment, then clanked it against Yurtoril’s, spilling some wine onto their hands. “Sorry. Anyway. You want to be good? Then we’re good.”

Yurtoril tried to still the clenching in his chest, or in his jaw, or just his hand. It had wine on it. “I. Yes. I… may have…”

“We’re good.” Gevuyn drank from his glass, and Yurtoril watched him before following suit. There was still wine on his hand. He should get rid of it, but it would break the spell.

Gevuyn sat closer to him.

Yurtoril swallowed. “I… suppose… I could try to be that more. The… human.”

His partner was shaken with a raspy laugh, then gave him a side glance into his eyes. “So I see.”

At fault

 

The city was drowning.

It would have been reasonable to blame the witch down in the stocks in the marketplace, but at the time I found that in poor taste. So I did not blame anything but the weather and the general decline of the world.

Whatever was at fault, however, I needed milk. And so I found myself in a futile rain cloak and under a futile umbrella, splashing through the streets.

The water went up to my ankles all the way through the residential district. Those streets were still paved then. It takes us a generation or two to abandon unhelpful old habits.

I turned the corner to the convenience store, expecting relief, but found a commotion in the doorway instead. People arguing, stomping their feet and letting the water splash up to their knees. Yelling something about distribution fairness and residential rights and soggy bread and the witch. I decided I wanted no part in that and moved on down the street in the direction of the shopping mall.

 

Of course, you know what it’s like, and at the same time you don’t. Downhill. Big mistake. But an even bigger mistake when all the water that’s gathering in the valley can’t seep into the ground, can’t go anywhere, but up. Up as in, water level rising.

And down there in that unfortunate valley, the stocks. And the brave guard, standing a noticeable way off, keeping just-so watchful-enough eyes on his charges. There were only two occupants left, the witch and a pretty young girl I hadn’t seen before.

The mall was across that sorry scene.

Spectators were few in this weather. Not everyone was as foolish as me.

I considered turning around instead of wading through knee-high water past that, but then I’d decided to go buy milk, and once I’d be safely at home, I’d regret not having any. That was my train of thought then. You can laugh at your old grandfather. Go ahead. Means hopefully you’ll be smarter.

 

So I walked on. Well, “walked” isn’t the right word. Tiptoed, steered in wide curves, hopped over particularly deep puddles and splash-landed in shallow ones. Slouched when the path took me too close to the stock personnel, witch and pretty girl and guard, all there performing for an ungrateful audience on a rainy day, dispatched there by the government and the good sense of the people.

The girl was hanging her head. Didn’t look at me, didn’t look at anyone. That was easier. Sure, you feel bad, but you can avoid it, and tell yourself neither of you wants to make contact, too unpleasant, you’d just embarrass her further. Best to just walk past.

The witch didn’t have that kind of decorum, though. She looked straight at me. If you’ve ever had… Yeah, of course you have. Back then, it was still rare. We weren’t used to having a witch stare at us. We didn’t know, was it stupid superstition to shrink back, or should we in fact be more afraid than we were? Well, at least I was like that. And the paper columns were full of that kind of back-and-forth.

It was unnerving. It’s unnerving even knowing that stare, right? Now imagine being unfamiliar with it. I couldn’t tell what was in it. I froze, stared back into those dark blue eyes, and tasted metal cause moments had passed and I’d bitten my lip. I was going to tear myself away, but then something wrapped around my ankles in the water, and then she rooted me further to the spot, by asking in that hoarse voice. “You don’t want to be here either, do you? What’s your errand?”

Any answer would have been better than the truth, any, and I was aware of the situation, and what the simple ‘either’ implied, and I wanted to justify my presence in this spot somehow, and what I said was “I wanted to buy milk.”

I thought I saw a smile there, just a tiny one, and the stuff underwater left my ankles alone, and I could move again. So I did.

“Bring me some,” she rasped behind me. “Something warm.”

I froze again but pushed myself onwards to the mall, pretending not to hear.

