AMCW storylines Phedrawn

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Chapters

Chapter 1: Meeting Miss Myrna

I was at the office, working late while the boss was out on a case. Meaning I was reading a lame whips-and-chains romance novel because my cousin pressed it on me and insisted I had to read it--it would totally change my love life! Yeah right. I forgot to bring the newspaper with me from home this morning, and it was either reread old casefiles or this stupid book. I’m sure my cousin--who’s about to pop out her fourth kid and whose husband talks in grunts--gets a lot out of a novel like this. I’m just not sure it has anything to do with her love life.

But I’m one to talk. I couldn’t stop reading in spite of myself, though it was more the fascination that something this terrible got published than anything else. I was grumbling that I’d like to give the cow-eyed submissive “heroine” a slap myself--I don’t mind people doing whatever turns their crank, but the “hero” was a grade-A narcissistic bully that I would have kicked in the danglies no matter how cute or rich he was--when I saw a blurry shadow through the pebbled-glass window set into the office door. I could see, even though it was only a distorted silhouette on the other side of the reversed letters spelling “Tiger Investigations,” that it was a woman, slender and long-haired. Or at least someone who dresses like a woman. This is the entertainment district after all. Splitting the world into one or the other doesn’t always work so well in this neighborhood.

She hesitated before finally knocking. They usually do. People who want to hire the boss tend to be upset about something, or scared. Nature of the job. I got up and opened the door and took in a real eyeful. Perfect creamy skin, blue eyes, long snowy hair so soft that nobody would think for a moment that it was white from age. And that gorgeous blue dress.

I didn’t need to see the one lock of black hair hanging down over her brow, or to see her badge, to know who I was looking at: Susan Sto Helit of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch. I knew who she was. Everybody knows. How could they not? As top cop around these parts, plus being a part-time professor at the university, plus being a general do-gooder, plus being a goddess, plus being stunningly beautiful, well, she was a celebrity.

And on top of that, she was dating my boss. So of course I hated her guts.

Still, it’s not polite to slam the door in your boss’ girlfriend’s face, even if she did almost get him killed and returned him to you with a huge disfiguring gash across his face. All right, it was just a pink mark by the time I saw it--gods and their healing--but I heard she gave him the cut herself. Real sorry about that, I was possessed at the time. Sure, sister, tell to the judge.

“You must be the cop,” I said, stepping back to let her enter. “Coffee?”

The cop raised an eyebrow as she entered. Probably couldn’t believe someone as pretty and sophisticated as me, with my stylish-ten-years-ago jacket and wavy brown hair that needs cutting and barely noticeable figure, was working as a secretary/apprentice-detective to a low-key guy like Saengfai. Yeah, sure, that’s it. “Thank you, Miss…?”

“I’m Myrna,” I replied. “Have a seat, why don’t you? You take sugar? Cream?”

The cop sat on the sofa. “Just straight, black coffee, thank you.” She tilted her head, looking at me. “You must be Saengfai’s heroine, then?”

I couldn’t help but laugh. “Heroine! Yeah...heroine. I just do the secretarial work around here. Not that there’s so much. Guy seems to hardly ever get paid, know what I mean?” Oops, maybe I shouldn’t have said that. But come on, she was a templed goddess. She had to know she was way richer than Saengfai. I tried to make it a virtue, which it is, by saying, “Soft-hearted galoot. Here you go.” I handed her her coffee.

She nodded thank you and said, “Ah yes… Gods find little use for money, especially since most of them have heroes who quest for it.” She smiled at the smell of the java and took a drink, then looked up at me, pleased. “This is very good.”

“Thanks!” I cringed at the cheerful reply I gave, but something in me was finding it hard to stay mad at her. Still, I tried to dial it back, rested my hip against the desk so I could look down at her, mouth running on autopilot. “You should’ve tasted the stuff he was making before I came along. Put hair on your chest. Yeah, questing...you gods sure got a real racket going there. I ain’t much for the monster-slaying. What did some poor dust bunny ever do to me, huh?”

She chuckled at the coffee comment, and once I let her get a word in edgewise she said, “Well, I am pretty sure my hero has managed to get killed by quite a few dust bunnies in his day. But I never really motivated him to go out questing. He is more the kind to be kept indoors. Locked. With limited access to anything remotely flammable and/or explosive. He has been much less problematic since he found a girlfriend in Aillara.”

“Oh, so heroes do get a romantic life, then, huh? Could’ve fooled me.” I figured I was starting to sound more bitter than the coffee, but I just couldn’t stop. “Seems like ever since I started this silly gig, every time I’m in some trader’s shop I can’t help but flirt with the shopkeeper and get turned down. I never flirted with shopkeepers before! And if I did, they didn’t turn me down. Just resisting the urge to go out on the road to kill monsters...ugh. What a life!”

Then she asked a question that reminded me she was a death goddess. “Have you died yet?”

Way to make a girl shudder. I drank some coffee to warm up, and said, “No...I been trying to stay in the city where it’s safe. But he did send me to the Arena once.”

She could tell from my expression that I was still angry, even though it was months ago. She gave me an intent look and asked, “Curiosity?”

I shook my head. “No… It was...an accident. Anyway, I was so mad the other guy didn’t know what hit him. Never used a sword in my life, but somehow I won. So now Saengfai’s got a gold brick.” I picked it up from the desk where I was using it to weigh down papers.

She looked at it appreciatively. “Congratulations. Well done. Only 999 more to go for a temple.”

Hmph. “He says he doesn’t want a temple anyway. Whole reason he left home. Sometimes I wonder if he’s just being nice, though. Just his luck--couldn’t get much less heroic than me.”

She gave me a sympathetic smile as she finished her coffee, and then glanced at the clock--one of those complicated Überwald ones with little kids who pop out and chase each other around. Some client gave it to him in lieu of payment. A whole lotta clients do that. There was the time we had two big baskets of apples. That was six months ago and I hadn’t wanted to eat apples since. “My dear,” she asked, “do you know if Saengfai will be coming in again today? I have some...Watch business to attend to.”

“Oh sorry! He got called out by a client in need. I guess you get that kind of thing too. Emergency calls.” How come I didn’t tell her that at the beginning? Well hey, when you want to find out about someone you’re suspicious of, it’s good to keep them off balance. “He told me to tell you he was sorry, and he’ll get back as soon as he can. I don’t know how long it’ll be though. But if you want another coffee? Maybe he won’t be too long… He likes you, y’know. Ah who’m I kidding? Of course you know.” Internal sigh. Why was I telling her these things? Might not seem like it, but I can be pretty closed-mouth when I need to be.

She smiled. “I am glad. And...yes, I will take another cup of coffee, thank you.”

While I got it ready, I made a gesture across my face. “So uh...you’re the one gave him that little pink papercut across the face, huh?”

She looked down as I gave her the coffee. Embarrassed? Regretful? “No… That was a... family member who took over my body for a few minutes. And it was not a papercut.” She shuddered, literally shuddered! Almost spilled her coffee. “But yes, I healed him.”

I made a death goddess feel bad? “Hey, I’m sorry! I ah...jeez...I don’t know the whole story there and… Look, this god business is still pretty confusing to me, y’know? I mean I figured, gods, right? Miracles and immortality and stuff? Life’s gotta be nice and safe. And...it ain’t like that, huh?”

A nod, and she looked up at me. Those eyes, like she was staring into my heart. “For some it is. Some gods live whole lives without ever seeing the least bit of scuffle. And then, some gods seem to get bored unless they are starting, ending or going through a war. And once you remove all of those, you are left with the cops.” Like the sun breaking through clouds, she grinned at me, and I couldn’t help but grin back. “Life is...interesting.”

“Sounds like one of those old Agatean curses. Well look, uh, don’t let him get beat up too bad, will you? I...I mean, he’s got a lot of clients depending on him.” Not to mention his ‘hero’.

“You have my word that I will do my best to keep him well and safe. I would hate seeing him in pain too.” And she sounded like she meant it.

There was a sound outside the door that made me look up. “Ah, the familiar catlike tread upon the squeaky stairs…” What a poet I am.

Susan turned to look just as the boss entered. He was dressed as usual: leather jacket, slacks, button-down shirt. Glossy black hair pulled back in a ponytail, dark face and those pretty Agatean eyes. Sigh. And of course they were fixed on the gorgeous goddess.

Oh right. Guest.

“Welcome back, boss. You’ve been keeping someone waiting.”

He took his eyes off her for a second to acknowledge my existence. “I see you two have met. Hi.” The last was to her, of course. Already forgot I was there.

She put her cup and saucer on the side table and stood up. “Hi. Myrna was kind enough to deliver your message and keep me company while I waited.”

Like he was hypnotized by her, he didn’t even look at me as he said, “Thanks, kid. Any more messages?”

Kid. “Dudley picked up the cleaning. Some mysterious caller hanging up, calling again, hanging up. No words.”

That got his attention. He tore his eyes away from the femme fatale and focused on me. “No sounds?”

“Some breathing,” I said. “Sounds like a woman.”

He looked worried. “Pray to me if she calls again, eh? So I’ll know.”

“A secret admirer, maybe?” Susan asked.

He shrugged. “I almost hope so. Better than some of the alternatives. Still...can’t wait around hoping some mysterious caller is going to call again and get up the nerve to talk finally. I’d certainly rather be finding out where we’re going.” He looked clueless at her half-confused, half-exasperated expression. “What? I thought you said you were picking the place next time.”

I was picking up the cups and taking them to wash in the bathroom sink. “Way to put her on the spot, Romeo.”

She caught my eye with a wry grin and one of those ‘See what I have to work with?’ expressions that every woman uses, some more than others. To loverboy she said, “Well… I may have a place in mind. Or maybe two. But I would hate to cut into your time with mysterious lady callers and ever-faithful fans, against which I definitely cannot compete.”

I rolled my eyes at the fake look of self-loathing and sorrow she gave him, but I was smiling. “You got a live one here, boss.”

“Come on, let’s get out of here, then,” he said. “We’ll go for a walk on your side of the street.” As he offered her his arm, he looked over his shoulder at me. His smile faded a little and I could see he was worried. Worried about me.

I mimed an angelic prayer in his direction and said, “Go on, you crazy kids. Shoo! I got work and stuff.” What a liar I am.

Susan took his arm. “It was a pleasure, Myrna. And some lovely coffee too. Feel free to drop by the Watch House whenever you get a chance.”

“Thanks. I’ve heard it’s a great place. Bar in a cop station…” I shook my head. “You two have fun, and...y’know...no trouble, huh?”

She looked at him with a smile. “Think we can avoid trouble?”

“It would be a refreshing change of pace, wouldn’t it?” To me he said, “We’ll be careful, kid. Promise.”

“Promises, promises…”

After they left, happy voices echoing down the stairs, I thought about going home. But why? Anyway, I had a stupid book to finish so I could tell my cousin how stupid it was. I laid myself down on the sofa with a little bourbon over ice in a coffee cup, opened the book, and ten minutes later realized I’d been reading the same page over and over without absorbing any of it. Goddesses, huh? How can a mortal compete? Can’t hardly even hate them.


Chapter 2: Flavors of the Disc

"Oh, I read about this in the papers," Saengfai says.

The Flavors of the Disc Festival at the Temple of Small Gods.

Susan had not exactly planned this date but, by all means, her treacherous mouth and Saengfai's unhealthily good memory had played their tricks on her. His wish to walk on her side of the street had thrown her a bit off balance. Never one to go out to bars (unless a very definitive mood or company is involved) or be on top of every item in Ankh-Morpork's frolicking social agenda, Susan tends to keep to the more calm, discreet and, according to most dictionaries, boring side of any street. Clubs and concerts and exotic events are definitely not her thing. Not that she can't enjoy them, she just...doesn't...think in that general direction, usually. Still, she does not want to strike the handsome private detective as boring. She has very much enjoyed their past dates, arrests and possessions aside, and she would hate to be the one to throw things down the path to disaster.

Thankfully, she had been contacted to organize the official security service for this Festival. The Temple of Small Gods is pretty much the Watch's main religion provider and they always count on the AMCW's help and expertise as much as the Watch counts on the Temple for funerals and important celebrations.

Susan looks at Saengfai and cannot help but smile at the feeling of his right hand gently caressing hers, where it rests on his left arm. They have walked this way and entered the Temple without ever parting. Susan could not care less about being seen with a reputedly often-penniless PI and his obvious pleasure at walking with her this way only makes her enjoy this more. "Yes, the Flavors of the Disc Festival is returning to Ankh-Morpork. They hold it here every 4 years or so. And the Watch is providing security so we don't really need tickets. Let us call it a little benefit of the job."

"A nice one," Saengfai agrees. He looks at her with a sly grin. "And I’m your ‘plus-one’?"

"If that is what you want to call it," she replies with a little air of haughtiness that has him chuckling. A familiar color scheme catches her eye and she turns to look at one of the officers assigned to the event tonight. "Ah, there is the Constable on duty." She waves at the man and he waves back with a grin that tells Susan to expect an office rumor about the commander's new boyfriend. A little hand signal lets her know that nothing out of the ordinary has happened so far. "Good. Everything is running smoothly. We just may manage an uneventful date."

That earns her a few bars of Saengfai's pleasant, well-humored laughter. "Nice and safe. Yes. Less distraction from just enjoying ourselves." He smiles warmly at her. "Though actually, that picnic was very nice."

Susan smiles back at him. It had been a lovely afternoon spent in her gardens, in blissful peace and with some much treasured moments of privacy. "It was. And the children loved having you over for a visit. Ambar has even been asking when you will come and play with him again."

"Oh...I will come soon," Saengfai states with every sign of truly meaning to. He looks around, taking in the view of the various colorful and fragrant food stalls representing different cities, nations and even continents of the Disc."I’m surprised the kids aren’t along to an event like this. Seems like their kind of thing."

The comment nearly makes Susan choke in her own spit. Of course she should have brought the children along but she had had no time to plan this and after they had left the fire god's office, the thought of throwing children into their date simply had not crossed her mind. Isn't she entitled to at least one nice date, without the world being threatened or children being involved?

"Oh, this will last a couple days more," she says, already starting to feel guilty about not fetching the Bunnies. "I will bring them tomorrow or so, during the daytime. I just..." She looks down, cursing the heat that is rising in her cheeks. "Felt a little selfish tonight."

Saengfai glances at her and grins. "And selfish includes me. I like that kind of selfish."

He seems about to say something more but his voice suddenly dies in his throat. Slowly, he closes his mouth, his eyes slightly wider in a telltale sign of nervousness. In the end, he just smiles warmly at her and Susan can almost swear that his tanned cheeks look just a little rosier than before.

He tries to hide it by turning toward one of the stalls, where a man in a bright red turban and with a long, black beard he could probably double as a belt is currently smiling at the pair and proffering a tray of golden-baked, crescent-shaped pastries covered in a sweet-smelling translucent dew.

"So...what are these?" he asks, indicating the pastries, that look like they could cause a fatal hardening of the arteries by the time one has finished eating it. "I’ve never seen them in shops before."

"Oh, those are Gazelle Horns," Susan replies, glancing at the stall owner for confirmation. "Named after the shape, not the ingredients," she rushes to add, remembering how much Morporkians like to exaggerate foreign eating habits. "One of the many tribes in Klatch specializes on those. They are extremely sweet, I'm afraid. But sooooo good." She picks up one and offers it to Saengfai to encourage him to try. "Here, take a bite and see what you think."

He takes a cautious bite, closely watched by Susan and the Klatchian chef. His look of apprehension quickly moves to surprise and then to pleasure, leaving Susan (and the chef) very, very pleased. "Oh...that’s really good! Sweets aren’t as...well, sweet where I’m from, as they are here in Ankh-Morpork, usually. Sometimes it’s too much. But this is somehow even sweeter, but not overwhelming."

Susan smiles. "Klatchians have an incredible love of sweets. And these will become overwhelming if you eat more than one every three months or so." She takes a bite herself, enjoying the familiar explosion of flavor in her mouth. Her divine tasks often take her to Klatch and she has developed a fondness for Klatchian cuisine that few know about. "Hmm... honey and almond with a hint of orange flower. A wonderful combination." Somewhat against her natural instinct to just eat the whole thing herself, she decides to offer Saengfai what is left of the pastry. "Care to have the last bite?"

Saengfai chuckles and takes it from her fingers. His lips brush her fingertips as he does so in a subtle kiss that sends a little wave of pleasure travelling up Susan's spine. He eats the tasty morsel with his eyes closed in obvious pleasure. "Wonderful! But...I think I need to drink something or all my ability to taste sweetness will be dulled."

Susan agrees, exchanging a few pleasantries with the chef in his native Klatchian before moving away from the stall. She absentmindedly licks what is left of the sweet off her fingers as she looks around for an idea of what to try next. "Hmm... we could go over to Quirm and taste some wine. Their cheese is excellent too. Or do you see something else you'd like to try?"

"Wine and cheese sound good," Saengfai states. "I’ve developed an appreciation for cheese since coming here."

That has Susan chuckling. "Good. Just stay away from Lancre Blue, please. That is cheese with an appreciation for humans and creatures ali--"

She freezes suddenly at the sound of laughter coming from somewhere near the XXXX stalls. Bodily, sardonic, ever-so-slightly feminine, it smites her like lightning, filling her heart with ice, drawing all blood away from her cheeks. The Baron? No, it can't be! It can't, her grandfather would have warned her if he had escaped or had been released. But...that laugh is so much his awful laugh... She tries to regain some control over herself, force herself to walk away but her legs refuse to move. All she can do is stare in that direction and try to find the source of that horrible laughter.

A gentle touch to her arm almost makes her jump. "Susan?"

She turns her head in Saengfai's direction to answer him but her eyes take longer to follow, still fixed on the XXXX stalls. Finally, the crowd parts just enough to reveal a short, exuberantly dressed woman with a head of purple hair that makes her almost tall as her much taller companions. The realization that it was she who was laughing is like a shot of morphine to a trauma victim. Susan's heart starts beating again, breath returns to her lungs. She can finally focus her eyes on Saengfai's face.

The concern she sees there makes her feel ashamed of her weakness. "I'm sorry, I...thought I had heard someone."

He looks sadly at her and takes her hand. "Come with me."

He guides her through the stalls, to the temple's central garden area. A string quartet is playing here. Their soft, peaceful music has been creeping in the background of the crowded festival since the gods first entered the venue. Small round wrought-iron tables and chairs have been placed here in a little makeshift café. It is to one of these tables, blissfully more to the side and away from the worst of the crowd, that Saengfai leads the unresisting goddess. He pulls her chair out for her and signals to a waiter for two glasses of wine before sitting down himself, not exactly opposite to her but close enough that his leg softly grazes hers. "All right. Tell me about it?"

Susan looks at him in silence for a moment, struggling for words. She is not used to complaining or even admitting to this sort of weakness. Constantly cast by life's whim into the role of the strong, fearless presence that scares all the monsters away just by being there, she has learned to handle her own ghosts in private, to be afraid and weak only when she can be sure no one is watching. The fingers of one hand are too many to count the people with whom she has ever afforded to be this vulnerable.

She tries to put her mask of invulnerability back on and brush the issue away with a vague comment but one look into Saengfai's eyes stops her from even trying. He will not fall for it, she knows. He was there, he knows how bad things got and how much worse they could have been. She notices her hands have been fidgeting on her lap and looks down at them as if that would stop them from betraying her nervousness. She should not have reacted like that to a simple laugh.

Now all she can do is breathe deep and hope she doesn't sound too damaged as she says, "It's...not always easy. The children have been recovering well. The resilience of children. I try to keep them from being scared but it was all so..." She inhales and looks away toward the musicians, feeling water welling in her eyes as nightmarish memories rush to her mind. "They are easier to reassure than my own mind."

Saengfai takes one of her restless hands and holds it gently, stroking her fingers with his thumb. That makes her look back at his empathetic expression with a sad smile. "You… You are doing far better than anyone could expect. What you went through… What you nearly lost." He swallows, seems to struggle for words. "I have nights where I wake up thinking about it too. And I didn’t go through half what you did."

He falls silent as a waiter brings over two glasses of wine and departs with a quizzical look at them. The aura around them surely does not scream romance right now. Susan waits until the waiter is out of earshot to return to the conversation.

"You went through enough. And I am sorry...I am so sorry for it," she can barely keep her voice level. The last few days have been burdened with guilt and regret and a half dozen other heart-numbing emotions at having brought the private detective into the whole Baron mess just after a single date that didn't even end properly. What he mustn't have thought of the price of courting someone like her... "I put you right in his path when you had no need or reason to even help in the first place. I will never forget what you did for the children but I am sorry you had to suffer for it. And that you would come back after it..." She squeezes his hand, lost for words. Only then does she realize that she hasn't yet thanked him properly for all his help before. "Thank you...for everything."

Saengfai looks down, seemingly embarrassed. "My suffering...that was nothing. I just… " He shakes his head and breathes deeply as if struggling for words. His eyes find hers again. "That I could be in the right place to help those kids, and to at least slow things down a little in the bar, I’m just glad. Glad to have been there." He touches her hair with his free hand. "And there’s no reason I wouldn’t come back. And plenty of reasons I did."

Susan smiles weakly at him, enjoying the affectionate touch and tilting her head toward his hand. That earns her a smile from the fire god, along with some lovely stroking to her cheek. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to ruin the mood. I've been trying not to think about it, really. And for the most part, I've been succeeding, apart from a few--" She interrupts herself. "Well, quite a few nightmares. But that laugh...it was just too similar to… his."

She shudders at the thought of the Baron. Saengfai nods and pats her shoulder before lowering his hand to hold her free one. "It’s all right. The mood is what it needs to be. Ups and downs. Do you want to try some more sweets? Or go somewhere a bit more private?"

Susan looks around the progressively more crowded temple. Soon it will be difficult to reach the stalls, let alone taste any of the products they offer. And even the false sense of privacy offered by this table will be gone as people mill to find a seat. Not exactly her idea of a peaceful, romantic date. "Well, some of those stalls do cater to go... And I don't know many fun places but I have a few favorite quiet ones." She notices their wine glasses sitting, still untouched, on the table. "Are you sure you won't mind leaving so soon?"

Saengfai grins. "I think I might not be too far from my limit of sweets. Now this place we’re going...does it have moonlight?" He releases her hand to take a sip of his wine. "Wine?"

Susan grins in response and joins him in drinking. "I can guarantee moonlight and a lovely view of swans swimming in a pond. And we can pick up the wine from the Quirm stall. I'm pretty sure they'll provide us with some glasses as well. Will that do?"

Much to Susan's surprise, Saengfai actually takes some time to think about this. "Swans? Hmm, let me think… Yeah, I think that’ll satisfy my quotient for romance in a date." His lips part in a mischievous grin at her raised eyebrow. "Ah, no, don’t hit me!" He curls against his chair as if trying to protect himself against her, speaking in a tiny voice interrupted by his own laughter. "Help! Police brutality!"

Rascal... Susan squints at him in mock irritation before looking away haughtily. "Hmpf... Far from me to force you into such a sacrifice. I'll just have to go by myself, it seems."

Joke-time done, Saengfai smiles and takes a last sip of his wine before rising to his feet and offering her his hand. "Come on. Let’s see if we can talk the Quirmians into throwing in some of that cheese."

Susan smiles in return and rises, taking his hand and urging him to follow her. "Yes. Let's."


Chapter 3: The Big Nap

It was the rusty file-cabinet drawer that woke me.

I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, reading a bad story of spanking and fuzzy handcuffs and and a jerk with a heart of ice who gets it melted by the right girl who just happens to be a wet noodle with no self-respect. And I’d been thinking about my delicate-featured, lean-muscled, sweetheart of a boss who’s dating Death’s granddaughter, who turns out to be an all-right chick. So guess what kind of dreams I’d been having? Well you’ll have to guess, because if I described them here I’d get banned before you can remember how to spell Dashiell Hammett. But let me just say, I was not the one wearing the fuzzy handcuffs.

So you know how when you wake up from a dream, you tend to be groggy? Well I sure was. The bourbon I’d been drinking before I fell asleep didn’t help there, either. I slowly opened my eyes and took a couple seconds to focus. Somebody had opened the filing cabinet and was bent over the open drawer, the one that squeaked, looking through it, with only the desk lamp on for illumination. You might think I’d be panicking at that, but no. See, the boss lives in the rooms behind the office. He’s got a tiny kitchen, tiny bath, tiny bedroom. Bed’s big enough for two, though, if they’re real friendly. No, no, I haven’t been in it. Boss isn’t like that. More’s the pity.

So I figured it was him, back from his date, just trying not to wake me. Yeah, okey, it’s a little weird he’d be looking for a file at, what, two in the morning? But how do I know what he does at night? I don’t get drunk and fall asleep on his sofa reading naughty novels every night. This was the first time. I swear!

So I sat up, and the book slid off my chest and hit the floor. I even mumbled, “Hey, how’d the date go?”

That’s when Mister Not-Actually-My-Boss turned to look at me and I realized he was not actually my boss. Not that I could see his face. Lightning flashed outside, filling the room with a moment of harsh, stuttering light. He had a bowler hat pulled low and a black scarf wrapped around the lower half of his face, so only his eyes were visible. They were hard and not at all pretty, like the boss’ were. I froze. Then Definitely-Not-My-Boss pulled a nasty-looking knife from under his coat and took a step toward me.

This guy was not just trying to scare me. I saw the look in his eyes and I didn’t have any doubt he was going to cut my throat easy as a hungry fox would kill a chicken. Even so, I was surprised at what I did. It was kind of like when the boss accidentally sent me to the Arena. I simply reacted. There was a half-full bottle of bourbon on the floor next to the sofa, and I just reached down, grasped the neck, and whipped it at him. It flew straight and exploded when it hit his face. You know how thick the bottom of one of those bottles is? They usually aren’t going to break when they hit something as soft as a face wrapped in a scarf. But this one did.

Thunder rolled over the city, making the windows rattle, as the thug dropped the knife. His face had just been pulverized and was full of shrapnel. His hands shook and he fell to his knees, then onto his side, where he twitched once and was still. I couldn’t believe it. I’d killed him, in one blow.

Problem was, while I was being all dumbfounded over my incredible hero strength, the other guy stepped out of the vestibule and stabbed me right in the neck. I felt the blood enter my windpipe, and the air leaving it as the knife slid back out. I thought, No. Not like this. Then the knife went back in, downward this time, past the collarbone and into my chest cavity. The guy twisted it around in there, cutting up as much as he could. I couldn’t even scream.

But I could pray. In the seconds left to me, as rain began to lash hard against the windows and lightning flashed again, I prayed to my god, that sweet guy from far away, who’d take whatever people could afford to give, even if it was nothing at all, if they had a missing child that needed finding. I prayed to him as my shredded lungs were filling with blood, as my wounded heart tried vainly to beat. I begged him.

Please boss. I need you.

Thunder boomed.

Please...

And then I died.


Chapter 4: Fire and Rain

A beautiful night. A beautiful date. A beautiful goddess. Saengfai practically walks on air as he ascends the stairs to his office/home. They had lost track of the time, staying at the moonlit beach until well after midnight, talking and talking. Susan had needed to talk, to unburden herself. Being possessed, having one’s body taken over unwillingly and having to watch as that body tries to kill those she loves--what violation could be more traumatic? Though the criminal is imprisoned more deeply than the Watch could ever manage, the pain and horror linger.

But it was not all darkness and gloom. Saengfai had managed to make her smile and even laugh several times. It gave him such a pleasure to do so, making that all-too-often somber face light up.

And there had been silence as well, the amazing sensations of her lips on his, their kisses deep and longing. Her ears were like delicate seashells, almost translucent. He loved to kiss them, his heart racing.

He had been attracted to her on first sight. Not in love, no. But drawn to her. It wasn’t just the beauty. It was the strength, and the way she cracked a joke with Azzageddi. That humor. And the friendship those two had, so easy and complete. He’d thought they were a couple at first, and hadn’t believed it when he’d been told otherwise. But when he did come to believe it, he was delighted. He didn’t really think he had a chance, but still…

Holding her in his arms, bodies close, kissing her--he couldn’t believe it while it was happening. It was like a dream. And here on the stairs, after their date was ended by the approach of bad weather, it seems even more like a dream. He hopes he won’t wake up and discover it over.

He has only one regret gnawing at him. He had meant to tell her more about his past, his troubles, the reason he'd fled his homeland. She ought to know. It is possible--highly unlikely but possible--that trouble could follow him. He'd spent his first years in Ankh-Morpork looking over his shoulder, but no one from the Agatean Empire had come after him. And besides, it's not like Susan or Ambar or Twi are in danger. No assassin or bounty hunter would dare attack him when he is with her. Still, she should know. Especially now that he has uncovered disturbing rumors of a conspiracy.

It could be nothing. The Phedrawnese immigrant community can be paranoid. And he didn't want to turn their date into work. Not again, especially when she needed to talk.

The thunder rolls and rattles the old building. Saengfai gets his keys out of his pocket. As the door comes in sight, he gets that prickly feeling when his prophet, Myrna, prays to him. She doesn’t do it often, and the words are always a bit sarcastic, but of course it helps fill up his godpower, which is good for her as well, so once in awhile she remembers to pray. Usually just after receiving an irregular paycheck. He wishes he could pay her on time every month…

Please boss. I need you.

He’s stunned. He can feel her fear and her pain. It washes through him like nothing he’s ever experienced before. The urge to protect her, to comfort her is overwhelming. Before he realizes it, he’s pounding up the last flight of stairs as another peal of thunder shakes the building.

Please...

He crashes through the door. A tall, thin man wearing a top hat that just accentuates his height turns. A black muffler conceals his face. He is holding a long, thin knife that he pulls out of Myrna with a nasty, wet slurch. She falls off the sofa to the floor.

Saengfai does not think. He holds a hand toward the man, and an aura of flame appears around the god, flames in which leap a tiger. The flames that appear out of the man's clothing are no aura, however. They are very real. The scarf muffles the screams of the murderer as he panics, dropping his blade and trying to pat the flames out. But he quickly becomes a torch. The detective charges, slamming into the burning man and knocking him out the open window, through which rain is pouring in. The fiery descent and the screams stop with a crunch, audible from four stories above.

Saengfai rushes to Myrna, stepping over dying flames on the carpet, wet from the blood of another dead killer. He crouches and tries to heal her, but...it is too late. He is numb with shock. She is dead. His prophet, his hero, his secretary, his apprentice...his friend.

No.

He's never resurrected anyone before. He concentrates, trying to feel his way toward it. He doesn't want to make a mistake, like the time he sent her to the Arena.

As he focuses, he misses the bathroom door opening, the swirl of a skirt, and the whisper of a poisoned blade leaving its sheathe.


Chapter 5: Gnomeland Security

It is a cold, dark night.

The new moon hides behind thick clouds, heavy with the omens of an unseasonal rainstorm. It hasn’t started raining yet but the rest of it is here already. Lightning cuts through the skies, slithering through the horizon, striking the earth like daggers of light shot at the Disc. The darkness flares white, tracing dark shapes where it strikes the high basalt walls, the spiky cliffs that surround the valley. It draws the outline of imposing onyx-black towers and spires that stretch up, clawing at the heavens. It shines off strips of white marble like the fangs of beasts arranged in a line from one valley wall to the other like the jaws of Hell open in a dry, rumbling scream of thunder.

In the daylight, the valley is beautiful, peaceful, serene. But not tonight.

Tonight, lightning strikes, thunder rolls. Into the valley… Over the valley...where death comes to sleep.

At ground level, out of the darkness, a flare of octarine, a ring of magic opens to let a stumbling figure through. Clutching his abdomen, a man trips and stumbles past the entrance to a maze of greenery, past stone guardians who turn watchful, calcareous eyes to him and let him through to the black stairs that lead up to the dark temple. He staggers up the stairs, managing one, two, three steps before he collapses, motionless, senseless.

The door to the temple opens, letting out a sliver of yellow light that falls on the recumbent man. A short, burly, gnome-shaped figure walks over to him, clinking with a grating sound of pottery on pottery. It studies the man intently, leaning over him, poking him with a ceramic finger. It gives him a tentative kick in the ribs. The man groans almost inaudibly but doesn’t move. Another kick, a bit stronger. Silence, this time.

The gnome shrugs and goes about his business. It’s his last day on the job, anyway. Let the new guy figure it out.


Chapter 6: Mission Improbable

Darkness. Warm and comfy, pain-free darkness, like being gently cocooned in an infinity of black wool.

But there’s a voice whispering his name. Saengfai? Saengfai? He wants to ignore it but...he recognizes it as that of someone who has needed him, and may need him again. He has never been able to turn his back on such a voice, even when such voices have led him into trouble time and again, and even when it was someone he hardly knew. And this is a voice he knows, that belongs to someone he truly cares about, though at the moment he cannot remember her name.

But the soft fluffy shadow binds him completely. He can’t move, can’t so much as open his eyelids. It takes tremendous effort just to remember what he is: Saengfai, god of fire. And with that, there is light. Pure roaring flame that burns away all the darkness.

Even so, just opening his eyes leaves him exhausted, and he must summon even more strength to focus. That is why at first he is more aware of the sound of water chattering over stones, and the clean smell of a flower-filled garden carried by a cool breeze. Silken sheets against his skin. Water being squeezed out into a washbowl.

The world comes into focus, or rather one small room of it does, a bedroom with wide doors open to a garden. The walls are a pale, neutral color, and pale grey sheets cover his lower body. By a washbasin, a beautiful woman stands, wringing excess water from a cloth.

Susan.

He tries to sit up, which prompts a soft moan from him as the world spins. His eyes close and he feels hands on his shoulders gently forcing him down, Susan’s concerned face above him. It is as if she’s crossed the room in a second. He wonders if he passed out for a moment there.

“Shhh... It's all right. You're safe. Relax.”

“Susan? Where…?”

“You're in my temple.” She dabs his face with the damp cloth, leaving a citrus scent and a feeling of freshness, the water, with whatever is in it, seeming to draw some heavy fog away from his mind. “You were found on my doorstep, badly wounded and poisoned. And you have been sleeping for almost a day now.”

“Poisoned…” Saengfai shakes his head, then puts his hand to his temple and groans as the room spins. “Moving head...bad idea. “

Susan smiles and says softly, “Yes, you still have a little way to go before I can be sure you are recovered.” She leans toward him and kisses his temple, extending her healing magic into him. “There...better?”

The room stabilizes and the nausea in his belly eases. Saengfai reaches up weakly to touch her cheek. “Much…”

“Good.” Susan brushes some of his long hair from his eyes. “You're safe here. And you can stay as long as you need.”

“Thank you.” His brow furrows as he fruitlessly searches his memory. “Last thing I remember, I was returning home...from our date?”

Susan nods. “You were ambushed?”

The lack of memory disturbs him. It is as if that black fog is still within his mind, here and there, so dark he can’t even see where it is to drive it away. “I-I don’t know.” He looks down at his side, where there is a bandage over a poultice. From the stiffness there, he knows he was stabbed, and though the wound is anaesthetized, he can still feel that it is open, no doubt in order to let the poison be drawn out by the poultice. “Earlier I had spoken with someone...about a rumor.” He sighs and looks at her. He is afraid of what to say next, because he knows it will lead to further revelations, especially because he knows that Susan, as a Watch officer, will certainly probe for more answers. But he can’t avoid it any longer. “I remember trying to decide whether to tell you about it. If it’s true, it’s big.”

Susan’s expression is one of compassion. “Saengfai. If you can’t tell me, that is your choice. But after the Baron, I couldn't possibly deny you help.”

“I don’t want to bring trouble to your doorstep.” He feels ashamed. “But...it seems that when I’m out of my mind and dying, this is where I come seeking help, instinctively.”

Susan smiles and strokes his smooth hair again. “Well, I hate to see you ill but... I'm glad you came to me. This can be quite a pleasant place to be…” She snorts at a memory. “Besides, you brought trouble to my doorstep the day we met.”

Saengfai opens his mouth in mock dismay. “Now that wasn’t my fault. We just had a little misunderstanding about whether or not my client was a murderer.” His voice becomes slightly smug. “And I was right.”

Susan grins. “You were lucky, that's what you were.” She looks at his bare chest, smooth tawny skin over compact but powerful muscles. “No stripes. Now, I know…” she muses.

It takes Saengfai a moment to remember what she’s referring to--a song about the origin of tigers that they talked about on their first date. He chuckles and puts his hands behind his head. “Well, only around full moons.” Then sounding a little sad, he says, “You, know, I used to have a tiger.”

Susan looks at him quizzically. “What happened to it?”

“I hope he’s doing well. I had to leave him behind.” He takes a breath and looks up at her, preparing to dive into trouble. He places his hands on the mattress to push himself into an upright seated position. “And that is connected to what I need to tell you. You know I’ve been here about five years.”

Susan nods and takes his hand. “I do. You came here from the Counterweight Continent, right?”

“Right. Most people assume that the Agatean Empire rules everyone there, but I’m from one of the few independent nations, the Kingdom of Phedrawn. We’ve worked very hard to maintain a delicate balance that keeps us free, but...greed can undo all that.”

“I've visited one or two such places. Grandfather went on vacation and I--” Susan waves it off. “Never mind. I’ve never been to Phedrawn, but I've seen how unstable things can be with the Empire.”

“Well, a few years back there was an attempt to assassinate our King.” Saengfai grimaces, knowing that here comes the worst part. “And...a certain Phedrawnese soldier, on a training exchange with the Empire’s Red Helmets, learned about it, and stopped it, and unwisely killed his Agatean commanding officer in the process.”

Susan squeezes his hand, stroking his fingers with her thumb. “Is that why you ended up here? In Ankh-Morpork, I mean.”

“Yes.” He squeezes her hand back, grateful and almost unbelieving that she is taking this so calmly. “To the Phedrawnese, I’d saved the King. To the Agateans, I was a murderer and a mutineer. The Kingdom could have justifiably stood up to the Empire, thrown out their diplomats, who are all spies anyway, cut off trade--but that would have triggered a war that we could not hope to win. So...officially, we had to agree with the Agatean position. I was privately told that the King was very grateful, and then I was handed a pack of supplies and put in a bushel of sweet potatoes stowed away in a slow riverboat.”

Susan looks at him with sadness, then leans down to slip her arms under his shoulders. She moves her legs onto the bed and lies alongside him. His arms go around her as if it were the most natural thing in the world. “I am truly sorry you had to go through that,” she says. “To leave your home and your life there... It is so unfair.”

She is a cop, a captain, indeed the Commanding Officer. And he’s just admitted to being a wanted criminal. And her response is to reassure him, to hold him. Saengfai puts his forehead against hers, feeling a weight slip from his shoulders that had been there so long, he did not even recognize it until it was gone. “My life here is not so bad. Full of surprises. Often pleasant ones.”

He kisses her. And keeps kissing her when she returns his kiss just as passionately. He cannot tell whether she is healing him again, or whether it is just the pure pleasure of being in her arms, accepted by her, that is causing all pain and illness to disappear from his body.

The door bursts open. Ambar enters, dragging Azzageddi by the hand, in mid-sentence. “--Uncle Azz. Mommy has been in here taking care of Uncle Sae on account of him being sick. But you gotta be quiet 'cuz Uncle Sae's aslee--- Oh, hi, Uncle Sae! Mommy, Uncle Azz is here!”

