Chapter 10

Once upon a time there were five animals who were friends: the Red Rabbit, the Gold Squirrel, the Blue Goose, the Green Monkey, and the White Lizard.

They had picnics together and they practiced magic.

"See," said the White Lizard, "I have had a cough all day long, but I can make it go away if I want, just so." And her cough was gone! She was healthy. "But I musn't do it too often. Today, it was so I wouldn't get my friends sick too, because then I'd heal all of us instead of just me. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Green Monkey, "I did not like cooking before today, but I can start to like things if I want, just so." And he made all the food for the picnic. "Now I will like cooking forever, it's easy! But I mustn't do it too often. Today, it was because it will often be very useful if I don't have to fight myself to get my chores done. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Blue Goose, "I made sure there were no foxes near where we are going to have our picnic without having to look up close, just so." And there were none, he saw! "We will be safe! But I mustn't do it too often. Today, it was to keep us all safe, because it would be no good if a fox ate us. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Gold Squirrel, twitching his tail, "I can make everything but me stop, or turn back, or skip ahead! I haven't done it today but I'm ready in case something bad happens. But I mustn't do it too often. Today, if I do, it will be to protect us from those foxes that want to eat us. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

"See," said the Red Rabbit, and she snuggled up to each of her friends in turn, "my only power is love, but sometimes that's the most important thing. I love all my friends and I can do it as much as I want for those friends, but I mustn't make new friends too often. Today, I'll just stay with you and love you. If I'm very careful it's good to have my magic."

And they all brought their picnic food to their picnic place, and they spread out their picnic blanket and they all shared the food the Green Monkey made and took turns snuggling with the Red Rabbit and listened to the Blue Goose tell stories about things he had seen and watched the Gold Squirrel dance and listened to the White Lizard play her harp.

But in this field were burrows, and in the burrows it was dark dark dark. The Blue Goose could see the bright parts of the world, even if they were far away or long ago, but not the shadowy places. And in one of those burrows - was a fox!

The fox was only ordinary fox color, and she loved to eat tasty animals. She crept out of her burrow while they finished their salads, and she got closer while they started their fruit, and right as they were passing out the strawberry preserves, she pounced!

She was fast, but not too fast for the Gold Squirrel. The Gold Squirrel made her stop right in midair, and then he thwacked the fox good with his sword. But the fox was so much bigger than him that all this did was stun her. When the world moved again, the fox landed on the picnic blanket and tried to shake the hurt out of her head, and the animals all ran!

The White Lizard and the Green Monkey went as fast as they could go to the south, into the trees, where they could climb up high. The Red Rabbit and the Blue Goose ran and flew to the north, to the city, to find places to hide. And the Gold Squirrel ran as fast as he could to the east, into the deep grass, to find someplace to lie in wait to ambush the fox and try again.

The fox first chased the White Lizard and the Green Monkey. She sniffed and prowled through the trees until she found the one where they were hiding, up in the branches, and she said, "Come down, come down. I will only take a little bit. Only one foot! The White Lizard can heal that! I am hungry!"

And the White Lizard said, "No! I am very careful. You cannot have a paw to eat, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox said, "Come down, come down. I will not take anything you need. Only your tails. It will hurt, but the Green Monkey could make it so you don't mind! I am hungry!"

And the Green Monkey said, "No! I am very careful. You cannot have our tails to eat, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox replied, "I am hungry and I will take what I want anyway!" and began to scrabble up the side of the tree!

The Green Monkey and the White Lizard were both very afraid, but because being eaten would be no good at all, the Green Monkey concentrated very hard and did a very little bit of magic to make the fox afraid of heights. She yelped and went back down the tree and decided to look for different animals to eat.

The next place the fox went was into the city. The Blue Goose was flying in the air and could see her coming even without doing magic, and he flew down to warn the Red Rabbit. And the Red Rabbit said, "You and I can't fight a fox. We'll have to hide."

"But there are no open stores this time of day, and none of our friends live in this city!" said the Blue Goose.