 

The mall itself was blissful normality. Everyone worked really hard at maintaining that image. Dry floors, electric light, the same bad radio music we were used to, even if the chatter in between named a date in the past, and sunny weather. I remember I almost bought fresh bread and salad before remembering that was a damned stupid idea. So I got some cans, and the milk I was there for. And after grinding my teeth in front of that shelf for a while, I took some extra, and some honey. There was no point in the honey, I told myself. Her raspy voice just made me want some comfort for my own throat once I got home. I’d probably catch a cold anyway from this outing. I decided not to think about it any further.

 

The detour through the mall led me past a hot coffee stand. It was crowded. Here we could all admit what the situation really was like. I sighed and got in line. Stupid. I could warm my own milk at home. This was a waste of time and money.

 

I walked out with a ceramic cup of hot milk with honey to go. I’d paid extra for the cup; didn’t bring my own, of course.

 

When I got to the stocks, one of them was empty.

The witch was still there. She looked straight at me as soon as she saw me. Then at the cup I was holding. Well, so much for all of that. The water was covering her knees now, and the guard… The guard stood even further away than before, to where the water only went up to his calves, haggling with some middle-aged man who was surely none of the local authorities. The young girl from the stocks stood at their side, looking disinterested.

I turned back to the witch. Possibly of my own volition. I’d like to think so.

“I thought we’d get along,” she said in barely a voice left.

I waded up to her and raised the cup in my hands and… Then I didn’t know what to do. You can’t hand a cup to someone in the stocks. I frowned. Should I hold it up to her lips? Would that even work? Wouldn’t that be embarrassing for her? Or did that not count anymore when you were in that situation?

She gave me that tiny smile again. “For me?”

I felt caught. For a moment I wished she could have been as unobtrusive as the other one so I could have just walked on.

“Yeah. I…”

“It’ll be my last drink. Don’t let it get cold.”

While I was still taken aback by that, she awkwardly pointed her eyes at the water level.

“No, come on, it won’t be that… They wouldn’t… This isn’t what’s normally…” I said it for her as well as my own benefit.

“You could lace it with poison,” she went on in her barely-a-voice. “That would make this all quicker.”

“No, come on,” I said again, feeling increasingly helpless. Why had I left the apartment that day? Why did I care?

Those blue eyes mustered me, I saw, and she looked like she was pondering something. Then her eyes beckoned me closer, so I came closer, and she said in an even lower voice: “Or it could make this stop.”

I got annoyed and grit my teeth. “Isn’t that the same?”

She shook her head, and looked up at the sky, then down to the water that was steadily rising. “This.”

I felt cold, and my thoughts were frozen in place same as I was. “Are you saying…” Witches. The rain. “They’re right?”

Her smile was sad and appraising. Those blue eyes were serious as always. “You can talk to the guard, too. Make it quick. He wants to leave, too.”

I bit down on my lip again. Then I went and talked to the guard.

“Ah good,” were his first words. He was shivering. “Let’s cut this short, alright. No weather for this. I name you a good price, and you take this off my hand, and I… conveniently look away.” His teeth chattered through the word ‘conveniently’. He dug into his coat pocket and drew out a bundle of keys for me to see.

I glanced at the witch.

She was watching me. You know that look. The ‘Are you about done with your chores?’ look.

There are times in one’s life when one’s got to say, screw the city.

 

The ceramic cup shattered when she tried to hold it. Turns out your grip isn’t the strongest after the stocks. She looked sadder at that than she had all day.

“I bought milk and honey for at home,” I said, and felt like more of an idiot that I had all day.

Your grandma nodded. “I thought we’d get along.”

Those were different times. These days everyone knows better, people and guards both.

But you know, sometimes wisdom is overrated.

 

Moonlight

Moonlight, strategically placed. Making her hair shine like the starry sky, flowing down into the grass, almost unnaturally.

Moonlight, set at just the right level of brightness to make her skin shine like a pale imitation of it, almost unnaturally. What lighting would it take to get a blush to appear? Moonlight, can you accomplish that, too, or is that my job?

Moonlight, setting that bright summer dress against the night. And the jeans she wears beneath for modesty. Almost unnatural these days.

Moonlight, a conversation topic, set up at just the right time when the starry, starry sky alone isn’t enough anymore. She listens to talk of the stars. The moonlight makes her talk. Her voice is still new. An even metallic melody with the occasional scratch. Just a bit stilted. Just a bit unnatural. But we’re getting there. We’re getting there.