The little boy’s voice shows no concern that he’s just walked in on his mother and her … boyfriend? … in bed together, but Susan nonetheless smoothly and calmly releases Saengfai and turns to sit on the edge of the bed, ruffling her bunny-son’s hair and looking up at Azzageddi quizzically. “I can see that.”

Azzageddi looking chagrined. “Sorry. I ah...I was going to have one of the staff find you, but he found me first.” He tilts head toward Ambar.

Meanwhile, Ambar jumps on the bed to hug Saengfai, who is becoming strong enough to sit up. “Hi! How're you feeling? Mommy make you all better yet?”

Saengai hugs him tightly. “Yes, she has!” Then he rolls over so Ambar is lying on the bed and he starts tickling the boy, happy to see one of the children he rescued from the Baron’s dungeons. But after a moment he has to leave off wrestling with the giggling and squealing bunny. Saengfai’s face has gone pale, and dizziness has returned. “Whoa … still not a hundred percent though.”

“You should eat,” Susan says. “Ambar, could you fetch some bread and fruit for Uncle Sae? He'll need energy to play with you.”

Ambar sits up, his ears perked to attention. “Sure, Mommy.” To Saengfai he says conspiratorially, “I'm gonna bring you the best treats ever. Shh... I keep'em hidden so Silvershade doesn't find them. Be right back!” He dashes off.

Saengfai watches him go, smiling, wondering if Ambar is going to fetch him dog treats. Well, wolf treats. “Did I have half that energy when I was small?”

Susan chuckles. “Bunnies are...special. But I would bet you weren't the type to stay at home reading a good book.”

“Not exactly…” Saengfai looks to Azzageddi. “You look like you have something serious to say. Should I move to another room?”

Azzageddi looks at Saengfai seriously. “Actually … I needed to speak with you as well. There was an incident at your office early this morning. Door broken down, files destroyed. Quite a lot of blood. Someone apparently was set on fire and thrown out a window. And … there was a body. A woman.”

Saegfai feels colder and colder as Azzageddi speaks, stunned as the fog lifts and a flood of memory returns. “Myrna… She called for help. I was the one who broke the door. Someone … there were two of them. Myrna had killed one, I think. The other … I set him aflame. He had just murdered her.” A fiery aura begins to swirl around him as an ashamed rage fills him.

Ignoring the rising heat, Susan reaches a hand for his face, cups his cheek and turns his face so he looks at her. “Saengfai, she is your heroine. You can easily revive her. And even if you don't, she'll wake up in a temple soon enough, alive again. Please, calm down. You are still weak.”

Saengfai realizes how upset he’s getting and forces himself to find peace within. The aura fades and the temperature falls back to normal. “Sorry … it’s just … this is her first time. She doesn’t go adventuring. She’s just a secretary who does a little investigating herself. And I brought this on her. I failed her.”

Azzageddi says, “When you resurrect her, I’ll send Aliyaa to be with her. She’s gone through this so many times, she thinks it’s funny. But I remember her first time. It’ll be good to have a friendly face.”

“And I can send Leonard as well,” Susan reassures him. “He'll have over a hundred death experiences to share.” She mutters, “Clumsy twit…” and then continues in a calming voice, “For now, just breathe deeply and focus on wishing her back to life.”

“How could I forget her death?” Saengfai asks, disgusted with himself.

Azzageddi asks Susan, “Poison?”

She nods. “The kind that has been testing my skill and patience for the past day.”

Azzageddi rubs his jawline. “Might be something called Midnight. In the few who survive it, it causes short-term memory loss. The previous few hours or disappear for a time. Just a side effect--it’s used when trying to kill immortals.” He looks over “Saengfai. “It is used by the local Assassin’s Guild.”

“That...would make sense.” Saengfai shakes his head. “According to the rumor I’ve heard whispered, a member of the diplomatic mission to Phedrawn is an assassin from Ankh-Morpork.”

Susan’s eyebrows shoot up. “An assassin hired to kill who? The King, again?”

“Again?” Azzageddi asks.

“Yes and yes.” Saengfai takes a deep breath. “I’d better go over it all from the beginning. But first, Myrna.”

Azzageddi looks as if he’s about to protest this, then stops. Instead, his deep voice calm, he instructs Saengfai, “Close your eyes, and just like when you’re trying to tell her to do something, find her. It’s surprisingly easy.”

Holding Susan’s hand, Saengfai follows the advice. The aura, like a mandala, appears around his head again, calmer and cooler, with fiery tigers leaping within. The god reaches for his prophet, calling her name, and when she answers he realizes that is was not Susan calling to him in the darkness, but Myrna.

Boss? she asks, her voice so lonely and frightened.

I’m here, he replies. I’m so sorry. He means it with his entire being, and spirit to spirit, she knows the truth of it. He reaches to touch her, a touch that fills her with his divine love for her, his gratitude. And in return he knows what she feels for him. Let’s get you back where you belong.

His eyes open. His eyes are wet with tears. He loves her more than he ever has, but it is not the sort of love she longs for from him. But she knows that as well. He hopes she will be satisfied with what he is able to give. “She’s in a temple in Godville. The one to some guy named Brinjal, God of Vegetables.” He’s not sure how he knows this, but it is simply there, in his mind.

Susan puts her arms around him, holding him. “He's a good one, worry not.” She closes her eyes, breathes deeply, frowns, and then her expression lightens and she opens her eyes again. “I just sent Leonard to get her. I guess Aillara and Manoel will be tagging along.”

“Aliyaa is on her way as well,” Azzageddi says. “They’ll treat her very kindly there. Lots of hugs. It’s their philosophy of life.”

Doubtfully, Saengfai says, “She’s not so into hugs …”

“She will be,” says Azzageddi. “Just you wait.”

Susan redirects the conversation. “You had something else to discuss with Azzageddi.”

Saengfai nods. “Yes, well …” He repeats what he told Susan. To his surprise, his admission that he’s a wanted murderer doesn’t elicit much from the tall captain. He’s heard that Azzageddi is a god of rebellion, and it seems to be pretty well-known that he was once a devil, perhaps still is. Perhaps killing one’s superior officer who was part of a plot to murder a king doesn’t seem so out of line to him.

When he gets to the rumors about an assassin, Azzageddi nods and takes a heavy black envelope with a black ribbon and sealed in black wax from the inner pocket of his jacket. “I have a feeling that this will reveal even more, from the hints the Patrician dropped to me at a crack-of-dawn meeting. For the Commanding Officer of the Watch.” He hands it to Susan.

She takes it and breaks the seal, muttering what seems to be a mantra for her, “Please, let it not be a relocation to Überwald again … Oh... It's a field trip.” She hands the orders to Azzageddi.

He reads in silence for a moment. “Well...isn’t that a coinci--wait. I’m not on here. I have experience with the Empire! Why would he not send me? And...you’ve just become the commanding officer! That means I’m going to have to be in charge again while you’re gone!”

Susan leans over to Saengfai and stage-whispers, “He's just a bit panicky when it comes to paperwork.” Louder, she continues, “Azz here has extensive command experience. Perfect for holding the fort while I am gone. I'll be taking Nyrini with me, by the way.”

“But you could take me with you!” Azzageddi insists. Then he stops and considers. “But that would leave Godofbeer in charge. Um...never mind.” He sags in defeat.

Saengfai looks from one to the other. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”

Susan explains. “Well, the Patrician has coincidentally--and quite conveniently, I must say--organized a meeting between officers of the law of Ankh-Morpork and Phedrawn to share experiences in training and advanced operations. It is meant as an act of cooperation and goodwill between our nations. And since I am usually in charge of basic training for our department…”

Azzageddi, arms crossed, nods. “She is very...creative in devising training programs.”

“So I'm being sent to Phedrawn, dear,” Susan continues.

“What?” Saengfai nearly shouts.

“With Nyrini and a mortal liaison as well. I have no doubt this has something to do with the assassination attempt.”

“The Patrician…” Saengfai’s eyes widen. “He knows already…” As many have discovered before, this demonstration of the ruthlessly benevolent Tyrant of Ankh-Morpork’s ability to see all and know all is astonishing and disturbing.

Azzageddi nods. “Indeed.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Saengfai blurts out, “And I need to return to Phedrawn!”

Susan's face becomes even more pale in shock. “They'll have no option but to execute you!”

“I will have to go in disguise.” Saengfai is firm. “I may not live there anymore, but I need to do this, Sue. Besides...we have some very tricky assassins over there ourselves. You need a local to avoid them.”

Susan exchanges a nervous look with Azzageddi, seeking his opinion.

The big god considers. “It does say you can take up to two additional immortal officers.”

“Our ranks aren't a secret,” Susan points out. “We'd have to create a credible fake identity or he'd get killed as soon as someone blows the whistle.”

“That can be done. I can give him the Oath right here and now. And if he feels like using a different name, that’s just a long tradition with the AMCW.”

“You?! Who just a few days ago were running background checks and telling me to be careful?!" Susan protests, though it is as if she already knows it’s the only choice.

Azzageddi smiles. “But I know you’re going to help him. And he stood between the kids and certain death. So I already know I’m going to help, too.”

She looks at Saengfai. “I can't change your mind, can I?”

“I’m afraid not.” He looks down at his body, covered only by a sheet. “Does one have to wear pants when taking this Oath?”

Seriously, Azzageddi says, “There are several instances of precedence in which the Oath was taken in various states of undress. However, trousers are preferred.”

Susan shakes her head at their foolishness, then presses her forehead against Saengfai’s for a moment. “You had better not get yourself killed.”

“And miss having a third date?” Saengfai replies, stroking her hair. “Not a chance.” He pauses for a moment. “I wonder if anyone’s ever gone undercover as a cop before.”


Chapter 7: Resurrection Time

It wasn’t cold. It wasn’t dark. But it wasn’t light or warm either. It was just a whole lotta grey nothing.

Death sucks.

Now don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not talking about DEATH, you know, the guy whose granddaughter I met yesterday before she went on a date with my boss. I mean the Big Sleep, rubbed out, exsanguinated, turned into a stiff. The state of being no longer alive. Among the Crowd Invisible.

But it wasn’t a crowd. Nope. All alone. Poor little Myrna. Just minding my own business and STAB-STAB-STAB, some guy in a top hat shivs me.

Wow, that got dark.

Worst thing is, I still kind of had a connection to my body. I could tell what was going on. I wish I couldn’t. I lay there in my own blood for a long time, looking at the thug I killed. My blood and his pooled together. Oh joy. The City Watch came and poked around. Eventually they picked up my body, took it away, put it on a slab, naked under a sheet, waiting to be cut up.

Or maybe not. Heroes like me are supposed to get resurrected. Maybe they were just waiting for me to be alive again so I could tell my story. Maybe they won’t need to chop me up to figure that out. Maybe…

Hey, what’s that? Oh, ew! An Igor! Of course the Watch has one. I watched him slicing my body up a treat, and putting the pieces in bottles of alcohol. I always knew my liver would end up pickled, but not like this.

I was doing my best to ignore the sound of my ribcage being cracked open when a fiery light provided a warm yellow glow to my grey existence. And not just the light but, oh, true warmth! And there he was. (Or should that be He?) The Boss. My god. (Capital-G?) Standing in front of me, made of fire, and...goodness. I wonder if he knew he wasn’t wearing anything? Probably not--he’s actually kinda shy about that.

I looked down and--EEP!--I sort of positioned my arms and legs to be more demure. Great, the afterlife has no pants. Well I just kept my eyes above his waist (mostly). It wasn’t difficult. His face of fire was so beautiful I couldn’t help but stare at it.

Boss? I said to him. I’d been saying that for hours and hours, calling for him.

He looked so sad, it made me start weeping. I’m here. I am so sorry, he said. And...I felt it. I felt his sorrow, directly, like were were in the same body together. There was no barrier of flesh to stop us from sharing our souls. He was ashamed. He thought he’d let me down. His heart was breaking over my death. Which just made me cry all the harder.

And of course he was feeling what I felt too. He knew I loved him, despite all the sharp words, the sarcasm, the complaining and joking I tossed his way. He knew all that was defense. Because now he knew I didn’t just love him. I was in love with him. And I felt so exposed and ashamed that now he knew. And...he didn’t pity me. He didn’t try to convince me not to feel that way. But it was clear--because he couldn’t hide anything from me--that he didn’t feel that way about me.

But he loved me. He truly did. Without that barrier of flesh, I knew love from him greater than any I’d ever known from anybody, except maybe Momma when I was little. So even though in a way I felt like I wanted to curl up and die, I also felt happier than I could ever remember being. It was a very weird combination. But it was good.

Let’s get you back where you belong, he said.

And that’s when it all went dark. But immediately I could feel I had a body again. Flesh, with all its pains and pleasures. I could hear people talking around me. I had a heart that was beating, and lungs that were breathing, and skin that was getting goosebumps.

Uh-oh.

I opened my eyes and breathed a sigh of relief to see I had a sheet over me. I didn’t have anything on under the sheet, but at least there was that. And around me, there were a couple of women, talking, their voices almost drowning out the soft, gentle music.

“I’m just sayin’, it’s weird. Instead a’ puttin’ us back into our own bodies, they make whole new bodies, but we still got scars and tattoos and stuff from the last body. How does that make sense?”

“It all has to do with the alchemical principle of equal exchange of matter and energy. Besides, our bodies begin to decompose about 20 minutes after we die. Do you want to wake up rotten next time?”

“Oh I kinda done that a few times. You know, when the Most Holy don’t rezz you right away and you get that Aura of Spookiness, and kinda look like a zombie for awhile? That’s a hoot!” The tall, powerfully-built woman threw her head back and laughed loudly. She looked like a linebacker, or a lady boxer, all muscles and scars and a great big head of frizzy hair, wearing the crazy armor that heroes tend to wear. Nice smile though. As loud and dumb as she sounded, I couldn’t help but like her.

The other one, the one talking about alchemy, was a real stunner, a gorgeous curvy blonde with big round glasses and a lab coat. But she wasn’t the one who spoke up next. Instead, it was some guy with a smooth, deep, manly voice. “Señoritas, di señorita is alive again. I think…” Then right in my ear, he almost shouted, “You awake, señorita?”

Part of me was wondering Who are these weirdos? but I figured I ought to be friendly. So I sat up, catching the sheet to keep from revealing myself, made myself smile, and said, “Hi, I’m Myrna.”

The hot number looked at me with this shy expression that didn’t go along with her gorgeous looks. I got the impression she was one of those girls who have no idea they’re turning heads. It took her a second to work up the nerve to reply, with the tall one kind of willing Blondie to overcome whatever social anxiety disorder she had, giving her a Come on! You can do it! look. Finally, she said, “Hello, Miss. I’m Aillara, Forensic Alchemist for the Watch and Mistress Nyniri’s heroine. This is Aliyaa--” she gestured toward the potential rugby star, who said “Hey there!” “--Captain Azzageddi’s heroine, and the gentleman by you--” she gestured off to my left, but I looked and didn’t see anyone, “is Manoel, aid to Commander Susan’s hero...Leonard.” At the last name her voice went all soft, and she smiled, so I guessed she had a crush of her own going on. Then she seemed to remember she was holding a paper shopping bag and held it out to me. “We brought these for you. Yours were very much ripped and covered in blood. I hope they fit. I checked your size in clothing when our Igor...autopsied...you.”

Despite her pretty, apologetic smile, I figured I was turning a little green at the memory, and fought off a strong desire to curl up and wail for Momma. “Th-thanks for the clothes.” I looked over the two of them. “If they’re hand-me-downs, I hope they’re yours, Aillara. No offense, Aliyaa. But I think two of me could fit in your armor.”

A lot of women would get mad at a comment like that, but somehow I know Aliyaa would burst into a big horse-laugh, and I was right. Then I looked around for the third member, the owner of that fine, smooth voice. “So...wait a second, you said ‘gentleman’? Where?”

Down around the region of my waist, I heard, “Down here, señorita. Manoel Felipe de la Herramienta at your service.”

I looked down and to the left. There was a screwdriver there, standing on its point somehow, and...its eyes blinked at me. Brown eyes. And a big mustache. And a hairy chest. And a tiny gold necklace that somehow didn’t fall down.

I twitched the sheet so my bare hip and backside were more hidden from those weird, free-floating eyes, and said, “I think I’m having some kind of hallucination. Is that...a mustache?”

The screwdriver tilts forward like he’s nodding. “Si, señora. Manoel has a moostache for many years now. It help with di señoritas, see? Di señor Leonard couldn’t come so I come instead to help joo with your first time.”

“With my first time?” I asked drily.

Aillara blushed and quickly added, “First time dying! Hahahahaha. Haa. Manoel, jump off of there please. Let Miss…Myrna? get dressed.”

“Ah.. si.” He leaned conspiratorially toward me. “Manoel can help with that too. Get di buttons for joo.”

Aliyaa picked him up. “Hey, cut it out and let the girl get dressed, before I put you in my loot bag and sell you at the next merchant’s!”

“Thanks, I uh…” I stood up, wrapping the sheet around me. “I see a door over there. I’ll just go change behind that.” I headed over and opened it to be confronted with an enormous purple...eggplant? With arms and legs. And eyes. And a mouth, that spoke.

“Oh, you’re awake! I’m Brinjal! Welcome to Hug Central.” It paused for a second and looked at me. I could swear the vegetable was being compassionate. “Are you okay? Would you like a hug?”

I heard Aliyaa whispering to Aillara loud enough you could’ve heard her on the next block. “Oh heck, she looks like she’s gonna cry.”

And she was right. This is one weird town. It’s Ankh-Morpork, but it’s also Godville, and sometimes you never know which one you’re going to be in. Either one of those is weird enough, but together? And on a normal day, meeting a gigantic vegetable that wants to hug is something I can deal with, but after being murdered and resurrected and getting my heart a little broken and meeting a talking screwdriver and catching myself thinking, He actually has a really sexy voice, well, at some point it can just get to be too much, y’know?

Aillara made a little “Eeep!” noise and rushed over to me, putting her hands on my shoulders and turning me around. “It’s all right. It’s all right. First time is always the worst. I felt like that too the first time Mistress smote me to fine ash.” She gave the eggplant a nod and gently guided me away. “This way now, to the dressing rooms. Good, good. You’re doing great. Just come with me.”

“Wait for me, señorita!” Manoel jumped off the bed, but Aliyaa caught him in mid-air.

“That’s it--you’re goin’ in my bag!” But as she tried to stuff him into her backpack, he slipped free and bounced out of her reach.

“Thanks,” I said to Allaira. “I’ve been having a heck of a day. Wait, did you say...your goddess burned you into ash??”

Aillara nodded, patting my shoulder and opening the door for me. “Oh, she was very affectionate about it. Just misunderstood, she is. Did anyone ever tell you you have a lovely pancreas? Igor was very impressed.”

“O-oh...that’s nice…” I went into the little room, feeling even more disturbed now. So I left the door open a bit so I could talk with Aillara. A big shadow filled the partly-open doorway--Aliyaa, apparently making sure Manoel couldn’t peek in. “So Aliyaa, did your god ever burn you up?”

She laughed. “My All-Powerful, Omnibene...Omnibe...Omnigoodguy? Nahh! He hit me with a meteor a couple times, but he was aimin’ it at the other guy. He’s a sweetie! Long as you don’t make him mad, like by threatenin’ his family.”

“Señora Susan make Señor Leonard go down big hole sometimes!” Manoel’s matter-of-fact voice was close, just on the other side of Aliyaa tree-trunk legs from the sound of it. “She make him go bzzzzzzt, pshhhhhh, charred kebab sometime too. But he deserve it. Get her shot. Make her temple into death trap. Popcorn explosion. Karioki too. One time, she give him to Tootsie.”

“Tootsie? Is that like some kinda horrible monster?” By that time I was buttoning up my blouse.

Aillara giggled. “Tootsie? No… She’s just a donkey who really likes beer.”

“Responds to Joo-beesh too!” Manoel added.

“Joo-beesh?” I asked.

Aillara blushed. “You know… ‘You bi--’”

“Ohhhh.” I stepped out into the room. “Well this’ll do ‘til I get home.” I looked at the heroines. “Hey... Thank you. I, uh, I don’t really do the whole adventuring thing. I sure didn’t expect...what happened. It was really kind of you to come be with me.”

“Your mast--well, your boss asked our masters and mistresses to send us as soon as he found out,” Aillara explained. “They wanted us to keep you company on this first time. I’m afraid he was very seriously wounded too.” I must’ve gone pale again because she rushed to say, “But he’s fine! He’s fine now. He’s with Mistress Susan.”

“Yeah, she’ll heal him up right as rain!” Aliyaa insisted. Then she paused, looking like she was thinking hard. “Right as rain? That’s… That doesn’t make any sense.” She shook her head and continued, “Anyhoo, let’s hang out here for awhile! Sasha and Pasha are at the bar, and folks here are really nice. I know Brinjal can be a little surprisin’ to meet the first time, but you can’t hardly find a nicer guy in Godville.”

“Oh, I’ll talk to him before I go,” I said. “Don’t want him to think I don’t like him, I guess, ‘specially after he let me get resurrected in his temple. But I better get back to the office. Who knows what files those no-good-niks made off with. And somebody’s got to clean the blood out of the carpet.” I started to feel queasy again.

Aillara cheerfully offered, “I have a few solutions that will clean the blood right out. If you want help cleaning.”

“That’s sweet of you. Thanks...I appreciate the company.”

“Hey, I’ll pick up pizza!” Aliyaa exclaimed. “We can hang out and chat!”

“And if joo wan’ I can make margaritas! And mojitos.”

Aliyaa clapped a big hand on my shoulder. “Trust me, take Manoel up on that. Pasha taught him to mix drinks. He’s pretty good!”

I looked at my trio of new friends. “Well, I don’t say no to a good margarita.”


Chapter 8: To Sail the Skies

The Stormrider Caravel (just Caravel for short) is ready to set sail yet again! The riggings have been re-rigged, decks have been scrubbed to a polish, the sails have been washed, cargo hold has been stocked with travel goodies and the usual pirate flag has been replaced with an Ankh-Morpork one that the crew keeps j around just so the harbormaster down at the Docks doesn’t get a stroke every time Nyrini makes port. Not that he doesn’t get a stroke anyway, the Caravel being instantly recognizable and its captain famous for pirating pirates and traffickers in general, and for having a problem with the very same authority that she represents. But since Nyri tends to keep the ship docked at her temple most of the time, anyway, the staff at the Docks usually manages to get by on minimal amounts of heart medication and booze.

Today, however, is a special day! The Caravel is setting sail toward the Counterweight Continent, a faraway land where the sun shines first everyday, everything that moves (and especially everything that doesn’t) can be classified as food and, all in all, people and stuff are just weirder (and definitely wronger) than whatever passes for Ankh-Morpork standards. Nyrini takes a deep breath of fresh air. Ah...nothing like a diplomatic mission serving to cover an intervention to stop an assassination that’s supposed to happen during a diplomatic mission that’s just a cover for a murder attempt to get the old blood pumping! Definitely a lot more interesting than your typical drug bust or undercover work in cults. Those have been getting old, lately.

She happily scampers to look over the deck railings at the crowd of gods, bunnies and other assorted species gathered at the port to give Mitzi, Susan, Saengfai and herself a few last goodbyes before the long journey. Of course, they could just teleport all the way to Phedrawn, Susan and her, but a diplomatic mission needs flare, needs dignity, needs pageantry.

Needs...style!

And what’s more stylish than a ship?!

“Ahoy, maties!! Welcome to the Stormrider Caravel!” she announces as she prances along the ramp that leads to solid ground (semi-solid, actually. Ankh-Morpork is built on loam). “I be yer captain for the next week, so put yer bones in the tub an’ let her guide ye tah the thrilling, romantic, adventurous Kingdom of Phedrawn! AArrrrrr!!”

From where she stands surrounded by her bunny family, Mitzi raises her hand and smiles like a kid in a classroom, asking for permission to ask a question. “Nyr--Ah, sorry, Captain Nyrini, are you going to talk like a pirate the whole trip?”

“Ye be havin’ a problem wi’ that?” Nyri asks, straightening and jerking her head up so the oversized bright red plume in her captain’s hat flicks in the air. The stupid thing just decides to bend and fall over her left eye instead.

“No ma’am!” Mitzi snaps to attention, clearly holding back laughter as Nyri tries to blow the plume away from her face.

“Do we have to talk like pirates?” Saengfai asks, looking just as amused.

“No, she just likes to play pretend,” Susan replies, putting Ambar down after a final, long hug.

“Well, you’re no fun…” Nyri mutters. “Fine, do whatever. Just get in the ship already.”

While Tulip tackles her mother for a tight hug and a kiss goodbye, Mitzi whispers her farewells to Azz, followed by a long hug and a kiss.

Once the mushiness level goes down a bit, Susan finds her way to Azz and gives him a grinning, relaxed salute. “Your show, Captain.”

Azzageddi shakes his head at the obvious pleasure she’s taking in this. “I knew you were going to find a way to stick me with the job…” He salutes her before giving her a hug that should be in a category of its own, somewhere between straitjacket and Heimlich maneuver. “Be safe, Sue.”

Poor Azzie… He’s really cross that he’s not getting to come along on this one. But hey, someone’s gotta hold the fort! Imagine Nyrini staying behind instead of him? That oughta be a hoot… Last time Nyr was left in charge of anything, she managed to kill her CO’s cactus. Damned thing died of thirst! Thirst! Of all things for a cactus to die of...

Anyway… this time Azz gets to stay home and enjoy the perks of his position as “senior officer”. Eh eh...bet ya that Susan is rolling with laughter inside. Azz did all he could to get rid of his Commander’s chevrons so he’d be free to do stuff like this and now he’s staying home, looking after the kids and filling out paperwork. Can you say backfire, boys and girls?

And of course Susan is taking her new pet with her. Well, OK...not pet pet. Her new boyfriend, lover, beau, fella, heartthrob, schnookems, sweetie-pie, honey, Clyde to her Bonny, Fred to her Ginger-- you get the picture. Not that Myrna is very happy about that but she seems to have accepted her poor odds at love with the fire god with grace and more than a few glasses of gin.

He bids her farewell, puts his hands on her shoulders and assures her he’ll be fine. She is not making the least effort to hide how she’s not liking the idea of this whole trip one bit, but after a bit she grumbles, gives him a kiss on the cheek and pushes him toward the gangway. “Gwan, you. Skedaddle. Better come back in one piece.”

Saengfai chuckles and shakes his head as he shoulders his backpack and joins Susan, who is just giving Twilight and Ambar one more pet on the head.

A few more goodbyes and hugs getting thrown around. It’s a really, really sappy scene, trust me. So we’re gonna cut it short and just assume that everyone hugs everyone and the kids get lots of kisses and some people are wiping tears off their eyes. People waving goodbye and walking back and forth, more hugging and kissing like this is a one-way trip to the Disc’s core or something. Sheesh…

“Today, please!” Nyrini barks impatiently. As soon as the four of them are aboard, she shouts her orders to the two skarkmen who are coming along as crew. “Hoist the anchor! Man the sails! We’re leaving now!”

And finally, the ship begins to move!

“OK! We’re in business!” Nyrini exclaims, happily.

Mitzi smiles at her and drops her duffle bag on the floor for a moment and waves goodbye again at the people left at port. Then she asks. “Where do I stow this, Cap’n?”

Nyrini hesitates a moment. Not so much for the answer but for the question that’s sure to come next. “Uuhh… Captain’s quarters. You’re staying with me.”

“I-I am?” Mitzi asks with a bright smile and a dawning blush.

Nope, not that question. Wait for it….wait for it...

“How many cabins does this ship have?” Susan asks, looking around in suspiciously.

BAM! Sure as clockwork.

“Yeeeah… about that…” Nyrini starts with a grin.

Susan’s eyes narrow dangerously. “Nyrini…”

“Well, not counting general quarters, there’s exactly...two cabins,” Nyrini answers, raising two fingers and grinning like a maniac in the face of death. “One for us,” she points to herself and Mitzi, “and the honeymoon suite.”

Susan’s head hangs with a loud sigh. “I should have known…”

The bashful look in Saengfai’s face is somewhat reminiscent of a teenager trying to invite a girl to a sleepover. “Well...I could…” He looks around, at the sharkmen. “Um…”

This has the sharkmen looking uncomfortably at one another and whispering, “Figure we’ll get stuck with a mammal in the barracks?”

“Hope not. Them mammals...I hear they sweat.”

“And the flat teeth. Grind you down to powder.”

“Shhh… I think they’re listenin’ to everythin’ we’re saying.”

The sharkmen look at the gods and bunny to find them looking intently back.

“Damn, they are listenin’ to everythin’ we say,” one of the sharkmen whispers in a panic.

“Quick! Act casual!” the other suggests.

And that’s how a little song and tapdance routine breaks out on deck.

Nyrini watches it in mild interest, wondering where they got the canes and tophats. “Huh…” She shrugs before turning back to Susan and Saengfai. “Now, come on!!” she cries out at the pair. “You gonna waste a romantic cruise with minimal chance of an iceberg getting hit? Unless--” she grins again, “you prefer him to move to my cabin and you can take Mitzi.”

“No!” Susan exclaims, too quick for comfort. Her cheeks light up red like a chameleon munchin’ on poppies. “That is...not what I meant.” Mitzi too is looking at Susan like, No, please no!

“Oh, I certainly don’t mind rooming with Susan…” Saengfai says almost in synchrony with her. The shade of blush on his cheeks is somewhat darker but not any less entertaining.

Even Mitzi is giggling at it.

“Well, that’s it, then!” Nyri says, clapping her hands once in satisfaction. “Happily ever after right there! Sheets are new, place’s been aired out. Walls are kinda thin. Have fun.”

“Well…” Susan glances at Saengfai. “I guess we should.. store our bags and try to plan things as best we can.”

“Personally, I find spontaneous to be best 9 out of 10 times,” Nyri offers.

“I was talking about the mission,” the death goddess hisses.

“Me too,” Nyrini replies nonchalantly, sticking her tongue out at Susan. “Dirty mind…”

The sisterly antics make Mitzi shake her head, smiling as she scampers towards Nyri’s cabin to unpack her bag. Saengfai takes his leave as well, with a happy but nervous glance at Susan.

“You are incorrigible, Nyrini,” Susan whispers after the fire god disappears behind the cabin door.

“Oh, come on, like you’re not happy about it!” Nyrini whispers back.

Susan rolls her eyes and breathes deeply. “That’s not what I meant, just… we’ve only gone out on a couple of dates and none of them ended with a morning after.”

“Oh…” Realization dawns for Nyri at Susan’s meaningful look. She chuckles at her sister’s sudden modesty. “Well, in that case, just skip over the boring parts and go straight to the fun bits!”

“Nyrini!”

Oh, this trip is gonna be so much better than she thought!


Chapter 9: Honeymoon Suite

It is a small cabin, clearly made for a single person. With the whole Caravel being made to be small, quick and highly maneuverable, there is not much room in it for quarters. Even the Captain’s quarters, where Nyrini and Mitzi will be staying for the duration of the journey, are tiny when compared to other ships. Of course, Nyrini could not care less about it because she never meant her ship to be used for anything other than her roguish pirating whims. The ship doesn’t even require a crew, as it responds instinctively to her every mental command. She just likes to take the sharkmen along for company and, in this case, for show. Arriving in Phedrawn in a ship with no crew might leave their soon-to-be hosts somewhat unnerved, something that is never good for the health of a diplomatic mission.

And, of course, Nyrini has known and lived with Mitzi for years, shared space, adventures and the raising of a child with the Bunny, so everything is nice and cozy with the two of them bunking together in the adjacent cabin. In this one, however…

Susan and Saengfai are trying to avoid fatally harming each other while putting away their sparse luggage. The ship keeps oscillating in the air currents and pressure pits, jostling them around, making them bump against each other in their first-time sailor clumsiness. And that is not the only first time currently haunting Susan’s thoughts.

She has so far greatly enjoyed the charming and funny detective’s company during their dates, disasters aside. Their chemistry, the mutual attraction that draws them together and the affection that has been growing between them since their first encounters, they all make her want to be with him, to see their relationship blossom into a long-lasting romance. He had been dangerously close to becoming a nuisance at first, taunting her and Azzageddi’s detective skills with his remarkable ability to always stay one step ahead of them. But the way he had stayed true to his client, the care with which he had sought to find the truth and then protect his young mark from a wrongful accusation, had stayed with her. And the way he looked at her and gently, wittingly insisted for the chance of a date had left her unable to say no.

She must admit that burnt as she had been by previous romantic tragedies, she had not made him insist for long. And she has not regretted accepting his invitation a single bit. Even the hardship that had transpired after that fateful “yes” had served to bring them closer, forced their relationship to strengthen so that it wouldn’t break. They have walked through the fire together and the way she feels now in his company is so much more comfortable than one would expect after just a couple of dates. Almost like a lifetime of companionship and mutual trust.

But she feels nervous and terribly self-conscious too. It has been just a couple of dates. Their busy, complicated lives have not allowed for more than that. Just a few dates and a few dozen passionate kisses shared in the quieter moments. And now they are about to share a cabin made for one, for a full week. Only one bed. Probably a small one too.

For as much as she trusts Saengfai not to insist in trying anything that she might not want him to, she knows that when the night comes and their bodies lie side by side, pressed together over the narrow mattress, she will be enveloped by the feel of him and their mutual desire, and she will not want him to hold back. And the night is swiftly falling and she is tingling with nervousness and anticipation.

How will it go? Will their passion bloom and take them to a place of bliss? Or have they been wrong and cannot work together? Will the night end in disappointment?

Her thoughts have her silent as she hangs a few more ceremonial items of clothing in a small closet. Parties and receptions are a must in this kind of mission and as Watch Commander, she cannot really escape them, no matter how much she despises such things. And showing up in a wrinkled dress that looks like it was sent in the mail and stomped on by golems is just a tiny bit out of the question. So she carefully hangs her clothes, leaving enough room for Saengfai to hang...whatever he might want to and closes the closet door.

And nearly sticks an elbow in the fire god’s side as she does so. The sudden feeling of his body against her arm makes her torso freeze in place and her feet twirl her around to look down at his surprised face. He had just been trying to reach behind her to grab something from his bag, it seems, and was definitely not counting on the possibility of getting an elbow to the kidneys for his troubles.

He straightens, grinning at her. “Is that what they call a cop’s reflexes?”

“Sorry! Sorry,” Susan rushes to say, smiling apologetically and feeling like a clumsy idiot. “I guess this will be an exercise in synchrony, this next week.”

Saengfai smiles and reaches up, to place his hands on her upper arms. “It will be like learning a new dance.”

His voice is calm and infused with a hint of humor but his eyes betray him. He looks at her with the same nervousness, the same awkwardness that is making her heart race. And when she is lost for a witty comeback to set their minds at ease, he falls silent, gazing into her eyes, the olive tan of his cheeks becoming darker and rosier with the same inrush of blood that is making Susan’s own cheeks burn. He is just as eager and frightened as she is. And that is just as reassuring as it is unsettling.

A sudden jerk of the ship throws them both to left, against a wall. Saengfai somehow manages to turn first and land with his back to the wood, grunting when Susan lands against him, her whole weight falling unsupported on the detective, jerking the air off his lungs. Still, his arms wrap around her immediately, holding her in place as the floor becomes level again. They freeze, almost nose to nose, Susan’s palms flat against the wall for support, as if the world were still tilting in that direction. They stare into each other’s eyes, so close that the image they get of each other looks like a very confused cyclops. Saengfai is the first to burst out laughing at that, prompting her to laugh too. They laugh for a long while, probably for longer than the occasion merits, but it doesn’t matter. By the end of it, Susan feels the knots of fear around her heart untangle and relaxes in his embrace, laying her head against his shoulder and sliding her hands behind his shoulder blades to hold him back. His body stands relaxed as well, his lips breathing a long, contented exhalation as his arms tighten their gentle, but firm hold on her. He feels warm, so comfortably warm against her...

Such silly fears… she thinks as she sighs in bliss.

“Bit of a bumpy road, this one we’re traveling, heh?” she says after a silent moment.

In many more ways than one.

“I think things will go smoother than we expect,” he replies, loosening his embrace to touch her cheek with one hand, teasing her to straighten and focus her eyes on his. He is smiling as he strokes her hair, fingertips grazing the curve of her ear. “Sue…”

Her name is a whisper brushing against her lips as he leans in to kiss her. Her arms drape around his neck instinctively, unthinkingly as she matches him in passion, basking in the intoxicating taste of him that she has already become addicted to. The fear that they might be going too fast fades away. She is falling in love with him, with every new piece of him she discovers. A whole week of time to be this close to him, away from the hectic schedules that keep them from enjoying each other more, is again feeling like a little taste of bliss.

Eventually, they pull away, foreheads pressed against each other.

“No work for a week,” she breathes, her eyes still closed. “No children. No reasons to stay away…”

“Yes…” Saengfai replies and she can hear the smile in his voice. But then he straightens and looks at her with one of his trademark sly grins. “Wait--No work? I'm a brand new Lance Constable. Don't I need training or something?”

Susan chuckles at the remark. “Oh, I think you’ll have no trouble catching up to the basics after some light instruction.” She laughs at a passing thought. “Heck, you will probably be a better cop than Nyri by lesson three.”

“Just as long as Nyrini isn't in charge of customizing my uniform,” he mutters.

“Oh, you’d look adorable in short shorts and a push up armored bra!” Susan jests, lightly smacking his shoulder.

That has Saengfai laughing again. “You know, there was a time I had to dress up as a woman to get out of a bad mess…” His eyes dart to the side in remembrance. “I was all covered up in veils though.”

And of course, now Susan just has to ask, an eyebrow raised, “What kind of trouble?”

Much to her surprise, Saengfai actually looks embarrassed. “Well, this was in my youth. I'm afraid I got into a lot of trouble then. Fell in with a bad crowd. Gods of thievery.”

“Ah…” she mouths. Troubled youth...probably why he joined the army in the first place.

The revelation that Saengfai was accused of treason and attempted murder of his king had taken a bit to sink in fully. First, Susan had not quite believed it, not of the god she has come to know. Then, Azzageddi’s sources had confirmed what Saengfai had already explained: the accusations were false, meant to cover up a botched assassination attempt by the Empire while offering a believable reason for the death of a corrupt, high-placed officer in the Agatean Red Helmets. Now, his murder at Saengfai’s hands had not come as very shocking. In a city like good old Ankh-Morpork, it is practically a tradition. Lest anyone forget the axe that is still buried in the center of the Patrician’s dining table and which serves, as he likes to point out, ‘as a good conversation piece’.

All in all, Susan probably--well, definitely has a lot more blood on her hands and enemies cradling dreams of revenge than Saengfai ever will. “Well, we all make our fair share of mistakes as we grow up,” she says. “The gods know my first times at the Academy were a bit rowdy. I was too used to strict, boarding school regulations and suddenly...freedom.”

“Susan in trouble,” the fire god seems to mull over the concept. “It's hard to imagine.”

Susan chuckles, stroking his long, silky hair. “We’ll see how much trouble we can raise in your country.”

“Only trouble for troublemakers I hope,” he mutters, looking down in worry.

Just as she opens her mouth to reassure him, the ship rocks again, propelling them against another wall. But just as they start moving, a wall panel that Susan hadn’t noticed before pops open, revealing the cabin’s only and, yes, small bed. They land on it, legs dangling off the side. The mattress is just as narrow as Susan expected it to be, only fitting the two of them if they snuggle very closely together.

