On the philosophy of windows on rainy days

Outside, the rain was falling in heavy, noisy drops.

It was midday, and the smell of their neighbour’s heavy sausage stew crept into the apartment. Gevuyn tried to concentrate on the presentation he was trying to write – some stupid idea by the higher-ups, speeches at schools and universities, detailing their work – but not too exactly, of course – what a stupid, stupid idea – it was hard.

At first, when the smell started up, it was disgusting cause the grease had to burn off. Then it turned to where it made him hungry. Most of his unhealthy lunches were due to that smell. Then it got overpowering, and sometimes she’d add stuff that made his stomach turn, so he had to be done with lunch by then.

At last he got up from his papers and opened the window behind him.

Cold air blew in, welcome and damp, smelling like rain, winter just on the cusp of spring, but spring was still being coy or maybe just lazy, and wanted to be persuaded.

Meanwhile, its rain did the persuading on the majority of the people.

Some windows in the housing block complex were opened, some closed.

There were two types of people. Those that opened the window in this weather for the rain’s soothing qualities, and those that kept it closed for the same reason.

Yurtoril and he were the third kind. The “whatever” kind. The ones that could choose either, on frivolous whims, because they had not been given a choice in the past.

He remembered being a kid, in the Watcher’s academy dorm, or rather cell, when rainy days meant the windows had to stay rigidly closed. Withdrawal. First you had to get the stuff out of your system, even if you had some base immunity, or maybe it was all just attitude. No one seemed to know.

Wanting nothing more than to open those damned windows and hold your hand out and end the plaguing of your thoughts. End it all. Give up and be happy, or at least not miserable.

Sitting back down on your bunk bed and reading something spitefully negative or depressing as a fuck you to the rain you couldn’t have.

Gevuyn sighed. Grit his teeth. He held out his hand into the rain. Heavy, noisy drops that didn’t do a thing.

“Fuck you, rain,” he whispered under his breath.

He left the window open and sat back down to his notes as the rain drenched the windowsill.

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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.”

Reversal

Gevuyn’s uniform was constricting when worn properly, and his tightly bound ponytail strained his scalp. And they had to sit through the higher-ups’ questions. It was like being back in training. He longed to loosen it all up.

Meanwhile, the prettiest man in the world was being obnoxiously straight-laced with the head knight. He’d even taken implicit credit for Gevuyn’s ‘unusually professional attire’. Well, he could let that go today. Just barely.

Pay-off would be later today.

 

“Well,” Sir Suradin said from behind his oversized desk, “you did good work overall. We’ve got most of the Department of Development back in line. There are some left-over factors, but if you’re looking for a new challenge, I can hand those to someone else.”

Yes, do it. Though the man’s eyes were too piercing during that offer. Still, anything but more of that department’s mess.

“Thank you,” Yurtoril said. “We appreciate it. But we like to tie up loose ends. It’s no good to leave things to the next ones in disorder.”

Oh for fuck’s sake, why? Of course, of course. Standing in the order. Promotions. But this case out of all?

Gevuyn bit down on the inside of his lip and straightened his shoulders. “I agree.” He gave Yurtoril a curt nod.

They both looked pleased. Fuck this all.

“Good,” Suradin said. “That’s what I was hoping to hear.” He flipped open a folder in front of him and turned it around for them to read. A photo of a grey-haired woman, Reinelle, 62 years old, etc.

“The murdered director’s widow,” their superior explained. “Normally this wouldn’t be the department’s issue anymore, but she’s been acting erratically by some accounts, and seeking contact within the department, spouting conspiracies. Everyone says they didn’t talk to her, but you know how it is. Something’s up there, and we’ve got to get this cleaned up before we set up the new director.” He looked at each of them in turn. “This is a minor issue, and I don’t care how you clear it up, as long as you do it. And do it today. Things are set in motion for tomorrow; a delay would be awkward.”

Yurtoril met the head knight’s gaze with that too sensible expression of his. “When you say you don’t care how, just to clarify…”

“I mean I don’t care. Use your imagination or be unoriginal. I want the rumour-mongering gone by tomorrow. How the source stops spreading them is your business.”