"Yes. I think you'll have to do a little bit of magic," said the Red Rabbit. "Come here. See now an empty room with an unlocked door you could touch that is close to here. Walk there," said the Red Rabbit. "And together we'll hide and eat this grass I picked until the fox has gone." Because while the Green Monkey was a very good cook, rabbits still like to eat plain grass sometimes, and they hadn't finished their picnic.

So the Blue Goose saw a door like that, and they went into the empty storeroom that it led to, and then they barred the door and hid there.

But the fox had a very keen sense of smell and she followed them right to the door, and she knocked and said, "Come out, come out. I can eat just the Red Rabbit. She cannot hate me for it, she will love me as soon as my teeth go in. She cannot be angry at me when she will understand how hungry I am."

And the Red Rabbit said, "No! I am very careful. I could forgive you but I don't want to, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox said, "Come out, come out. I can eat just the Blue Goose. He needn't pay attention to me, he can put his eyes somewhere else and forget there is even a Blue Goose to want alive. I am so hungry."

And the Blue Goose said, "No! I am very careful. I could look away but I don't want to, no matter how hungry you are!"

And the fox beat her paws on the door, but it wouldn't budge, and so she slunk away. "Perhaps," she said to herself, "the Gold Squirrel will go back in time only a moment, and then there will be two of him, and he will not want them both alive anyway. I am so hungry."

The Gold Squirrel was waiting for the fox when she followed his scent to the plains, and this time, when he thwacked the fox good with his sword, he made sure that the fox was done for before letting the universe move again. And then, the fox was never hungry again.

Wiar. Wiar. Wiar Wiar Wiar -

Meea didn't realize she was making a high agonized sound till Luvi winced and put her hands over her ears.

"Sorry," Meea whispered.

Luvi just looked at her blankly. Right. "Sorrow" had gone the way of everything else. Did Luvi even have more in her to dwindle away? She was still taking instructions, which suggested yes, but there were oddities like Tse Alsar, who could still sometimes produce information even with nowhere left to go. Meea didn't know how to tell. She had no idea if she'd be making Luvi worse than she already was by asking questions.

But Meea had no idea where in the Revel House Wiar was, and if she had to pause to evade guards during a comprehensive search of the enormous wretched place she might die before she found him. And his door was probably locked, too.

"Is there a key you could touch that can open Wiar's door?" Meea asked Luvi carefully.

"Yes," said Luvi.

"Stop seeing," Meea told her hastily as soon as this answer had been rendered. The "could touch" parameter was useful for determining that there were no physically impassable obstacles between them and the key, but didn't guarantee it was unguarded.

Meea would have to handle that part, if someone tried to stop her. Without her Temple-Guild garb on her she'd probably have to actually pause and do violence if someone were so inclined. She should have held onto the droplet, put it in her pocket. Damn.

Even without the droplet, though, she thought she'd be able to get past the Revel House's security - they never hired goldmages of their own - and get to Wiar. But how was she going to get him out again? How dwindled was he already? Would he recognize her? She could touch him without making him worse, and then he'd know a lot about what she wanted, but if she was competing with Revel House staff or whoever she walked in on him with she wasn't sure how she'd rate unless he also could call to mind who she was in particular.

Maybe she ought to - no, she was pretty sure the Nacafi police wouldn't touch the Revel House. They didn't have anything but her word to go on that there was a redmage there, wouldn't know even as much as Meea with her fairytales knew about how to get corroboration from Luvi, would certainly take hours if not days to get confirmation from the palace that the Princess's redmage in particular was missing.

The Temple-Guilds were all too far away to petition for help before Wiar would encounter another ten, twenty, gods only knew how many, clients. She couldn't wait that long.

The Palace was not safe, apparently, or Liatsi wouldn't have told her to run... the Archduchess thought Meea was working with the Caplari. She'd never even been to Caplare -

Meea took a deep breath.

The last thing she'd asked Luvi about was the key.

"Walk there," she said. "...Run there."

Meea chased Luvi, who was much faster than Meea might have expected, back to the Revel house, past the fence, through the front door, and, before the receptionist could draw breath to greet them, down a side hallway and into a little room that was full of keys on hooks on the wall. There was a staffperson there, probably a retired whore, not much of a threat.