But none of that is very important at the moment, because Susan has landed first and, thankfully, on her back, and Saengfai has landed on top of her, just barely avoiding crushing her under him by using his arms to soften his fault.

“Oh…” He looks at her in motionless surprise for a moment. “Uhh… Found the bed!”

She chuckles, not really knowing how else to react to that. “Iiiii...guess we did. Well...as I was going to say...” She reaches up to cup his cheeks between her hands. “We’ll be all right.”

Saengfai looks at her tenderly and nods in agreement. “We will.”

He leans down to kiss her in a long, sweet touch of his lips to hers, before turning his attentions to her neck and earlobe, that her long hair, splayed over the sheets, has revealed to his caresses. Susan feels her heart quicken its beat at the small, soft kisses.

A sudden knock on the door makes her swear under her breath. What timing! With a shared grin of mild disappointment, they both straighten and rearrange whatever is not looking quite presentable. Susan walks over to open the door for whoever has been kind enough to wait for them to make themselves ready instead of just barging in.

Mitzi’s head peeks through the open door. “Hello? Um, I...brought some dinner. Nyri showed me how to set up the table.”

She has a hamper of food dangling from one arm, and a bottle of wine and two glasses held in her hands. Her nose twitches once and her ears drop just a little as she looks apologetically at Susan’s confused face.

“Thank you,” the goddess says, helping her with the glasses and the bottle. “But we were just about to join you for dinner.”

Well, eventually, anyway...

“Oh! Well, Nyri and I are fine on our own. We actually haven't had much of a chance to talk in ages…” Mitzi’s telltale bright-pink blush gives the lie to her words.

Susan raises her eyebrow asking in a low voice meant just for the two of them. “Has Nyri put you up to this?”

She would, wouldn’t she? With her twisted little sense of humor that people keep saying she inherited from Susan herself.

“Actually...she was disappointed when I suggested we should let the two of you eat alone tonight,” Mitzi explains. “Said something about all the ribbing she'd miss giving her older sister.”

That makes Susan chuckle. It seems that the momentarily unwelcome interruption was just the Bunny’s way of protecting her creator’s privacy on the long run. “Well, if that’s the case…” She turns to Saengfai, holding the glasses up. “It seems that it’s dinner for two tonight.”

Saengfai smiles at Mitzi, with what looks like a note of gratitude toward the Bunny. “Do we have to fold the bed away?”

“Yes,” Mitzi says, putting the hamper down on the floor. “And the table is here...it's a little tricky…”


Chapter 10: Siren Song

Mitzi is leaning against the quarterdeck railing, enjoying the sun on her skin. Her usual attire of a Watch uniform, complete with a highly polished enchanted breastplate she received as a gift long ago, is stowed in Nyrini’s cabin, and instead she’s dressed in short-shorts and a loose-sleeved piratical shirt, tied in front, the remnant of a pirate-themed party, tossed into her dufflebag on a whim before embarking. Nyrini, nearby, is steering her flying ship. The bunny cop knows this is no vacation, but there is little for her to do during the journey except relax and enjoy herself.

And there is so very much to enjoy. The Caravel a beautiful, nimble little ship that Mitzi has fallen in love with since they set sail through the skies. At first she didn’t understand why Nyrini wanted to sail to Phedrawn rather than teleport, but now she gets it. It does mean a week of travel each way, but if the first two days are any indication, it will be a wonderful two weeks added to the mission. Mitzi reminds herself that she will have plenty to do in Phedrawn. Meanwhile, she will watch the enormous fluffy clouds drift by, watch the beautiful land and water far below, and, at this moment, watch Saengfai engaging in his morning exercises, shirtless.

The detective’s smooth olive skin is taut over slender, hard muscles, his handsome face oblivious to the attention he’s receiving, eyes closed and face meditative and he moves through a kickboxing kata. Mitzi, somewhat skilled at more than one fighting style herself but mainly a master of the basic moves that any good cop needs to know to take down a criminal with as little force as necessary, plans to ask him to teach her some moves, but for now she is content to watch.

She’s not the only one. “Sue, you lucky gal…” Nyrini murmurs, leaning slightly forward over the wheel.

Sō ne…” Mitzi sighs in agreement.

Nyrini grins at the bunny and shakes her head. “Did you hear anything from their cabin last night?”

Mitzi blushes. Though her delicate features are vaguely similar to Saengfai’s, her skin is much paler than his and quite prone to becoming flushed. “They tried to be quiet.”

They meaning Susan and Saengfai, who have found themselves, through the scheming of Captain Nyrini, sharing a cabin. However, the blush is less about that and more about the fact that the arrangement has resulted in Mitzi and Nyrini sharing a cabin. Mitzi had been one of the first people to befriend Nyrini on her arrival at the AMCW and she had helped with Nyrini’s sudden motherhood of the little-girl-bunny Twilight. The two of them had grown quite close, but then...Nyrini had gone away for awhile. Even after returning, her temple had been completed and the unpredictable goddess had moved out of the temple where Mitzi lives with Azzageddi. At the time, it was heartbreaking, and Nyrini would never know how hard it had been for Mitzi to come to accept it. It had been long since they’d spent much time together, and now here they were, sharing a cabin, talking and laughing late into the night, falling asleep in each other’s arms. Mitzi is in a state of bliss.

“Nothing gets past those ears, huh?” Nyrini chuckles. “Well, I'm glad they're getting along fine. They look good together.”

Mitzi nods. “It’s so good to see her happy…” she says, but trails off. Her bunny ears, one solidly black-furred and the other half-white where it had been regrown after a battle wound, perk up toward starboard before she can even notice what distant sound they are receiving.

It is a song, a capella, barely audible but seductively beautiful. A part of her that is always watching over what she does, telling her when she is doing something wrong, starts to shout in alarm, but the music, though quiet, drowns it out--or rather, slithers around that warning conscience of hers, hogties it, and puts a gag around its mouth. Then the music slides into her brain, seeking out her passion and shutting down her self-preservation. Her love of Nyrini is redirected toward the unseen singers, whose voices ache with loneliness and desire. Even as her gagged inner voice tries to scream Mind control!!!, her face becomes suffused with happiness, and she murmurs, “Oh...so beautiful…”

Nyrini looks at her. “Hmm? What is? We still talkin’ about Ponytail over there?”

Mitzi’s expression is one of entrancement, both by beauty and by something more animal. She closes her eyes and runs her fingers down her cheeks, the touch of her own skin settling off explosions of pleasure. “Yes...yes...I hear you…” Her breath shudders… Then just for a moment her eyes snap open, she turns pale, and whispers to Nyrini, “help…” Then her face returns to ecstasy, and she begins to walk toward the starboard rail.

Suddenly a pair of sun-browned arms wrap around her, arresting her momentum. "Baby, what's happening?" Mitzi struggles in Nyrini's grip, growling. "Mitz?? The hell..." Then the song, growing louder as the distance closes, becomes audible to the goddess. Nyrini stiffens, then relaxes, her words slurring to an incomprehensible “uuhm…”

Mitzi turns in Nyrini’s grasp, smiling in joy. She strokes the goddess’ hair. “We can go to them together.” She leans in for a kiss.

Saengfai stops near them, confused by the bizarre behavior. “Um...is everything all right?”

Nyrini, still looking into the distance as Mitzi kisses her, murmurs, “Yeah... Just...fine... Coming!” Then she vanishes, silently and smoothly, causing Mitzi to stumble forward onto the deck. “Wait!” the bunny calls out in despair, scrambling to her feet and moving to the rail.

Saengfai grabs her and shouts, “Sue! Something’s wrong!”

“That’s some pretty music,” the sharkman at the wheel calls out to the other, “but why’s my head full of pictures of mammal bodies?”

The one pulling on a rope asks, “You seein’ male or female bodies?”

“How do I know? I’m not a mammal! Oh wait, they have those, uh, fat deposits on their chests!”

“Female! Yeah me too--weird huh? Those are called mamma reez! That’s why they’re called mammals--they feed their young with those.”

The sharkman almost lets go of the wheel in shock. “That’s disgusting! Where do you get this stuff?”

“There’s this guy who does puppet shows for the kiddies, all about science and stuff. It’s cool!”

“Weirdo... Those cliffs are getting closer! How come we can’t steer the ship??”

“Sue! Something’s wrong!”

The tone of alarm more than the words of that shout makes Susan raise her head from her notes. Distracted as she has been with making plans for the training exercises that she is supposed to present at the joint practice session in Phedrawn, she is only now beginning to note the sudden change of course that the Caravel has taken. The ship lurches as it turns to starboard, speeding up in the windy currents and sending some of her papers flying to the floor.

And then she hears it… The song. The soft, alluring tune promising a world of carnal pleasure and the fulfillment of all fantasies. Susan sighs. Ah, the joys of sailing...

She grabs a ball of still-warm wax from the little dish that is keeping the cheap, yellowish-white paraffin from staining the top of the cabin’s single table and rushes outside.

The ship lurches again, fighting the winds to follow its course in a straight line, throwing Susan against the doorframe as she is leaving her cabin, fingers kneading the little ball of wax.

She swears a curse against all winged half-human creatures as she struggles to regain her balance.

“Sue!” Saengfai’s voice rings again, weaker this time, uncertain but still reaching out to her in pleading.

She sees him holding Mitzi to keep her from jumping off ship but the Bunny is kicking and fighting him with desperate violence and his eyes are already glazing over as he falls under the song’s spell. Sirens sing mostly to attract male prey, as they are the ones most prone to think of that a journey through the clouds in a nutshell made of wood, nails and canvas is a totally great idea. Of course the fire god would fall for their singing.

Nyrini is nowhere to be found, and the two sharkmen are struggling with the wheel and sails, trying to keep the ship from heading straight for… oh gods, the Lancre cliffs!

“Blasted sirens and their singing!” she mutters. “One silly runaway goddess ends up as queen of Hell and now I have to deal with the pre-barbecue show…”

And, of course, now Saengfai is releasing Mitzi and smiling like a drunken fool. “Oh now I understand…”

“Demons in Hell, can't we have one trip that's peaceful?” Susan cries as she rushes to grab Mitzi midjump and pull her away from the railing. “Saengfai, don't listen to them! They'll kill you!”

“No!” Mitzi complains, kicking like a maniac in Susan’s arms. “I have to go!”

“No, you don't.” Susan summons a pair of handcuffs to bind the Bunny to the railing.

At least if she jumps, she will just dangle from the side of the ship. Then, swiftly, she turns to find Saengfai by her side, just preparing to leap. She grabs him by an arm and pulls him toward her, making no ceremony out of shoving a little ball of wax in each of his ears. Unfortunately, Mitzi’s ears are not very amenable to that sort of thing, oversensitive and oddly-shaped as they are. But Saengfai regains sense almost immediately and stops fighting the goddess.

Susan turns her attention again to Mitzi, apparently trying to pull the railing off its nails through sheer muscle force. “Where's Nyr?”

“With them!” a half-crazed Mitzi answers. “She’s with them!”

Amidst the clouds, mountain peaks are moving toward them at an alarming speed.

“Damn it, the ship must be following Nyri,” Susan breathes.

“Can I help?” Saengfai asks, by her side. His voice sounds tense with anger and the look in his eyes as he watches Mitzi struggling certainly backs that up.

Susan considers this for a moment as she struggles to cuff one of Mitzi’s legs to the railing as an extra preventive measure against jumping. “Actually… You can.” She turns to the sharkmen. “Try to steer away from the rocks as best you can! We’ll be right back!”

And then she is reaching for Saengfai’s wrist and teleporting them both toward a chicken dinner.


Susan teleports from mountaintop to mountaintop, sometimes hovering midair, Saengfai holding on to her arm, both supported by her power as they scan the horizon for Nyrini and her kidnappers.

The echoes of the song bouncing off the rock walls make it difficult to pinpoint its exact origin but Saengfai’s power to detect heat sources helps quicken the search. Soon, they are looking down at a flock of feathered women standing on a ledge, hunched over their prey.

Which...is strange, because all the sirens seem to be busy, doting their soon-to-be brunch, but the song is still sounding, beautiful and hypnotic. Susan looks around, raising her eyebrow at a large, tall metal-and-mesh box standing just at the edge of the rocky outcrop. She teleports herself and the fire god down to the ledge, to where the darned thing sits. As soon as they land there, Saengfai’s eyes begin to glaze over again and Susan has to cover her ears against the loud music coming out of the damned thing. She looks up. A plaque there says,

Clearsound 3000TM
Battery-Operated Industrial Amplifier
Ankh-Morpork Electronics

By the huge thing, connected to it by a simple, thin cord, stands a small radio and CD player.

Oh, for crying out...

Susan hits the stop button. The song chokes out immediately. She opens the CD player on top of the thing. In it, a blueish disc decorated with wavy patterns announces that they have just been regaled with “The Best of The Sirens - Compilation”.

A smaller label reads:

Property of Siren-To-Go
An affiliate of Siren Inc.
Dive into this blooming business. Contact us at our headquarters in Ankh-Morpork, Seamstresses’ Guild

Susan sighs and removes the disc, holding up in the air. Saengfai seems to have returned to normal, though considerably more confused, and growing angrier by the second, than when they left the ship.

“All right, who is responsible for this charade?” Susan asks, loud and clear.

The sirens are just turning to face her. Except, they are not sirens. Sirens, or at least the type that would prey on airships, are supposed to be something in the way of birds with beautiful human, female heads. These creatures are only (somewhat) human from the waist down. From the waist up, they look like a cross of pointless albatross with a vegan woodpecker. Wide, slightly crossed eyes. Sharp, vicious beaks. Well, at least the feathers look pretty...

“I thought sirens were supposed to be...different,” Saengfai notes.

“Must be a tough market out there,” Susan replies, showing him the disc.

He looks at it, his body temperature becoming increasingly higher as he reads the labels. Standing right by his side, Susan can even see the ripples in the air around him as hot air mixes in with the cold mountain air. The disc melts in his hand, dripping onto the ledge like mercury pouring over rock. A touch to the amplifier renders it just as useless.

“Hey! That’s private property, that is!” one of the harpies complains.

“Yeah!” another one screeches. “Got any idea how long the post takes to get here?!”

“I would keep my mouth shut if I were you! You are lucky that I’m not in the mood to return to Ankh-Morpork with the whole flock in custody!” Susan snaps. She has already teleported to kneel beside Nyrini where she is lying, just returning to her senses, ignored by the harpies as they focus on Saengfai. “Come on, you have a ship to save.”

“Hmm...wha--?” Nyrini mumbles sleepily.

Susan slaps her without the least bit of mercy. “Look, if you don't snap out of it, the Caravel is going to sink!”

Nyri bats her eyelids twice in confusion. And suddenly, her pupils dilate as comprehension dawns. “Oh...oh no, you don't!”

She teleports away, hopefully onto the ship, leaving Susan and Saengfai alone to deal with the harpies.

A scream cuts through the air. Well, many screams, all at once. And the distinctive scent of grilled chicken. Susan rises and turns to see dinner and a show. Apparently, the harpies were foolish enough to attack the fire god and have been set aflame for their troubles. They are running around, screaming at the top of their lungs (none of them in the right key, by the way), slapping their own bodies and each other’s bodies and rolling on the floor and plunging off the cliff onto the snowy peaks below in their desperation.

Eventually, Saengfai cancels the flames and the medium-rare fowls fall to the ground, exhausted and hurt. One of them drags herself toward Susan.

“Please, Miss,” the harpy starts. “We didn’t mean no trouble. Just looking for a good honest job, we were.”

“Have you considered taking the sewing classes instead of the young entrepreneur courses?” Susan suggests.

The harpy looks shocked. “Wait, you mean they actually teach sewing at the Seamstress Guild?!”

“Susan!” Saengfai calls out, from not far away. “There’s someone else here!”

Susan rushes to his side. He is kneeling by a senseless young man--no, a young god, handsome and blonde and blue-eyed, the posterchild for classical beauty. His wrists are cuffed, his arms chained to the mountainside. His side sports a large, deep wound, through which his liver, torn and bloody, is poking. Without a second thought, Susan heals him completely and is relieved to see him return to consciousness.

“Sir…” Susan softly calls out to him. “Sir, is there some way we can help you?”

His eyelids tremble, his chest rising in a lazy inhalation. He mumbles and stretches and--

Scratches his side?! But he was supposed to be chained!

“Wait a minute…” Saengfai says. He inspects the chains. “These shackles are open! They’re just here for show!”

“Yeah, so?” the blonde god asks.

“Haven’t these harpies kidnapped you, Sir?” Susan inquires.

The god looks shocked. “What?! No! No.” He shrugs. “I just enjoy the company. Could do without the singing, though. Won’t let me sleep.”

Susan and Saengfai exchange a confused look and shrug. “Well, you won’t have to worry about that anymore,” the detective says.

“AAARRGGHHH!!” a faraway scream rips through the air like thunder, curdling Susan’s blood.

“Oh gods! Nyrini! The ship!” she cries.

In less than a breath, she has teleported herself and Saengfai back onto the Caravel. “What happened?!”

“My--My beautiful ship…” Nyrini whimpers like a distraught puppy. “It's...It’s scratched!!”


Chapter 11: Dance of the Sun

Following the incident with the harpies, life settles back into a daily pattern on the ship. The sharkmen sweep the decks every morning--without limitless reserves of seawater to rely on, swabbing the decks daily is impossible--and constantly go over the ropes and sails to check for wear, polish the brass, make sure the gunpowder is dry, audit the stores of food and water, and do all those things to keep the ship, well, shipshape. Out of boredom, the passengers join in here and there, but the sharkmen really seem to prefer to be left to do it their way without having a bunch of unskilled primates trying to help. Even their captain, Nyrini, grumbles that she hardly feels needed on this lovely little ship that responds to her every whim, like an extension of her body.

And so there is much watching of the lovely landscapes below and cloudscapes alongside and starscapes above, but there is also much preparation to do. Susan must ready the training regimen and simultaneously learn all about the Phedrawnese royal family, the Ankh-Morporkian diplomatic mission, the intricacies of custom and manners, and of course the language. And Nyrini and Mitzi must do their part as well. Nyrini and Susan have the advantage of being goddesses, with minds that can absorb and order information in ways that mortals require enormous effort to learn, if they are capable of it at all, and they also have both had experience with the neighboring Agatean Empire.

But Mitzi’s disadvantage--that she is mortal--is in some ways an advantage. Knowing nothing of the Agatean Empire beyond having eaten in some of their emigrants’ restaurants now and then, she has much less in the way of preconceived notions that Phedrawn will be like the Empire, something that Susan and Nyrini know intellectually, but getting past preconceived notions is easier said than done. So while she learns the language from Saengfai more slowly, she actually grasps nuances of the culture more easily. And she is quite determined to learn, as she will have to play a mentoring role with the mortal officers of Phedrawn’s Royal Watch during the times when Susan is focused on the immortal cops, or when Susan is assisting Nyrini in undercover investigations of the assassination plot.

And Saengfai has little time to rest at all, for he finds himself the teacher and walking encyclopedia to all three women, almost from the time he rises to the time he settles back onto the pleasantly narrow bed he shares with Susan. It is only for about an hour at dawn, when he rises to perform his customary Dance of the Sun and other combat forms to maintain and sharpen his fighting skills, that he can slip back into a peaceful aloneness.

Not that he regrets being with Nyrini or Mitzi or, most especially, Susan, not for a moment. He stopped questioning whether he had fallen in love with Susan even before the journey began, and now he finds it painful to imagine being without her. And mercurial Nyrini and earnest Mitzi have become family to him. But he has spent so much time alone for so long, he needs some isolation every day to recover himself.

And thus he cannot help but feel a hint of dismay when he opens his eyes during the seventeenth movement of the Dance of the Sun, the whimsically named but brutal move called “Greedy Monkey Snatches Fruit,” and notices Mitzi, far enough away that she probably thinks she’s not going to bother him but close enough to watch, imitating his movements, dressed similarly to him in light, loose-fitting trousers. Though in her case, she’s wearing an AMCW t-shirt rather than practicing bare-chested, as he is.

He keeps his sigh completely internal. He feels admiration and affection for Mitzi, going back to when she was ready to suicidally attack her own mother--who was possessed by another, malevolent death god--in order to allow the rest of her family another few moments of life. But he does his best to ignore her now. In fact, he’s pretty sure that she wants him to ignore her. But as much as he tries to fall into the no-mind state again, her presence nibbles at his awareness.

So he finally gives up and begins to pay attention to her, subtly, hoping she doesn’t notice. He’s surprised at how well she’s doing, after only watching him for three days. Some of the moves are almost impossible for a mortal to achieve, but while she doesn’t pull them off successfully, she comes closer than he expected. Must be those Bunny muscles. He sighs again, internally, realizing that he’s going to have to teach her. Otherwise she’s likely to get it almost right, but not quite, and that is worse than getting it completely wrong.

He reaches the end of the complete form, raises his hands to the sky, and brings them down into a wai, a salutation with palms pressed together before his face. He glances back to see that Mitzi does the same. She finishes her bow and then sees him looking at her, a guilty expression flashing on her face. He replies by shaking his head with a slight smirk, and says in a low voice, “Tomorrow, you’d better be ready to sweat.” She grins at that, wiping her brow with her forearm, and he smiles and shakes his head again, descending the steep stairs from the quarter deck to the main deck, to sit with Susan where she is seated at a folding table for a desk, papers spread out and weighted down with a variety of found paperweights: a highly polished stone, a navigation instrument, a dagger, a book. The breeze which playfully tries to steal away her papers is the very breeze she was seeking when she decided to work outside their delightfully cramped cabin.

Saengfai grabs a barrel of hard tack and, tilting it on its edge, rolls it in a short arc to bring it to the table, then sits on it next to Susan. “How’s it coming?”

Susan sighs in frustration. “Not so well… I suspect the environment, the surroundings, even the type of crime will be different there. It’s like comparing a farm to a market...No offense meant.”

“None taken, of course,” Saengfai says. “It's true. Crime, and dealing with crime, are often quite different. For example, insulting the King is a serious crime. But he is so beloved that almost no one would even imagine doing it.” He chuckles ruefully. “And in Ankh-Morpork, people joke about beheading kings.”

Susan nods with a small smile. “I have gone through the experience of having to set up a Watch House in a village where the most important crime was stealing a neighbor’s seeds for planting.” She puts pencil down with a sigh. “Maybe you could help me with what I should focus on?”

“Well…” Saengfai rubs the back of his neck, under his ponytail, considering. “Phedrawnese typically focus more on the good of the community and of family before they focus on themselves. Of course there are numerous exceptions, but on the whole, that's more true there than it is in Ankh-Morpork. So you will have more crimes related to that, like to avenge an insult to the family. And then after, say, someone kills someone who insulted her mother, she might turn herself in to the police to save them the trouble of arresting her.”

Susan blinks at that...twice. “That is...very thoughtful, I suppose. I’m more used to people running away or blaming it on their dog.”

Saengfai nods. “Running away brings shame on one's family…” He trails off, his thoughts moving toward his own midnight escape.

He feels Susan’s hand on his arm, leaning against him to press her upper arm to his. He raises his gaze to see her looking at him in sorrow. “Sometimes, there are good reasons to run away. It is not always our choice.”

“If I had not been essentially ordered to go…” He shakes his head. “I’ve heard there’s been nothing officially done against my family, but I can only imagine things must have been hard on them.”

Susan puts her arms around him, leaning her head on his shoulder. “Azz told me you have quite a large family. I’d like to hear about them...if it’s not too much of an intrusion. I come from a very small family and I always wondered what it was like, growing up in a large one.”

Saengfai smiles at her attempt to lead him to a more cheerful topic. “It can be...cacophonous. Many siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles. We have mortal intermarriages as well, so a mix of gods, demigods, mortals. Just what to call someone is hard to remember at times. ‘Cousin’ becomes a default address.”

Susan smiles with a look of pleasurable imagining. “Sounds lovely… And who is the pillar of all that?”

“Oh, my mother. I mean, Father is the head of the family. He is a god of defense, serves in the King’s personal guard. So he’s usually off in the capital. We are country folk. So Mother was always the true cornerstone on which the family was built. And she is a goddess of rice and other domesticated crops. So she’s quite important to the people in the area.” He finds himself smiling in reminiscence.

“You must miss her dearly…”

“I do, but…” He sighs. “But she’s very much a traditionalist. And I was always a hothead. They tried and tried to get me to be a good boy. I was determined to run wild. I caused her a lot of grief. And she caused me a lot too.” He pauses, putting his hand on hers where it rests on his shoulder. “But yes, I do miss her.”

Susan kisses his cheek. “You may not have been a good boy, but I know a good man when I see one.” She smiles at him, half-teasing. “Think she’d like me? Or are death gods feared in Phedrawn?”

Chagrined, Saengfai replies, trying to be careful of her feelings. “I’m afraid they are...respected from a distance. I’m glad I was able to look past that foolishness, but it might take some effort to get others to. Especially those who are more traditional.”

“Well...nothing I’m not used to.” She tries to keep her voice light, but Saengfai can hear the underlying disappointment, and see it hinted at in her face. “I was never really popular in most circles. For obvious reasons.”

Saengfai squeezes her hand. “I'm sorry, Sue. But I am so grateful to get to know the real you.”

She tilts her head at him. “Actually...you keep calling me Sue and I have no problem with it but your name is longer than mine. Any short forms I should know about?”

“Oh…” He hesitates. “Well, I like Sae when you say it. Few where I come from would call me anything shorter than Saengfai, though.”

Susan narrows her eyes at him. “You have a nickname. Come on, I can tell! You’re talking to a cop here.”

“Oh my,” he says with a tone of mock-fear. “Am I going to get the paperclip treatment?”

She raises an eyebrow. “You know about the paperclip treatment?”

Everybody knows about the paperclip treatment,” he replies. “Funny thing is, nobody is willing to say what it actually is.”

Susan smiles evilly. “And that’s exactly why it works. Now, out with it! Nickname!”

He rolls his eyes. “It’s really not a big deal. When I was serving with the Agatean Red Helmets, they couldn’t pronounce my name, so they called me Hǔ.”

“Who?”

“No, Hǔ.”

“Isn’t that what I said?” She looks quizzical.

“Agatean is a tonal language.” He moves his hand so it falls and rises while he says it. “Hǔ.”

“Hù…”

“Hǔ.”

“Hú?” She grins.

From high up the mast, Nyrini’s voice drifts down. “Do I gotta start sprayin’ for owls?” Mitzi’s laughter, from the bow, follows immediately and surprisingly loudly.

He looks at Susan suspiciously. “You know how to say it, don’t you?”

The goddess nods, and says in fluent, if not quite perfect, Agatean, “I have spoken the language of the Empire for many years.”

He wrinkles his nose at her, a gesture he realizes he’s picked up from his heroine, Myrna. “Then you know what it means.”

She thinks for a moment. “Tiger, right?”

Saengfai nods. “I had previously been in a divine commando unit, with the Phedrawn Army. Each god or demigod was paired with a tiger, bred to be loyal. They knew about that. And that my family’s totem is the tiger as well.”

“They called you ‘Tiger’,” Susan croons, stroking his hairline. “I like it. But...I’m going to feel like launching into a comedy routine about who’s which what where if I call you Hǔ.” She leans close to whisper into his ear. “But I could call you Tiger...in private.”

He feels his face warm, and doesn’t say anything, but enjoys the little nibble she gives his earlobe before she pulls back. He stutters a little as he tries to change the topic. “So...w-what about your family?”

Susan laughs and looks at him questioningly. “You already know about my family.”

“Well, yes.” He shrugs. “But sometimes I'm a little confused. Nyrini is your sister, but...sometimes it seems more like she’s your daughter.”

“Oh, you noticed that, did you?” Susan squares her shoulders to tell the tale. “Well, that is because, in a sense, she is. I am really an only child. My parents died when I was very young so I was mostly raised in private schools for young ladies, being the heiress to the House of Sto Helit that I was. But I never took the title of Duchess that I should have received from my parents. Mostly worked for a living. As a nanny, as a teacher...as a cop. Very dull, very discreet lives.”

She pauses for a moment, then continues, her tone a little sadder. “Nyrini...she was an orphan like me. I investigated her parents’ murder. Breaking and entering gone wrong. She was raised in an orphanage, grew up on the streets until I found her again one day...dying. Adopted her then.” There is a hesitation there, something Susan is keeping back, but Saengfai merely files it away for later. “Raised her, trained her until she joined the Watch. When she was going through her wild teen years, she kept telling me ‘You can’t tell me what to do! You’re not my mother!’” Saengfai smiles at the imitation of Nyrini’s Shades cadence. “And so I took to answering ‘No, I’m not. I’m your big sister. And you will do as I say all the same’.” Susan snorts. “Didn’t always work, though… But, the title stuck.”

“Anyway,” she concludes, “the only real family--though certainly not biological--I had for a long time is Grandfather. The rest of my family is the one I built with friends and loved ones.”

“And the bunnies,” Saengfai adds.

Susan smiles, a little abashed. “Ah yes… that might be where things get slightly more complicated…”

“Ambar is your child, of course,” he queries, “but...what about Mitzi? And Sasha and Pasha?”

“Well…” Susan takes a moment to think it over. “I am their creator as well so you could call them my children. That is how I see them, anyway. I have played a part in the creation of all bunnies. And then, they became connected to different people. Established their own bonds.”

Saengfai smiles. “So Mitzi is Twilight’s aunt, but also in a way her sister… This is starting to sound familiar.”

Susan nods agreement. “And her fairy godmother, I’m told.”

Saengfai’s eyes go wide. “The bunnies are fairies?” The mountain forests of the Phedrawnese countryside have a great variety of fairy-creatures, often shy, and sometimes quite dangerous.

His expression gives Susan a good laughs. “No, they are not fairies. But one of our older Watch members, The Almighty Anne, is a huge fan of fairytales. I’m sure you have heard the story? New princess is born, the fairies gather to gift her with talents and good traits?”

Saengfai nods seriously. “Oh yes. Only in our version, the fairies were fish.”

Susan raises an eyebrow at this. “Well...then let us say that Mitzi, Azz and Anne sort of became Twilight’s guardian fish…”

Saengfai knits his brow again. “Azzageddi...is a fairy godmother?”

Susan’s laughter keeps her from replying for a moment. “Just don’t ask to see his wings. Or his blonde, pigtailed wig. I’m pretty sure he still keeps that thing somewhere…”

Saengfai chuckles. “I thought my family was complicated. I suspect I’ve only scratched the surface. But I really love your family, Susan. They have been very warm and welcoming to me.”

Susan strokes his jawline “That is because they love you. And because they love me. We are all very different and it’s quite the dysfunctional family but...in the end, we are all gathered around the single fact that we love each other and want to be together. And what makes one of us happy is considered precious by the others.”

Susan’s touch makes his eyes close in pleasure like a cat. “Different, yes. But not dysfunctional at all, from what I’ve seen. Well, except for certain...distant relations.”

Susan drops her hand and looks down, putting her arms around him. “Why did you come back? After the Baron, that whole terrible situation...I would not have blamed you for leaving.”

Holding her gently, Saengai takes a moment, knowing how much pain Susan still feels over the whole situation. “Well, I knew you had been through a great deal of trauma. I mean, I had, you know, suddenly seen this woman I cared for a great deal trying to kill me, and...those dearest to her. That was... it shook me to my core. But I knew it was not you. And I knew, also, that as bad as it was for me, it was unimaginably worse for you. So my fears...in that light they seemed to matter little. And I knew you needed people to stand by you. I wanted to be one of those people. Very much. After all,” he glances over to where Nyrini is teaching Mitzi how to tie some sort of special sailor’s knot, “I felt I would be in very good company.”

Susan tightens her hold on him. “Is it too terrible of me that I’m grateful for your exile in Ankh-Morpork?”

“Seeing as I’m often grateful for it… No.” He kisses her brow.

“Good.” She looks up at him. “Because I care for you a great deal as well. And I would hate it if you left.” She kisses him on the mouth, making his heart race. Without thinking, his lips become warmer, a warmth that spreads to her lips and down through her whole body.

Suddenly, from a third mouth mere inches from their ears, a voice rings out, “Oh come on! Isn’t that what the cabin is for?” This is followed by a peal of laughter.

They break away from the kiss, and Susan says, half to Saengfai and half to the laughing Nyrini, “See what I mean about family being a pain sometimes?”

Mitzi approaches and gives Nyrini an admonishing look before sitting down next to her at the table. “Don’t be mean, Nyri.” The bunny leans her head against Nyrini and smiles. “They’re fun to watch.”

Saengfai feels a different kind of burning in his face, and thinks, These people sure are good at making me blush! “Um, well… Maybe we should practice formal greetings some more?”

Nyrini snorts. “Is that what they’re calling it nowadays?”

Susan sounds almost like Mitzi now. “Nyrini, we need to learn at least a little about the language. It is a gesture of good will to do so. And all I know is classic Agatean…”

“And I don’t even know that,” Mitzi grumbles, “though apparently everyone will expect me to because of my face…”

Nyrini puts an arm around the bunny’s shoulders and pulls her closer. “Why the grumble? It’s a really pretty face!” As Mitzi looks up at the goddess adoringly, Nyrini apparently pretends not to notice, and shrugs. “I only know soldier-common Agatean. It’s like classic Agatean but with lots more swearing.”

Saengfai says, “Most people you’ll be working with will know Agatean. But the common people often don’t. And what with investigating, that might come in useful.”

Susan nods. “Then it is settled. We are your students.”

“Yeah, good luck with that,” Nyrini says, sticking her tongue out at Susan. “Teacher’s pet!”

Mitzi, elbow on table, chin in hand, sings to Nyrini, “You’re gonna get in trouble...you’re gonna get in trouble…”

“Of course, I am! That’s the point!” She grabs Mitzi’s side and tickles her.

Mitzi squeaks and calls out to Saengfai, “Can I spank her, teacher? Please?” Then, seeing the speechless look on the god’s face, she blushes and murmurs in a small voice, “~sorry~...”

Susan looks at Saengfai with a raised eyebrow. “You have your work cut out for you.”

The god clears his throat, wondering if Azzageddi has had similar experiences. “So, I think we were going to talk about phrases for getting information out of criminals…”

“Oh good!” Nyrini bursts out. “Did you bring the paperclips?”

Chapter 12: Welcome to Phedrawn

Welcome to Phedrawn, home of the “fiery people”. It is a land of great, dense tropical forests full of exotic animals, many of which are still waiting to be officially discovered, even by the local scholars (though most of the people in the smaller villages will probably be light-years ahead there). Small though it may be, it is a land rich in diversity: of plants, of customs, of foods, of stories, of people. It is a place of enlightenment, ruled by a wise, benevolent king worshipped and admired by all. Here, the ever-looming menace of the Agatean Empire is kept at the border, away from the simple minds of plain folk and only present in the minds of those higher up the food chain, who conspire daily, in its favor or against it, always in shadow, away from the public eye. And now under the scrutiny of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch - Godville Chapter.

The Caravel glides lazily over Taima, the capital city of Phedrawn. Below the ship, a river stretches its many arms, now narrow and sinuous, now widening and fat. From above, it forms a delta shaped like a dancing Apsara, a beautiful water nymph born off the Ocean of Milk by a demon’s will, with her three-pronged crown, an arm raised at shoulder height, swaying spine tilted backward, legs parted in motionless dancing. The city was built on the many banks of this river delta, sprawling over all available land, houses built on stakes where the river tends to swell during the rainy season. Canoes full of colorful fruits, vegetables and even cages with animals travel up and down in floating markets, carrying their goods to and fro, in search of customers. People with olive skin and dark hair, eyes thinner than the Morporkian standard, roam in their brightly-colored, silken attires, on boat and on land, calling out greetings to their neighbors. Dirty-looking children run through residential neighborhoods, dragging along wooden toys in the shape of farm animals tied by a string. Here and there, the cone-shaped, gold-gilded roof of a temple towers above the other, simpler wooden constructions, surrounded by carefully manicured gardens tended to by elderly people.

Leaning on the railing, Nyrini sighs. Man, what a boring place! That’s the problem with secret conspiracies, they are always so… secretive. So subtle and sneaky. No huge attempts to stop them from arriving here, no chaos in the streets, no great public appearance on a balcony positioned just right to get a clear shot from the building just across the palace plaza. Heck, hardly worth getting out of bed if no one’s gonna make a huge show of killing someone  !

Well, nothing to do about that…

“Flying monkey off the starboard bow, Capn!” a sharkman calls out from the other side of the ship.

Nyrini perks up at that. Maybe someone will make their lives interesting yet. But at the sight of the bright-yellow winged creature, with a powerful human torso and a feathered eagle head, as well as talons for feet, dressed in gorgeous red and golden and expensive and, more important, official looking uniform, she sighs again in dismay and teleports behind the sharkman.

“What do I keep telling you about calling people names like that?!” she scolds him, smacking him upside the head.

Behind them, Mitzi , Susan and Saengfai are already gathering to see what is going on.

“Ow!” the sharkman cringes. “But...he’s got like, monkey legs OW! Sorry, Capn!”

“Hmpf!” Nyrini harrumphs, shaking her hand to numb down the pain. Soft, cartilage skulls, her rear-end! She turns to what is definitely a guard, still fluttering by the ship, and calls to him over the railing. “Hey, you the port master?”

The "garuda":http://thumbs.dreamstime.com/z/golden-garuda-15319180.jpg swoops in, gliding close the to rail. “Pilot Crawpat! Permission to board?”

“Huh, isn’t it nice when they’re all polite like that?” Nyrini mutters to herself. To Pilot Clawsomething, she says. “Permission granted! Come on in!”

He angles in, backwings and alights skillfully on the deck. It’s pretty impressive, Nyri has to admit. Kind of showing off a bit but impressive nonetheless. She’d be having to fake not being stunned by the garuda if she hadn’t already seen some during a visit to the Empire that left not just a few people wishing she’d never set foot there again. Now just a step behind her, Saengfai is actually doing the opposite, pretending to look amazed at the winged half-man as if he truly were the second generation Phedrawnese immigrant, born and raised in Ankh-Morpork without having ever set foot in Phedrawn before. Mitzi , on the other hand, is really not putting much of an effort into faking anything. Her jaw will be hurting later if she keeps hanging it dropped like that. Susan ... you could write a novel on her expression, it’s so blank.

Pilot Long Nails snaps a salute that’d make Academy instructors swoon with pleasure. “Captain, my duty is to bring all visiting airships in safely. It is not required that I take the wheel, but I must be standing within reach of it from now until you dock.”

Nyrini shrugs nonchalantly. “Sure, why not? Guide us in.”

He bows and climbs to the bridge, standing aside so she can take the wheel. When she doesn’t, he looks at her quizzically, in a silence that Nyri allows to stretch, holding his gaze calmly and steadily as the ship turns this way and that, slowly losing altitude as it veers toward the docking tower. Build to obey its master’s every whim, the Caravel does not need anyone at the wheel, or on the riggings, or on the sails. It is made of sapient pearwood, alive and intelligent, dangerously loyal and unusually docile. Of course, Pilot Sharp Beak, by the wheel, does not know that and he is starting to look just a teeny tiny bit uneasy under that mask of perfect civil servant he wears over his face. Nyrini allows her eyes to wander further down and grins at the way he shifts his weight from one leg to the other, ever so subtly, when the helm starts turning of its own accord.

Those are some nice, muscular legs indeed… Wonder how many sets of sheets he goes through a week with those talons, though.