Yurtoril nodded smoothly. “Understood.”

 

“Why?”

The wind was biting into his skin outside the order’s southern headquarters. At least his hair was safely confined. As confined as he felt.

“You know why,” Yurtoril said.

“That’s the worst part,” Gevuyn muttered.

“It was a test,” his partner elaborated. “We can go up or down, hanging on today. We’ve both been displaced from other districts. If we want to achieve anything in the future, it has to be up.”

“I know all that, I know.”

“You did follow.”

He sighed. “That’s the other worst part.” He allowed himself a smile after all. “Fine. So, a widow. Not the most honourable job.”

“Depends on how we handle it.” Yurtoril gave a tiny frown. “Well, maybe not. So. How do we do this? If you want to try the role reversal another time and go for the safe route today…”

“Oh, hell no. That’s all I’ve been looking forward to.” He raised his hand to brush hair out of his face that wasn’t there. “Highlight of my workday,” he amended. “And the only reason I’m wearing this…” He looked down on himself unhappily. “I really hate this.”

Yurtoril grinned. It was endearing, fuck him. “So potential chaos then? Alright. We did get free rein; it’s a good test case.”

He hadn’t planned this on some level, had he?

 

All the windows in Reinelle’s house were hung with air filter cloth. All of them. They’d checked.

Rusty air driers from across the border with illegible labels hummed and clattered for the most long-term-grating sound carpet you could achieve on short notice. Once in a while, one would sputter and die and turn itself back on. Once in a while, one from another room would do the same, and you’d hear it.

All the water ran through filters.

The humidifiers were, of course, emptied out.

“Have fun,” Yurtoril had whispered to him before they’d returned to the salon.

Reinelle herself sat rigidly in her armoire, her grey hair done up with obvious effort, but there were stray hairs escaping, her face was pale and lined, and she was clearly trying to keep it together.

Well. His turn. “You’re aware of how this looks, aren’t you?”

“I’m aware you’re not here to show me any sympathy. But let it be known you’re in the wrong.”

How did this proceed? Yurtoril cast him a glance. His turn still? Alright. “Like you’ve let the whole Department of Development know? Why don’t you share that with us, too? What’s your insight?” Sneer at ‘insight’. The distanced role was so much less taxing.

“You know why my husband is dead.”

This was where the sympathy came in normally. “Some guy went crazy and killed him. Yeah. And now you’re trying to turn yourself into the same kind of crazy. Why? You’re gonna kill somebody, too?”

She clenched her teeth, and her fingers twitched, probably in annoyance.

Yurtoril stepped closer and laid his left hand on Gevuyn’s arm. His turn now, alright. “Madam, I’m sorry your husband is dead. You can be assured none of us wanted that to happen. He was an important member of the government, and an ally to the order.”

Smooth, maybe a bit focused on the professional. Though who knew, maybe with the dignified widow type that wasn’t so bad.

She balled her small hands into fists, then slowly extended her fingers again and laid them on the arm rests. “I appreciate it.” Her voice was small and forced.

“We have to know – We wish you no harm. But we have to know…” He’d stumbled across that one. Out of his element, clearly. This was rare entertainment.

“You can ask,” the director’s widow said. “I will decide if I answer.”

Yurtoril nodded. “Of course. So – You mentioned something about the rain, to the other members of the department, didn’t you? Perhaps out of anger, out of the moment. Out of grief.” He was copying him! With the generous ‘guesses’ that left the other a way out.

“So what if I did?” Defiant. Gevuyn was itching to jump in again. But Yurtoril was still trying his own role.

“We need to deal with this somehow; surely you understand”, his partner said, the way you’d talk to an unruly dog or a 2-year-old. This was too good.

Reinelle folded her hands. “And surely you understand that my husband is dead, and it’s the fault of your rain.”