"Take the key you saw," Meea told Luvi.

Luvi unerringly picked out one from among the hundreds, and Meea took it out of her hand and said, "Run to Wiar."

She was getting the hang of talking to bluemages, she thought, as Luvi sprinted back out of the keyroom and up a flight of stairs.

There were plenty of security guards, and while they managed to streak past one, by the time they spotted a second the shout had gone up all around the House that there were intruders.

Alone, Meea could have gotten past security with mere seconds of pausing, abhorrent but not impossible; Luvi had no such advantage, and Meea needed her along to find where she was going. Meea was completely unclear on how to knock a guard unconscious. But she could hamstring them, rather than slitting their throats, and that prevented much in the way of chasing.

There were so many stairs and Meea's knife was dripping blood by the time Luvi turned onto a landing from the stairwell. The guards had started shouting that the intruder was a a goldmage, and were no longer actively hunting her and courting more crippling injuries, so there was that. It sounded like they were telling each other to check in on the whores and see if they were all right.

Luvi stopped at a door.

Meea skidded to a halt behind her, nudged the tiny bluemage out of the way, and turned the key in the handle.

The door swung open on red sheets and a man and a woman and Wiar.

Meea brandished the knife at the customers.

"I'd rather," she hissed, "not hurt you in front of him. Off the bed, into the corner, now."

The woman, less thoroughly entangled at the moment, obeyed with alacrity; the man stared at her knife like a startled deer for a moment until she jabbed it threateningly in his direction and he followed.

Then Meea advanced on Wiar, tucking her knife away. "Wiar. Wiar honey -"

He looked at her.

There was no trace of recognition.

She'd been afraid of that.

"Wiar, it's me." She touched his face.

Instantly he leaned into her hand, he smiled at her, and love filled her up, automatic and warm and lustful and obviously situationally inappropriate for a rescue. He was reaching for the hem of her shirt; she grabbed his hand. "Wiar, sweetie, we have to go." There was a robe, not a mage robe but sufficient to cover up, draped over the headboard; she grabbed it and started putting his arms through the sleeves. He didn't resist her.

When Wiar's robe was tied on she tried to usher him out the door. He went with her pliantly as far as the threshold and then stopped, suddenly tense and shaking.


He buried his face in her shoulder.

"Wiar, what's - we have to go." He didn't move. She still had his hand in hers; he couldn't be misreading her tone even if he'd forgotten what all of the words meant. She looked at the couple huddling in the corner. "When you got here - what's going on - what did they tell you about how they were keeping a redmage?"

The man stuttered; the woman manged, "They said they had a greenmage."

Of course. That's how you keep a redmage in a room with an ensuite bath that you never want him to leave: when he can't, however much he loves you, remember you telling him to stay; when he will love people with every interest in smuggling him home for themselves just as much.

You make him deathly afraid of the hallway.


There was a square of lacy fabric under the medicines on the side table. Smoothness and Caution and Potence all neatly labeled so that infinite bought and paid for encounters would be lubed up and disease-free and - Meea shoved the jars aside and folded the square into a blindfold and tied it around Wiar's head and if she was lucky the greenmage was sloppy. She spun him around three times just to be safe and then tried again leading him out.

He was nervous but not balky, unable to see the hall. "Luvi, follow us." Meea got them all the way to the stairs, and then it turned out Wiar couldn't remember how to descend stairs and couldn't figure it out brand-new without looking. How had they packed so many clients into such a short period of time? There would be a waiting list, for a redmage in the Revel House - but on such short notice? - had they been actively seeking to dwindle him, did they make every whore and laundress in the building pat him on the hand just to keep him docile? Why bother, if they had a greenmage?

Where had they gotten a greenmage who'd help them with this?

Meea sat him down on the edge of the stairs and managed to get him to scoot down a step at a time, with lots of encouraging murmurs.

The guards didn't try to stop her, and that was to their benefit, because she was feeling very much inclined to murder at this moment.

She got Wiar down all of the stairs and out the front door.

She took off his blindfold, gritting her teeth against the possibility that he was afraid of the outdoors too.