A nudge to her ribs makes her look to her right, at Susan’s mildly scolding expression and a meaningful raising of those prettily arched pale eyebrows in the direction of the helm’s wheel. Nyri grins at her sister before leisurely strolling toward the bridge to make a show of grabbing the wheel. Without any hitch, and with the only occasional indication from the garuda officer regarding sudden drop-pressure points, the ship docks smoothly.

The dock, so to speak, is yet another temple-like building, topped with a tall, white and gold-trimmed tapering tower, fit with several stone platforms extending from its sides at different levels like many alternative entrances in a huge beehive. It’s no surprise that people like Pilot Flirty are needed here. On a hazy day or a greying twilight, the tower would be tough to see and too easy to hit. Probably some sort of first line defense against invasion. The whole thing is covered in high-reliefs of some mythical figures or other, giving off the impression that it took a lot of people a lot of time to build.

On the platform, dock workers catch ropes that the sharkmen toss them, tying the Caravel down snugly. His duty fulfilled, Pilot Whatsisname salutes again, then bows at Nyrini . Flattering little move. Garudas don’t normally bow for anyone, they’re too proud, too... detached for it. But hey, no one said they didn’t get urges either. They gotta be reproducing somehow, right? Leaning sideways against the wheel, one leg lazily crossed in front of the other, right hand resting casually on the rise of her hip, Nyri touches two of her left fingers to her brow in mock salute and winks playfully at the garuda. His rigid beak does not allow for much expression but his eyes smile bright enough to compensate for it as they linger just a bit longer on the goddess’ several areas of exposed skin.

And then he’s turning and taking flight, leaving Nyri chuckling quietly. She teleports to stand near the others, announcing in a smooth, mellow voice. “Ladies and Gentlemen, this is your Captain speaking. Welcome to Phedrawn, the exotic destination of today’s flight. Temperature outside is pretty much what you can feel already. I hope you have enjoyed your flight and will consider choosing Caravel Cruises again soon. Bah bye!”

Of course, no real cruise should end with a dozen troops waiting on the dock. No...not troops. These guys don’t look like military. Cops, all of them, standing just a little less rigidly, not quite as mindlessly obedient, a little more smug and cynically at ease than the military usually stand. Even the dark-grey uniforms practically scream cop . They might as well come with their own pension.

One of them is clearly in charge, a woman, short and wiry, olive skinned like the rest of them, hair black and smooth, trimmed a bit boyishly-short. Two more people arrive shortly after, one in a more elaborate version of the police uniform, with fringed shoulder pads and lots more medals than the other runts, and another dressed in bright reds and greens, all golden tassels and trims, like some kind of royalty.

By Nyri’s side, Susan breathes deeply and mutters. “Let the games begin.” To the others, she says. “Follow my lead...and behave.”

“What?!” Nyrini complains. Those last words had been directed specifically at her.

As Commander, Susan leaves the ship first, closely followed by Nyrini , then Mitzi and then the fake-but-not-so-inaccurately-so rookie Saengfai . What name had he picked again? Doesn’t matter for now. Other than Susan , none of them are expected (or probably even welcome) to speak at this point. Which is all for the best. There are no words in the whole of the languages of the Disc to describe how much Nyri abhors these unnecessary protocol-y things. Sue is way better at that. Even from behind, the death goddess manages to move smoothly in a gait that looks non-threatening but still inspires a certain je ne sais quoi of do not mess with me unless you fancy your own plot in a graveyard of your choice . It’s an acquired skill, really. Not that it doesn’t help being actually able to make good on the veiled threat. The death goddess plays the foreigner, giving a slight nod to the welcome committee that is supposed to pass for a bow until they make obvious how formal they are willing to go.

“I am Commander Susan Sto Helit , of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch Godville Chapter,” Susan announces. “Thank you for welcoming us in your country.”

The elaborately decorated cop steps forward. “ Royal Watch Commander-in-Chief Sesae ,” he says, bows only very slightly but with so precisely that you could possibly have used his back to draw straight lines and corners in architectural plans. “It is an honor to welcome you to the Kingdom of Phedrawn.” He gestures toward the other guy, the one dressed like a lampshade who does not bow at all. “This is His Eminence Phuphiy , Vizier to his Majesty the King, may his name be praised. And this is your counterpart, Watch Commander Kanya .”

At these words, he gestures toward the woman-cop, who bows noticeably more deeply than he did, though not as rigidly, her hands held up, palms pressed together in a wai .

Susan bows gracefully to each of them, now slightly more deeply to the Commander-in-Chief and Vizier, now a little less to the Watch Commander, all according to Saengfai’s careful instructions. “The honor is ours.” She gestures to the rest of her party. “Allow me to introduce my company for the duration of our stay here. One of our Special Operations officers, Agent Nyrini .”

Nyrini bows at this. She doesn’t want to and she doesn’t like it but she plays ball anyway...for now.

“Sgt Mitsumi , in charge of our mortal staff,” Susan goes on and Mitzi bows so formally that some of the mortal cops in the welcome party look genuinely impressed. “And Lance Constable Jay Nobody .”

Nobody! That’s it! Good traditional Morporkian name if ever there was one. Bloody ridiculous too. It’s a mystery how Sue manages to say it while keeping a straight face. And Saengfai’s clumsy act, with a terrible bow that just hunches his back instead of coming down from his waist, just makes the charade all the more deliciously funny. Nyrini almost has to bite her lip to suppress laughter at the look of ill-disguised shock on some faces.

Though not on Kanya . Kanya is looking intently at Saengfai , with a dangerously inquisitive look about her eyes. Hmm...file that for later.

“It is a pleasure to welcome you all,” Commander-in-Chief Sesae states. “I am certain your stay will include much fruitful exchange, and that we will all benefit from this training. Now I am afraid that I must escort His Eminence, the Vizier back to the Palace, where he has much to do. Commander Kanya will take things from here.” With another tiny bow, he turns and leaves, accompanied by Mister Congeniality, the man too high up in the food chain to talk.

“Lovely…” Nyrini mutters, watching their only link to the palace so far walk away.

“Only to be expected,” Susan whispers with barely a motion to her smiling lips. To Kanya , she says. “Commander.”

Her tone, ever-so-slightly inquisitive, is an invitation to a less formal dialog and Kanya seems bright enough to pick it up and take it in stride.

“Commander,” she replies with a smile, moving closer to them. Though small and pretty, she looks tough too, with scars on her knuckles and probably in other, hidden, places too. “Welcome. We have quarters for you and your people, in our Watch Headquarters. We have a welcome dinner planned...I hope you feel up to it after your long journey?”

She steals another quick, slightly inquisitive glance at Saengfai that makes the hairs on the back of Nyrini’s neck rise uncomfortably. The teleporting goddess glances at Susan to see her glancing back, eyes full of a knowing, fleeting glint directed at Nyri .

Still, it is with a simple, innocuous smile that the death goddess replies to the Phedrawnese Commander, “Dinner sounds lovely. Although... we may require instructions with it.” Her smile widens with the obvious joke, earning her a smile back from Kanya . “Please, lead the way and we will follow.”

Chapter 13: At HQ

Protocol and pleasantries exchanged, the party has been guided through the winding corridors and stairs of the docking tower and out of it, into the crowded, packed-earth streets where the people are going about their business in as much a peaceful way as can exist in any so-called city. The rainy season will come soon enough to the Counterweight Continent but, for now, the climate seems happy with remaining just incredibly humid. Most of the population here is mortal, though obviously used to close contact with gods. Most are subtle in their spying of the little bi-national procession of Watchmen moving through their streets. Some are more obvious about it, focusing their gazes on the exotic-looking strangers, whispering in that low rumble of crowds everywhere about bunny ears and snow-white hair and how they did not know leather could be bent and trimmed to reveal so much skin without falling apart. Susan smiles inwardly at the murmurs. News of their arrival and of the identities of her chosen committee will soon reach conspiratorial ears and tightening the wires of more than a few nerves. To anyone with a minimal amount of knowledge of Ankh-Morpork affairs (and surely, the enemy will have done its homework) she could not have been clearer in her choice of a team. Arrogant, even, in her message: We are here to stop you .

Her thoughts veer toward Saengfai . He is the wildcard, the unknown, freshly joined watchman. How quickly will his true identity be revealed? No one seems to be paying much attention to him, for now.

Susan’s eyes are on the people traveling through the many delta canals in their canoes full of groceries and wads of fabric and the occasional, unwilling, chicken or small pig as her thoughts turn quickly in reasoning, dented cogs falling into place and then moving again, forming a thousand possible scenarios. There is no point really, in the exercise. But the mind is a dangerous thing to leave idle.

More to distract herself than anything else, the goddess turns to Kanya , walking in a precise, measured and confident pace by her side. “I would love to discuss some ideas with you prior to our training.”

“I imagined you would,” Kanya replies, looking up at Susan , though this is only because the Phedrawnese goddess is rather shorter than the tall, pale granddaughter of Death. There is no mistaking the glimmer in Kanya’s eye. She sees Susan as an equal. “Workshops and training can start tomorrow.” She says with a smile. “Tonight, we show you what Phedrawnese hospitality is like. But when things get quiet, yes, let us go over some ideas.”

And suddenly, Nyrini’s hand is clapping against Susan’s bare shoulder. “All right! Party first, work later. I’m liking this place already!”

Her voice is bright and friendly but a slight twitch of her fingers against Susan’s skin is more than enough of a message. However flamboyant and loud-mouthed, Nyri is an expert in her trade. She has planned and carried out more infiltration, extraction, surveillance and straightforward assault operations than many agents can gloat about having ever seen. She is the hidden brain of this operation, Susan’s eyes and ears and surrogate paranoid mind. And she is watching. Ready. But not, Susan can tell from the soft, rushing pulse of her soul against the very fabric of reality, at all at ease.

“I would find it strange if you did not jump at the prospect of a party,” Susan tells her little sister, with none of the scolding that her words hint at in her voice.

Kanya glances at the open comradery between the two goddesses in surprise, for a moment. Surely such blatant breach in hierarchy and protocol cannot be something common here. But at Susan’s unphased acceptance of Nyrini’s touch, the soft smile on the death goddess’ lips never wavering, surprise gives way to something else in Kanya’s eyes. Suspicion, maybe, and…

Longing?

The moment passes and Susan is left wondering. For now, they reach the Watch’s Headquarters, a squat building, built out of dark exotic wood and topped with a high ceramic roof of green and red glazed shingles, a magnificent, slender gargoyle of Hongsa at each of its four corners. Inside, the walls are bare wood as well, the crevice between each plank stuffed with Agave-leaf fibers, Susan knows, to ward off the drafts when the humidity-swollen wood contracts during the warmer days. No plastered walls here. In such a moist environment, plaster would decay faster than bodies in a swamp.

She plays close attention at the complex pattern of hallways and annex buildings they pass through on their journey, listening to Kanya’s explanation of how things are organized. The building they came in through is just a façade for the major complex of the Watch’s barracks and training grounds, an assembly of smaller buildings organized around a long and wide circular training arena, spreading like a horseshoe in a two-winged structure, one wing for the mortals, one for the more divinely-inclined officers. Kanya leads them down the latter wing, stopping about halfway through one of several smaller, many-roomed apartments. The aura here is rich with spells and wards infused into the walls themselves, probably as some measure of accommodating officers with less... agreeable natures.

Now the Phedrawnese Commander gestures at the seemingly empty apartment. “Commander, your rooms are in this building. It has been vacated for your exclusive use and there should be enough rooms for all in your party. But…” She hesitates for no longer than a second, looking at Mitzi . “Perhaps Sergeant Mitsumi would wish to stay in the mortal officers’ quarters?”

Mitzi looks at Susan for instruction, too much the proper watchwoman to speak openly to her creator in front of strangers, especially in an official setting, but a tiny nod of her head and forward twitch of her ears is enough to indicate that she thinks it might be a good idea to mingle with the mortals and share in their idle gossip.

Susan does not nod back at the bunny in agreement. But then again, she doesn’t have to. “I believe it would prove quite beneficial if Sergeant Mitsumi could experience a closer contact with her Phedrawnese counterparts, don’t you, Sergeant?”

“Indeed, Commander,” Mitzi replies with a formal bow that would rip a chagrined sigh from Susan’s lips at the exaggerated protocol if it were not so very appropriate for this occasion. “I will of course make daily reports.”

“Of course,” Susan says, turning to Kanya “If someone could please, show her the way?”

Kanya turns to peek beyond the apartment door, where an officer has been standing at attention, so still that he could have easily been mistaken for a statue. She says something rapid, words snapping like a whip, so quick that Susan can only catch the gist of them. Depressing after a week of instruction in Phedrawnese. But it seems Kanya had anticipated Mitzi and Susan’s agreement and prepared ahead. The mortal officer, a young man rather striking in his looks but seemingly too young to be anything above a Constable, bows to Kanya and then to Mitzi before leading the bunny down the hallway and out of sight.

Apparently satisfied with the state of affairs, Kanya turns to the remainder of the Ankh-Morpork party. “We will all be together soon again for the dinner. We keep our mortal and immortal divisions in close contact and comradery, though of course we have different training needs.”

“Much like ourselves,” Susan replies. “I am sure she will appreciate the experience.”

Kanya nods once, deeply. Not a bow, a heartfelt agreement. “I hope you find these quarters to your liking. I shall go make certain the party is ready.”

She wais again, bowing respectfully but much shallower than before. Susan smiles at her forwardness in relaxing protocol and wais back, inclining her head purposefully and solemnly. It is the death goddess who is prompting this forwardness, risking Kanya’s sense of propriety and a rather instinctive gamble of the goddess’ loyalties, to lay down the foundations of what will have to be a fast-paced journey toward mutual trust and understanding. Diplomacy abhors haste. But her knack for first impressions, honed by years of service as a cop, have not failed her in quite a while. Kanya is more than bright enough to understand that greater powers are at play. And, puppet or puppeteer, she is not at unwilling to play.

After one last slightly-raised-eyebrow glance at Saengfai , Kanya leaves, leaving the three gods to exchange their first notes.

“Well, time to put our bags down and go boogie,” Nyrini says, though not sounding very inclined to any sort of dancing.

Saengfai , however, slumps against a wall, looking troubled. Susan catches Nyrini’s knowing glance at this and nods, touching a hand to the wooden lining of the hallway. Immediately, the glyphs and charms imbued into the wall flare out of existence, their magic replaced with Susan’s influence. At her silent command, the light in the bright-lit apartment dims to a soft, slumbering twilight of wavering greens and blues. These walls will not speak of what they hear, no eyes will see through the gaps in the wood. Saengfai raises his head at the slight lowering in the room’s temperature, looking at both goddesses with an edge of concern.

“So...any reason Prettygirl Commander over there keeps looking at you the way she does or is she just enjoying the view, you figure?” Nyrini asks, blunt and to the point as usual.

Saengfai looks inquisitively at Susan , then at the walls, doubtlessly asking if this warping of the room means a spell of privacy is in place. At a nod from the death goddess, he straightens and speaks, “ Commander Kanya would not monitor our private conversations without orders from far above...but considering the nature of the conspiracy, she could have been given such orders, or someone else could be doing it. Uh...well, I know her.”

“How well does she know you?” Susan questions, maintaining her voice level in spite of the churning foretelling tightening in her gut.

“We were in basic training together,” Saengfai explains. “Served together. And…” He sighs, shaking his head. “We were lovers.

“Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah crap!” Nyrini exclaims, voice low and dry, turning on her heels and exhaling violently, like a rushing bull met with a wall.

Susan cannot help but share in her frustration. Such a revelation so soon in the mission bodes ill for its success.

“I didn’t even know she was in the Watch,” Saengfai says, more a comment then a protest. “She had a different name then.”

“We’re caught,” Nyrini mutters.

“I...don’t think she’s made me,” Saengfai notes. “I look similar but...I don’t look like me, in this disguise. And the change is subtle enough she probably hasn’t detected the magic.”

This much is true. The detective’s disguise is a subtle thing, a rounding of features around the eyes, a thickening and lightening of the skin, a certain squaring of the jaw to fit with a crossbreed Morporkian disguise. Short hair, tousled and poorly styled. And, Susan cringes, two raised streaks of skin, one over the bridge of the nose, one cutting through the eyebrow, both ghostly remnants of the gashing wound the Baron had inflicted on him. He could pass for someone else, yes.

Still... “One way or another, all we can do now is proceed with this charade,” Susan states, as much to steel herself as to advise the others. “Just be careful.”

“Yeah. And stay away from her nose, her lips and her bed,” Nyrini adds, speaking to Saengfai as if she were a team leader speaking to a rookie caught doing something stupid. Which she was. “Or else she’ll know. Magic or no magic.”

Saengfai’s sun-kissed face turns a brighter shade of red than usual. “You don’t have to worry about that!” He recoils, as if struck by his own raised, slightly high-pitched tone of voice. “I...I’m sorry. Look, she and I broke up years before I fled. It’s not going to be a problem.”

Susan looks at Nyri , unable to scold her for being right but pleading for sympathy in the fire god’s name in the strange little telepathic connection the two goddesses have ever shared. Nyrini nods at her, eyes filled with the bitter mixture of apologies and worry. That had not been Nyrini snapping. It had not been Nyri panicking. She is too experienced for that. The young goddess had merely vented short-lived frustration so that she could readjust. But this does not make her words any duller for their hollowness.

“Nyrini was just speaking in general and from experience,” Susan explains, moving toward Saengfai to graze a hand against one of his closed fists, resting against his thigh. Her voice is full of a serenity she does not feel but it is serenity they need right now. “We’ll play it as it comes. Let us focus on tonight’s dinner, for now. As for the rest, like I said, just be careful.”

Saengfai looks slightly up at her, still leaning against the wall. There is palpable discomfort in his gaze but it seems to yield to the calm aura she wraps herself in. “Yes.” He straightens, composes himself, getting back into character as Jay , Lance Constable Nobody . “Ain’t goin’ to be a problem, ma’am.”

Nyrini too walks up to him and pats his back in amicable truce. “Come on there, love. Let’s pick the smaller rooms and let the Commander there get all dolled up.” She looks him up and down, appraisingly. “An’ while we’re at it, time to change before I teach you a thing or two ‘bout drinkin’ twice your weight in booze without droppin’ dead. Standard Watch training.”

Saengfai smiles ruefully at her, nodding and joining in the game. “They say us Nobodies got a hollow leg when it comes to the Drink, Agent Nyrini ! But you know I’m mainly worried about all the weird food my Gran told me about that folk here eat. She made me some dishes that’d make your hair curl, but she said that weren’t the half of it!”

Nyri laughs, already holding him by the arm and dragging him along the hallway. “Man, I shouldn’t like you this much,” Susan hears her say in low tones. Then raising her voice. “Hon, general rule of thumb, once enough booze has been had, there ain’t nothing you can eat that your tastebuds will even remember. If you’re unsure about the food, the company, or the bill...just keep drinking.” She opens a random door, peeks in and nearly shoves him in there. “Now get yourself presentable!” Checking another door, she throws her backpack into her chosen room and walks in with a bright, “Bye, Ma’am !”

Susan chuckles and picks up her own luggage, walking past both rooms in search of her own. “Careful now, you two.”

Chapter 14: Welcome Guests

It's a huge room, enough to accommodate Taima's full police force, both mortal and divine, row on row of long, low-set tables crowded with cops of different shapes and sizes sitting on the floor, backs set against colorful triangular pillows made of rough, woven silk mixed in with some sort of cheaper fiber. Though, not as many shapes and sizes here as in Ankh-Morpork, Nyrini notices. Either the population here is less diversified or the Watch isn't as all inclusive as back home. Vetinari's and Vimes' equal opportunity program hasn't reached this place yet, it seems.


And something else looks iffy. A good number of tables is empty or occupied by just one or two people. Nyrini has already caught a few nervous glances from the other officers at these lonely diners. Strange, strange, strange.


But no one is eating yet because Kanya's second-in-command is just finishing a long, monotone speech in Phedrawnese that Nyri has only caught a third of...maybe a fourth. Doesn't matter. Even if she were fluent in the language, the speech is dull enough to put a vole in heat to sleep. And the sad part of it is that that tells her everything she needs to know about the contents of the speech.


She stifles a sigh. Her beer is going stale in her glass and the whole thing is starting to weigh on her wrist from having to hold it up while the boring little man keeps going on and on and--oh! He's stopped. Good, time to-- Damn it! Now it's Kanya's turn to talk!


Well, at least she's talking in Morporkian. Not that it's any less dull that way. But it seems to leave Saengfai somewhat relieved.


"Man, I hate speeches," Nyrini comments in low tones, leaning slightly toward the fire god, sitting to her right, to keep the conversation between them. "What was the first guy saying, anyway?"


"Glorious cooperation, friendship that will last forever, two nations of one heart...drawn out by ten thousand polite phrases," Saengfai murmurs in reply. He chuckles quietly, almost as a second thought.


Nyrini glances suspiciously at him. "What? What’s so funny? Did I miss a joke or something?"


It sure would be a pity if Mister Bright and Sunny turned out to be Phedrawn's next best thing in comedy...


"I was laughing at myself," Saengfai explains. "I guess I've become used to the Morporkian way of things. But Kanya is clever. By doing her speech in your language, she can get away with making it much shorter. The whole point is to show effort. Speaking in a foreign tongue is not only polite for the guests, it requires more effort. And she knows we're all just waiting for the speeches to be over."


"How many more of these to go before I can stop holding a full glass and start complaining about an empty one?" Nyrini asks through a smile that's starting to make her face hurt.


"Just one mo--" Saengfai turns pale halfway through the sentence. "Um, excuse me a moment..." He leans around behind the goddess to whisper to Susan, sitting to Nyri's left. "I...I forgot to mention. You have to give a speech. Next."


Susan glances at him and raises an eyebrow, the only sign of her surprise. "In what language?"


"Morporkian, no problem," the god replies. "And short is fine."


"And now if Commander Sto Helit does not mind sharing a few words with us...?" Kanya wraps up her speech, leaning toward Susan to whisper to her. "All here have been studying their Morporkian very diligently."


The whispered hint is low enough that Nyrini should not have been able to hear it but, the goddess grins inwardly to attest, the earring Susan wears on her left ear, usually a sort of transmitter/receptor alarm and communication piece in case of Ambar- or Twilight-related emergency, works charms as a listening-in device as well, feeding whatever Susan is hearing directly into Nyri's own earring. And won't that come in handy for this operation...?


Susan's face obscured by her position to Nyri's left, the young goddess predicts more than sees her sister's polite smile at Kanya. "Thank you, Commander Kanya," Sue says, rising to start her speech.


It's a lovely little piece, not too complicated for non-native ears and thankfully modulated with the ups and lows in volume and pitch that the usually hyperactive, easily bored Morporkians tend to favor. Despite her own seconds-long attention span, and through the veils of her distraction with studying all the faces in the room.


“Man, they all look alike!” she mutters under her breath.


Saengfai, overhearing, shakes his head. “You Morporkers… There’s more to appearance than hair colors and funny-looking noses.”


“Careful…” Nyrini whispers through her teeth. “You’re a Morporker, remember?”


Saengfai grins, “That I am,” he whispers back.


Turning her attention back to the speech, Nyrini catches a familiar theme of cops not being a need of nations, but a need of people, and how a well-prepared Watch is the line that separates the internal peace of a nation from crime that can seed chaos both inside and out. Vimes' doctrine: we guard in the dark so others can live in the light.


Nyrini grimaces. Back home, people would be tapping their fingers loudly against the tabletops in cheer. Here, however, the part about cops serving the people just prompts smiles and low whispering, a few universal smirks of "Foreigners, huh?" Sitting at a table with some of the mortal senior officers, Mitzi seems just as troubled by this.


"Ugh...I can’t tell if that’s good or bad," Nyiri mutters. The Phedrawnese cops don't look outright inimical to Susan's words but they don't look like they agree with her, either.


"It's good," Saengfai reassures her. "Morporkian ideals are pretty new-fangled among most all nations of the Disc. But 'revolutionary' isn't going to be automatically regarded as a thing to be accepted. And...best not to mention your king getting his head cut off by the ancestor of Commander Vimes..."


A few of the tables seem to have nothing more than young recruits, probably the primary targets for Susan's so far ultra-secret training program. Nyrini relaxes a little at the sight of a twinkle of admiration and hope in their eyes. They haven't had decades of service to turn them cynical and cold yet. If Morporkian cop mentality is to corrupt any minds here, those ones will be prime fodder for sure. And, by Susan's left, only half of her face visible to Nyri, Kanya watches the death goddess deliver her speech with eager attention and just a hint, a dull glimmer in an otherwise carefully politically correct face, of the same hope shining in the recruits' gazes.


"Sue’s smart," Nyrini whispers, smiling at her beer glass as if she were pleased by her Commanding Officer's speech. "Y’all can say what you want, but a cop is a cop anywhere. Same soul. Same heart. That’s what you gotta talk to if you wanna win’em over. The rest’s just wool over the eyes."


"Not all cops have that soul, I'm afraid," Saengfai insists. "The attitude here, when I was on the receiving end of their justice, used to be that the people must fear the cops' wrath. I think...it has changed quite a lot."


He seems surprised and pleased at that. Nyri glances at him, locking eyes with the fire god for just long enough to capture his attention and then indicating Kanya with the subtlest of glances.


He looks in Kanya's direction, then back at Nyrini, slight confusion in his eyes.


"Maybe Prettygirl there had something to do with it," she prompts him, glancing toward Kanya again.


Look at her, see her, she means to say. A second look and Saengfai seems to see what she wants him to see, much to Nyri's approval. Cast into supportive roles in the official run of things, they will pretty much be working closely together these next few days. And there hasn't been enough time for Nyrini to instruct him properly in her investigative ways so the private detective better be fast on the uptake if the whole fine mess is to have a happy ending. And she's still pretty hesitant over bringing him along for the ride being a good idea. The gods know Sue feels the same way.


Note to self: Post-dinner debriefing with this guy.


Susan's short speech ends and Kanya stands again to ask them all to toast. First, to the painting of the King, toward whom the warm feelings of the cops seem thoroughly genuine. Then to each other, clinking glasses and laughing, downing the whole (and depressingly small) glass of beer in one go and then laughing and applauding, and immediately pouring each other more beer from copious bottles on the tables. Never pour for yourself, Saengfai had explained before. Blech...


But hey, at least now they're drinking!


“All right...now we’re talkin’!” Nyrini rejoices, nudging Saengfai. “You pourin’ me a drink or what, Lance Constable?”


“With a will, Miss Agent Nyrini, ma'am!” Saengfai happily obliges. “With a will!”


Nyrini drinks, keeping her conversations to a minimum for a moment. The dialog going on by her left is much more interesting to follow.


“Cheers!” Kanya exclaims raising her glass after having refilled Susan’s. A sound of glass clinking glass and a short pause follow. “Any time your glass is half empty, someone will want to fill it for you. It's an honor for them to do so, and even more for you to fill theirs. I know it might be strange... If you feel the need, that potted plant behind you is quite the alcoholic at this point.”


Nyrini glances subtly at the plant behind the two goddesses, noticing that Susan is doing the same. The potted rubber-fig that stands there seems to be thriving. And did...it just…? Heck, damn thing looks like it just perked up at the sound of glasses clinking!


Voice echoing through Nyri’s earring, Susan laughs at Kanya’s remark. “It must be good beer if the plant is that healthy. And don’t worry, we will respect your customs as I am sure you would respect ours. I must say, your Morporkian is very nearly perfect. I am afraid my Phedrawnese isn’t.”


“Thank you!” Kanya’s voice rings with undisguised pleasure at the compliment. “But your Phedrawnese is excellent. I have been studying Morporkian for several years now, ever since the Kingdom began deepening relations with your nation.” Movement from her general direction indicates a glance toward where Nyri and Saengfai are seated. “I noticed your assistant whispering to you. Is he an expert on Phedrawnese culture?”


“He is descended from an immigrant from the Kingdom. Fascinated with his grandmother’s culture,” Susan explains in the tranquil, conversational tones of someone used to lying when need be. “It is one of the reasons why I brought him along, actually. But I will let him provide further explanations.” She turns to Saengfai. “Lance Constable, Commander Kanya was just asking me about your knowledge of Phedrawnese culture.”


Nyrini makes a show of elbowing him in the ribs to make him pay attention, even though he wasn’t all that distracted to begin with. To his credit, he plays the startled, clueless rookie just fine.


“Well, me Gran tried to drill all that into my thick skull, and I daresay a little stuck with me,” he says in a very good approximation of the Ankhian drawl. “Why I was just days in the Watch when the Commander here plucked me outta the ranks and said 'Guess where we're goin'!' I hope I won't get nothin' wrong. Oh!” He gets up all of a sudden, nearly knocking Nyrini out of her seat in his rush to head over to Kanya’s table. “Can I fill your glass, Commander Kanya?”


Kanya thanks him in Phedrawnese as he pours her a drink, studying his face closely. “I thought I heard Commander Sto Helit introduce you as 'Nobody'. Is that correct?”


“Oh yeah!” Saengfai confirms, shrugging and rubbing the back of his head as if embarrassment were a normal state to him. “Like me Da always said, I'm a Nobody from a long line of Nobodies!” He laughs loudly at his own joke, making Nyri groan inwardly at the exaggeration. “I'm only a quarter Phedrawnese, y'see. Gran, she started a department store....”


All right, enough of that!


Nyrini teleports just behind him, making him jump (a little too high for it to be an accident) at her sudden appearance. She puts an arm around him, taking the dangerously sloshing bottle out of his hand. “Thaaaaaat’s enough, hon.”


Sitting just in front of them, Susan feigns mild irritation at the antics and whispers to Kanya. “I’m afraid you will need to be careful around LC Nobody. It takes much more skill to keep him quiet than to get him to talk. Like he said, he is quite new at this.”


“Oh, I see I been runnin' on like usual!” Saengfai pipes brightly. He starts bowing repeatedly as Nyrini drags him away from Kanya’s table. “Sorry!! I'll be quiet now. Shtum. That's me. Zippin' it.”


Fou! Ça suffitt maintenant….” Nyrini hisses in his ear, pausing only to fill Kanya’s glass before dragging him away from her and back to their chairs.


Thankfully, Kanya’s second-in-command is just behind them to fill Susan’s glass and let the death goddess refill his. As soon as Nyri returns to her seat, he offers to refill her glass as well, bowing in thanks when she refills his. Soon, others are gathering around to offer the foreign goddesses a drink. It’s not a line, exactly, more of a cloud moving irregularly as people inch toward their table and then move orderly out of the way. Saengfai is getting his fair share as well, but considerably less, Nyri notices.


She wonders how much of this she’ll be able endure before she’s teleporting back home, begging Igor for a spare liver. Been a while since she’s had to do it. She can barely keep up with the conversation buzzing in her ear, between a still very-much-sober Susan (blasted demons in Hell, she’s got Death’s impossible threshold for drink) and a subtly-discarding-her-drink-into-the-plant-vase-whenever-she-can-get-away-with-it Kanya.


“So, please, tell me a little about yourself,” Susan asks warmly, keeping Kanya at the center of her attention in spite of all the people interrupting them for drinks, like a spider slowly wrapping a butterfly in silk in spite of all the moths crashing against the web. “Your experiences would help me in my tasks here.”


Kanya pauses before replying but a subtle movement of the death goddess, as she smoothly takes the Phedrawnese Commander’s glass to pour its contents in the plant vase (stupid thing will have to start burping sometime soon, no doubt) to help Kanya deal with all the offers of liquor, seems to loosen Kanya’s tongue. “I...have been in the Royal Watch for only a few years,” she says, almost hesitantly. “To tell the truth, I have far less experience than many here. But my predecessor retired rather...suddenly, and His Majesty saw fit to bring in a simple soldier to replace him. So I have been most fortunate, and I am always trying to be open to learning from those with real experience in police work.”


Nyrini can barely see Kanya from this position but Susan’s nod toward the Phedrawnese goddess indicates something of a response to a little bow of respect. “I see no resentment in this room towards your Command,” the death goddess notes before refilling some other guy’s--woman’s?--probably woman’s glass. “I would say that your efforts have paid off in getting you the respect of your fellow Watchmen and that is the most important ingredient to success. Leading by example.”


Another pregnant pause, then Kanya’s voice, sounding appreciative but troubled. “Thank you. I have a very supportive team around me. Unfortunately, as you may have noticed, we are a bit short-staffed these days. Training recruits is crucial to return the Watch to what it once was. So we are overjoyed to have you all here.”


Yeah, but why are you short-staffed? Nyrini wonders. And why all the lonely drinkers?


Susan’s left arm moves towards Kanya, at the edge of Nyri’s vision. A little reassuring touch. Another layer of sugar-coated silk in the web. “I have a feeling this is just the first of many training initiatives. We’ll yet see our respective Watches grow strong together.”


Sounds of fabric moving, a light tap of skin against skin. Ah...If only Big Sis didn’t have such limited tastes in people… Could have managed the heck of a harem by now.


“I very much hope so,” Kanya speaks. “His Majesty regards close ties with Ankh-Morpork of great importance. And I myself have only admiration for what I have heard of the improvements your Watch has made.”


Susan breathes a derisive little snort of false modesty. “Oh... well… We have our moments.”


Nyrini grins and toasts to a suddenly very confused Phedrawnese beat cop standing in front of her. The trap is set.

Chapter 15: Redfaced

Mitsumi weaves through the crowd. She can feel the warmth of the liquor making her face, throat, and ears--well, the inner part of her bunny ears that aren’t covered in fur--practically glow pink. It’s a gene some humans have, especially those from certain parts of the Agatean Empire and environs, and she is the only one among the buga-buga bunnies who has it. Even Sasha, who blushes pink at the drop of a hat--usually from hilarity, almost never from embarrassment of course, for there’s almost nothing that can embarrass Sasha--even Sasha doesn’t have this tendency to turn nearly red from even small amounts of alcohol. The others all find it funny. Azzageddi thinks it’s cute.


Here, at least, it serves a good purpose. She’s a little tipsy from drinking with the mortal cops, true, but only in service of gathering information. She’s managed to drink less than it would appear, and anyway, being a cop of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, she can drink quite a bit more than someone of her small, slight figure would normally be able to handle.


At least the flush doesn’t extend below her throat, which is good as the female cops have gotten her dressed up in some local clothes, meaning a tight-fitting, midriff-baring top and a pair of flaired-leg silken trousers. No shoes worn inside, which is only civilized anyway, according to Mitsumi’s way of thinking. But she’s not used to having her belly exposed in public. Still, several other women are dressed that way at the party, so as they say in Ankh-Morpork, “When in Quirm, eat snails.”


Ugh, no thinking of snails, Mitzi thinks. Or prawns, or pork, or squid, or whatever that meat was in the peanut sauce. Though seeming very human aside from the ears and tail, her digestive system is decidedly herbivorous. Fortunately, the primary religion of the nation forbids the eating of meat. Even though, apparently, nearly everyone eats meat as often as they can get it, it does mean there are a variety of excellent vegetarian dishes at the party.


She pauses to pour some of the palm-sap liquor they call arack for this or that Royal Watch officer until she reaches the head table. The bottle she bears is a magnum, almost as long as her leg, so pouring from it takes some care, and she must admit she’s not one hundred percent steady. But she manages not to spill anything on Commander Kanya or Commander Sto Helit. Saengfai--or rather, Constable Nobody--is pouring for a Royal Watch sergeant, so Mitzi approaches Nyrini and offers to pour for her.


But as Nyrini holds out her glass with a sardonic grin, Mitzi pretends--well, mostly pretends--to lose her balance, and, twisting in mid-stumble, sits heavily on a pillow next to Nyrini. “Oops!” She starts laughing and leans against the goddess.


Nyrini, who smoothly managed to set aside her glass, take the heavy bottle, and put an arm around Mitzi to guide her into a controlled-crash-landing, exclaims, “Hey! You practicing for the AA admissions or somethin’?”


Mitzi, still giggling, presses closer to Nyrini and, to all observers looking as if she is nuzzling her, whispers into the goddess’ ear, “Rank and file've been talking. Commander's new, din’t come up through the ranks, but they like her. Big improvement on the last guy.”


The bunny’s words are slightly slurred, but more than clear enough for a cop quite used to interviewing the inebriated. She pours a glass of the arack for Mitzi. “What happened to him?”


Mitzi laughs as if Nyrini has just told a joke, then returns to sotto voce. “Corrupt, on the take from everybody, including the Empire. And cruel. Pretty much ran the Watch like a buncha mercs. Used ‘em to take down political emenies...emenies...opponents.” Mitzi’s forehead wrinkles in consternation. Perhaps she’s a little more drunk than she thought.


Nyrini, drinking from Mitzi’s glass as a clever way to get around the “don’t pour for yourself” rule, says, “Ooooh… this is the good stuff. You’re leaving the bottle.”


Louder, Mitzi says, “You see any mint ‘round here? I could make a wicked mojito outta this…” Then quieter, she murmurs into Nyrini’s ear, “Best part...guess who shook the whole bedsheet out, made the fleas jump so much that Bad Commander got esposed?” She glances meaningfully at Saengfai, who is laughing loudly while letting local cops teach him curse words in what they do not realize is his native tongue.


“Ooooh…” Nyrini nods. “That explains a lot…”


No longer looking toward Saengfai, but rather right into Nyrini’s eyes, Mitzi keeps her voice low and her expression romantic to any who might be watching. “Seems he upset a lotta plans. Commander's been cleanin house. Had to get rid of a lotta bad cops.”


Nyrini, playing along, strokes Mitzi’s hair away from her eyes. “Means she’ll have plenty of enemies wanting her to look bad.”


Nodding as if to answer some question, Mitzi says, “Yuuuup. Well, tha’s all I got so far. Guys wanna teach me a buncha crazy local drinkin’ games so… Dunno if we'll get another chance to share intel…” She takes the arack, fills Nyrini's glass again, then hands her the bottle. “There ya go. They got like four more bottles o’ this over there…” The bunny rolls her brown eyes. “Cops, ne?”


Nyrini laughs. “Wanna trade? I’d rather be there than here.”


Mitzi giggles, something she rarely does except when drunk. “Come on over. You’ll like these coppers.”


Nyri shakes her head, glancing at Susan and Kanya. “Naah. Have fun. We’ll get other chances.”


Grinning, carefully standing, and bowing to the two commanders, Mitzi makes her way back to learn more of what’s going on behind the scenes.

Chapter 16: Onna Stick

Downtown Taima comes alive at night. The humid heat of the day banished with the sun, the stalls and shops lining the streets serve relaxed crowds a near-infinite variety of food. Outdoor tables are nearly full, and many eat while standing, laughing and conversing, at ease, a people who know how to enjoy a pleasant evening.


Nyrini and Saengfai have slipped away from the Royal Watch welcome party and are wandering through those well-lit, wide streets, carrying a bottle of arack with them. Greenery abounds, most noticeably in the form of enormous trees growing right in the center of the capital city, streets winding among them and even climbing them, spiraling around them into the branches, spanning across to other trees via arched bridges, and coming back down to earth. Homes and apartments nestle in those branches, creating a harmonious combination of natural and manmade structure.


Nyrini stretches, arms above her head, making heads turn at her exotic--to the locals just as much as to those of her home city--and scanty attire. “Hmmm… Man, I drank too much.” Her voice, however, gives no indication of overindulgence.