Enough now. She was too right, but that didn’t matter here. “Understand?” Gevuyn’s thin grin came easily. “There’s nothing to understand about your nonsense. What killed him was an absence of the rain, for a guy who went crazy.” He shifted his stance. “The associate’s taken on sense again. Maybe it’s time for you, too.”

Her composure was flickering. This was easy!

“Indeed… I must correct myself. You don’t understand a thing. How could you?”

Understand, don’t understand… whose keyword was this? He looked over to Yurtoril.

His partner returned the look, then sat down in a chair and leaned forward towards the widow. “I may understand… and not.”

Reinelle raised her carefully plucked eyebrows.

“Not from experience,” Yurtoril conceded.

Her jaw moved, and she was dragged into it. “You’re married?”

He faltered.

Come on, don’t falter now. Bullshit something.

“No. Not yet.”

Good enough.

Reinelle nodded, with expectation in her posture.

“But…” Yurtoril tucked a stray hair strand behind his ear. Good, that looked sincere. “You must think we don’t understand because we don’t get affected by the rain. That’s no secret, and certainly not to someone in your position.”

She gave a non-committal nod, but she was leaning forward and hanging onto his words now.

“Well.” Yurtoril tapped his lips as if in thought, then rested his hand on his thigh. “There are losses where… if they happened, I’d wish I could drink a whole humidifier of the stuff. Or be like those wretches in the city underside. Anything to stop it. But I can’t anymore.” He leaned back. “So in that way, I don’t understand. You have the chance.”

Damn.

Not bad. Not bad at all.

Or … too real. Or at least a lot more real than this normally got.

Or was it? What was this?

Gevuyn noticed his pulse racing, apparently just in case, and he kept his position very still, so as not to spoil whatever this moment was.

The widow was sitting still, too.

Her brow furrowed slightly.

She sat up straight. “Your girlfriend is a lucky woman.” She reached into the pocket of her dress. “My husband should be as lucky. You’ll understand that much.” She pulled out a tiny handgun, held it to her temple and pulled the trigger.

 

They remained still for a moment, then Yurtoril broke the silence. “Well.”

“That…”

“That could have gone better. On the other hand…”

“She’s not going to talk anymore, is she?”

Yurtoril got up. “Not likely.”

Gevuyn walked over to the widow and examined her. Dead. “No. Not likely.”

“Before evening, too. What do you say, do we leave it like this? It’s a clear suicide. Plausible enough.”

And she’d had the right idea, too, about everything. Pity. But couldn’t be helped. She’d come in too early for them. “Yeah. Sooner we get this over with. Report, then dinner?”

“Let’s.”

 

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.”

A Jupiter Blood Feud

Runan’s brother lay dead in the dust, and droning music rang in his ear. He wanted to cast the comm device down to the corpses, but he didn’t.

This call was necessary.

“Please hold the line. The next available registrar will be with you shortly. Please hold the line.”

His brother’s eyes looked up at him; demanding or accusing?

No, just dead.

His servant scrambled past, sad eyes on his brother’s corpse. “Are you coming, lord? The attackers are still out there!”

Runan shook his head, still hooked to his device. Holding the line. “Deal with them.”

“Lord –“

Laser fire erupted in the distance; lingering was a luxury for a grieving lord. The servant left.

“Please hold the –“

A crack in the hopelessly outdated line.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for doing your duty to keep our planet safe. In order to ensure you the most efficient service, we kindly ask you to state your request. If you would like to register a blood feud, please choose option number one. If you would like to withdraw a blood feud, please choose option number two. If you would like to mark a blood feud as satisfied, please choose option number three. If you have any further questions regarding the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry, please choose option number four.”

“For fuck’s sake,” Runan grumbled and pressed number one for feud registry.

“Please hold the line.” The music returned.

There were shots in the distance, and the dusty air was darkening.

“You know,” said the man in the temporary laser cage. “It’d be quicker to just kill me.”

The cage holding his brother’s killer was buzzing. “And turn into a barbarian like you and like our ancestors.”

The man shrugged one of his bony shoulders. “Not saying you should.”