He didn't flinch, just gazed down at her with an adoring smile. She was still flooded head to toe with love, love, love, and if she could have she'd have pulled him down for a kiss right there, but she had to figure out how to get him safely to the palace and clear her name. And then - bring him and Iamica back to the Temple-Guild with her and retire, she supposed.

Would bringing Wiar to the palace clear her name?

Suddenly doubting this, she led him briskly away from the Revel House grounds, Luvi at their heels, into the city. Where else could she go, except "away from where police might converge any moment"? With passengers, moreover; she couldn't put herself and Wiar and Luvi all on one stolen horse or expect either dwindled mage to be able to steer a second sensibly. So it would have to be the palace. Luvi could see the other goldmage if Meea asked her to; if he never caught wind of their arrival before Meea had a moment to throw herself on Liatsi's mercy with Wiar to cover her story, he wouldn't be able to slaughter them, Archduchess or no Archduchess.

Toward the palace it was, then, for lack of better options.

At least Wiar and Luvi would probably be all right even if the other goldmage killed Meea. Or she keeled over en route when her magic caught up to her.

Except she still didn't know who had taken Wiar in the first place or if they'd gotten what they wanted. The payoff would be enormous, yes, and he was probably paradoxically the most vulnerable redmage in the world, protected by only the Princess's own set of mages (incompetent, useless mages, Meea raged at herself) and not by an entire Temple-Guild full. But this had never led to a monarch's redmage being kidnapped before. Was it just the opportunism afforded by the Midnight the Caplari had brought?

(Damn the Caplari and whatever they'd done to leave the Archduchess so hateful of Meea -)

Meea headed toward the palace.

Wiar loved her. Luvi followed her.

Before they started up the road that led to the palace, Meea told Luvi, "See now Tse Tsimir -"

Luvi shook her head.

Right, Luvi didn't know the man, he wasn't from their Temple-Guild. There might be many mages named Tsimir and Luvi had no way to distinguish them. "See now Princess Liatsi's goldmage."

Luvi stared directly at Meea.

"Her new goldmage," growled Meea.

Luvi's eyes glazed over. "He is standing outside the door to the office of the Minister of Intelligence. The door is closed -"

"Stop seeing." If he was standing there, it wasn't for recreational purposes, it was because Liatsi was in the room; that meant he wasn't chasing Meea, but also meant that they couldn't approach the Princess until Tsimir was somewhere else. They'd have to wait until later.

There was a ravine at the bottom of the hill next to the switchback road up the slope. Meea pulled the other two mages into it in time to avoid the notice of a dairy truck headed downhill.

Neither Luvi nor Wiar was likely to become bored sitting and waiting in a ditch by the side of the road until spot-checking led Meea to believe that it was safe to move on. Meea herself was too upset to be bored. Wiar snuggled his beloved. Luvi yawned.

Wiar snuggled closer.

Wiar snuck his hand under Meea's shirt.

"Wiar, sweetie - this isn't the time -"

She looked up at his face. He didn't even look interested and heedless of the situation so much as -

She was going to find that fucking greenmage and gut them.


"Stop me," he murmured. "Stop me. Stop me -"

Meea grabbed his wrist and pinned it to the side of the ravine. He didn't struggle, he just hadn't been able to interrupt himself. He could tell she didn't want it, just -

The Revel House wanted to be able to claim to sell love, but if someone who thought they wanted sex too was contradicted by a redmage who knew them better than they knew themselves -

Then the Revel House could not have them asking for refunds.

Meea was going to burn that place to the ground and find that greenmage and hurt them in so many ways that they'd dwindle to suffocation just trying to render themselves immune to all the different kinds of pain.

Wiar didn't try to move his pinned hand. He nuzzled the side of her neck and she couldn't tell why; it could have been for his own comfort. She let him.

The next time she had Luvi check the location of Tse Tsimir, he was in his own room, not with Liatsi.

And Liatsi, Luvi said, was with her aunt the Archduchess Siava, in the first floor parlor.

Meea got Wiar and Luvi both to climb out of the ravine and start up to the palace.