“Oh yeah, same here.” Saengfai, on the other hand, sounds as tipsy as his slightly over-careful movements appear to reflect. “Oh, I wonder what this here is, Miss?” He pauses at a food stall, smiling at the cook within and buying a cone of paper filled with fried crickets. Popping one into his mouth, he crunches happily. “Mmm, oh that's just like Gran used to make em.” He murmurs to her, “D’ja notice the guys behind and to our left?”


As she takes a cricket for herself, Nyrini nods and replies in an undertone, “Yeah, figure they’re lookin’ for some fashion tips?” Chewing on it like a veteran of such fare, she says out loud, “This could definitely work on a stick. Gotta tell Dibbler ‘bout this.”


“Oh, dear Mister Dibbler. He'd be in heaven here!” He takes a drink from their shared bottle, then says quietly, “That river path over there. Wanna wander down it and see what these fellows will do when they think nobody can see them?”


Nyrini nods. “Yeah, let’s see if they’ve got anything like the Ankh around here.” She makes a show of pointing to the greenery-shrouded river and moves in that direction.


Saengfai chuckles as they pass through smaller trees and bushes to arrive on a path overlooking a river that, compared to the River Ankh, smells shockingly clean. His few years in exile in Ankh-Morpork have turned a clean river running through the heart of a city into a sight both heart-achingly familiar and alien at the same time.


Indeed, this entire journey has him awash in a sea of conflicting emotions. He is home, but it is a home where, if he is detected, he runs the risk of being turned over to the Empire for execution. Everywhere he looks, he sees familiar sights, but always from the outside.


When he first arrived in Ankh-Morpork, he had felt like a stranger, but that itself had been the most familiar thing for him to hold onto in those days. Phedrawn had never, really, been a place he fit into. He dreamt of it, longed for it, and yet knew intellectually what he was feeling with full force now: He does not belong here. In his younger days, after fleeing his simple, countryside life, Saengfai had become a criminal. Later, the closest thing he came to fitting in was in the Divine division of the Royal Army, but even there, he was marked as a malcontent. Perhaps that was why he’d been made a Tiger Commando, and later still sent on exchange to the Agatean Red Helmets. He saved the life of the King, and yet the King had never inspired the intense loyalty in him that he does in almost every Phedrawnese citizen. He’d always been the jagged, irregular chunk of wood that nobody could quite find a Saengfai-shaped hole to put him into.


When he’d been exiled, he had felt a guilty relief. Leaving behind his long-suffering family had been painful, but at least now he could make his own way without causing them pain. Now, perhaps, he could find what he was looking for.


Had he? Somehow, the dramaturgical nature of Ankh-Morpork had transformed him into something else: a private detective. It was a role he felt comfortable in, as uncomfortable as it often was: the perpetual outsider. And now it has led him back here, to his home, where he feels more outside than ever.


On the path alongside the river, Saengfai, still pretending to be drunk, kneels to meow into a bush, as if he’s seen a cat in there, while his companion Nyrini walks on to the edge of the water, looking at the fish that are making the surface ripple in the moonlight.


“Ugh,” Nyrini complains. “Not a single boot floating. Can’t call it a proper river with no boots.”


The detective, his senses sharpened by the number of times antagonists have slipped up behind him to knock him out with a single blow--something that always seems to work against him when it is dramatically called for, which it is certainly not now--suddenly stands, his elbow as if by accident driving hard into the solar plexus of the thug looming behind him. “Oops, oh my, I didn’t see you there, sir?” He spins, raising his forearm, shattering the nose of the gasping, powerfully built opponent, knocking him off his feet.


Behind that one, a second thug, head shaven bald and jaw like a cinderblock, looks surprised but raises his hands, godpower crackling as he prepares some punishing attack. But two fingers tap his beefy shoulder, hard. He makes the mistake of looking around instead of simply lashing at the opponent behind him. Not that that would have made any difference against Nyrini.


Tough guys, Saengfai chuckles inwardly. Always thinking the dame is less dangerous.


Nyrini’s fist flashes at the other god’s throat, precisely punching him in just the right place to collapse his windpipe with a sickening crunch. Saengfai winces. It would be a killing blow if this were a mortal. “It’s not nice to be pickin’ fights with tourists,” the goddess says.


Surprisingly, he does not go down right away. Too late, he shifts targets from Saengfai, firing off a flaming sphere point blank into Nyrini’s torso--only, of course, the goddess isn’t there. She reappears less than a second later, slightly off to the side, now holding her loaded crossbow in her right hand, snapping a vicious kick into her opponent’s groin.


Choking, he goes down while his fireball fizzes into the river and detonates under the water with a whump and a splash. Saengfai almost casually kicks the first thug hard enough under the chin to make the attacker do a backflip and land with his full weight on his head. Saengfai looks down at him ruefully. Still affecting an Ankh-Morpork accent, the kind that says someone from the Shades is trying to move up in the world, he says, “Mine don't seem like he's in the mood to talk. How's yours?”


“He’s...well, willing but unable at the moment.” Nyrini crouches by the choking thug and speaks to him in broken Phedrawnese. “I’ll heal you if you tell me what I want to know.”


Instead, the object of their interrogation tries to heal himself, his orange godly aura manifesting around his entire body. Saengfai plants his toe in the guy's kidney hard enough to break his concentration. “Might want to play along, lad,” he advises, switching to a Morporkian-accented Phedrawnese.


Nyrini draws a bead on the guy’s forehead with her godbound crossbow, the bolt humming with deadliness. “I can get you some extra motivation if you want…”


For a moment the thug makes awful little choking sounds as he tries to breathe, but then he nods in agreement, desperate. Nyrini keeps the crossbow aimed steadily between his eyes while she allows him to heal himself. Saengfai keeps ready to disrupt any other actions.


“Two words,” Nyrini says, her voice dead flat. “Two questions. Easy easy.” She lifts one finger. “Who?” She lifts a second finger. “Why?”


He tries to speak, coughs, then grates out, “Just...wanted money.”


“Try again, Sunshine,” Saengfai growls. “I can smell the bad cop on you.”


Nyrini merely readjusts her finger on the trigger. Her face remains impassive, and Saengfai feels a chill as he realizes she might actually do this, might take this god’s life as if it meant nothing to her.


Deciding that if somebody has to be the good cop, it’ll have to be him, Saengfai says, “She ain't no normal cop, lad. I don't even know what her rank is. I ain't cleared for it.” He lets himself sound a little scared of Nyrini, which he doesn’t have to work hard to fake.


The thug grimaces and gives in. “Just...paid to hurt you. Make things...look bad. For foreigners. Not kill.”


Saengfai sings, “Whooooo?”


Gritting his teeth, their prisoner hisses, “Old boss.” Saengfai was right--this is one of the old, corrupt order of cops, who’d lost his job when Kanya came on board.


Nyrini asks, “Who else is gonna get hit?”


The thug looks up at her. “New mortal Watch...and the rabbit girl.”


Nyrini’s eyes flick to Saengfai for just a moment, and he notices the slight quickening of her breath as she returns to looking at the ex-cop. “Where and when?”


Her voice is even deadlier, but the god shakes his head. “Dunno… I wasn’t told.”


Saengfai whispers in Quirmian, “I know the bar they'd go to.”


Nyrini nods acknowledgement. “And our Commander?” she demands.


The ex-cop shakes his head again. “Not tonight. Tonight...we just make her lose face. By hurting her people.”


Nyrini steadies her aim, her index finger tapping lightly against the trigger. Her eyes are locked with the minion’s, and Saengfai sees the way the god’s shoulders relax in resignation. From what he sees in her eyes, he knows she’s on the verge of deciding to kill him. Saengfai knows this because he can see it as well. He clears his throat and says softly in Morporkian, “Might not look good for the Commander if people end up dead our first night, Miss.”


The goddess stares at the ex-cop for five full seconds longer, then says, “You tell your boss that he’s in for a world of pain if he keeps going this way.” She raises the crossbow to her shoulder, and turning to walk further down the riverside path, says, “Let’s go.”


He follows, leaving their attackers behind, and is about to ask a question when Nyrini touches her earring. “Mitz ?”


Saengfai knows that Mitzi and Nyrini, along with Susan, Azzageddi, and little Twilight and Ambar, all have earrings that Azzageddi made which allow them to keep in contact with each other at will. He stays silent while a quick conversation occurs, only one side of which he can hear.


“There’s a hit team headin’ your way. Bad ex-cops disguised as thugs. They’re gonna attack your party. Make the Commander look bad.” Nyrini listens for a moment. “Right, we’re comin’... Not for long. We’ll be right there.”


She looks at Saengfai. “She’s with the newer cops, outside a bar with a lion on its sign, right near a statue of a dragon. She’s spotted two teams of bad guys--one ahead, one behind. Divide and conquer?”


“Just put me in a good spot,” Saengfai says. “I'll make them take notice.”


“Quick and quiet,” Nyrini orders. “No wreckin’ the party. The way she was talkin’ to me, the locals haven’t noticed anything wrong yet. Cops won’t talk to her any more tonight if they see what’s goin’ down.” She touches his shoulder. “Make me proud, Lance Constable.”


“Got--it.” By the time the second word is out of his mouth, he’s elsewhere, momentarily disoriented, dropped off in the middle of a group of five minions.


Fortunately, they are more confused than he is at his sudden appearance, and he takes full advantage of that. As their mission was to assault mortals, they are themselves all mortals, and he has two of them groaning on the ground before the first one even reaches for his weapon, a short, hexagonal iron club. Saengfai takes it away from him and hits the one beside him on the hip, taking him right down.


There is a moment when all pause, and Saengfai allows his godpower to flash in his eyes for just a moment. He does not want to show his full aura--which could lead to an unfortunate recognition, with its distinctive flaming tigers--but he wants them to know that they are dealing with, at the least, a demigod. Someone they can’t hope to beat. The point, after all, is not to capture them but to send them scampering back to their masters with news that these Ankh-Morpork cops are not to be taken down easily. It’s a time-honored tactic in the private-detection business: make the bad guys so nervous, they bring out the big guns and reveal their hand.


The fiery eyes work. The disarmed punk--too young to probably have ever been a cop on the old, corrupt force, probably just some gangster--grabs one of the downed thugs. The other uninjured one does the same, and the guy who got his pelvis tapped manages to limp away on his own.


Familiar laughter rings out from down the street, under the well-lit tables outside the Lionshead bar. Sergeant Mitsumi, telling stories about AMCW members, something about Godofbeer and Almighty Anne and bats? Anyway, she’s keeping them distracted and entertained so they don’t notice the fighting not so very far away.


And then Nyrini is next to him. She looks around. “Well if you killed any, I guess you must’ve eaten them.”


He chuckles. “They all got away. Yours?”


“More or less.”


“Actually feeling a bit hungry after that,” Saengfai says. “You?”


Nyrini smiles though she looks like the wheels in her head are already turning at full speed in not so pleasant directions. “I’ll have whatever you’re buyin’. Long as it’s not fried crickets.”

Chapter 17: Drinks and Pirates

The moon is high in the sky, though already tumbling dangerously rimwards. The darkness of night will be starting to fade away in a few hours and the night could not have more...interesting. So, let's make a list: you've been sent to a small foreign kingdom that is in constant danger of being assimilated by the much larger, more powerful empire waiting just outside the door; you have a mission, to stop an assassination attempt that will destroy any possibility for the very frail alliance that is beginning to form between your nation and this one; the assassin is someone hired in your own country so he or she or it should stand out but he or she or it doesn't because he or she or it is part of a diplomatic mission sent to strengthen the aforementioned alliance through several trade agreements; you have had no access to the diplomats so far; instead, the benevolent leader you call tyrant has decided to send you to this place as part of your own diplomatic mission, on a trip to share training tips with the local Watch; the local Watch is a viper's nest just recently cleaned up; it has only been sort of cleaned up, really; the new Watch Commander is a former soldier who has never been a cop in her whole life; the Watch Commander is your team member's former lover and she keeps looking at him like she's about to see through his disguise; you have found that the former Watch Commander was dirtier than last week's socks and wants to make the new Commander look bad; how did you find out? he sent thugs to beat you up; he sent thugs to beat the only mortal in your team up, along with his own former subordinates; he made you very mad by doing that; and he made you very worried as well; you are very worried; you have done nothing yet to warrant a beating; this is only your first night here; you arrived, attended a dinner party, drank a lot (not too much but a lot), left to catch a breath and see the sights, got attacked; you are pretty sure that was all you did. So why is everything going to Hell so soon?


You need to think. So what do you do when you need to think after most of your blood content has been replaced with foreign liquor and you've been in a fight?


You find a bar. You order more foreign booze. You get a friend to pay for it.


"There. To a good night’s work," Saengfai says as he pours Nyrini a small glass of mekhong at a sidewalk bar, their table far from other customers. He waits for her to pour a glass for him, before raising it to touch hers.


Nyrini raises her own glass to touch his. "Here here." She grimaces as the liquid spreads through her mouth, leaving a taste that is somewhere between muriatic acid and turpentine in its wake. The way it burns everything on its way down her throat feels good, though. Rousing. "Aghh, this thing tastes like something Aillara would brew in a beaker. I like it."


"Not much scientific about making this," Saengfai replies, grimacing himself. Mekhong is just that type of drink. "S’not bad...but the stuff we make in the countryside has more personality."


Nyrini snorts, pouring him another glass. "So it's stronger, you mean."


The comeback seems good enough to make Saengfai laugh loudly, just loud enough to make people glance in their direction with that knowing look that says Someone has had a few too many. "Also blessed by my sister, Goddess of Doing Improper Things with Sugar," he explains, looking a bit abashed at the not really unfriendly looks. "That’s just her nickname. She’s a bit like Godofbeer."


He smiles at his own words, looking nostalgic and just sad enough to strike a chord with Nyrini. It reminds her that the fire god has been stuck in exile for the last few years.


"Well, not everyone can have a death goddess for a sister," she says, mentally cursing herself for not having the gift of reassuring words that Azz and Sue always seem to have. "You been in touch with the family?


Saengfai shakes his head, slowly, for almost a full minute. "I’m supposed to be gone." He sighs. "Gone gone gone. I start sending messages, people start looking for me." He shrugs and picks up the small, glass bottle with what looks like a happily dead yet extremely confused lizard in it to pour for her. "Course...that happened anyway."


Nyrini nods and takes a gulp of her drink, wondering how it would taste after some sitting in an old whisky barrel for a few decades. "I know the feeling," she says in all honesty, letting the weight of years in the Dark Guard, the unofficial, heavy-mission branch of the Watch that goes way past jurisdiction and stretches the limits of legality to quantum thickness, show. "Doesn't get easier. But we get better at it."


Saengfai looks at her in silence for a long, pregnant moment and Nyrini feels the birth and death of many questions about her in the god's mind. He knows what she is and that is enough for him to imagine some of what she's done. But there is more, far more to her than just the darker and the lighter moments of the job. He does not know about the loss of her whole team, about the Godbinder or why her crossbow bolts are so deadly, even to gods. He does not know about her days as a mortal, her death, her re-awakening as a goddess. The lonely days, the lost days, the wandering days away from Twilight, from Susan and Azz and Mitzi and the whole family she still is not sure how to keep or fit into after so many years. But the look on her face, she knows, the darkness in her eyes would tell him the whole story if he knew how to read it.


As it is, all he probably sees is that he doesn't need to say anything else about being a liability to his own family. "Anyway, best I stay out of touch with them until this is over," he states, emptying his glass as if to put the issue to rest. "Now...we know the old Commander wants to make things bad for New Commander."


Nyrini shakes her head. This is the worry that has made her mood grim in the first place. "Old Commander's not important." She forgets local customs and makes a move to pour some drink for herself but Saengfai stops her with a small grunted noise and gently takes the bottle from her hand to pour for her. "He's a puppet, kept around just because of the man power he's got. Otherwise he'd be in jail, getting beaten to death by all the people he got locked up for no reason. We need to find out who's keeping him out of prison." She takes a drink. "Of course, that's kinda beyond the mission statement but it might be a door to the main conspiracy ring."


"Old Commander fell, along with other appointees, soon after the last assassination attempt," Saengfai explains as she pours him a drink, looking at the glass like he's trying to decide if he's past his limit yet. "A lot of things that kept going because it was easier to smile and wai and forget it, they all got too obvious to ignore anymore. And those people are all out in the cold now. Who’s going to see them as cheap allies?"


"Whoever can afford'em," Nyrini replies with a shrug. She's not used to starting her investigations into conspiracy rings so low in the proverbial food chain. "You saw those guys. Muscle but no head. You know those snakes that look like they have one head on each end? You got rid of the wrong one."


Saengfai nods, emptying his glass as if he's harboring a grudge against it. "And if the King...if something happens to him, and the Empire comes in to restore order...who gets restored to all their old positions of power?"


Nyrini grins. "Ah... That's the trick, ain't it?" This is the problem with working with rookies--well, pseudo-rookies. Saengfai is no clueless amatteur, she has to admit. Still, he sees things as a simple magic trick, swapping the seats of power from the independency-prone King to the corrupt nobles who are all happy to be financially and otherwise motivated by the Agatean Empire. The Empire, she knows, does not think like that. If the King is killed by a Morporkian, war will ensue against the traitor nation. The Empire will offer its help in exchange for representation in the Phedrawnese government, collecting the extraordinary advantage of 1) having a perfectly valid reason to attack Ankh-Morpork and 2) having a huge community of Phedrawnese people already in the city and aching to take revenge against Vetinari. And, back in the kingdom, as soon as anyone opens the door of Phedrawn to the agateans, a bloodbath will ensue, all very quick, all very discreet, removing the former conspirators and replacing them, one by one, with loyal agateans. Never too wise to trust traitors against a King to be loyal against an Emperor, after all. The greedy fools will soon be either cursing their choices or dying from them. Greed makes people blind.


But maybe there is something good from seeing things so simply. Greed makes people stupid. "So...who's looking forward to a funeral, you think?" she asks.


Saengfai shrugs, gesturing to stop Nyrini from pouring for him and grimacing when she does so anyway. "All those who got deposed. And in the leadup to it, people like Kanya--suddenly put into place, inexperienced with the job, looking promising but set up to fail, with sabotage at every turn...public loves them at first but then is primed to welcome their replacement."


Nyrini nods. "Ankh-Morpork or Phedrawn, mob loves a show. They don't care who falls, just that someone does."


Still, that's a long game to play, she thinks. These people are clearly in a rush. But why?


She keeps the thought to herself and pats Saengfai's arm companionably, instead. "We'll keep her from falling, don't worry."


Saengfai looks at her gratefully. "This could be happening across the ministries. And the more the people love the reformers at first, the bigger the heartbreak when evidence is manufactured to show they’re incompetent or corrupt. And then if the head of state goes...the people’s spirit will be broken. Being invaded, losing the Kingdom...they may just accept it."


"It won't get that far," Nyrini states matter-of-factly. Not with things moving at the speed of light, anyway. "We take it one step at a time. Sent our message, shook the snake barrel. We'll see who comes out hissing next. And in the meantime..." She looks down at the bottle of booze and tries to remember how many lizards there were in it, in the first place. "Figure out access to the palace. Not that I can't just pop in there but...my head likes being attached to my neck."


"Licit and illicit means of access, yes," Saengfai agrees with a nod. "And we need to make contact with the trade delegation from Ankh-Morpork. The assassin...if we can stop that, we can stop everything."


"Sue's got a friend there. She'll have an excuse to visit. You and I can snoop around while she keeps'em busy." She snorts at the thought of Susan playing Little Miss Diplomat while they go about catching criminals. "Man, she's gotta be pissed she didn't get to come along on our little adventure tonight. First field trip in the gods know how long and she's stuck doing the pretty and nice act instead..."


"She seemed happy to get out of the Watch House," Saengfai comments with a little telltale smile.


"Heh, can you blame her?" Nyrini asks, switching Saengfai's full glass with her own and pouring for him again. "Exotic destination, thrilling mission, cute new guy. Heck, I'd be jumping for joy too."


Saengfai's cheeks blush like a clack's night signal. "Well...I must say I’ve been enjoying it as well."


This time, Nyrini grimaces before drinking. "Yeah, 'bout that...Sorry about that thing before. I wasn't accusing you of anything, just... I've had missions blown for stuff like that. Some idiot can't keep it in his pants, good agents die for his mistake."


"Oh, Nyrini..." the god breathes, looking distraught. "I’m sorry I snapped. You’re right of course, and, well...it was just a shock to find we’d be working closely to, well, her."


"You know I'm not the one you need to be talking to about that issue," Nyrini tells him, looking straight into his eyes. She shrugs. "Not that it has to be an issue. It's just what it is. People come with pasts, everyone knows that. At least she's not a pirate."


To her surprise, Saengfai looks at her with a small smile and leans back in his chair. "You know, I keep hearing bits and pieces about this pirate thing… " He seems about to ask her for a story but then sighs and leans forward again. "But yeah, I want to talk to Susan about it, tonight if possible. Wonder if she’s done talking to Kanya yet. And Mitsumi is back in the barracks by now, so she should be safe."


"She better be," Nyrini mutters. She does him the favor of emptying his glass, to his soft chuckle, and rises from her seat. "You know, I like you. You seem to like a good story. So, how 'bout I tell you all about my piracy days while we get back to the Watch House?"


Saengfai grins and rises as well, fishing out some money from a pocket and leaving it on the table. He offers her his arm as they walk out from the bar. "That sounds like an excellent way to end an evening with a friend. Pirate stories. Will there be “Arrrrrs” involved?"


Nyrini chuckles and takes his arm. "Love, I'll throw in some extra ones just for you."

Chapter 18: Late Night Confessions

The small hours of the night are rapidly moving towards the morrow in that endless dance of stars and planets. The dinner ended hours ago and, thankfully, most of the drinking with it. For as much as death gods are famous for withstanding unreasonable amounts of alcohol without as much as a blink, and Susan does blissfully share the benefits of such characteristics, the Phedrawnese way of welcoming guests, with so much toasting with heavy liquor, does push the boundaries of her capacity for holding drink to their very edges. And then again, she had been given the choice of dumping the fermented liquids in the plant vase… which she had not done out of a general dislike for enabling alcoholic cannibalism in the vegetable realm.


A rather less hectic reunion alone with Kanya had followed, to discuss the training programs and approaches for the next few days, and that had been quite profitable. Kanya is quite open to new ideas and humble, even if a little falsely so, as is the way of former military anywhere, but still enough to let Susan take the helm regarding planning. In a few years, Fate and Time willing, the possessive arrogance of the cop, the silent confidence in stride that says “This is my city, my territory, I protect and belong to it because it is mine and you will have to be pretty stupid and desperate to ever hope to steal it from me” and that identifies a cop no matter how plain his or her clothes are, will have infused Kanya’s attitude to the very bones and that will help elevate her in her peers’ eyes and cement her position in the Watch. But for now, Susan cannot shake an unmistakable feeling of isolation and loneliness coming from the Phedrawnese goddess, a certain uncertainty to speech and step very carefully hidden in pleasantries. Not all is well in the Kingdom of Phedrawn, not at all, and Kanya is very much aware of that. Susan wonders how deeply Kanya suspects of Susan’s true mission here. It is not like the death goddess’ intentions are not hidden well in plain sight, after all.


“I am sorry that I kept you up so late, Commander,” Kanya apologizes as they walk the long hallway back to Susan’s quarters. “But it was very productive. And enjoyable as well.”


“Yes, it was,” Susan agrees with a sincere smile. “And don't worry, my kind does not require much sleep. I will be more worried about you tomo--” She catches a glimpse of the declining moon over the rooftops. “Later today, I mean. This is much like a vacation to me but I can imagine your responsibilities double with us here.”


“Well…” Kanya nods almost imperceptibly as her voice trails off, in a silent agreement with Susan’s statement that is, nonetheless, an attempt to avoid admitting to a less than diplomatic reality. “It is good to have you and all your people here. Good night.”


At her wai and bow, Susan replies likewise. “Good night.”


Standing at the door to watch Kanya leave, as is customary in these parts, she breathes deeply, feeling tired and wondering about the future of the Kingdom should she fail in her mission. And should she succeed as well…


A subtle change in the shadows makes her turn to look into the open door, to the hallway that leads to the AMCW’s various quarters. Saengfai’s door lies open across the hall and he stands there, looking at Susan, his expression looking to the goddess’ dark-used eyes tired and weighted by alcohol. Which is the norm whenever one decides to go out at night with Nyrini as a drinking partner. They must have come back a while ago, though, since Saengfai looks like he has since showered and changed to fresh clothes.


“Welcome back,” he greets her in a whisper.


Susan smiles at him, signalling for him to follow her into her room. “You should be resting, dear.”


“I knew I wouldn’t be able to rest until I’d talked to you,” Saengfai replies, closing the door behind him. “It’s been...an eventful night.”


Susan sits on the little ottoman at the foot of the bed, glancing up at him in concern as she removes her shoes. “Did something happen during your walk?”


Saengfai nods, weight shifting from one leg to another in apparent nervousness. “Yes. More than one.” He pauses to take a deep breath. “First, Nyrini and I were attacked by a pair of demigods, or minor gods--” he gestures vaguely “--whatever. They were ex-cops, swept out by Kanya. Point was, if we got beat up, AMCW looks bad, Kanya looks bad.”


So it begins, Susan thinks, exhaling deeply. And so soon too.


“I trust Nyrini handled things for the best,” she says aloud as she releases her hair from its simple, bound styling, her tone giving the question to her statement.


“Well, I had a little to do with it...” Saengfai notes with a smirk that makes Susan grin in reply. “But yes.” His expression darkens suddenly. “Then we found out there was another team going to hit the mortals.”


Susan freezes in the middle of finger-combing her white locks, feeling the blood drain from her already pale face, her stomach suddenly clenched in fearful anguish. “Please tell me you handled that too.”


Saengfai’s eyes soften in compassion and regret at her reaction and he crouches in front of her, putting his hands on her knees. “I should have led with ‘Mitzi is fine.’ And she is. Nyrini coordinated with her so that I took down one half the team, Nyrini the other, and Mitzi made sure the five mortal cops with her never even knew anything was wrong.”


Susan's shoulders slump visibly and she puts her hands on his, stroking his calloused fingers with tenderness. “I'm glad. And I'm glad you told me.” Her eyes become colder with the steely edge of calculation. “This will get out tomorrow and we'll need to be ready to look guiltily innocent. Kanya is no fool but admitting to cleaning up her streets for her would be disgraceful to her command, just as much or more than if you had been beaten.”


Saengfai nods. “Yes. And...I think this may be part of a broader plan to make several reformers like Kanya look bad. That they might even have been put in place for the purpose of being made to look bad.” He shakes his head. “The corruption has only had its visible flowering removed. The roots are biding their time.”


Maybe...but things are seldom so simple, aren’t they? Susan thinks bitterly to herself. She will have to speak to Nyrini about this in the morning.


For now, she breathes deeply and decides to waver honesty for kindness. “Thankfully, the rats have arrived.” She pets Saengfai’s face. “It's our first night here. Give it time.”


The fire god nods, covering her hand with his, eyes closing in pleasure at her touch. He breathes deeply and then looks at her, hesitantly, apologetically. “I thought...we should speak of Kanya as well. Of…” --the words seem to catch in his throat,-- “our past.”


Susan nods, trying to ignore the unpleasant little sting that is the breaking of that sweet illusion of being first and only in the story of a lover’s heart. “All I need to know is if it is just that, a past. But I will listen, if you want to talk.”


She pats what little room remains beside her in the ottoman and Saengfai rises to sit there. “It is the past, certainly,” he states, looking forward and away from her but then turning to lock an assuring gaze on her questioning blue eyes. “I just want you to know...it is over, but while the ending was unpleasant, I don’t believe she hates me, nor do I hate her. If she learns who I am, and if she gives me a chance to explain, I don’t think she will become my, or our mission’s, enemy.”


He seems very certain of this. “That is most certainly a good thing,” Susan says, cursing herself for not knowing what to say next, her hands fidgeting on her lap of their own accord, much to her irritation. “She seems to be a good person. We had a very pleasant conversation.”


“She is a good person,” he agrees. “She and I...well, we had a tendency to reinforce each other’s bad sides. Lots of fighting over inconsequential things.” He looks regretful and ashamed. “I could be a fool. I hope...I’ve learned a thing or two since then.”


“I have been there,” Susan notes, placing a hand on his more to stop herself from fidgeting than to reassure him. “I guess...that's how we learn to be better to other people.” She sighs and shakes her head. Enough of this awkwardness. “People come with pasts. Nothing to do about that. Neither make them forget or remind them all the time.”


Saengfai nods and looks at her, fingers wrapping warmly around hers. “Anyway, you know that if you have any questions, I’ll answer them, but...I’m quite happy to leave the past as much in the past as possible.” His free hand strokes her cheek, catching a strand of her hair and curling it around his fingers before gently letting it go. “I have always been more interested in the here and now. And the future.”


Susan smiles and leans against him, enjoying the warmth that radiates from him and the way his arm embraces her back, almost instinctively pulling her closer. “I'm all for that plan. Will…” She pauses in slight hesitation, feeling momentarily awkward in this new setting, so different from their tiny cabin aboard the Caravel. “Will you be staying?”


Saengfai’s face lights up with a smile. “I can imagine nothing better than to spend what is left of this night with you in my arms,” he replies softly, kissing her brow.


Susan smiles as well, before turning slightly so that she has her back to him. “Then can you help me out of this dress? My fingers are too drunk to fiddle with buttons right now.”


They are not, not really. But who cares?


Saengfai’s voice smiles as he says, slowly undoing the buttons of her dress, “‘Can you help me out of this dress?’ Have more beautiful words ever been spoken?”

Chapter 19: Old Tigers

The doors of the palace reception hall close smoothly and quietly behind Nyrini and Saengfai as they are dismissed from what looks to be a long, boring, and overcrowded meeting between the Ankh-Morpork Trade Delegation and the representatives of the tiny Kingdom of Phedrawn. Susan Sto Helit, as leader of the training delegation to the Royal Watch, is not so lucky, and Mitsumi remains behind as well to act as her aide-de-camp.


“Well, that takes care of that, I guess,” Nyrini says with a smile. “Small fish thrown overboard as usual.” She does not sound even one tiny bit displeased.


Worry tinges Saengfai’s low voice. “I feel the skin on my neck prickle at the thought of Susan alone with whoever the assassin is.” According to the information he had acquired back in Ankh-Morpork, the assassin is part of the Trade Delegate, and the real reason they are in Phedrawn.


Nyrini shrugs. “Best not to think about it. No one would be stupid enough to try it with so many witnesses nearby. But yeah...not exactly feeling all that confident either.” She shakes her head as if to expel the thought. “So...no sense in standing here and worrying.”


“No,” he agrees. “Seems like a good time for us to learn more the lay of the land.”


“Yeah, let’s go for a stroll. Find the guards. Or the kitchens. Best places for gossip in joints like this.”


“Maybe the kitchens,” Saengfai suggests quietly. “My father was a high-ranking member of the Royal Guards. Probably still is. And...I’m not sure, but he might be able to see through my disguise.”


Nyrini sighs. “Kitchens it is. I’m feelin’ a bit peckish myself.” She starts walking, then stops. “Uuhh...where’s the kitchen, anyway?”


“Oh this way,” Saengfai gestures with his whole hand, pointing being an unbearably rude gesture in the Kingdom. “You know, being a kitchen god is one of my minor purviews?”


Nyrini smirks. “You, a kitchen god. Lucky for Sue. How many ways do you know to burn an egg?”


“Almost as many as I know how to make an egg taste delicious.” As they near people, his voice changes, taking on more of a lower-class Ankh-Morpork accent to go with his disguise as a City Watch cop with a Phedrawnese grandmother. “Tellin’ you, Miss, I can smell good cookin’ from a mile away!”


“Big deal, that comes with the badge!” Nyrini chuckles and joins him in stereotypically talking too loudly. “Two things a cop can sense: when food’s bein’ served and when drink’s bein’ poured.” She holds a hand out to stop a passing palace servant, a young woman wearing silk pyjama-like clothing. Mustering her limited knowledge of the local language, the goddess asks, “Excuse me, where the kitchen? We, uh, thirsty.”


The girl looks stunned to be spoken to. She looks over Nyrini’s outlandish outfit--or rather lack thereof, as the goddess displays considerably more skin than clothing on her athletic and voluptuous body--and gapes, too frightened to reply. Saengfai says gently in purposefully accented and imperfect Phedrawnese, “Little Sister, we are visitors. The kitchen?”


She recovers herself, pointing down the hall and giving rapid directions that no non-fluent visitor would be able to follow, puts her hands together and bows, and scampers off about her business.


“And now we’re not lost anymore.” Nyrini chuckles. “I thought she was gonna faint with shock.”


Saengfai smiles and says quietly, “Country girl. From the dialect she’s from near my home village. Give her a few years in the palace and she’ll be all ‘Oh, more foreign visitors--yawn’.”


Nyrini shrugs. “Heh, I’m used to people lookin’ at me like that. Somethin’ ‘bout the way I dress and how I always show up where people definitely don’t want no one showin’ up at all.” She snorts.


More loudly, as they proceed out of the building and cross a courtyard, Saengfai says, “Well you sure do leave an impression, Miss Nyrini! Sometimes they need a doctor to get the impression hammered out of ‘em.”


Nyrini gives his shoulder a light backhanded slap. “You know what they say. Only ever get one chance to leave a first impression. Of course, the second, third and fourth are just as much fun, usually. Hmm..smells like a kitchen, now.”


“Oh yes indeed it does! And...oh!” Saengfai breaks off as they enter an alcove next to the kitchen, to see a blue-capped soldier wearing a lightweight blue-and-green uniform trying to flirt with a kitchen girl no older or more sophisticated, apparently, than the one who had just given them directions. This however is a common enough sight.


But what gives Saengfai pause is the soldier’s four-legged companion: a tiger. The fur is blue rather than orange, and the black stripes do not stand out quite as strongly as a result. The tiger looks unhappy, his muzzle white with age. Saengfai is surprised the cat is still in service. And then his surprise grows even more as the tiger looks up, noticing the new arrivals, and then pads directly toward them, his left hind leg limping slightly with stiffness.


“Holy crap,” Nyrini cries out, “that’s a big house cat!”


Saengfai barely notices her voice. It is as if he is underwater, all the sounds muffled and distorted. looks stunned. As the tiger sniffs Nyrini’s legs, he stares at it, trying not to believe what he is seeing. His shock lies not in the fact that a tiger is there on the palace grounds, for Phedrawn is famous for having a division of divine commandos, demigods and minor gods, that serve with specially bred tiger companions for combat. No, that is not it at all.


Nyrini squats and starts petting the tiger, scritching his round fuzzy ears and chucking his heavy chin. “You like that, don’t you? Who’s a big kitty, huh? Who’s a big kitty! Yeah...you like it when I scratch there, do you? You a big, fwuffy kitty!”


The soldier laughs and says something Nyrini doesn’t catch, but which Saengfai distractedly notices is a lewd comment. Without even thinking he shoots back an admonishment, “Watch your filthy mouth, Little Brother,” and the tiger immediately focuses on him at hearing the sound of his voice. The cat pads to him, sniffing his feet, looks up, sniffs more strongly, and suddenly raises himself and pins Sae against the wall, his huge plate-sized big paws on Saengfai’s shoulders.


The kitchen maid screams. The soldier looks frightened and starts to draw his sword. Nyrini puts her hand on his sword hand, shaking her head, face serious, her expression leaping the linguistic divide to tell him, Don’t even think about it.


Barely seeing any of this, Saengfai begins laughing...or maybe crying, he is not entirely sure. There are tears, which the tiger is licking off in big, slow, rough-tongued licks across his face. Saengfai puts his arms around the tiger’s heavy head and buries his face in the cat’s furry neck.


Nyrini’s voice breaks through into Saengfai’s attention. “Dammit man… now what?!”


His voice thick with emotion, Saengfai replies in Quirmian, a language that he knows Nyrini speaks as she has taught it to her daughter Twilight. “Un autre vieil ami…Pardon... Oh Saad, mon petit chat…”


Nyrini’s eyes soften at the words. She nods, then turns to the demigod soldier and the mortal kitchen maid, and puts a hand on each of their heads. She murmurs, “Sorry, people. Can’t risk you rememberin’ this.” Her aura glows faintly and there is a sound like a door closing. The soldier and maid seem dazed. Before they can recover, Nyrini turns back to Saengfai and the tiger, touches them both, and effortlessly teleports them onto her flying ship, the Caravel.


Outdoors now, no kitchen smells, ears popping rom the change of altitude to where the little ship is moored to one of the tallest towers in the capital city of Taima. Saengfai, with no wall to his back, falls backward, cracking his head against the deck, the tiger on top of him. The big cat immediately spins around, looking confused by the sudden change and ready for a fight, so ignoring his pain, Saengfai sits up and speaks softly to soothe the tiger.


“Uh...is that a tiger?” The voice is deep and raspy--that of one of the sharkmen who serve as Nyrini’s crew. The hammerheaded one.


Saengfai looks to Nyrini and sees her hands on her hips, head cocked, an expression that goes well with Now what?? still on her face. Petting the tiger, he says, “I was a Tiger Commando, before I went off to train with the Red Helmets. Some of us, not all, but some are assigned a tiger, trained for combat. I was not.”


Nyrini sits heavily on the deck, stroking the tiger’s flank. “Lemme guess, kitty picked you?”


He nods. “But he belonged to my friend. A very close friend, like a brother. It was a hard decision to leave that, to serve with the Agateans, but it wasn’t really mine. I could have refused...but one doesn’t. And then there was a training accident, while I was away.”


The goddess looks distant, like all the lights have gone out in her. Saengfai realizes this must be a similar story to one from her own past.


“Tiger Commandos train hard,” he explains. “And...my friend was very nearly fully mortal. Just a little godblood.” He shakes his head in sorrow. “When I had to leave Phedrawn, I very nearly requested Saad here. I even considered stealing him if I were refused. But...I didn’t know what was ahead, whether a tiger could be happy where I was going. I finally convinced myself he’d be better off here.”


Nyrini shakes her head, eyes closed. “We’ll keep’im here.”


Her expression, Saengfai can see, is resigned but determined. “But Nyr… He has a commando…”


She opens her eyes to look at him, serious. “Yeah, he has you. Other guy was about to kill him for attacking you.”


Saengfai had hardly noticed this. “He… How could he not see?” His face sets as doubt flees. “Yes, he stays here.” He stands, then sees that Nyrini is now thinking hard. He’s almost able to hear the gears spinning in her head. “Nyr ...what’s wrong?”


“Nothing,” she mumbles. “Senses tingling. Complications.” She looks up, annoyance blossoming and turning into anger as she speaks. Not exactly at him. No, some of it at him. “That was a really bad move, love. Just hope my magical clean-up keeps mouths shut. But now there’s a tiger missin’ and two Ankh-Morpork cops who suddenly disappeared from the palace kitchens. Don’t take me wrong, I’m all for Whiskers there but this is turnin’ out to be an operational nightmare.” She cuts the air with one hand in frustration. “Aaaaaaaaaaaand of course Sue’s gotta know. Blasted snowballs rollin’ downhill…”


Saengfai casts his eyes down. “It seems everywhere I turn, my past is waiting. It’s as if Fate has it in for me. I’m sorry. But I cannot thank you enough.”


“Don’t bring Her up,” Nyrini cautions. “You’re a damn liability, you know that. If it were up to me, I’d be pullin’ you out.”