“Good evening, this is the Jupiter Blood Feud Registry. My name is Sinvan. How can I help you?”

At last. “I’m Lord Runan of New Marienburgh. I want to register a blood feud. It’s my brother’s killer–“

“I see you’re calling from Santa Maria Desert. Please be advised that due to the high volume of warlike activities, blood feuds in this area cannot be–“

“The bastard broke into our fortress and killed my brother! This is not a war, this is–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

“Fuck!” Runan took the device from his ear and glared at it.

“You could just let it go. Not worth it, is it?” Dark eyes under dark brows tried to look sly, but the dread in them would not be disguised.

“Oh no,” Runan said, finally feeling the anger that his brother’s death had failed to bring about. “Oh no. You will die. You will die here by my hand.”

The man pursed his thin lips.

Runan waited.

Nothing.

Music.

“Thank you for waiting. Did the attacker arrive on his own, or as part of a group or a concentrated attack?”

Runan sighed. “There was an attack. But that’s not the point. He breached the defences and–“

“One moment please.”

Music.

That slow, droning music.

Then, “He’s lucky.” His prisoner pointed at the corpse.

Runan strained to contain himself, pressure rising within him. “Pardon me?”

“My brother wouldn’t call a blood feud over me.”

“Are you fucking serious?” The fury wanted a vent, be hissed out into the world.

The prisoner shrugged again. “Last minute epiphanies.”

“And you think now’s the time?”

“Well, it’s not like there’s much time left, is there?”

The music droned on, suggesting there was all the time in the world.

Runan groaned and rubbed his forehead.

The music stopped. At last, an end to this –

“Thank you again for waiting. As it turns out, we cannot process this kind of request. Would you like me to forward you to the department specialised in wartime blood feuds?”

“Are you fucking serious?” Runan yelled into the comm device.

The prisoner grinned at him. “You going to ask that of everyone you talk to?”

“You shut the fuck up!”

“I’m sorry, sir,” the registrar said. “I cannot help you with this. I will transfer you to the specialised department.”

“Not you, dimwit –“

A crack in the line.

Music.

“Fuck!”

The prisoner bit his lip, bit by bit chewing back his grin until he looked almost serious. “Sorry.”

Runan exhaled slowly.

More shots in the distance. Screams. Belonging to anyone and no one. Life was as cheap as it had always been. And here he was, trying to keep order alive. Trying to keep the value of even one life intact.

His brother’s eyes were still staring. Always wanting something.

Or just dead.

“I’d have liked someone who’d call a blood feud over me,” said the prisoner. “Guess I blew that.”

Runan sighed.

The music was playing on.

“What did you even want? Is this war? Feud of your own?”

The prisoner smiled, silently. Then, “No, just to steal something. We figured, in that chaos, nobody would care. Wasn’t smart.”

Runan swallowed. “And why,” his eyes fell on his brother’s again. Accusing. “Why did he have to die?”

“It was an accident! I was trying to stun him, but the switch jammed, and then he screamed, and I wanted to silence him –“

Runan sighed.

“I’m sorry.”

Runan stood still, then sighed again.

“Would he have called a blood feud over you, do you think?”

A question to behead someone over. But a valid one. “He knew his duty,” Runan said at last.

“Duty, huh.”

He shrugged. “Life can’t be cheap again. That’s how we ended up here.”

“It can’t but it is, huh?”

“What the fuck do you know–” He broke off. Then he just shook his head. “A blood feud doesn’t mean you’re not lonely. No need to envy anyone.”

Silence.

“Welcome to the Jupiter Wartime Blood Feud Registry. Thank you for helping to ensure life has value even in wartime. My name is Andria. How can I help you?”

Laser shots in the distance. Some nobody screamed.

Somebody here was sorry.

He turned off the laser cage.

Dark brows shot up.

Runan grit his teeth. “I’m running out of men.”

“Excuse me? Sir, if you are under attack, I must advise you that it is not permitted to register multiple blood feuds at once for singular incidences, as those are covered under –”

“Nevermind.”