He slumps a little at the harshness of her pronouncement. “I know. Perhaps… I should be reassigned. Back to this ship. For some infraction. And then I could change my disguise, take on another cover.”


The goddess shakes her head. “Too late for that. In too deep. Can’t have you relocated without makin’ us look bad. The only lance-constable Sue picks proves to be unfit? No…you gotta keep at it. Besides, it’s not up to me. And Big Sis has a huge blind spot when it comes to you. And kittens...she likes kittens. Death Clan thing. Meaning of life and all that.” Nyrini exhales deeply, gets up, and rubs off the dust from her tight-fitting shorts. “We’ll figure it out. Come on, we gotta get back to lookin’ like foreign idiots.”


The hammerheaded sailor asks, “Uh, what do tigers eat?”


The other, echoing the first’s nervousness in his higher-pitched voice, says, “It’s a cat, right? Fish?”


“Um...Cap’n?” The hammerhead nervously moves away.


Nyrini growls at them, “I should have brought the walkin’ skeletons instead.”


“That’s what we’re gonna be,” mutters the second sharkman. “Walking skeletons.”


Ignoring them, she walks to her cabin door and opens it, and gives a whistle. “Come on out, Neige. Got a friend for you.”


A strong flap of wings, and an icy blue shadow comes swooping out. Saengfai sees it is a large bird, its long elegant tail and broad wings making it appear like the fire phoenixes he has seen many times in his youth, but strangely with a different elemental aspect, a feeling of cold and ice surrounding it, rather than crackling heat. It flies just above the tiger, prompting a swat from a big clawed paw, but dodges the tiger’s attempt to grab it, and perches on the railing, looking at Saengfai and Saad with a suspicious eye.


“There,” Nyrini says. “There’s your excuse for requestin’ extra food onboard.”


Saad stalks up to the phoenix to sniff at it, his posterior close to the floor, tail moving slowly. Saengfai can see he is stalking, but unsure whether to do so. The cryophoenix pecks at him with her beak, freezing a little patch of his fur, making him jerk back. Saad sits, looks back at Saengfai with a look that might be asking, Seriously? then snorts and looks off at nothing, as if he was never interested in the bird in the first place.


“Heh, they look like they’ll get along fine,” Nyrini chuckles.


“Hope so,” Saengfai says. “And...do phoenixes eat raw meat?”


“Well, they do now!”


Chapter 20: Complicated Affairs

The door opens before Susan. However, she does not manage to leave the room where her long, dull Dull DULL meeting with the trade delegates just took place quite yet. Mostly because of the large man, taller than her and twice--maybe thrice her volume currently hugging her in the same loving way a juicer would handle a ripe orange. She has to concentrate hard on not losing consciousness as the metalwork trader very much imposes his affection on her, but still she catches Mitzi’s expression of stifled laughter. Her face safely out of the man’s sight, Susan rolls her eyes in resignation, much to the Bunny’s ill-disguised amusement.


“It truly was great to see you again, Ambrose,” she says when he finally puts her down. “You must join us at the Watch House. See what we are up to.”


“Ah, I could never say ‘no’ to my favorite nanny,” Ambrose replies, looking at Nyrini and Saengfai through the open door with a bright smile on his face that would probably leave woodland creatures staring at him in fascination. “Best nanny ever. I still cringe whenever I see an iron poker.” He moves aside to let Mitzi out of the room before waving a goodbye at them. “Anyway, you take care, now. Bye, you all!”


He turns back into the room and the door closes behind him. Susan shakes her head, smiling at her old ward’s silliness in mild self-consciousness. She will never be able to take sincere compliments in front of an audience in stride.


But the smile does not last long. It fades as soon as she looks at her sister’s and her boyfriend’s faces and see their fleeting smirks disappear into worried expressions. She grimaces. “You two look like bad news.”


Nyri turns to Saengfai. “Come on--Oh, come on!” She sighs in frustration at the look he gives her. “Really, man? Fine...Best if we show it.”


And suddenly, Nyrini has a hand on Susan’s shoulder and Saengfai is taking Mitzi’s hand and touching Nyri’s arm before the world shifts in that familiar Nyrini Instantaneous Transportation System way. Susan suddenly finds herself aboard the Caravel, where two sharkmen are currently cowering behind a wooden chair while dangling a piece of blood-red meat from a fishing pole in front of a tiger. Perching on the ship’s railings, Nyrini’s cryophoenix grooms her feathers, seemingly ignoring the antics.


The first thing she notices is how beautiful the tiger is, with its beautiful blue-grey fur and faded black stripes, with the white paws and white muzzle, probably whiter now in the animal’s old age than a few years ago. The second thing she notices is that the tiger seems very gentle and looks rather confused at the sharkmen’s approach to him--well, truth be told, he is probably confused at the concept of two-legged fish trying to fish him with line and bait. The third she notices is Mitzi’s gasp of shock at the whole thing.


And that leads to the fourth thing she notices, “Should there be a tiger on board?”


She is very careful not to move an inch, not because she fears the tiger’s reaction to her but because crazy dreams have a tendency to fall into nightmares when upset by, say, common sense and she is suddenly not quite sure if she is still awake.


“His name is Saad,” Saengfai replies. He sighs, slumping a little. “He's an old friend.”


“Ah…” Susan mutters.


So this is not a dream...crap.


“Is this the tiger you said you used to have?” she asks, remembering a past conversation.


Saengfai’s face lights up with recollection. “Oh that's right--I told you. It was a chance encounter and...the disguise doesn't change my smell. “


“There has been a whole lot of chance encounters lately…” Susan mutters dryly.


“That's what I was thinking too,” Nyrini mutters too, her face dark.


Breathing deeply and deciding that she definitely does not appreciate the game their enemy is playing with them, Susan steps forward to Saad. The tiger merely looks a question at her as she grabs the meat, unhooks it from the line and holds it out for him to take. Saad sniffs it carefully and, more carefully than one would expect for a tiger, takes it with his teeth as if picking up a runaway cub to take back home with him. He then lies down, meat held between his forepaws, to eat in peace.


“What is the plan, you two?” Susan asks, still looking at the dining feline.


“We keep him here,” Nyri replies, matter-of-factly.


“People will notice a missing tiger,” Susan notes, her mind racing through the endless chess game of undercover mindset. “Unless he was where he was not supposed to be. Or with someone he was not supposed to be with.”


“The trooper he was with seemed to barely know him,” Saengfai says, his voice tinged with disgust at the notion. “But yes, it'll be noticed.”


“Forgive me for pointing out the obvious,” Mitzi intervenes. “But isn't this...theft?”


A long, uncomfortable pause stretches its way through the Caravel. Saengfai’s low, leaden voice sounds almost like a shout when it finally breaks the silence. “Yes. Technically.”


“Is there any difference between technical theft and the usual kind?” Mitzi insists.


“Really?” Nyrini asks, her voice heavy with impatience and irritation. “You're reeeeeeeeeeally gonna play black and white, Mitz?” 'Cuz this ain't the time or the place to be playing beat-cop. Beat-cop works back in Ankh-Morpork where you can blow your whistle and have five people there ready to back you up! Kitty was gonna die because the guy thought he was attacking Saengfai here. So technically he's on borrowed time. But we have to play ignorant.”


Susan is only vaguely aware of the exchange. Her mind is focused on the strange series of coincidences taking place. Kanya is a coincidence she could have accepted without too much thought but the tiger currently lying in front of her is quite literally a whole different animal. He looks like he has not seen combat or even proper training in quite a long time. In fact, he does not even look properly groomed. The fur is dirty and dull, covered in dust and dried mud and hinting at some nutritional deficiency. Which paired with the lack of exercise would explain Saad’s apparent generalized muscle atrophy. His claws are too long as well and showing signs of contact with an abrasive surface, like cement… So why is an animal who looks like he has been left forgotten in a cage for months now being brought to the palace, no less? Sigh. Because he would recognize Saengfai anywhere...


She takes a deep breath. “Nyri, a word?”


Nyrini trails off from whatever prattling was going on between her and Mitzi about the finer points of law-breaking and joins Susan in a walk that takes them away from tiger, Bunny, god and sharkmen. They stop by the helm wheel, sharing a look of understanding for how quickly the situation is getting out of their control .


“So...was teleporting the tiger the best option?” Susan asks.


“Best I could come up with in a short notice,” Nyrini replies with a shrug. “I locked the memories of the incident deep inside our witnesses' minds. They won't remember a thing. Probably think the tiger ran away chasin' a rat or somethin'.” She glances back at Saengfai where is talking with Mitzi and introducing her to the at least currently fed tiger. “Should have seen him, Sue. Guy was cryin', laughin', hugging the toothy plushie over there. I think the kitty wouldn't have stayed put if we had just teleported ourselves out. And the soldier looked like he was just waiting for an excuse to turn kitty into kibble…”


“I trust your judgement on this one a lot more than I trust my own, Nyr,” Susan concedes. “But now there is the problem of aftermath. We can't hide a tiger here for long. They're not exactly quiet when they get bored or upset.”


Nyrini shrugs. “I brought Neige along. She'll keep him busy. And we really can't dump him anywhere, even if I take him to our place in Ankh-Morpork.” She shakes her head. “Sue...that's not my biggest problem right now. These coincidences... They feel wrong. Kanya, I'd accept. Guy didn't know, she's been in that post for a few years. But the attack, a tiger roaming around. Only freaking tiger I've seen all day. And he looks like he hasn't seen combat in years. What the heck was he doing there? I think someone knows your guy is here but they don't wanna kill him. They wanna flush him out.”


“That is exactly what I was thinking, Nyrini,” Susan says. “And it fits with everything else, even the attack in Ankh-Morpork…” She closes her eyes, trying to bend her mind around a viable answer for this conundrum. “This level of paranoia is Azz's territory.”


“Yeah…” Nyri agrees with a nod. “We went to the kitchen to avoid the guard barracks. Prettyboy says his dad is a Royal Guard. How much you wanna bet we escaped the pot to fall into the fire? All we're missin' is the rest of the family showin' up. He's a liability, Sue. If we can't pull him out, then we gotta restrain him.”


“He knows the palace and they know him,” Susan says, thinking out loud. “They would know he'd be drawn to the kitchen, looking for information. No….we can't pull him out of the water. Not if we want to catch the sharks.” She grimaces at the thought of using Saengfai as bait for a trap and curses her job for the millionth time. She touches her earring. “He's the only one of us who doesn't have one of these. Can you get another from Azz?”


“Sure, but how are we gonna convince him to get his ear pierced?” Nyrini asks.


Susan smirks at the question. “Leave that to me.”


“Ooooh, need help to hold him down?” Nyrini whispers, waggling her eyebrows.


The mental image of Nyri holding down a struggling, imploring Saengfai while Susan pierces his ear makes the death goddess laugh until it her mind remembers who it belongs to and decides to take creative freedom in removing their clothes. She nearly chokes.


“Just...go,” she says.


Nyrini chuckles for a moment but then looks at her with a seriousness and coldness that would seem out of character if Susan did not know what monsters hide in the deep waters of her sister’s mind. “He can't be left alone. You or me, at all times. Until we can control how he gets outed. And when. Keep him in sight or -” Nyri wriggles her fingers at Susan “ - about your person. I'll go see if Azz has any trinkets we can use.” She jerks head at the tiger. “You gonna heal the kitty before Prettyboy starts cryin' again?”


Susan looks at Saengfai and smiles, knowing she cannot keep the tenderness she feels toward him from her face. “He really cried when he met the tiger?”


“Yeah... You could tell they missed each other,” Nyrini replies in mellow tones. Her eyes widen at the amused look on Susan’s face. “Don't look at me like that! I'm not heartless!”


Susan chuckles, reaching to stroke Nyri’s hair as she walks by the young goddess and back to the main deck, where Saad is currently lying belly-up and looking like a huge housecat for Saengfai and Mitzi’s entertainment. She kneels by him, carefully touching one of his paws. “Let's see what we can do for you, sweetheart. Oh, you are such a sweet kitten…”

Chapter 21: Friendly Flirt

Azzageddi has spent many a night alone in bed in his long life. There have been a few one-night stands, a few other short-term flings, but it didn’t really take long after escaping Hell for him to realize that such things are not really for him. For him, now, it’s either love, or alone. And usually that means alone.


But for the past few years he hasn’t been alone. Well, most nights. When one is an officer of the Watch, and when one’s partner is as well, shifts are unavoidably irregular, even for the Commander. Especially for the Commander, a position he held for quite some time, first on a temporary basis, then official. How many nights did he pore over reports, letting Mitzi slumber alone--and how many nights did she spend on stakeouts while he lay staring at the ceiling, hoping she was safe? And with her being mortal and he being immortal, their duties are often so very different, exacerbating the problem.


But that is the job. And now she is away on a mission headed by her mother Susan--who is supposed to be in charge here. Leaving Azzageddi stuck with all the responsibility of being Commander anyway. Just when he thought he was out, they pull him back in…


And he’s babysitting, taking care of Nyrini’s daughter Twilight and Susan’s son Ambar. Not that he minds having them around, not one bit. It’s just that he’s used to having a little help. Tag-team childcare is so much easier.


But none of that matters now, because now he is asleep. Finally. It’s not often he sleeps well, alone, these days. Got used to having a warm, beloved body beside him, usually with him lying on his back, one arm around Mitzi as she lay on her side. Even now, sleeping after getting two rambunctious children to bed, his right arm is flung out across the bed, longing to feel that cheek against his bicep, his ears straining unconsciously for the soft sound of breath, maybe even the almost-inaudible snore that sometimes sounds in the dead of night.


And then it is there. Silken hair on his shoulder, warmth pressing against him. His arm moves of its own accord, pulling the feminine form closer, his hand resting on a curvaceous hip. The body stiffens slightly, then relaxes, waiting for Azzageddi to notice, still asleep, that something is different. And he does, gradually. The curvaceousness is, well, rather more than his hand is used to. And the hip is further down, as the body is longer. And the breathing seems to be struggling against laughter.


Azzageddi turns his head, still not fully aware, and his eyes slowly open, beginning to cross the very fuzzy line from sleep to waking but definitely still in the grey area. When he sees a large grin in the dark, he starts to wake more quickly, but still fails to consciously sense what is wrong with this picture.


Then it all snaps into focus in an instant. This isn’t Mitzi! He is just about to shout the name whose face he suddenly recognizes, when, with a laugh, Nyrini gives him a big kiss.


His eyes are wide at the kiss, and his hand reflexively squeezes what he is holding--until he realizes he’s holding Nyrini’s hip. A little bit further ‘round the back than her hip, if truth be told. He releases her as if his hand has been scalded, but the kiss does not stop yet. Though it began as a joke, clearly, it continues just a little longer than a joking, friendly kiss would. And it softens, and deepens, and continues just a little longer than that.


And just as Azzageddi’s eyes close and he begins to return it, it ends. Nyrini breaks off and shifts, rolling to rest on top of him, and sits up so that she’s using his belly as a chair. “Goooooooood morning, love! Missed me?” Her voice is cheerful, but slightly flustered.


He looks up at her, trying to slow his breath to normal, taking a moment before answering. “G-good morning. Is everyone back?”


“Nope.” She shakes her head, shaking her hair out and stretching luxuriously above up. “No one’s back and stuff just got a whole lot more complicated. But enough of that. I need one more of these earring thingies.” She flicks the piece of jewelry dangling from her left earlobe.


Azzageddi looks up at her face, trying to ignore the rest of the landscape towering over him. Beneath its usual mask of jocularity, her face has a definite aspect of worry. “What’s wrong, Nyri?”


“Uhm...well--” The corner of Nyr’s mouth twitches, then she lightly slaps Azzageddi’s bare chest. “Have you been working out? You look bett--good! Good...I meant good!”


Azzageddi narrows his eyes at this classic example of Nyrini avoidance strategy. “What’s going on?” he asks in that growly Commander voice that he only uses when it’s time to stop joking around. It occurs to him that he uses that voice more often with Nyrini than with anyone else.


She looks caught out. “Well… We, uhm, I’m kinda feeling this one slip between my fingers. I don’t think we’re playing the right game and...I don’t think we should have brought Saengfai along.


Azzageddi shifts his eyes from Nyrini’s to look at the ceiling in dismay. “Oh no… What’s he done?” He had been suspicious of Saengfai from the beginning, but, particularly after the private-detective god had helped save Twilight and Ambar’s lives, indeed putting his own life on the line to do so and nearly paying the ultimate price, Azzageddi had come to admire and even like the guy. And the handsome young god had brought a smile to Susan’s face, something that Azzageddi delighted to see.


“He didn’t do anything,” Nyrini replies, reluctantly. “Really, guy’s good. Just...the way I see it, the game’s not just about killing the King, like we thought. Someone’s really keen on proving Saeng’s back in the country. We keep being set up to, one” --she pokes his chest with one finger-- “look bad and two” --a second finger jabs his chest-- “flush him out. His pet tiger just showed up in the palace kitchens. Out of the blue, man!”


“Pet tiger?” For just a brief moment he feels a stab of envy for the ponytailed god, but he shakes his head to dismiss it. “So hold on, whoever wants to kill the king for Phedrawn knows that Saengfai is there… wants him there even. They must’ve sent the people who tried to kill him, but knew they wouldn’t succeed, and that it’d set him on a path back to Phedrawn.”


Nyrini nods. “That’s what Sue was thinking too. And get this, the current Watch Commander there is Saeng’s ex. Aaaaaand, we got attacked on our first night there. Double tap. Me and Saeng, Mitz and the mortal cops--hey, relax, everyone’s ok!” She puts a gentle hand on his chest as Azzageddi tries to sit up at this news. When he reluctantly relaxes, she continues. “Anyway... all the thugs that tried to jump us were ex-cops. Bad ones in more ways than one. But our fire god bent cover with them, no flames or names, just...forgot he was supposed to be a clueless LC, so whoever’s in charge will be pretty much sure he’s there already. And now this with the tiger…”


“He’s an amateur when it comes to this level of cover,” Azzageddi mutters to himself, but with empathy. A private detective might disguise himself for various cases, indeed Saengfai had done so in order to rescue Susan and Nyrini’s children, but such disguises would normally be only momentary, not like a Watch detective going deep under. “But...can’t pull him out now, can you?”


Nyrini looks at him, face blank. “Would you?”


Azzageddi shakes his head. “You know what I’d do. They’re trying to use him to further their plans. You turn it around on them. But it’s going to put him at risk.” His voice fills with sorrow by the end of it. He remembers a time he used Nyrini herself as bait to catch a dangerous enemy--and how badly it turned out. Successful, but Nyrini had nearly died.


Nyrini sighs, looking at Azzageddi’s face, and shifts again, lying down on top of the god’s long body, laying her head on his chest. “I know. Means using him for bait. I don’t think he’d refuse but… Anyway, Sue seems to agree.”


Azzageddi absently strokes her hair, and rests a hand on her back, trying to keep his mind on the topic. It’s not easy--he’s wearing nothing but pajama pants, and she, being Nyrini, is wearing even less just as her normal daily outfit. There is a lot of skin-to-skin contact. “No, he wouldn’t refuse, any more than you did. Right, well...the earrings. They’re a set of five. And to make them secure, they have to be made and enchanted together. So I can’t just make another one, I’m afraid. I’d have to make a whole new set. It’ll take days.”


She curses. “We need to keep him under tabs. If something happens and we’re not around, it’ll be tough doing anything about it. Any other alternatives?”


“How about a spell? No physical component so…” he taps the bare skin of her back “no worries about, uh, pockets and such. But you’d have to learn it, and it only lasts a day at a time. You’d have to recast it, say, every morning.”


“Well, I’ll take what I can get. Does it have a tracking component? That would come in handy.” Nyrini pulls herself up his body a little to whisper in his ear. “And this thing’s got plenty of pockets, I can assure you…”


She chuckles. He is sure she can feel his face getting warm from his blush where her cheek is pressed against his. Is this just a new level of messing with his mind? he wonders. He decides not to care. “Yes, well...yes, you could sense where he is with this spell, and vice versa.”


Nyrini puts her hands on either side of his face and pushes herself up slightly, arching her back, to look down at him, her nose almost touching his. Her hair falls in a curtain around both their faces. “Good. Anything else I should know?”


His hand lightly stroking her back, Azageddi replies, “Oh… You don’t have to speak with this spell--it’s direct mind-to-mind contact. You form the message as a thought, then imagine the recipient, and send it. It all has to be purposeful. You can even send images. But, when in the grip of strong emotions, there can be accidental bleed-through.”


“Uuhh…” The goddess tilts her head, dragging locks of hair across half his face.


Azzageddi fights the urge to sneeze. “Like if he’s, uh, fighting, the fear or anger or pain might come through. Or if he’s, well...kissing someone...you might feel it. Or, again, vice versa.”


She grins. “That’s gonna be...interesting. Maaaaybe I shouldn’t tell him about that until after the spell is cast. Just...you know...a teensy bit awkward, there. To him, mostly.” She looks down at him, then gives him a simple, friendly, chaste kiss. Just a quick smack on the lips. “Thanks for the sounding board.”


He smiles. “Any time, Nyri.”


“Mind if we talk a bit more about this?” she asks. “Sue’s great and I’m gonna have to run it all over with her but...she knows she’s biased. And she’s really too visible right now to do anything other than keeping the act up.”


“Not a problem,” he replies. “Let’s go through it from the top? See if there’s anything we’re missing?”


Nyrini smiles. “Great.” Then she pushes herself fully upright, to straddle him once again, sitting on his belly. “But uhm--not that I’m complaining ‘cuz I’m really not--you better either put on a shirt or take the pants off ‘cuz this is looking all wrong from where I am.”


Azzageddi raises his beefy arms and laces his fingers behind his head. “You’re going to have to get off me for me to do either. You want coffee?”


Suddenly she is standing next to the bed--a micro-teleport that is as natural to her as breathing. “Man, I’d kill for good coffee right now. Silly buggers over there can only brew tea and moonshine.”


He sits up, kicking at the sheets to free himself from their soft, warm prison, still feeling the warmth of Nyrini’s body on his torso. “You want to poke your head in on the kids while I get dressed? They’re sharing a bed in Twi’s room. They won’t wake up this early in the morning, though.”


“Best if they don’t, anyway. It’d feel like cheating them.” Nyrini sighs. “But yeah, I’ll take a quick look while you get dressed. Big Sis will be asking about her munchkin, for sure.”


Particularly after their recent kidnapping, Azzageddi himself is particularly paranoid about keeping them safe, but as much as possible in ways that don’t interfere with their lives. “You can tell her they’re always either in sight or being watched over by magic. Even when I’m asleep.”


Nyrini picks up a little jar of skin cream from atop Mitzi’s dresser. Sniffing it, she asks, “Did you bring in Wakahi like I said? He’s good with them.”


Swinging his legs off the bed and standing in one motion, he says, “Oh yes. But he gets the night off. Sasha and Pasha adore him, by the way.”


“Oh, I’m sure they do!” She puts the jar back where it was. “Big and strong, loves kids and not much talkative. He’s the perfect boyfriend if you’re into that sort of thing.”


“Oh...I don’t know if they’re...well, I never ask about that,” Azzageddi says, opening a drawer to pull out a loose t-shirt.


Effortlessly, she teleports across the room to stand next to him, stretching. “And that’s a good thing because then you might get an answer. OK, get yourself ready. I left my team aboard my ship with a cryophoenix and a tiger and I better get back before someone gets turned into kibble.”


And then she is gone. Azzageddi can instantly detect her arrival in the children’s room, what with all the spells he’s woven around it and the kids themselves. He quickly changes into regular trousers before she comes back, then heads to the kitchen to brew up some coffee.

Chapter 22: The Attack

The sun is a distant blaze in the sky. Light in the Disc is an interesting little thing. While in other, rounder planets orbiting a relatively young sun, worlds that may yet be found to be inhabited by (remotely) intelligent life, light might have already been proven to be one of the, if not the fastest thing around, light in the Disc is a lazy, trickling little thing, like a heavy layer of oil traveling over the proverbial water of this flat world. It doesn’t wash surfaces but merely slides over them, leaving them grubby with radiation, like a bartender’s rag spreading smut more evenly over the full surface of your beer pint. Thus dawn is a slow affair and so is sunset. Light leaves the Disc at its own leisure, as if twilight were just an afterthought, fading away like a fine mist dispersed by Spring sunshine.


Susan sits at the little desk thoughtfully placed in her room at the assigned AMCW quarters in the Phedrawnese Royal Watch Headquarters and taps the pencil against her lips. The training sessions have gone well so far but she is still missing that one final exercise that she hopes will leave its mark in the memories of these watchmen who have gone through so many changes in their chain of command. Something that could bring them all together in a true spirit of cooperation even in the presence of difference like the one her Commander, the great and revered Samuel Vimes , unwilling and uncanny hero of Ankh-Morpork for many years now retired to Überwald, where his work still proceeds, had created for the twin city bathed by the river Ankh and that Susan herself and so many others has always strived to maintain alive and strong in the Watch. Alas, the answer has so far eluded her.


She sits back and sighs, looking out the window at the reddish brilliance of the late afternoon. Out there, Mitzi is spending time with the mortal officers in search of information that can aid their secret mission here. Nyrini and Saengfai , on their hand, are doing very much the same with the immortal division and pursuing a possible clue with a witness who just might be willing to speak to them. Gods, what she wouldn’t give to still be at that stage in her life, where high command was someone else’s business and she could just be a cop, an actual cop going around solving actual crimes instead of the endless stream of reports and paperwork that fill her days nowadays. It seems like it was so long ago since the last time she was called to a crime scene… Maybe she should consider retiring and enter the business of Private Investigation. Or mercenary duty. Or just get a trader’s license and a stall in the market. Or enrol the lists of the Assassin’s Guild. Wouldn’t that make quite a few hands tremble all over the world?


She snorts at the thought. Susan Sto Helit , Assassin. That would be the day. Murdering kings and being sent after her Patrician. Wouldn’t that be exciting? Now how would she go about killing Lord Vetinari in a fitting yet efficient manner?


She raises her head at the sound of a door being slid open or closed in the hallway. Are Nyri and Saeng back already? Maybe. They left over two hours ago. Hmm… None of the gods would have been moving about without stopping by to talk to her. She walks over to the door that leads out of her own room and peeks out, grimacing as she decides this must most definitely be an intruder.


A sudden sharp pain like a wasp burying its stinger into her neck makes her wince. She reaches for her neck automatically to find something sticking out of it. She pulls it out, looks at it. A dart. Lovely. Probably laced with poison. But she doesn't have much of a chance to dwell on it. In the few seconds it takes her to realize she has been shot and pull the dart out, two ninjas dressed in red and carrying sickles, curved blades lacquered yellow, break through the doors of Nyrini’s and Saengfai’s rooms and charge at her.


Years of training come to her aid. She is no martial artist and she could definitely use some help but she manages to fight the first one off as she backs into her own room. She tries to access her powers but finds that she can’t. The poison must have some anti-magic effect.


One of the ninjas swings his sickle at her. Though she moves her head away from the blade, the sickle catches on her earring and, with a sharp pain and a jerking movement, rips it off her ear, cutting through the flesh of her earlobe. The pain fills her senses for a split second, making her stumble back a little and flaring her anger. With a muttered swear word, she evades a kick and smashes the back of her wrist against the ninja’s throat. The attacker drops the weapon and stumbles back, clutching at his throat. She picks up the sickle and throws it at the second ninja. In spite of her proficiency with throwing daggers, she has no hope of stabbing him but the thing still causes some damage when it hits him on the head. She takes a step forward to take advantage of it…


And falls to the floor. Her knees buckle, her calves go limp. Even her arms feel weak. She kneels on all fours, barely able to stop herself from complete collapse.


“Well, finally!” a distinctive female voice cackles from the direction of the door. “You gods sure are tough, aren't you? Poison should have taken half the time to act.”


“You...have been...reading…” Susan wheezes. Breathing is becoming a thing of terrible effort. “Too many… cheap books.”


“Books? Me?” the voice says. Susan cannot even raise her head enough to look at this mysterious woman. “Maybe. Personally I like fairy tales. I like the one where the dragon locks the princess in the tower and sets it on fire.”


Someone grabs Susan's wrists. And the lights go out.

Chapter 23: Plans That Don't Work

“He’s not going to show, is he?” Saengfai asks after the twentieth time looking around while trying very hard not to look like he’s looking around.


Nyrini is just about ready to smack him upside the head for it but she can't help empathizing with the fire god. Their contact, a sergeant of the Taima police force who had surreptitiously approached them while they watched a hoard of some of the unluckiest recruits the Phedrawnese Academy had ever seen go through one of Susan's diabolical training routine, is currently two hours late for the meeting he set up himself. It seems the man has decided that discussing the current state of corruption in the police force does not quite agree with his health. Not that Nyrini had agreed to this whole charade with any level of confidence that he would go through with it.


“I could have bet a round that he wouldn’t,” she says before taking a swig of her drink. “Whole thing felt wrong from the start. Heck, everything’s been feelin’ wrong from the start,” she adds with a mutter.


She watches the liquid still remaining in her glass slosh slowly to a standstill dispassionately, her mind filled with dark thoughts and an annoying little memory of a lot of heat and Susan's taste in her mouth (thanks a lot for that spell, Azz). Usually well-humored and worry free, she is feeling quite moody tonight, disheartened even. This is a game she usually enjoys playing but it seems that people around here don't really know how to read the rulebook and that is starting to cramp her style. If there is something she hates, it's games that make her feel stupid. A good enough reason why she won't be caught dead playing a chess round.


“I know, you’re right,” Saengfai replies with a grimace of disgust. Of course, he might just be grimacing from the liquor he has just swallowed. “They’ve been playing us for saps.”


He puts his glass down a little too hard, making the liquid inside slosh over the rim and spill onto the table. Blasphemy!


“Hey, if you’re gonna spill it, at least do it into your mouth, man,” Nyrini scolds him. “No use in wastin’ good booze. Now, what would I do if it were me playing their game…?” She shakes her head to dislodge a budding plan to take over the throne. “Best not go there.”


“They know where we are,” Captain Obvious notes. “That means they’re either going to hit us… Or they know where we aren’t, where they don’t have to worry about us interfering.”


“Whole thing’s about you, Boy-Wonder,” she says, pointing at him, grim. “They want you there...want you out of hidin’. And they tried that and they failed. They’ll be gettin’ impatient. Or at least, that’s the plan. Force their hand.”


Saengfai looks at her with a mixture of suspicion and anticipation. Pretty much the standard I'm-Looking-At-Nyrini look. “You got an idea for that?”


Nyrini nods and breathes deeply. Here's the part of the conversation she was not exactly in a hurry to get to. “I sorta, kinda do. But I don’t like it. I’m guessin’ you wouldn't like to be dangled like a sardine in front of a shark, would you?”


“If it makes them show their hand, I’m fine with it,” Saengfai says, looking all brave and stuff. He looks around again, making a show of it this time. Damned rookie. “All this...I can’t let them destroy it, Nyrini .”


Nyrini breathes deeply again, letting the air out in a slow exhalation. Every sardine is brave until they see just how damn big the shark really is. And how sharp it keeps its teeth… “Last time I played shark bait, I got impaled by the guy who bound my soul to a crossbow, love. You could lose your head before I get a chance to save it.”


“I’m not here for the great food and weather,” Saengfai insists. “I thought I was dead already, when I ended up on Sue’s doorstep. I’m not backing off.”


Gods, he makes her feel old. She can truly feel it, her age catching up with her appearance, every wound sustained in battle, every scar left from mission after mission against druglords, warlords, half-crazed mages, full-crazed mages, the whole damned cavalry unit of the Klatchian army (stupid biting camels), even the Agatean Red Helmets, drawing itself in clearer lines over her olive skin. She is not one to hide her scars, to cover up the midnight-black glyphs tattooed on her skin by a godbinder looking to use her soul for a weapon. But she has found through the years how easily people ignore them in benefit of her extroverted persona, how often they barely notice why exactly she looks dangerous and fascinating all at once. But as she allows herself to be noticed under that shadowy light, as her eyes turn a deeper shade of brown simply from the tired, laden soul behind them, she notices the shift in Saengfai’s expression. Subtle, but there. The look of one who is just now realizing exactly what someone like her would be willing and able to do to someone like him.


She nods, empties her glass and puts it down. Time to forget she actually likes the guy and get serious. “Plan is to out you. We choose the when and the how. Make it look like the threat on the king is gone with you in jail. And then catch whoever helps you escape.”


Saengfai lowers his head slightly and raises his eyebrows at her. “And the bad guys are going to bust me out?”


Nyrini props her elbow on the table, chin against her knuckles, impassive, humorless. “How else would they make it look like you escaped prison and killed the King in a desperate attempt after your ruse with us didn’t fly?”


Saengfai smiles and shakes his head. “At this point, I’ll--”


“But!” Nyrini cuts him off. “And this is a big but...where you are outed is just as important as when.”


"You sound like you already have an idea there,” Saengfai notes grimly.


Nyrini shrugs. “Ideas are easy. Problem is execution. We want you in the palace holding cells. From which you can escape and, you know, get the King. So we have to out you…”


"...in the palace,” Saengfai completes the thought. “Okay. But how do I get outted? Has to seem natural. As in not a trap.”


“Or as in our guy’s efforts just paid off,” Nyrini counters. “We know the palace is full of traps just waitin’ for you. Pick one. Preferably one that doesn’t get you killed immediately.


Saengfai looks somewhat unsure at that. “Yeah, but the enemy knows I’m not here to kill the King.” He pauses, looking pensive for a moment. “If I get caught while trying to break into the Ankh-Morpork delegation’s quarters at the palace…”


“Wouldn’t that be a disaster?” Nyrini snorts, finishing her drink. “Learned nothing about B&E while exiled in that barbaric land...tisk tisk tisk…”


Saengfai grins. “Yeah, gotta really mess it up too, right at the beginning, or I get caught in their quarters and they, I dunno, lock me in a trunk or something until they can leave me unconscious with a knife in my hand in the right place.” His eyes and grin widen slightly. “ Or I could get caught on the way out. If I could find out who the assassin is…”


"Sure, ‘cuz the assassin’s just gonna leave a diary out with all the plans there…” Nyrini cuts off his rookie illusions. “Unless these guys went for the cheap stuff, honey, that ain’t gonna happen. A good assassin keeps the stuff about himself or hidden waaaaaay out of the way. No...you can try but I’d bet you won’t find much more threatening than nail clippers and knitting needles. Which leads us to the next bit of it.” She picks up the bottle to refill her glass but stops herself, cursing the stupid local custom of never doing so. “Who do we bait into catching you?”


She looks at his half-full glass, shrugs, and simply takes it, downing it contents before pouring a drink she's not planning on letting him taste.


He gives her custom-bending strategy an amused look. “Well I don’t know how well we can control that. Or do you mean I get caught by the guards?” He looks dismayed at the dawning realization that that is exactly what she means. “Oh you do, don’t you?’


Nyrini nods. “Aye.”


Saengfai sighs as she empties his glass again. “At least let’s try to make sure my father is off-shift.”


“It’d probably help to know what your old man looks like when he’s off-shit, then,” Nyrini points out.


"Well, he has short grey hair. Big shield. Always has the shield...it’s part of his divine panoply. Actually doesn’t use a weapon--shield is enough. He can bash the crap out of anybody with that thing.” Saengfai looks down at the drink that Nyrini is just pouring for him. “Heh. Only time anybody ever got past that shield to give him a scar? That was Mom.”


Okaaaay... Nyrini blinks. “Did he deserve it?”


Saengfai chuckles at her expression, finally refilling her glass. “The way she tells it? Totally. It was soon after they met. Tempestuous young gods. Always arguing. He fell for a rakshasa. Evil tiger demon--looked like the most beautiful woman imaginable. Mom brained him with a rock. Because she was doing it to save him, the shield didn’t intervene. He still has the scar, right here.” He traces it with a finger just along the left side of his forehead. “He says he was just playing along to get information from the demon, but… I have a feeling Mom was right, there.”


Nyrini can't help but chuckle at that. “Now there’s a gal after my own heart. Well, I guess we can spare him the shame.”


“Well here’s to my incarceration,” Saengfai says, raising his glass in a toast.


Nyr !! Mitzi’s voice, via the earring. There’s a fire! Susan’s quarters! I think she’s in there and she can’t get out for some reason! Kanya went in after her!


Nyrini turns pale, all of her blood feeling like it just fell to her feet. Her glass falls from her hand, hitting the table and spilling the Phedrawnese equivalent to drinkable paint stripper all over the wooden top.


Saengfai is just quick enough to stop the glass from falling to the floor with his free hand. He looks at her in sudden concern. “What?”


“We--we gotta go,” Nyrini stutters, frozen in place. “There’s a fire… Sue’s in there. And Kanya .”


Saengfai’s glass drops onto the table. He grabs Nyrini’s arm in wild panic. “Go!”


The glass bounces off the table and shatters on the floor.

Chapter 24: Fire!

Suddenly Saengfai is standing in the Royal Watch House with Mitzi right in front of him, outside the guest quarters where he, Susan , and Nyrini had been staying. His grip on Nyrini’s arm tightens. Smoke is everywhere, flame roaring from their quarters. Everything is made of wood or paper or cloth, and the fire is eating away at it like a starving beast. Local cops are using buckets to fruitlessly pour water on the fire while others are bringing up a hose and pump. He hears one shouting, “Where’s that river god?? We need her here now!”


Mitzi spins, her face paler than Saengfai has ever seen it, about to shout something to Nyrini, when a wall falls in. She looks back in horror, her bunny ears laid back. “ Kanya just charged in there!” She is on the ragged edge of screaming.


For a moment, Nyrini freezes, just looking at Mitzi. Then she turns to look at Saengfai, her face determined. “I’m going in! You comin’ or what?”


Still gripping her arm, he simply replies, “Let’s go!”


Suddenly they are in Susan’s quarters, though it takes Saengfai a moment to recognize the place. Nyrini is coughing right away, and Saengfai uses his powers to push back the hot, choking smoke. The bed is on fire, along with the curtains. The wall that collapsed inward covers half the room in debris. The heat from the blaze hammers them both, though Saengfai, as a fire god, is not nearly as affected by it as he is by his worry for the goddesses who are supposed to be trapped in here.


Susan is in the middle of the room, unconscious and, Saengfai quickly sees, bound with the same sort of enchanted handcuffs that the AMCW uses on divine prisoners to prevent their using their powers. Nyrini dashes to her.


“Sue! Sue! Come on, Big Sis! Come on!” Nyrini shakes her, begging, demanding her adopted sister to wake. “She was attacked! Someone hit her on the head! Earring is gone!”


He wants to run to Susan as well, but Saengfai stops and looks around, hoping to spot the attacker, or Kanya. Through the roar of the flames, he hears a groan. He grabs a flaming section of wall, his hands unaffected by the fire, and flings it away, revealing a scorched Kanya, her legs trapped under a heavy beam. He gestures and the flames immediately threatening her are snuffed out, while those further off are pushed away.


“Get Sue out of here!” he cries. “I’ll keep Kanya safe.”


Nyrini looks from Susan to Kanya, then up at the ceiling, which is sagging and groaning. “That part of the room could collapse any time! Maybe fire can’t hurt you, but if the building falls on you-- Gotta take Kanya out first! If I teleport her, beam won’t be a problem!”


“Just...hurry!” Saengfai extends his hands, spreading the area of extinguished flame.


Nyrini lays Susan down carefully, then rushes and grabs Kanya’s wrist. “I’ll be right back!” And then she and Kanya are gone.


Saengfai rushes to Susan and cradles her, aghast at her slack face. Beyond her, he spots a golden glint and absently grabs it.


As he reaches for it, Susan rouses and begins to cough, violently at first. Saengfai holds her closer, looking desperately at her face. “Sue?”


She opens her eyes blearily, “Saeng?”


“I’m here, Sue .”


She grabs the lapel of his jacket. “Hit men...The assassin...She’s-- cough cough


Saengfai opens his eyes wider in surprise. “She?” If Susan has seen the assassin--


A gravelly voice behind him says, “She’s right behind you, dearie.”


And suddenly all goes dark.

Chapter 25: Where Are They?

Mitsumi , bunny-eared sergeant of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch (Godville Annex, Mortal Division), stares at the flames, willing Susan , Nyrini , and Saengfai to be safe. They’re gods! a voice within says, trying and failing to reassure. After all, since when has that ever ensured safety? Azzageddi was a god when he was captured and taken to Mardian Hell to be tortured. Nyrini was a goddess when she was blinded by an evil god called Lightstealer . And Susan was no less a goddess than she is now when she was possessed by a fellow death god who tried to use her body to murder her family. Saengfai had been there as well, and he had very nearly been killed, along with Mitsumi herself and several others. They may be gods, but that just means they get into more dangerous situations.


And then Nyrini is there, appearing in that way of hers so different from other gods, no BAMPH! or opening portal or screen of colors or whatever, but just there , silently and simply and virtually unstoppable, as she is the Goddess of Thresholds and Pathways. And she is holding the demigoddess Kanya , Commander of the Divine Kingdom of Phedrawn’s Royal Watch, who looks to be in terrible condition, singed and with legs obviously broken. Mitsumi dashes to Nyr , and together they lower her burden to the floor, carefully.


Her ears back, her face pale, Mitsumi asks, “Susan?”


“She’s in there with Saeng ,” Nyrini replies. “He’s keepin’ the flames at bay. Girl here was trapped under a beam.” She takes a deep breath, raising her hands and preparing to heal Kanya’s legs.


Mitsumi hurriedly tells her, “A healer is on his way.” The thought of Susan having to wait for rescue even a moment longer is bringing her close to panic.


Kanya moans in pain, then asks weakly, “Saengfai? That was him.”


“Let’s save that for later, hon--” Nyrini breaks off, her entire body tensing, eyes shutting tight, her mouth in a rictus of agony. It looks for all the world to Mitsumi that she’s been struck on the back of the skull by an invisible attacker. As she slumps to the side, the bunny catches Nyrini , who whimpers in her arms and clings to her.


“Nyr?? Oh no…” Mitsumi is horrified, her ears straining for the footsteps of whatever spell-cloaked attacker might be stalking them.


Nyini is breathing heavily, and her eyes flutter open, then go very wide. “No...no...no! I can’t hear him anymore!” She pushes herself to her feet, looks back at the fire, and then disappears.


With no idea what she meant, Mitsumi stares at where Nyrini last was, hoping, hoping…


The healer arrives, a shaven-headed demigod in a crimson robe, forestalling a question from Commander Kanya as the pain of setting her legs overwhelms any attempt at speech.


The minute that Nyrini is gone is the longest of Mitsumi s short life, but suddenly she is back, returning, as Mitsumi expected, to the same spot she’d left. However, she is filthy with ashes, her face pale, her hair ashen, mumbling, “They’re gone…”

Her teeth clenched from the healing, Kanya demands, “Gone?”

Nyrini looks at Mitsumi , as if she’s forcing herself to, as if she’s afraid to see her face and say what she has to say. “I can’t find them. Anywhere.”

Her blood running cold despite the waves of heat from the flames, Mitsumi forces her voice to stay calm. “Could Susan have teleported out?”

Nyrini shakes her head. “She was shackled. And knocked out cold.”

“Shackled?” Mitsumi gasps. “AMCW shackles?”

Nyrini nods, her shoulders slumping as she hides her face in her hands. “Think, Nyri, think!”

Mitsumi is also wracking her brains. “A trap. The assassin...was waiting? He could have taken Saengfai and Kanya , or Susan ...either one works just as well. To frame him, and blame Ankh-Morpork.”

Nyrini nods, staring at nothing. “It’s going down. It’s going down now.” She looks at Kanya . “Where’s the King?”

“What is going--” the Phedrawnese Watch Commander starts to say before Mitsumi interrupts her with “Where?!”

Kanya looks from one to the other. Their expressions convince her to reveal the sensitive information. “He's supposed to be meditating. In the palace, a garden. I...I was taken there once as a little girl.”

Nyrini looks at Mitsumi . The look they share is the bond of family. Susan is Nyrini’s adopted older sister, and Mitsumi’s creator, in effect her mother. Though one is a goddess and the other mortal, they are indelibly connected, through Susan and in other ways as well. “Get her sorted out, Mitzi . I’m going.”

Mitsumi nods, her face set in determination. She doesn't need to say anything. No well-wishes or good luck. No I-love-yous or be-carefuls. All that is understood as part of what they share.

And then Nyrini is gone, leaving Mitzi behind with Kanya and the flames.

Chapter 26: The Garden of Heaven

Oh great. This again.

Inky black drowning bottom-of-the-ocean clawing-for-the-surface blah-blah-blah. What a cliché, the private investigator getting whacked on the head, knocked cold, slugged, cooled, eighty-sixed, bonked, tick tocked, pistol whipped. Due to the Narrative Imperative that plagues the lives of gods and heroes, a private investigator’s skull is a magnet for every thug with a blunt object. There's no avoiding getting knocked out. He's known others who've tried. Shamus Flatfoot, who Saengfai sometimes has a drink with at the Private Dick, a watering hole for investigators, wears a pillow strapped to the back of his head, but that doesn’t stop a hot dame from slipping him a mickey in his drink at least once a month.

Also, not exactly great for business. Who wants to hire a PI with a pillow on the back of his head?

This getting slugged act gets real old, but it does have one advantage. Well, two. First, for some reason there’s never any lasting damage. Think about it: getting hit so hard on the back of your head so that you’re knocked unconscious, you’d expect some serious brain trauma, especially if it happens over and over. At least a coma now and then, or nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, memory loss, whatever. It happens to boxers, why not PIs? And yet he always comes out of it, in pain, sure, some brief dizziness, but basically fine.

And the second thing is, in keeping with the Narrative Imperative, he always wakes up at the dramatically appropriate time.

Of course, Dramatically Appropriate cuts both ways. If it’s your story, you’re probably going to be copacetic, wake up just in time to save the client and yourself, solve the crime, restore order. But what if it’s someone else’s story? Maybe you’re the PI who’s used to demonstrate how evil the baddie is. You get doused with gasoline and set on fire, or get your guts used for crossbow practice.

Trick is to always be the hero of the story. Or one of them, anyway.

So Saengfai claws his way back to consciousness, fights through nausea, and forces his eyes to open.

His hands cuffed behind his back. Naturally. And of course, he discovers after trying to melt the chain, the cuffs are enchanted so that he cannot use his powers. Susan is lying near him, her back to him, and he can see she is still cuffed as well. But they are both lying on the soft, neatly trimmed grass of a beautiful indoor garden, not in the burning room he last remembers.

“Well, finally you wake up. I was starting to think I'd have to do all the work here.”

Saengfai turns his head to follow the creaky voice, and sees a grey-haired woman, deep lines on a face with a large drooping nose, wearing an incongruously tight leather catsuit on her skinny, stooped, almost genderless body. Her hair is pulled back in a bun, and she’s holding an Ankh-Morpork City Watch shortsword lightly in one hand, familiarly, like she’s quite comfortable with weapons of all sorts.

Her off-hand is resting on the shoulder of His Glorious Majesty, the God-King of Phedrawn, who bears no name in this world but will be given one after he Ascends to Heaven to retire from centuries of wise and benevolent rule. The King is still and peaceful, sitting on a simple stone bench atop a small rise in the garden, which is filled with plants from all across the Disc. He wears robes of royal crimson, his long white hair and beard immaculately groomed.

Saengfai winces as the world swims while he struggles to a sitting position. “If you don't want to wait so long,” he slurs, “you shouldn't hit so hard next time.” He takes a long look at her, pretending that his eyes take longer to focus then they actually do. Let her think he’s weak. “So, it's you. The little old servant lady that nobody would suspect.”

The assassin grins, displaying big, perfect, white teeth. “Well, isn't that how it goes? Can't really make it as an assassin if everyone suspects you , can you? One-hundred-percent success rate, I have. Best of the best. Now I just need you to come a bit closer so you get some blood sprayed on you, if you don't mind.”

The King remains seated before her, sitting calmly, even serenely, knowing his throat is likely to be cut any moment. Saengfai shifts so he is on his knees, and bows as well as he can with his hands restrained behind him. “Your Majesty. We’ll get this taken care of momentarily.”

“It is good to see you again, young Saengfai,” the King says. His mouth is not visible behind his long facial hair, but the way his cheeks dimple and his eyes crinkle, Saengfai knows the old god is smiling.

“Please forgive me for violating the rules of my banishment,” Saengfai says, using the most polite level of formality.

The King shakes his head. “You have always been forgiven. This has all been written.”

Saengfai grins, head still slightly lowered but looking up at the King in a way he might never have done before spending the last few years in Ankh-Morpork. “Care to tell us how it ends?”

“Yeah, yeah, written down, hocus pocus,” the old woman gripes, taking her free hand from the King’s shoulder and moving it like a quacking duck. “Here's how it goes. King here is gonna die and you're gonna be framed for it. Don't worry. Don't worry. You won't have to live with the shame. You're gonna die too. And your little girlfriend there. Though she's probably already dead after the attack and the fire and whatnot.”

Saengfai glowers at her, moving back slightly as the assassin takes her eyes off him for a moment, so that his hands can touch Susan’s. Somehow, through all that has happened--getting knocked out, handcuffed, and transported here--still gripped in his left hand is something he picked up off the floor in the burning watch house.

Nyrini had cast a communication spell on him, but he knows that with the handcuffs on, it will be suppressed. Artifacts are different, and he has realized what he’s holding. Though he didn't recognize it at the time, with the chaos and flames around him, he knows now that he is holding Susan’s earring, which allows her to communicate with Nyrini, Mitzi, and even Azzageddi and the two Bunny children, Twilight and Ambar. Except he can't activate it--it's not keyed to him.

But it is keyed to Susan.

His fingers brush Susan’s. As he silently prays for a response, he stalls for time. “One-hundred-percent success rate, eh? Out of what, two jobs? Three?”

The assassin puts her hand on the King’s shoulder again, looking at Saengfai contemptuously. “Dearie, I've been doing this longer than you've been alive.”

“I'm sure you've never killed a god before. It can be tricky. Sure you're up for it?” He grins as Susan’s fingers twitch against his, and her pinkie hooks around his.

“Oh, I made sure to get all the right stuff, don’t you worry now,” the old woman reassures him. “Doesn’t do to take on a job like this on the cheap. Portal scrolls, Watch handcuffs, demon-ichor blade-poison, a dimensional-stabilizer spell to keep anyone from teleporting in or out of here. But that all just goes on the expenses sheet. I'll get it done and get paid enough to be set for life!”

Saengfai curls his pinkie tight around Susan’s, a lifeline to let her know he’s with her, the closest he can do to a hug of comfort at the moment. Then he carefully passes the earring from fingertip to fingertip to pass it to Susan’s palm, pressing it firmly so that, no matter how confused she still might be from the knockout blow, her fingers will close tightly around it.

He continues to stall. “You think you'll be allowed to enjoy all that loot? Your employers won't trust you enough to let you live. And the Watch, Phedrawn’s and Ankh-Morpork’s, are never going to believe your little setup. You'll be hounded to the edge of the Disc.”

The old woman grins at him. “And how will they know it was me after the only people that know it are dead?”

Behind him, Susan’s hand closes reflexively around Saengfai’s fingers, and he hears her very quietly mumbling something.

Chapter 27: Meet The Parents

“Eee!” CRASH!

When Nyrini appears in the palace kitchens, she is face to face with someone familiar. Still it takes her a moment to place the frightened girl as the same one she and Saengfai had encountered outside the kitchens--the one they’d saved from being harrassed by a soldier. The fact that they’d ended up leaving suddenly, along with Saengfai’s aging tiger Saad , had nearly wiped any memory of the girl from Nyrini’s mind.

The goddess glances down to see a silver tray covered in unidentifiable dishes, the sauces, meats, and vegetables scattered and splashed across the floor and the tops of Nyrini’s boots. Ignoring that for the moment, she grabs the frozen girl by the shoulders, and, looking imploringly into her wide, dark eyes, cries, “I need help! How do I get to the King's gardens?”

Only after she blurts this out does she realize that she yelled it in Morporkian, not Phedrawnese, and that she probably looks like a crazy person, her skin smudged with ashes, her hair wild and singed, her clothes--what little she is wearing--reeking of smoke. And now her boots covered with Phedrawnese cuisine, which, from the smell of it, is spicy enough to melt its way through the leather if left on long enough.

The girl shrinks back from the foreign goddess, staring at her face, and Nyrini lets her go, looking around wildly and trying to remember how to restate her request using her recently learned, meager vocabulary of the local language. The kitchen is bustling with cooks and servers, or at least it was until she teleported in, but one figure among the gaping crowd draws her gaze instantly, a matronly, middle-aged woman dressed in the bright-colored silken vest and loose trousers favored by the women of Phedrawn, but who stands out unmistakably as a goddess. Despite her mature appearance, she easily outshines all the pretty young women and men in the room, her iridescent hair shifting through every color of the rainbow, loose and falling in waves over her powerful shoulders, her body full and curved, the waist of her pants clinging to her motherly hips, her generous breasts barely contained by her straining vest. She wears orchids in her hair and earrings made of the feathers of some tropical bird. The wrinkles at the corners of her eyes do not detract in the slightest from their vital shine, and her unretouched but invitingly pink lips, presently in a frown, are only improved by the laugh-lines on either side of her mouth.

There is no question that this is a goddess, and one who does not attempt to hide or tone down her divine vitality, who perhaps could not do so if she tried. When she speaks in accented, imperfect but delicately polite Morporkian, her voice is not quite the low, husky tone that Nyrini expects, but pitched rather higher, quite lovely, and still powerful and commanding for all that. “Could you please repeat that thing you said?”

Nyrini forces herself to speak clearly and not too quickly. “I need to get to the King's gardens. Like, now! There's going to be an attempt on his life!”

The other goddess looks shocked, and around her a spinning mandala flares to life, all tones of green and blue and brown, causing the kitchen staff to jump back. She seems to grow larger as she walks toward Nyrini , ever-changing, fractal images of elephants, rice-plants, monkeys, mango trees, and all manner of local animals and plants spinning around her head and shoulders. She looks as if she could tear an army apart with her bare hands and barely break a sweat. “Who would dare? Tell me!” she demands.

Nyrini leans back but stands her ground. “I don't know. I mean, I do but I don't.” The other goddess raises an eyebrow, and Nyrini continues, “An assassin from Ankh-Morpork was hired to kill the King. They're gonna blame it on someone else.” She grabs her AMCW badge off her hip and offers it. “Lady, they have my sister. I just need to know how to get there.”

The older goddess takes the badge, frowning at it, and then reaches out and takes Nyrini's chin. It is not something the headstrong younger goddess would normally allow from a stranger, something that might even prompt a punch in the face, but this stranger exudes a sense of trustworthiness. She looks deeply into Nyrini's being, examining her carefully, and knowing the stakes, Nyri lowers her defenses.

The severe expression softens, and the older goddess says, “You are honest, despite the shadows on your heart. Come...my husband must speak to you.” She releases Nyrini’s chin and turns to stride toward the exit.

Nyrini blinks, recovering from the intense soul-searching she has just been the target of, and quickly follows. “Uuhh...sure, lady. Just...hurry!”

They go down opulent corridors, through a tight servants’ passage behind a concealed door, then into a hallway decorated with bas-reliefs of battles. The older goddess bursts into a private suite, calling out what Nyri has heard on the streets several times and has been mentally translating it as ‘husband’ or ‘dear’ or ‘shnuggums’ or whatever it is Phedrawnese wives call their husbands, and then launches into a loud, rapidfire explanation that Nyri can’t hope to follow.

A god, fit but stocky, his serious face dark and wrinkled by the sun, a head topped by close-cropped grey bristles, comes in from a side room, a large, round shield about one-third of his height strapped onto his arm. Strapped--but looking as if he was born with it there. The shield seems to be made of steel, decorated with enameled characters in Phedrawnese, in lines that spiral from the edges toward the thick boss at the center. Though it is writing, the complex characters are a form of art in themselves.

And this god emanates an aura of strength and intimidation that would make a rampaging elephant squeak like a mouse. Nyrini remembers what Saengfai told her, when she asked what his father looked like, so that she could avoid him. “Oh crap…” she breathes.

The older goddess switches to Morporkian. “She says someone to kill the King! She believes it to be!”

Nyrini shakes off her wide-eyed awe and blurts out, “You're… Saengfai's dad! They're gonna kill the King and blame it on your son!”

The god stares at her as if she is mad. “Saengfai? He is here?”

“He found out that someone was gonna try and kill the King. He…” Nyrini sighs. “Look, we brought him along, OK? It's a long story. But now he's gone and so is my sister--the Commander! The Morpork Watch Commander! They took her! The assassination is going down NOW!”

He hesitates, looking at her, seeing--as she can easily imagine--a foreigner, a barbarian most likely in his eyes, outlandishly dressed in leather that barely covers her torso, bearing a crossbow, sword, and other wickedly sharp objects, a mercenary or an assassin. “How can I trust you?”

His wife-- Nyrini realizes suddenly that this is Saengfai’s mother--says, “I told you--”

“The scar!” Nyrini shouts. “That scar you have!” She points at the goddess, hopping in place. “She gave it to you! Rock to the head. Saengfai told me!”

The goddess stares at Nyrini and then bursts out laughing, her voice liquid and joyful. Nyrini continues, handing her badge to Saengfai’s father. “And whatever this is worth around here. Where I come from, it speaks volumes.”

The god looks briefly embarrassed, reaching up to touch a scar on his skull that shows through the short grey hair. Then his face takes on a grim look and his shield glows with a silvery light. “I will take you.”

“Sure! The more the merrier. Heck, bring the whole force!” She stops, hearing voices--voices coming to her through her enchanted earring, Saengfai's and someone else's. “Oh no...I can hear them. The killer is a woman…”

Suddenly her arm is seized in a grip that could crush golf balls, and with his shield arm, the older god summons a blue portal. “Come!” he barks, and together they step through, leaving the comfortable rooms behind...

...and entering what appear at first glance to be the most peaceful, perfectly kept gardens in the universe, trees carefully trimmed and bearing lovely blossoms, ferns nodding over the soothing trickle of a small stream running through the middle.

But a harsh voice cuts through the quiet. “Get up, Ponytail! Get over here and serve your purpose. You’re going to die anyway. Play along and I promise I won’t pay a visit to all your little friends back in Ankh-Morpork on my return.”

A figure, no two, are facing away from Nyrini and Saengfai’s father. One is a skinny woman in leather armor, bent with grey hair tied in a bun. She is holding a long, thin stiletto, its enchanted razor edge glinting in the moonlight that shines down from above, the point at the throat of a taller but seated figure, motionless and calm, dressed in robes of silk that would probably cost more than all the money Nyrini has earned in her life so far, pirate booty included. His long white hair reminds her of Susan’s , flowing down his back. And across from them are Saengfai , sitting up and glaring at the old woman defiantly, and Susan , behind him and lying on the ground.


Nyrini glances at Saengfai’s father, and raises her hands. The technomagical gloves she wears activate noiselessly, glowing worms of light forming over them, and up in the sky, unnoticed by most of those below, a vastly enlarged image of what is happening appears, so large that every eye in the city will be drawn to it, and every ear will hear what is being said. Nyrini is careful to project the image’s sound outward, not down, so that the assassin will fail to notice.

“Won't it be perfect?” the woman cackles. “The prodigal son returns with his foreign girlfriend only to murder the King in the name of the interests of his new nation! People will eat that up like pie!”

Saengfai’s voice is dangerous. “Only if you make it out of here alive.” Nyrini has to give it to him: He can’t possibly not have seen them enter through that glowing-blue portal, but he never once glances their way, keeping the assassin’s attention on him.

“And who's gonna stop me?” the assasssin jeers. “You?”

“We will stop you. And whoever hired you, assassin.” Saengfai sounds confident and implacable.

The grey-haired woman shakes her head, her voice regretful. “Fine. I’ll just smear the King’s blood on you so everyone will think you killed him. It won’t have that fine spray, but sometimes an artist has to make compromises. Rest assured, though, I’ll make sure everyone you care about suffers for it.”

As she raises the stiletto to strike, the round shield from the arm of Saengfai’s father flashes through the air, knocking away the blade and incidentally clipping the assassin on the side of her head. A moment later, it is back on its owner’s arm.

The assassin staggers to her feet, holding her head and moaning. Blood is dripping down a long lock of hair, black in the moonlight. Nyrini teleports to attack her, but the young goddess sees a hint of movement from the corner of her eye, and has to dodge her head to evade a swift kick. “Oh come on! Who's this now?” She sees a slender figure dressed all in black, with only his eyes showing. Very flexible and skilled, he attacks her viciously.

Susan’s voice cries out, “Nyr! The shackles!”

Nyrini evades another attack by simply teleporting out of the way, appearing beside Sue and pulling out the key for her own City Watch shackles, which all use the same key. As she frees her sister, Saengfai springs to his feet. “Hey!” Nyrini cries, but then she sees that the assassin, taking advantage of the appearance of multiple black-clad assistants who are keeping Saengfai’s shield-bearing father busy as he blocks dozens of blows like a whirlwind, is quickly approaching the serene King once again, her wrinkled face twisted in fury.

Saengfai is fast, but even so, if Nyr didn’t need to free Susan , she’d have been beside him in a moment. His hands still shackled, Saengfai launches several rapid kicks at the old woman.

Susan cries, “Hurry, Nyr!”

“Hey, I’m kinda going through the stress of almost watching you die!” The shackles click open, and as Susan’s powers return, her hair, which had been tangled and tossed and singed by her earlier travails, rearranges itself into a perfect, simple ponytail to keep itself out of her eyes. At the same time, her scythe appears in her hand, the blade glowing with death-magic.

“There!” Nyrini teleports to Saengfai’s side. He is moving too fast for her to free him, however, and indeed he nearly kicks her. “Stay still! Gotta get these off you!”

A spinning blade flashes into her vision, and Nyrini reflexively moves her head a finger’s breadth to the left, so it passes harmlessly by her face. At the same time, her gaze follows back along the knife’s trajectory, and she whips out a blade of her own and has it embedded in the black-clad warrior’s forehead before she has even consciously processed all that is happening.

But during that moment of distraction, Saengfai grunts as the assassin stabs her stiletto into his belly.

“Hah!” the assassin crows. Then, with a thud from a hurled stone connecting with her head, she stumbles. As Saengfai slumps in Nyrini’s arms, the goddess can see beyond the stunned assassin another figure, Saengfai’s rainbow-haired mother, letting loose a stream of possibly profane invective. Apparently she followed them through the portal.

Wincing at the sight of the knife stuck deep in Saengfai’s guts, Nyrini manages to get the key into the lock of the shackles and turns it. “Free!” A fiery mandala appears around the injured god’s head.

Lights dim all around, and the moans of the dead fill the air. Susan Sto Helit is free and angry. She slices the air, and a black-clad assassin is caught in a rip of reality.

Saengfai seems weakened, so when he launches himself from Nyrini’s arms it takes the goddess by surprise. Then she sees what he had noticed: the assassin was still in the game, and had pulled out a pair of smaller knives. She’d been about to leap at the King, but Saengfai tackles her and slams her into the rip in the world that Susan created--but he starts to fall in with her.

A hand shoots into the rip, quick as a whip, and a pair of arms wrap around him, pulling him out and into a sitting position on the floor.

Saengfai’s mother rushes to his side, where Susan is holding him, his head resting on her lap. The rainbow-haired goddess touches her son’s pale, sweating face. “The poison...it is meant to kill a god…”

Susan closes her eyes and puts her hand on the wound on Saengfai’s belly, applying pressure while an aquamarine glow begins to spread from her hand. “It is. But I've seen it before. I will handle the poison. Could you keep him stable?”

The older goddess nods, laying her hand atop Susan’s and adding a multicolored aura to the death goddess’. Soon both goddesses have perspiration forming on their brows as well, as they race to heal the damage to his organs and break down the poison together.

Nyrini , unable to contribute, watches, worrying. Susan still looks weak, herself, from her earlier injuries. Nyrini had worried that her adoptive older sister had been killed. She glances at the King, who is being helped to his feet by Saengfai’s father. She realizes all this is still being projected above the city, and she hears a low roar from around the palace, a roar she realizes is cheering as the people see their god-king is safe.

She almost cancels the projected image, but decides instead to leave it playing a little longer. She wants to make sure the people know that their hero-turned-villain was almost framed, again, and that he has survived. Assuming he survives.

Slowly, the blood rushes back into Saengfai's cheeks. His breathing becomes easier. Susan slumps and breathes, “Done…”

The goddess next to her, hanging her head in exhaustion, leans slightly against the woman who helped save her son. “He will be weak, but will recover.” The two goddesses turn their heads to look at each other, never having met before, but they share a tired smile.

Saengfai moans weakly, his eyes opening. He looks from one goddess to the other. In Phedrawnese, he asks, “The King?”

“He is safe, my son,” says his mother.

“Son?” Susan repeats, looking down at Saengfai .

The injured god nods. “My mother, Umai ,” he says. “Goddess of Life and the Land. And throwing rocks, apparently.” He smiles weakly. “Mother, this is Susan Sto Helit , of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch.” He glances at Susan as if for permission, and adds, “My beloved.”

Susan cups his cheek with her hand, smiling, and a roar rises again from the city. She looks up. “What is with the light show?”

Nyrini approaches, followed by the King and Saengfai’s father. “Oh, uhm... I thought that it might be a good way to stop the assassin from getting her plan to work. Can't be all stealthy if everyone's watching.”

“Well, that is one way to deal with that problem,” Susan says drily. “I believe it has served its purpose, however.” There is another round of cheering after Nyrini turns off the image projection. After it dies away, Susan , in her best and most formal Phedrawnese, nods her head and says to Umai , “My apologies. It is an honor to meet you. I have heard many great things about you.”

As the two goddesses exchange pleasantries, Nyrini squats by Saengfai and puts her hand on his shoulder. “So...up for another round yet?”

The god smiles weakly. “I think maybe I've hit my limit tonight.”

Nyr waves him off. “Eh, you're just sayin' that 'cuz you got stabbed with a poisoned blade. Big deal! I nearly got cut in half and I was drinkin’ a few minutes later!”

Susan sighs and says to Umai , “This is my little sister, Nyrini . She looks strange but she's a good girl when she wants to be.”

“Hey!” Nyrini does her best to look annoyed, but she can’t help showing her relief that the mission is accomplished and none of her people have died.

Umai laughs that beautiful, unrestrained laugh again. “We have met. She is most impressive!”

Saengfai pats Nyr’s hand and smiles up at his mother. “She really is. I meant to visit you after this was all over.”

Umai looks doubtful. “You think you can return home after years and not see your mother? Foolish boy!” She strokes his hair affectionately, her face lighting with a smile. “You seem to have found good friends in that strange city.”

“I have.” He looks about ready to fall unconscious again.

A shadow falls across them. It is Saengfai’s father, looking grim. He kneels, eyes on his son. He shakes his head and asks, “Again?”

The ponytailed detective chuckles. “Seems so.” To Susan , he says, “My father, Shkan , God of Protection.”

The burly god nods to her. “It is an honor to meet the representative of Ankh-Morpork. And you...have brought my son to me.” He bows his head, then solemnly takes Saengfai , whose eyes open again in surprise, in his arms. Umai puts her arms around both of them.

Susan lets him go, slumping back against Nyrini , who had teleported into position for just that purpose. She could see how exhausted Susan was after being attacked and nearly burnt alive, then caught up in a battle and spending all her divine energy saving Saengfai’s life.

A gentle breeze wafts across the group, and Umai and Shkan look up, almost standing, only to be told by the King--who has approached unnoticed, moving in absolute harmony with the universe, like a breeze himself--gestures to them that standing is unnecessary. He is tall, thin, and long-bearded, and merely looking upon his gentle face induces a sense of serenity.

“You have all done a great service to our nation, and to our people.” His voice carries with it the gratitude of an entire country, the spirit embodied in this sacred leader. “We thank you.”

Nyrini nods at him. “All in a day's work. Ain't that right, Big Sis? Uh...Sis?”

Susan rouses from having nodded off. “Hmm..?”

In a loud whisper, Nyri hisses, “Hey! King's talking to you!”

Susan's eyes open a bit wider but are still unfocused. She looks at the King and nods slowly. “It was an honor.” By the final word, her eyelids already fluttering again.

The King of Phedrawn smiles, his eyes squinting. “You must rest now.” He makes a small gesture--

And suddenly they find themselves in a comfortably appointed den, with silk-covered sofas, shelves full of leather-bound books, a counter laden with drinks and food, and doors leading to bedrooms. Everyone is still there, but their clothes are cleaned and repaired, and so are their bodies, feeling fresh as if they’ve just had a shower, though not damp at all.

There is a slight gasp, and Nyrini , who is now reclining on a comfortable sofa with Susan in her arms, sees Mitzi has joined them, apparently plucked from wherever she was, and appearing cleaned and refreshed.

The voice of the King, disembodied, says, “Do not fret about anything. Rest, and when you are rested, we shall speak again.” And with that, the lighting dims slightly, and Nyrini feels Susan drift off to sleep in her arms.

Chapter 28: After The Fact

The early light of dawn filters through the window and caresses Susan’s eyelids, gently rousing her from sleep. She wakes to a feeling of weight and pressure to her front and back, a somewhat unexpected sensation that makes her open her eyes to find Mitzi curled up in her arms and sleeping like a log. Gently rolling on her back, she finds Nyrini cuddled up to her as well, one arm draped over Susan’s waist, sleeping peacefully as well. Definitely not the person she has been waking up to in the past few days. Still, she is lying in bed--a bed at least. Not any bed or room she might recognize, though.

Memory of the attack on her and on the King takes a few seconds to spark. She grimaces as her mind goes through the images of the ninjas, the feeling of having no control over her body, the sensation of a dry and irritated throat, the sight of the assassin threatening the King, the memory of Saengfai wounded and poisoned in her arms. Has she truly met his parents? It would seem so. They seemed nice, didn’t they?

Slowly, carefully, she wriggles herself out of her Bunny-and-goddess cocoon and out of the bed as well. Her clothes are laid out on a chair, looking clean and intact, as if they haven’t been through the assassination attempt with her. She reaches for her ear to find her earlobe fully healed, the earring perched where it belongs. Hadn’t someone ripped it off her ear? She cringes at the memory of the pain.

Susan sighs as she gets dressed, wishing that magic would stop making things even more confusing than they are by erasing all trace of past events. As quietly as she can, she leaves the room, to find herself in a spacious antechamber, where servants are busy cleaning and preparing the table for breakfast. She greets them in almost whispered tones and they greet her back with a cordial wai , indicating the food plates to ask if she would like to eat before the others wake up. She tells them no and leaves the chamber, careful to pay attention to landmarks on her way out so that she may return later.

Her mind is still in a jumble and she would rather take a walk to set it back in its tracks. The early morning streets greet her with remnants of chaos, mostly looking like a lot of people have gathered in them to celebrate...something. Posters, hastily made, proclaiming Saengfai a hero, condemning the enemies of the King have been affixed to the walls of shops and any available poles. She walks by a man just closing his tavern with a look about him of one who has stayed up all night and not exactly just selling his wares to customers but instead avidly joining them. A toy shop is already open for business. The owner is hastily making a doll. One that looks...like her! Like Susan herself. Long white hair, probably made of wool, it looks so puffy and rough. A half dozen just like it are ready to sell, along with dolls that bear a resemblance to Nyri , Saengfai’s father and mother (she recognizes the shield and the rainbow hair from her vague memories) and, of course, Saengfai himself.

All of this makes her happy and melancholic all at once. It is clear that Saengfai’s exile stands to be lifted, the fire god allowed to return freely and proudly to his place of birth. But it also means he would leave Ankh-Morpork , the city he has been calling home for the past five years, the one he seems to have embraced...and her home. He could return to his life here, all he has lost with his exile. His family, his home, his people, his culture. But that would also mean they would be living a full ocean apart, on different continents. Could their budding relationship survive that? Even if he has introduced Susan to his mother as his beloved (the memory of if makes her heart swell), could they defeat such distance?

She stands at a crossroads. She would never ask him to stay in Ankh-Morpork if he decided to return to Phedrawn. She would never ask him to give up this chance of picking up his life back where he left it. But she does not want to lose him either, to say goodbye to all they could yet become. She sighs at finding that her feet have taken her to the tower where the Caravel is docked. Her mind telling her of the easiest way out. She closes her eyes, breathes deeply.

And teleports herself aboard.

Chapter 29: Aboard The Caravel

The cabin feels even smaller now than she remembers it. The cozy place of her nights spent with Saengfai on their way to Phedrawn. Sweet nights in the peace and tenderness of his arms. She sits on the bed, stroking Saad’s ears as the tiger takes advantage of a humanoid presence that doesn’t seem to fear him and relaxes, massive head set on her lap.

“You must miss your friend so much,” Susan says, half to herself. “He has missed you dearly, you know? He has missed all of this.”

“Susan ...” Saengfai calls her from the door. “What are you doing?”

She does not look at him, emotions warring in her. “I just...needed to think. My mission here is done.”

Saengfai approaches, taking a seat next to her on the narrow bed. He places a hand on top of hers, leaning to get her to look at him. “I haven’t seen my family in years. I have to stay...for a little while.”

“Of course you do,” Susan agrees with a nod. “And you will.” Her hand twists to hold his as her blue eyes lock on his. “That was what I was thinking about. I will have to return to my city and my job. But you...you have a chance to retrieve all that was taken from you. And you should take it. I don’t ever want to think I robbed you of that.”

Saengfai looks at her in surprise as if he does not quite catch the full meaning of her words. His lips curl in a soft smile as realization dawns. “ Sue … Do you think I want to be somewhere where people are always pointing and staring at me? I already miss Ankh-Morpork. I’m not interested in recapturing the past. I have a life there. A path I’ve chosen. And...” His smile turns coy. “I have you. I hope. Why don’t we just stay a little longer? Mother is insisting she’s going to teach you how to make all my favorite dishes. Which I can do, of course but...it would make her happy. And then...I was really hoping we could sail home, together.”

He looks around with affection at the place of their first night together. “I love this little cabin.”

“It's a bit tiny,” Susan notes. “ Nyr could surely have made it bigger…”

He looks at her again. “It’s more than big enough.” He leans closer to her. “Even with a tiger.”

He kisses her with a gentle intensity that deepens with her acceptance of him and stretches on through lost minutes. A guilty relief infuses the goddess at the same time a sharp decision forms in her mind. Even if he does return with her, Saengfai will return here often to spend time with his family. She will see to it. Enough time has already been lost between him and his people.

She holds him closely as they break away, her forehead pressed against his, enjoying the simple contact. “I would love to stay. I would love to get to know your family and learn to cook whatever dishes your mother throws at me. And to be happy with you here.”

She feels him smile more than sees it. “Yes, enough rocky moments.” His tone turns heavier, shaky as he strokes her hair. “Seeing you unconscious in that burning room… I thought… I don’t want to say goodbye to you, Sue .”

Susan pulls away from him a little. “What do you mean, burning room?”

“Oh...we found you collapsed in your room before the assassin knocked me out and took us to the garden,” Saengfai explains. “Whole place burned down to ashes along with everything in it, I’m afraid.”

Suddenly, her memories of a really dry throat make sense. “Oh… Then, I guess… I am down to this dress and my dress uniform for the remainder of this trip…”

Saengfai chuckles. “Well, I’m sure we can figure that out easily enough. For now…” He squeezes her hand. “How about we go back to the palace? Mom and Dad are dying to get to you know better. They didn’t really get the chance before…”

“Yes…” Susan says with a smile, touching one hand to Saad’s head. “Well, here we go.”

They appear in the chamber where the servants had been preparing the breakfast table to a veritable scenery of chaos. Ambar , who had been running in front of Twilight and Silvershade , presumably in a game of tag, nearly rams into them, stopping just in time to find himself face to face with Saad .

“EEEEEP!” The young Bunny shrieks.

Saad stares back at him, rather frightened as well. The scene makes Susan chuckle. Hesitantly, the tiger sniffs Ambar, then rubs his furry cheek against the bunny, making him giggle.

“Who's this, Mommy?” Ambar asks, petting the massive cat without a single sign of fear or concern.

“This is Uncle Saeng's pet tiger, Saad ,” she replies. To Saengfai she says. “You had them brought over? Did anyone at least warn Azz about what is going on?”

“Oh, this was all Nyrini’s and Mitzi’s idea,” Saengfai tells her, jerking his head toward the goddess and Bunny, who are watching them from the breakfast table, along with Umai and Shkan . “ Azzageddi knows, of course. And he sends his love. It was Nyrini who teleported me onto the Caravel when we first noticed you were missing.”

“Oh…” Susan cannot help but smile at her sister. “That rascal…”

Saengfai snorts and tugs gently at her hand. “Come on. Breakfast is served.”

Susan smiles and follows, unresisting, letting Ambar , the newest expert on tigers in Phedrawn, introduce Saad to his cousin Twi and to a curious but careful Silvershade .

Chapter 30: Kitchen Chaos

Umai, the rainbow-haired goddess of life hands Twilight a wooden bowl filled with a vegetable oil and some seeds ground to powder. “Now mix that up very good.”


“Okay!” Twilight replies, taking a spoon made of bamboo and setting up to the task with great concentration, while Ambar, charged with washing some vegetables under a small kitchen fountain, busies himself with handing Susan some washed cucumbers to chop.


They are in her house, in her husband, Shkan’s, house. The house Saengfai was born and raised in, in the Phedrawnese countryside, surrounded by rice fields and a stretch of tropical forest that is home to elephants, tigers and other exotic animals rarely seen in Ankh-Morpork or in any other land of that continent. The house is mostly made of wood, with walls lined with rice paper and the occasional light plaster made of local pale-colored clay stained with ochre and yellow pigments. The flight in the Caravel from the capital here has been mostly a calm one (as calm as things get with two kids, a tiger, a cryophoenix and a wolf aboard) and after an afternoon full of bunny-children running around and exploring nearly the whole of the large family house made for quite a few dozen people to live in at a time, things have slowed down to a pleasant countryside-paced lul of living. Umai has been teaching Susan how to cook some local dishes and the children, used to quiet family moments of preparing food and eating, have found their way to the kitchen as well, delighting in helping with whatever little tasks can safely be thrown at them.


“That’s it,” Susan says, glancing to the side to make sure her bunny son is not getting half of the kitchen wet. “Wash them with care, Ambar.”


“Sure, mommy!” the child chimes happily.