He turned off the comm device.

He knelt down next to his brother’s corpse and closed those eyes.

No more of that.

 

Just dead.

Unhealthily dry air

“I swear, I didn’t mean to do it!” The development associate’s eyes darted wildly between them. Gevuyn held his arm in a vise-like grip. “It’s like he made me do it! He kept…” The man was hyperventilating.

“He kept saying stuff,” Gevuyn offered.

“He did! Kept… taunting me.”

Yurtoril smiled his thin smile at him. The one that wasn’t reassuring in the slightest. Of course he had to do that now. Gevuyn rolled his eyes. The associate struggled in his grip. Yeah, great. Gevuyn laid his left hand on his shoulder and turned him around to face him. “What did he say?”

The man took several laboured breaths. “He said… He said…”

“Lemme bet. Cause we see that a lot. Stuff that shouldn’t even bother you that much. But it did. And all that stuff came welling up, and next thing you knew…”

“Yes! Just like that. Do you… You said you… I’ve got…”

“A family,” Yurtoril said. “And funds. And high responsibility. That’s all accounted for. That’s why it’s us you see, and not the police.”

The man’s breathing finally calmed down. When Gevuyn let go of his shoulder, he turned around to Yurtoril. “And…”

“The order is aware of your importance. They are willing to let you get away with it. We can work with the director’s accident. Provided…”

The associate tensed up again, and Gevuyn tightened his grip around his arm, then relaxed it, suppressing a sigh. Why did he have to be the human one again? “You want it to go away? The thoughts, the stuff welling up? You’ve been inside a lot, haven’t you? In your office? Bet you didn’t even have time to refill the humidifier.”

The man’s eyes widened, then fell. He exhaled, and the tension left his body. The image of resignation, and its small voice: “I’ve been really busy.”

“That’s what I thought. Don’t worry, sir, we’ll have this taken care of in no time.”

“I’m sure you will,” the man said with that tiny wry smile. Gevuyn hated when they did that. It looked intelligent and called up his sympathy, one of the few things that still did.

Yurtoril took the man’s other arm. Didn’t miss a beat. “Let’s take a walk in the rain. It clears up the thoughts.”

Delile’s Story Time: The failure of Kir Perthyr

Once there was a beautiful Radzhi woman named Kir Perthyr. Her scales were as green as… that plant, you know the one.

By the way, Siph, can I ask you something? Why is green the ideal? Wait, is that tactless cause you’re not green at all, like is that hard, cause I think blue’s just as good but I’m not a Radzhi, and –

Right.

Her scales were… yeah. Her eyes glowed like the moonlight… that’s too pale?

Okay, not to you personally, but –

Rich yellow? So like you then, oh I see, so you make up for the scale colour with your eyes. What glows yellow? A dying sun?

Right, moving along.

Kir was told by the prophetess of her village to undergo three trials. If she succeeded even one of them, great power of legend would be hers, and she would fulfil an ages-old destiny of her people. Her mother had trained her for all her life, she was brave and educated and pious, and basically nothing could go wrong. So she went to the temple between the pillar rocks to ask for her first task.

The right pillar told her to solve the Equation of I Tirze. As I understand it, that was cheating, cause nobody solves it. That’s the point of it. Not that I’d know, me and equations… But Kir tried her best, but she had to give up. No problem, two more to go. But Kir started to worry if the tasks would all be like that.

Then the left pillar said she had to outrace a Zikzi worm. Again, nobody outraces a Zikzi worm. But she tried her best. Siph, have you ever seen a live one? They sound kind of horrible, but I think I want to see one – no huh? Alright. So for the rest of you – they’re telepathic. And the worm sensed her honest struggle, and she did come rather close a few times, which is impressive but she was destined to be a heroine. Just before the worm won, it implanted this thought in her head: “It’s better if you fail, if you don’t want to give all of Thizha to us.” That gave her pause, of cause. In any case, the worm won the race, and Kir only had one more trial to go.

But the second one had been fairer than the first, so there was still a chance – but what had the worm meant?

The right pillar spoke up, and Kir was disheartened cause that was the cheating one. The last trial was a test of her will. She had to sit in front of the temple doors, and when she was ready, the instructions would come.

Kir decided that was a weird and stupid test, at least the other ones had made sense for a heroine to have to pass, but this? But she sat down in front of the temple door and waited. No instructions came.

After a while she started to wonder about food and drink and sleep and whatever else you need, and wondered if she should ask the pillars if she could take a break and come back to waiting for the instructions or what. But she didn’t dare yet. But it was getting really uncomfortable. And the days were long and harsh from all the impossible trials. Was that the test? And when was it enough discomfort? If only the worm was here for company. Or even I Tirze with his assholish equation, even though he was long dead. But she had the words of the worm. Should she fail?

Or was that part of the trial? What if the worm hadn’t just been a willing opponent in the race but was further in league with the pillars? What if he was meant to plant that doubt in her mind? She couldn’t let him beat her twice in a row, could she? So she had to hold out.

But then she thought of her home village, and her nest siblings, and the next generations, and what if the worm was right? It wasn’t worth the risk. So she stood up.

The pillars sighed. “Another failure.”

And that was that.

But the village still stands. It’s named Kir now, as a reminder to future generations that it’s Radzhi against pillars, and you shouldn’t bend to the will of the pillars under the pretence of proving your own.

Up in flames

Meldeen runes appeared on the screen. They were familiar, although Siph couldn’t read them. Nothing to misinterpret about a repeated game-over screen. The fire covering the virtual ground rose up and consumed the world. Siph confirmed. Up in flames, once more.

The screen went dark, and for a moment, the room was pitch black.

The optimistic drums and fanfare of Flame Generals blared out, and a different set of familiar runes appeared. Should he try once more? With his reflexes and his coordination and his perception being as they were after the failed augmentation that had done the opposite? Not even able to pass that level?

Simeon would do it for him once he got home from his negotiations. Or maybe he would fail and not mind. In any case he’d understand, as he always did, because something in his nature made him understand the pariah who had experimented with his own brain and lost some of his skills, as others subject to his research had lost their lives because they had not been able to panic and remove their own neuro implants. It had been a beautiful dream. Then Thereth Station had been in shambles.

And now here he was in a room on Hayes, a refugee on a slowly failing space station. Sitting in the dark, frustrated at a game he had shown Simeon on a whim when confronted with his love of Meldeen culture of all things. A novelty, back then. And currently the bane of his existence.

Simeon would understand. Because of that twisted something in his nature that made him understand the pariah over his victims; that had made him take him in instead of the innocent arriving on the same ship. Made him seek his company over that of those who would have deserved the attention. His eyes narrowed in a smile, the tip of his tongue darting out to taste the air this situation was in.

Too uncertain, still. Too much negative ghosting around. All in his head, of course.

Banking on the understanding of someone who appreciated Meldeen culture and yet tolerated his self-inflicted weakness was a shaky ground to walk on.

Worrying about it in the context of too many virtual deaths was comical. Yet that fanfare kept mocking him. At last, he turned down the sound. Too quiet, now.

The door slid open, and he turned around. There he was, with a smile at the screen and then at him, pale like those of his kind had become that had adapted to Jairra’s toxicity, here because he hadn’t adapted enough. Perhaps…

The door slid shut behind Simeon, and he turned on the light. Well. Really he had already done that moments ago.

Siph’s eyes were slits, he noticed. “Welcome home.”

“Thank you.” Simeon’s eyes wandered between him and the surroundings as he sat down next to Siph. “It was of course completely useless. Those people…” A pause, and Siph could see him gather his thoughts and words. “They don’t like sense. It’s too neutral. And they only like empathy in name. If they could just admit what they want, this would be a lot easier. But they can’t do that either. Empathy still sounds too good, in name.”

Siph’s tongue flicked out briefly. “So no progress?”

“None. There was no point in me being there. Not as Mrs. Thorne’s token refugee, and certainly not as anyone who…” He gestured back at the door. “Who has anything to say that they’d listen to. I can’t deal with those people.”

Siph’s eyes wandered over him and landed on those pale hands that looked as if they could be snapped by a gust of wind. He placed the controller in those hands. “Then could you deal with Sar’thrak’s armies for me?”

The Jairran’s lips curled into a different smile, his eyes took on an appraising note. “I’ll say. Next time I’ll take you along.”

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.

Diversity

“Which of these are yours?” Siph held up two identical pill bottles, the blue scales on his bare arms pale in the dim, cold light.

“I don’t even care anymore,” Simeon said and laid his head back down, shivering. “Isn’t it…”

Siph put the bottles back down, the right one landing beside the table first. He squinted and picked it back up. “Isn’t it…?”

Simeon sat up with a subdued noise of displeasure, holding his head and closing his eyes. Then he opened the bottles.

“Careful. Side by side, don’t mix them up,” Siph warned. How his voice could still be this even, Simeon could not fathom. A Radzhi thing, most likely.

Simeon took out a pill each and laid them next to the bottle caps of their respective bottles, carefully segregated. “Isn’t it…” He frowned and shook his head. Nonsense. But Siph wanted to hear something, and Simeon wanted to talk. “After all these years and our species getting closer, this difference is a joke.” That wasn’t a bad start. Or perhaps it was. It was hard to tell in this condition.

Siph rewarded him with a smile from his narrowly glowing eyes. “That’s no reason to…” He faltered. At least he faltered, too. “Don’t make a statement by mixing up the remedies.” He held his left hand next to a pill forming a wall and picked it up with his right hand, holding it in front of his eyes. Then he laid it into his cupped left hand and regarded it again.

“There are worse hills to die on,” Simeon said, watching him, not caring much what he was arguing.

“Don’t die on any hills.”

Simeon returned the smile at last. “That may be best. Besides, we’d need a planetary surface with…” This was inane and not where he wanted to go at all, even when he didn’t care about much else. He leaned over looking at the pill in Siph’s hand. “Can you identify it?”

The Radzhi’s eyes widened a little, their light growing duller. So he was having trouble.

“Shall I help? You’re the doctor, but I can…” He could get away with mentioning the existence of problems, and he was too tired to dance around it.

Apparently, Siph was too tired to mind, too. He held his cupped hand with the pill closer to Simeon. “Is this grey and curved?”

“I think it is.” Simeon picked up the other pill. “This one is whiter and the edges are… No, the surface is…” Words failed him.

“Then this one’s yours.” Siph handed him the grey pill he was holding and took the other from his hand. “The rest is easier to tell apart. Your hands are cold.”

“I’m cold. How are you not?” Simeon laid the pill between his front teeth, gently holding on to it until he would get to a glass of water. The glass on the table was almost empty. He would have to get up for this. He sighed through his teeth.

“If we both were half-ill, we would have the same temperature perception.”

Simeon smiled and almost lost hold of the pill, but held on to it. Now not to bite down on it too hard. He got up and picked up both of their glasses to fill them with water.

“Think they’ll pick us up soon?” Siph asked in a seemingly disinterested voice.

Simeon filled the glasses and let the pill fall back onto his tongue, drinking it down after a few attempts, then re-filled his glass. He took the glasses back to the main room. “They probably will, once we’re back to health, conveniently.” He set the glasses down on the table. “I should fetch a pitcher. This is annoying.”

“Thank you,” Siph said. “I don’t really mind.”

“I’m glad it’s you and you know what you’re doing,” Simeon said on his way back to the kitchen.

“That’s debatable. My track record is…”

Simeon filled the pitcher with cold water and carried it back over. “Your track record with humans is getting good, though.” He put it down and dropped onto the couch, exhaustion flooding his senses.

From the corner of his eyes he saw Siph’s eyes light up and his narrow tongue flick out briefly. “I’m glad you think so.”

Simeon tried to think of something fitting to reply; instead he closed his eyes and leaned his head against the backrest. “I never liked climate.”