Of course, as is the case with all children, Ambar’s approach to washing anything involves getting more water splashed over himself than on anything else in need of a good cleaning. A typical setback of letting them help around the kitchen, but not the most upsetting of things. In fact, the sight of Ambar with his shirt nearly drenched makes Umai laugh with delight. “It is, um, a happy time, having them here,” she says, hesitating in her Morporkian, slightly self-conscious of her heavy Phedrawnese accent even if she can speak the language of Susan’s city pretty much correctly. “They make you smile.”


And indeed, Susan is smiling over the children’s presence and joy, but also over the warmth with which she is being received by Saengfai’s mother, a goddess whose nature is so antagonic to her own. “They do,” she replies with a nod, speaking slowly to make it easier for Umai to catch the words. “They usually help me in the kitchen, back home. It is like a game for all of us.”


“It is good,” Umai agrees as she stirs a pot of stew set over the fire, one hand resting on her hip as if the memory of holding a baby while cooking remains with her muscles. “Saengfai always loved the kitchen. He is born to it.”


“Oh, he still does,” Susan replies with a chuckle. “And the children love cooking with him. Isn’t that so, Ambar?”


Ambar looks up at his mother with his big brown eyes shining with enthusiasm. “Hmm mm! He’s fun! He can chop stuff like zoom! zoom! zoom!”


He gestures with his hand open, palm sideways, moving his arm in swift, cutting motions, across the air and into the water, splashing everything around him.


“I think we get the idea, dear!” Susan exclaims quickly, to make him stop.


This only makes Ambar giggle at his own antics and Susan dips her fingers in the water to splash him a little. The extra water does not make the considerably wet child any wetter but it turns his giggling into full-blown laughter, forcing him to stop what he is doing to clutch at his belly.


“Ambar wants to chop like that but Uncle Saengfai says he's got to wait awhile,” Twilight quips, handing Umai the bowl with the thoroughly mixed and ready seasoning. “I said Ambar would chop his fingers off.”


“Oh now…” Umai coos.


Twilight’s eyes widen suddenly, her long ears tilting back in concern, as she rushes to say, “I didn't mean it!”


Umai strokes the child’s hair, smiling at her before pouring the contents of the bowl into the stew. “Of course not. There, that's very good.” To Susan, she explains, careful to point out the finer details of this particular recipe. “Now we heat it carefully. It must not, hmm, bubble? Not more than a very little. So Twilight is Nyrini's child?”


“Yes,” Susan states, pouring some sliced onions into a lacquered bowl. “And Ambar is mine. Although...the borders are blurry there. Twilight is... bound to Nyri, let us say.”


“And...the ears...do they...have the same father?” Umai asks, hesitating a little more than usual, a little out of confusion and probably a little more out of fear of brushing a possibly sensitive subject.


Which just makes Susan chuckle. “No… they are artificial creations. Souls that wished to live so much that they found an alternate way into the world of the living.”


Umai’s brow knits, this time most definitely confused. “Artifi...like artistic?”


“Like not natural,” Susan explains. “Their kind did not exist before. They do now. Like...a god creates humans. I created bunnies. Or better said, they created themselves.”


Realization dawns on the older goddess and she brightens immediately at the story of spontaneous bunny creation, turning to the children in excitement. “That is a great accomplishment! Poets will sing your myth, little ones!”


“Yay!” Ambar cries happily. He trails off, however, turning to his mother. “What’s a myth?”


“A story, Ambar,” Susan tells him. “Spread from one person to another to teach a lesson or explain something.”


“Your hair is pretty,” Twilight’s voice suddenly quips.


The non sequitur seems to entertain Umai even more, making her laugh in delight. “That is part of my myth. After I used the rainbow to cross the sky so that I could marry Shkan, people started to say I had rainbow hair. After some weeks, my hair changed.”


Twilight gasps, her eyes wide. She jumps in place, with unrestrained excitement. “I want rainbow hair! Like Princess Springshower!”


“We will ask your mother,” Umai replies, turning to Susan for permission. “It only lasts a few days, but it is a blessing I can give.”


“Oh, I am sure Nyri wouldn’t mind,” Susan says. A stray memory of an adolescent Nyrini with neon-green hair and enough earring on one ear to force the young goddess’ head to always tilt to the left makes her sigh. “She has done far worse in her youth.”


“If you are sure,” Umai replies, laughing at Susan’s expression. She touches Twilight's hair, making a shimmering rainbow aura appear around the girl and her pale hair change to locks of all colors of the rainbow. “There. Now for a few days you will have luck as well.”


“Can I have it too?” Ambar asks, tugging at Umai’s skirt.


“Of course!” the goddess exclaims, extending a blessing to the boy. She looks at Susan, saying, “I always think it looks lovely on boys, though the priests think it's only for girls. Sometimes I do not understand them…”


“Humans…” the death goddess replies, shaking her head.


“Does it look good, Mommy?” Ambar asks excitedly, patting his hair as if he could feel the change with his fingers.


Susan kisses his head in response. “Yes, it does. Why don’t you go show the others how nice you look?”


And with a nod and an exhilarated look at each other, Twilight and Ambar dash out of the kitchen, calling for Nyrini and Mitzi to show them the sudden makeover.


Umai watches them go, smiling tenderly after them. “They are lovely,” she says. “And you. You make Saengfai happy.”


Susan smiles, looking down at the green peppers she is chopping, feeling shy over talking about her romantic relationship with Saengfai with his mother but appreciating the familiarity and ease of Umai’s ways. “I am glad.”


Feminine cries of “How pretty!” and “Why does my kid have rainbow hair?!” coming from somewhere out of the kitchen make her glance at the door before replying, “He makes me happy as well. And the rest of the family is very fond of him, as you can see.”


It is Umai’s turn to look uncomfortable and pause before speaking, slowly stirring the pot of stew. “It is good. He cannot...cannot stay here long. His heart is too restless. He had many years of trouble here.”


“Sometimes, it is only in leaving that we learn to appreciate where we come from,” Susan offers, touching Umai’s arm. “When he told me about you, he spoke of how he did not always understand how good you were to him. But he does now. And he won’t stay away.” She smiles. “I won’t let him.”


Umai looks at Susan, her eyes moist, and switches the spoon from her right hand to her left to be able to pat the hand Susan has placed on the life goddess’ arm. “Thank you. You saved him. And our King, and land. I am almost happy for all that trouble. You are a Death goddess...if we met otherwise, I think maybe I would not open my heart to you for a long time.”


“And I would have understood,” Susan replies. “But...this seems much more pleasant. Even with the attack and the fire and the--well, all that happened.” She sighs, shaking her head. “And I thought that being Watch Commander would just mean boring paperwork…”


The comment makes Umai laugh, a musical, joyous sound carrying a body of Spring and birdsong. “You are one fated to adventures. Like Shkan and I. They are fewer now, but still we make stories for the poets.”


Susan chuckles. She rarely laughs, she realizes, not one to find most things amusing enough for full blown laughter. She envies for a moment those people who can maintain enough lightness in their life to truly, freely laugh. Still, Umai’s well-humored spirit is contagious. A touch to her leg makes look down to see Silvershade and Saad looking up at her, the wolf having just touched her with his nose to get her attention. “Oh...what is this now?”


“Ahh, this greedy tiger! I remember you!” Umai exclaims with a clearly false tone of scolding. She picks a chunk of meat from a bowl, the bite-sized pieces already prepared to be added to the stew, and throws it toward the tiger, who catches the morsel with ease and pleasure. Then, she repeats the process, this time throwing the meat to Silvershade. “Begging creatures!”


Susan smiles at the obvious affection in Umai’s voice, but still says to the animals. “Oh, they better not be! This is not how I raised you, Silvershade! Is Saad teaching you bad habits already?”


As if understanding her every word, Silvershade whimpers, looking up at Susan with big, shiny, pleading eyes.


“Oh you…” the goddess mutters.


And Umai tosses him another chunk of meat, the corner of her lip curling in satisfaction at Silvershade’s happy munching. Catching a meaningful glance from Susan, she notes, “He's hungry!”


“He is a wolf,” Susan counters, chuckling at the older goddess’ silliness. “For as long as you keep feeding him, he will always be hungry.” She leans closer to Silvershade, signalling him with a flick of her wrist toward Umai. “Go on. Say thank you.”


Obediently, Silvershade stands on his hind legs, puts his forepaws on Umai’s shoulders and touches his nose to hers in canine appreciation. Which makes Umai cross her eyes to focus on the wolf’s muzzle, laughing at the situation.


“Silly wolf!” she coos, grabbing his face and ruffling the fur of his cheeks. “Go now. No more treats or you will be fat!”


Silvershade drops to his four paws, looking at her with his mouth open as if the word fat sounded like a great achievement. And by his side, Saad looks at Umai like there is at least one chunk of meat missing from his menu.


The goddess grumbles at him in Phedrawnese and tosses him the meat he is due before gesturing them both to leave. “Go, go! Hunt deer! You need exercise!” Watching the two unlikely new friends leave, she sighs. “We looked for Saad, after Saengfai left. He disappeared.”


Susan nods. “We suspect he was kept all these years under very poor conditions. As bait to force Saeng into revealing himself. He was at the palace when they found him, accompanied by a soldier who knew very little about him.”


The revelation makes Umai’s eyes widen with shock. She shakes her head. “Things in the capital became bad. Very bad. Now, maybe it will be better.”


“We can hope,” Susan agrees. “I am planning on keeping a close contact with the Watch here. Make these training events something that happens every year. Help where I can. And I know others who will be ready to step in and help if need be.” She smirks. “When I told the cops here that the Watch was a thing of the people, they smiled as if I was silly. Now… Well, let us hope they remember my words.”


“Our ways are different, it is true,” Umai notes. “We must change. But not so much we forget who we are.”


Susan smiles, pushing the last of the chopped vegetables into a bowl with her knife and handing Umai the bowl. “I couldn’t agree more, ma’am.”

Chapter 31: Board Games

Voices throughout the household-- Susan and Umai in the kitchen, Twilight and Ambar (suddenly, adorably rainbow-haired) in the bath with Mitzi , other family and servants, divine, mortal, and somewhere in between--working, playing, conversing, together the voice of a multigenerational home speaking. That voice speaks of comfort, of inclusiveness, of many lifetimes lived in, on balance, an even-keeled happiness under the benevolent guiding hand of the two immortal founders of this small local pantheon.

But one of them is listening to another voice. Shkan , the Shield, studies the blonde wood of the Encircling Game board, its surface criss-crossed with etched lines, nineteen by nineteen, with numerous smooth lenticular stones places at the intersection, some white, some black.

“Hmm, yes. Good. Now you have that territory.” He places a black stone with great gravitas, completing a chain of black stones that surround a group of white ones. “Though now I have captured those pieces.” He begins to remove the white stones from within his encirclement.

Nyrini sits back in her silk-upholstered chair. “Ah man! Don’t you have something more in the range of ‘armed guerilla’? I wasn’t made for big armies.” Scowling, she leans forward again and fishes out a white stone from the heavy jade bowl on her side of the board. She places one of her white stones, completing an encirclement of her own, and she removes a pair of black pieces.

“This is why you must learn,” Shkan replies. His voice is gentle and patient. “You may someday be called upon to lead a large force.” He places another stone, and looks at her face. It takes only two heartbeats before her look of concentration turns to disbelief and then annoyance as she sees the inevitable end of the game.

Nyrini’s shoulders slump. “Now that’d be the day… I’d end up like this.” She gestures at the board, then lackadaisically places the last white stone. “There. Now it’s official.”

“You have just learned the Encircling Game today. It is no surprise that you will not win. But you did well.” He dips his head toward this strange young goddess. Her open, unrestrained attitude makes her immediately likeable.

She grins, a bit bashful. “Aaww, well thanks! You’re a good teacher. So...does everyone around here learn this kind of thing?”

He nods. “It is often simply called ‘The Game’. It was brought here from the Empire. But their players…” He pauses and gives a small smile. “None has yet beaten me.”

“No wonder I’m losin’ then,” Nyrini mutters.

Susan enters the room and approaches. “Nyrini, Twilight is asking for you. Bedtime for her.” She speaks in Phedrawnese, rather than the Morporkian they have been using.

“Oh...right. Lost track of time. Sorry, General. Gotta go. Maybe Big Sis here can fill in for me.”

Shkan stands as Nyrini does and reaches out his hands to take hers lightly. “I will be happy to play you again tomorrow. Rest now, Naddaa .” A blush reddens the tanned cheek of the young goddess at his affectionate use of niece . It is used with those whom one regards as close and accepted into one’s familial circle. Phedrawnese, especially those here in the countryside, may use it with anyone of their closer community, but it is rare to use with one from outside the village or town, and especially a foreigner, but this girl helped save his son and his king, and he likes her spirit, beside all that. “Sleep well.”

“Sure. We’ll play tomorrow. Good night.” To Susan she says on her way out, “Game’s not bad just...don’t bet any money against him.”

“Good night, dear,” Susan replies with a chuckle. Then she looks at Shkan and asks, “Well, Nyrini blushing. That’s a rare accomplishment. May I join you?”

“Of course.” Shkan begins clearing the board, putting the white pieces in the lighter-jade bowl, and the dark pieces in the darker one. “Have you played?”

“Not extensively,” she replies, “but provided the Phedrawnese version is like the Agatean, a few times, yes.”

Shkan nods. “It is the same...though we play with a different style. Agateans play aggressively, overconfidently. Like your younger sister. We play coolly, patiently, wearing the aggressive player out before we destroy him.”

Susan smiles as he signals for her to place her first piece. “Well, I play like a beginner so I will ask for patience now. And probably beg for mercy later,” she adds with a chuckle.

Shkan shakes his head, smiling. “No mercy. It is but a game, no?”

“I have come to realize that trivial as the game may be, how we play it is something never to be dismissed.” She picks up a black piece and places it on the board near the middle. “Something I have tried to pass on to my sister.”

Shkan picks up a white piece and places it, nodding. “That is a valuable thing to teach. And teachers are respected in our lands. It is...ironic that we play coolly. For our name means ‘the fiery people’.”

Susan chuckles. “True...but fire can sleep in hiding sometimes. Waiting for a sudden draft to fan the flames.” As the game proceeds, she removes a couple white pieces from the board.

“Learning patience was necessary, as our neighbors grew in power. Too much fire, and soon we would be burnt out.” Shkan takes a few of Susan’s pieces.

“But too little and no embers will be left. It is a fine balance. I have seen it in other kingdoms like this one. Places suffering with the same internal demons.” She shakes her head.

“And banishing the demons is not simple. His Majesty knew much was wrong. But stepping on each little fire would do no good. A true cleaning was needed”. He looks at her compassionately. “And you were forced to be the broom.”

Susan snorts. “Oh, I very much suspect my own ruler did not send me on this mission in complete secrecy from your King. Alas, I have grown used to being the proverbial broom. Or any other tool that might be needed. As we like to believe, being in the Watch is not so much what we do but very much who we are.” She waves her hand idly in the general direction of Nyrini and Mitzi’s quarters. “All in our own different ways.”

A click as Shkan places another stone. His gruff voice is rich with warm respect. “You are a teacher, and a guardian. A parent, and a friend. But you are not a tool. Though you are used, you are still yourself. Serving with satisfaction of knowing you are doing something of great benefit to many.” He touches the shield that rests against his chair. “This is what I am. But I am more than my shield, as well.”

Susan looks at the shield, then at him with affection. “Yes… And yet, you are always the shield as I am mine.” She taps her chest where her badge would hang were she on duty. “And that is not something easily forgotten. But you are right, there is life beyond the shield. And I am glad I can do something to make it better.”

“You have.” He feels his heart warmed by her, by all these friends of Saengfai . She is so unlike the distant, cold Death gods of his land. “You brought my son home. Even if he is not to stay, he is here now. And your little sister says she will bring him back to visit, whether he wishes or not.”

Susan echoes Shkan’s chuckle. “And he will not stand a chance against her on that issue. Or against me, for that matter.” She casts her blue eyes down. “Nyrini and I...we both lost our parents when we were very young. We of all people know, how losing all this can damage a life.”

Shkan looks grim. “And we had lost him.”

Sue puts a hand on his as he places his next stone, causing him to look up from the game and into her eyes. “I cannot imagine how painful it must have been.”

Shkan smiles sadly. “We knew he was in pain. But also we knew he was free. We always knew he would leave. He has never fit well here.”

Susan chuckles. “Troublesome boy...I’ve heard. But...a good man. He has been a hero to me and my children.”

“Yes. Nyrini told me some of what he did in Ankh-Morpork. I am proud of him for helping your children.” He glances in the direction of their bedrooms, from which giggling can be heard faintly. It sounds as if Nyrini and Mitsumi, she of the Moon Rabbit’s ears, are telling a story together, with the children joining in and adding to it. “I will be sad at their departure. This is a home meant to ring with the laughter of children.”

“If you like, I can bring them over for a visit when life permits,” Susan offers. “I find that travelling is a wonderful thing for a growing mind. And they obviously like it here.”

“It will be another home to them. And to you as well.” He laughs. “Already, Umai is planning a trip to your city. You should prepare your people. I am afraid for them…”

Susan laughs at his joke. “Maybe after she is done with them, I will be out of a job. We will take good care of her. She will have plenty of places to stay. I know that you have your duties but please know that those doors will be open to you as well.”

Shkan sighs. “I will come if I can. But soon, our blessed King will ascend to join our long line of god-kings who dwell in Heaven, and we will have a new Queen. And this is still an unstable time, with threats from our enormous neighbor. She will need protection.”

Susan nods. “Of course.”

The game has been going on all through this conversation, and Susan places one last stone. Shkan places his, and she sees, as Nyrini did before her, the inevitable. He has slowly maneuvered her into a position that will, no matter what she does, lead to her defeat in six more rounds. She looks at him with eyebrows raised, and he gives the Phedrawnese apologetic smile, something that can confuse those from the other side of the Disc, but which she seems, perhaps from Saengfai, to understand, because she shakes her head and gives a soft chuckle that he is beginning to recognize as very much a part of her personality.

Araa ...torturing this poor girl with your obsession.” Umai scolds her husband as she enters the room carrying a tray of treats, followed by their son, Saengfai. “Shame on you.”

Shkan and Susan sit back from the game, both knowing the inevitable conclusion and seeing no need to bring it about. “It is a good thing to have a conversation around! Besides, she has a sharp mind.”

“And yet, I still lose,” Susan says. “But it is fun to play. It brings back good memories of the person who taught me the game.”

Saengfai sits next to Susan. “Oh, who was that?”

“There is a shop in Ankh-Morpork,” Susan begins. “Close to the Shades, a bad part of town, full of robbers, monsters, the bad, the ugly and the strange. I used to patrol there. Every young Constable who gets into trouble ends up there. But I requested it.”

Umai looks at her divine but scruffy son. “You don't live there, do you?”

Susan rescues Saengfai from squirming under his mother’s inquiry. “I can assure you he is perfectly safe whenever assassins are not being sent to kill him.” She pats his leg and smiles at him. “Anyway, there is a shop there that sells all kinds of natural remedies. The owner is this wonderful old lady from a small kingdom independent from the Agatean Empire. Looks perfectly normal on the outside. But if she looks into a mirror...you’ll see a rakshasa looking back.”

Umai sits up straight, her eyebrows raised. “Rakshasa!” Shkan slumps in his chair, thinking, Oh, no.

Susan looks to Saengfai, confused. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Mother and Father had an encounter with a rakshasa early in their relationship,” he explains.

Shkan puts his hand on Umai's. “Fortunately she has good aim with a thrown stone.”

Susan suppresses a laugh. “I...guess I’m not taking you to visit that shop after all. The lady has always been very kind to me, however. I used to stop there for tea and a game.”

Umai looms over Shkan, one eyebrow raised suspiciously. “She could be the same one!”

“I am not planning to visit her! Anyway, I was under an enchantment!” Shkan, the Shield of the King, quails before his wife.

“Likely story!” Then she laughs and it becomes clear she was teasing. “Silly old god…” She slides into the chair with him, snuggling, and Shkan puts an arm around her. He knows that if Umai is this comfortable and affectionate in front of Susan, she must already have accepted the death goddess as family. And as he looks at his son and the strangely white-skinned, white-haired goddess, at the tender smile the two of them share, holding hands and looking into each other’s eyes and whispering, he can only think, Good . Saengfai’s restless heart seems to have found someone who can bring some quiet to it, that he could never find in Phedrawn.

Susan breaks free from Saengfai’s gaze and catches Shkan watching them and smiling. He looks away, not wanting to cause embarrassment, and she tries to cover up the moment by asking, “What is this you brought?” He can hear the amusement in her voice.

“Mother’s specialty, luemgluem ,” Saengfai says, indicating the little cups of green custard topped with a white cream, each one small mouthful. “ Pandan custard topped with coconut cream. Smoked with jasmine incense. The name means ‘I forgot I swallowed’.” Saengfai demonstrates by taking a little cup and just sliding the custard into his mouth, closing his eyes, and smiling in pleasure.

Susan takes one and, following his lead, slides it into her mouth. Her face lights up and her eyes go wide. “Mmm...Oh, this is wonderful! I can see why it’s a specialty.”

Umai smiles brightly, then looks around. “Where did Nyrini and Mitsumi go? The children are asleep eh? Ah well, small children sometimes don’t like this. The jasmine flavor is more for adults.”

“Oh, I am sure they will love it,” Susan says. “But yes, they were fighting sleep and losing. Nyri and Mitzi are just keeping them company, as they have bad dreams sometimes. And...I think Silvershade and Saad are in there as well.”

Shkan downs one of the small cups of pudding, stilling his mind to fully enjoy the complex flavors before he swallows. Then he says, “They have had a hard time recently.”

Susan nods. “They were kidnapped and threatened. All in all, a bad story for a pleasant evening.” Her voice is dark, but she looks at Saengfai and gives him a small smile. “Although it did have its good parts.”

He squeezes her hand and returns that smile. “The best part was when it was all over.”

Susan looks back at Shkan and Umai. “They are better now. Most nights are peaceful ones. And they have had a great, fun day today. They will be telling the rest of the family all about it for weeks.”

“And who is the rest of the family?” Umai asks.

Saengfai says, “Well, there is Azzageddi. He didn’t like me at first, but we seem to get along now.” He grins at Susan. “He is just very protective of those he loves.”

“Yes,” Susan agrees with a rueful smile. “We have been friends for… well, since the Academy really. Mitsumi is his partner. Then, the rest of the bunnies: Sasha, Pasha, Shade, Peaky, Poindexter, Flower.”

“There are some I haven’t met?” Saengfai is surprised.

“Oh yes. But not all of them stop by regularly. They tend to stay in the temple grounds of the gods they have become attached to. There is Godofbeer, Nyrini’s usual patrol partner and just as bad at it as she is. And dear friends such as Brinjal, a vegetable god. And of course, our mortals, Leonard, Aillara, Aliyaa, Manoel, Drinkus…”

“I need to encourage Myrna to visit the bar more,” Saengfai muses. “She could use the company.”

“Myrna?” Umai asks.

“Uh, my hero...heroine.” Saengfai looks embarrassed.

Umai claps her hands together. “Oh! Destroys monsters in your name.”

Susan bursts out laughing and Saengfai chuckles. “Uh, the monsters of tax accounting I think. She is a bit different from most heroes.”

“You have a god of beer in your family?” Shkan asks, intrigued.

“Oh now he will visit!” Umai accuses. “And he will try to look up that rakshasa too…”

Susan, still chuckling, rubs her eyes and says, “In his defense, it is really good beer…” Sleepily, she continues, “Well, I hate to be the weak link but...this has been a long week.”

“You rooms are next to each other, with sliding doors between.” Umai smiles kindly at them. “I hope this does not bother you.” Saengfai blushes, while Shkan shakes his head.

Susan, however, winks and jokes, “It means I can go and wake him if he starts snoring.”

“Good point!” Umai jumps to her feet and takes Susan’s hands. “Sleep well, Naddaa .”

Susan nods and squeezes Umai’s hands back. “Thank you. And you as well, Umai.”

The rainbow-haired goddess’ face reddens, starting with the nose, and her mouth trembles.

“Oh no…” Shkan says, realizing what is about to happen.

Umai suddenly turns from Susan and grabs him. She holds on tightly, shaking in quiet sobs of happiness. Shkan pats her back, then takes one of Susan’s hands. “This is your home, Naddaa ,” he says with warmth.

Susan smiles, touched. “Thank you. I couldn’t wish for a better one. Good night.”

Chapter 32: A Walk In The Forest

Standing motionless, his black stripes across blue-grey fur blending in with the sunlight and shadows slashing through the forest canopy, the aging tiger almost disappears among the infinite shades of verdant vegetation. The white-furred wolf, however, dashes past, causing a veritable earthquake of rustling leaves the size of elephants’ ears, sending droplets of shining dew flashing through the air, each a momentary diamond in sunlight. The tiger flinches and glares after his canine counterpart, adding a brief growl of annoyance at his new friend.


Saengfai and Susan both laugh as they walk, hand in hand along the forest trail, watching the pair of animals explore the jungle off to their right. Though technically a wilderness, it shows the presence of humanity: a maintained path, cleared undergrowth. The flowers of parasitic plants hang from thick, ancient branches of trees that spread across an area the size of a city block, trees whose roots arc up from the ground like breaching sea serpents. It has an almost garden-like quality, while still retaining its primal beauty.


Saengfai, wearing light linen pants of deep green and a thin white singlet, points out a brilliant gold-and-emerald butterfly the size of Susan's hand, where it perches on the edge of a white-and-purple orchid to sip at the nectar. “Those are migratory. They pass through here before the rainy season begins.”


Susan, wearing a loose, simple one-piece dress of airy blue fabric, moves carefully closer to get a better look. “The spots on their wings...These camouflage as birds’ eyes, don't they?”


Saengfai nods. “Yes, a large eagle. We may see one or two near the waterfall. There used to be a mated pair there, with a huge nest they’ve built up over the years. My favorite butterfly has lobes that look like quite-realistic snake heads on the lower tips of its wings.”


Susan smiles. “You have a favorite butterfly?”


Saengfai laughs, a little embarrassed. “Don’t let it get around in Ankh-Morpork. I have a tough-guy reputation to uphold.”


“I don't see how you manage!” Susan chuckles. “I mean...not that you are not strong, just you’re...you know, sweet.”


Bashful, Saengfai takes a moment to answer. “Thank you. But I’m not sweet to everyone, you know.” He flashes her a smile.


“You are sweet to the ones that matter to me.” She moves closer to lean slightly against him. “And that is more than enough.”


“You bring out that side of me. It’s a side I had forgotten I have.” He walks quietly for a few steps. “But it’s Ankh-Morpork too. Something about that place. The people. I love it here but...nobody really needs me here. There...I help people.”


Susan smiles into the distance, as if toward the city of which they speak. “Something about a city of broken people... Every small act of kindness becomes a miracle. It is a reminder of what gods are really for.” She looks at him and squeezes his hand gently.


Squeezing back and running his thumb across her knuckles, he says, “I’m very lucky. I spent so much time rebelling against my parents, but I see now how they shaped me. All this,” he gestures at the forest, “is because my mother and the rest of the family want to make a happy home for the mortals here. And for the animals as well, and spirits. I feel guilty for running away, but all I have to think of is those cold, filthy alleys, and some kid lost in them, and I’m longing to be back in Ankh-Morpork.”


Susan nods her agreement. “Still, you’ve been so happy these past few days. At peace with past and present.” Still holding his hand, she looks down. “I feel guilty that I will soon have to leave.”


“Why should you feel guilty?” He looks at her quizzically.


“Because,” she says reluctantly, “you will be coming with us, and so I will be robbing you of all this. And of your family.” She stops walking, turns to him, and pulls him closer, looking into his eyes. “Listen, I could easily come back and get you in a few weeks…”


Saengfai turns to her and puts his hands on her waist. “No. I am enjoying myself immensely, but I am having to resist every hour the urge to grab you and say, ‘Let’s sneak back to the _Caravel_. Grab Nyr and Mitzi and the kids, and cast off!’” He kisses her, at first as if only intending a brief peck, but lingering, his eyes closing in pleasure.


After a long moment that feels both an eternity and far too short, Susan pulls back and says, softly and slightly out of breath, “I think your mother would kill us both if we did that…”


“Well, that’s part of why I don’t,” Saengfai replies. “But anyway, I do have clients I have been ignoring. Myrna prays me reports… But I need to return in not too much longer.”


“And so do I,” she says. “Before Azz thinks I have left him in command never to return. Deserted to a tropical paradise.” She chuckles at the thought, clearly tempted. “And I'm sure he'll be wanting Mitzi back.”


Saengfai tilts his head. “Oh yes. I thought they were a couple and then...I thought maybe she and Nyrini…” He pauses, not sure what to say. “But I’ve often been a bit confused about all the relationships there.”


Susan shakes her head, a small smile on her face. “Well, Azz and Mitzi _are_ a couple. Nyrini...she's recovering from a bit of a heartache. Not yet at a point to consider anything serious. Not that anything can remain serious for long, with her in the room…”


Saengfai laughs softly. “You know I wasn’t too sure about her at first, but I’ve grown to really like her on this mission.”


“I'm glad,” Susan says, her smile broadening. “I can tell she likes you too. And yes, Nyrini is an acquired taste. Wild flowers often are. But believe me, you will never have a truer friend than the one you have in her.”


“Possibly a friend who gets one into interesting trouble, too. But you and I would be dead without her, and this kingdom lost.” Holding her hand again, he continues with her down the jungle path, the sounds of bird life and calls of a distant troop of monkeys echoing all around them. They come upon a ridge that overlooks a pool surrounded by moss-covered boulders. At one end it foams where a lightly roaring waterfall cascades into it, throwing up mist through which a rainbow shines, while at the other it is so clear that they can see fish swimming lazily. Spreading jungle trees overshadow it, preventing the sunlight from being too strong, and the tips of branches reach down to barely skim the water’s surface.


Susan marvels at the beautiful sight, but continues speaking of Nyrini. “We have all played our part. I raised her. Trained her. We barely need more than a shared look between us, most of the time. When I brought her along, I knew I could count on her to run things while I was busy. It was Nyrini, the agent, you saw this time. Not many people see it and live to brag about that.”


Saengfai chuckles. “I am glad to have had the privilege. Well...here we are.”


Saad slowly, a slight arthritis in his joints, hops down boulder to moss-covered boulder to reach the pool, then steps smoothly into the water, swimming across. Silvershade mere watches from above, panting in the humid heat but unsure about this swimming thing, made nervous by being in such a strange environment.


Susan laughs at the tiger “Someone is in the mood to get wet.” She breathes in deeply, raising her arms above her head, stretching and looking around at the greenery, the azure sky filled with thin streaks of clouds here and there, the wildly vertical mountains off to their left, the plain spreading below to their right, and the ferns and moss and clear, pure water just below them. “This is gorgeous.”


“Maybe if we get in, Silvershade will join us,” Saengfai suggest, stripping off his light shirt to reveal his soft-brown skin over powerful, compact muscles. He shucks down his trousers, leaving small skintight trunks his only clothing.


Susan smiles at the pleasant sight and pulls her blue dress off over her head, revealing a purple and orange bikini woven out of the same rough silk and cotton blend out of which most traditional fabrics are made in this kingdom . She walks by Silvershade and jerks her head toward the pool. The wolf follows her down the boulders, as she follows Saengfai, stepping where he steps and once catching his hand for balance, until they reach a small overhang about half a body-length above the water. Susan glances at Saengfai, grins, and dives. Though it is unfamiliar water for her, the pool is so clear that she can easily gauge the depth, and she slips into the water with barely a splash.


But a much larger splash explodes beside her, as her young wolf leaps in. Susan surfaces and laughs, while Saad, on the other side of the pool, gives a little disgruntled growl again, an old man to Silvershade’s teenage exuberance. The wolf ignores the tiger, splashing happily along the edge of the pool, nose held high to keep water out.


And then there is an even larger splash as Saengfai cannonballs into the pool, sending a huge spray into the air. Susan turns her head just in time to avoid getting water in her eyes, arms held out against the tidal wave. Eyes closed, laughing, she splutters, “Is the pool empty yet?”


Saengfai surfaces, gasping. “I forgot how cold it is! Oh, this really takes me back…”


Saad swims to Saengfai and gives him a big tiger hug, his paws huge. Silvershade, meanwhile, has found a shallower area close to the edge, where he stands with the water halfway up his legs, shaking and spraying droplets in every direction, then pawing at Susan's leg as she approaches, to ask for some petting. She strokes the wolf’s head. “It feels great in this heat. Doesn't it, Silvershade? You always have such a tough time with heat…”


“I was worried about him getting sick. So much panting.” Saengfai disentangles himself from Saad and swims over to where Susan is.


“Oh, he's been through worse, haven't you? When we were up in the mountains, that was really hot. He'll live.” She hugs the wolf. “My little puppy... Amazing how Saad looks undisturbed by this heat.”


“Oh, he gets hot, but he’s used to it. His fur isn’t as thick as Silvershade’s.” Saad, grunting, again mock-tackles him, and Saengfai wrestles gently with the old tiger.


Susan watches the two playing in the shallows, smiling as she pets Silvershade. Saengfai barely hears her murmur, “Two tigers...which of them the most tame?”


“Tame?” Saengfai struggles out from Saad’s grip and, laughing, speaks a command that causes the tiger to stand down. The fire god steps through the shallow water to Susan, taking her arms and pulling her away from Silvershade, where the bottom slopes until the water is above their waists. “No tiger is ever truly tamed,” Saengfai says, his voice soft in her ear. He looks at her face, sees those icy blue eyes looking at him with warmth and passion. He raises his right hand to her cheek and tilts her head. His warm lips meet her cool mouth, the sensation unique and ever-new to them both. Her mouth opens to his, her tongue sliding against his. Her body pressed against his, he loses himself in her. His fingers on her back find the strap of her bikini top. Such a simple thing to release the catch...


Suddenly the sun is blocked as if by a cloud out of nowhere. But no cloud could appear so instantly. Saengfai breaks from the kiss, his soldier reflexes taking over without thought. Then the light is back, and then shade again, all before he can finish looking up. A trio of voices fills the air, one female crying “NYRI!” and the other two, high-pitched to the point of pain, screaming “EEEEEE!!!” with fear-tinged joy, and then there is a huge splash followed by the sound of Nyrini laughing on the overhanging boulder.


Susan, her hair soaked and in her eyes in dripping sheeted locks, growls, “Nyrini!” as Mitzi surfaces, looking like a soaked, well, bunny, ears down, snorting water from her nose, and looking around to make sure that Twilight and Ambar are all right--which, of course, they are, already laughing and paddling their way toward Susan and Saengfai.


“Oh, come on! That was funny!” Nyrini insists. She waggles her eyebrows at Susan. “Oh... I didn't interrupt anything, did I? GAAAH!”


Mitzi, slipping underwater while Nyrini was teasing, erupts from the water and grabs Nyrini’s ankle, trying to yank her into the water. Unfortunately for the black-haired bunny-woman, Nyrini’s ability to teleport is unparalleled, and Mitzi is falling back into the water almost immediately, her prey having disappeared.


But Susan has known Nyrini, her adopted little sister, for far too long. “Oh no you don’t!” She turns and grabs, knowing exactly where Nyrini tends to go when she’s surprised--just how far, at what angle and height, knowing her sister will try to end up sitting on a low-hanging tree branch. And so she is, and Susan has Nyrini’s leg and has pulled her into the water for a good dunking before Nyrini can escape.


They both surface. Nyrini spits water out. “That was cold, Sis! Literally cold! Man! What’s water in the place doing, being so cold?!”


You looked like you needed it.” Laughing, Susan pushes her back down in the water.


Saengai, meanwhile, is playing with the kids as they romp with Saad and Silvershade. Mitzi, near them, struggles out of her poofy _salwar_ pants, tight at her narrow waist and ankles but waterlogged otherwise to that they are threatening to drown her. Fortunately her underwear functions as serviceable bikini bottom, and the small silk vest she’s wearing makes an acceptable top.


“Nyrini asked me to check on you with farsight,” Mitzi says, pointing momentarily at her eye that, once upon a time destroyed by a god in the form of a spear, was regenerated by powerful magic and gifted with an ability to see things far away, “and suddenly we’re in the air, falling!”


Susan shakes her head. “What does this family have against the concept of privacy?”


Nyrini laughs derisively. “Uh...hello! Kids! You wanna have privacy with kids around?”


Mitzi, who along with Azzageddi has helped raise Twilight while the young bunny’s mother Nyrini has been away on mission, rolls her eyes, “Tell me about it…hey!”


And thus the splashing begins.

Chapter 33: Rainy Season

The first lights of day are cold, greyish. The morning dawns with coolness and wetness as rain falls steadily in heavy drops onto the wood and thatch roofs, sliding down in narrow cascades that hit the wooden flooring of the balconies with a lulling sound. Susan opens her eyes toward the door that leads to the balcony, left ajar against the humid heat of the previous night and ponders if she should risk waking up Saengfai , sound asleep by her side, one arm draped over her flank, to get up and close it. After a moment of internal dilemma, she snorts at her own silliness and, with a whispered command word and a movement of her fingers, magically orders the door closed.

“Rain woke you up?” Saengfai asks sleeply as the door slides softly on its wooden rails.

“No,” Susan replies. “Though it sounds like this rain is here to stay.”

“Yes…” Saengfai breathes, sadly. “The rainy season has begun.”

The house welcomes the morning as usual, with the laughter of children and general quiet joy from the adults as everyone gathers at the table for breakfast. And while Shkan looks every bit his serious but warm self, Umai seems a little too excited, speaking rapidly and laughing often, almost too quick with her words for the visitors to catch what she is saying half of the time. Her eyes look red and puffy as if she has been crying since dawn. The goddess announces the festival that will begin in the afternoon to welcome the rainy season, its start just decided after the arrival of this steady rain that keeps falling.

Throughout the meal, Saengfai looks sadly and concerned at his mother, taking the first opportunity to speak to her quietly just after breakfast is done. Susan watches from afar as he talks to her low and quiet, comforting, receiving quiet nods in reply from his clearly suffering mother. It is not long before Susan finds a few moments alone with him, in the kitchen and he explains what is happening.

“With the rainy season comes storms,” he says, putting down a small pile of dishes to be washed, the reason for their presence here. “The Caravel will soon find it dangerous to depart. It is time to leave.”

“Oh…” Susan looks down as she puts down the cups she is carrying. “I see. I will be sad to go. Is there anything we can do to ease our farewells?”

He nods. “I’ve promised to bring you and Ambar and Nyrini and Twilight and Mitsumi ...am I forgetting anyone? Uh, bring everyone back for a visit soon. She wants to meet this Azzageddi fellow as well. And somehow she found out about Sasha and Pasha and talks about them like they’re her nieces…” He laughs quietly at his mother’s antics.

Susan , on the other hand, smiles tenderly at how welcoming Umai is of her family. “Then we will have to bring them here...Or her there.” She reaches to take his hand and squeeze it, comforting. “I must say I will miss all of this. You have a wonderful family.”

Saengfai’s hand closes around hers tightly, as if he were about to do something truly frightening and needed her reassurance. He looks into her eyes, hesitating before talking. “Is this… This isn’t moving too fast for you? I don’t want you to be frightened. I feel like I should be… But… I’m not.”

She shakes her head. “I’m not frightened. I feel that...no matter what happens between us, these people are friends.” She looks down, smiling timidly and blushing slightly. “Although...I hope...I want this to work. Very much.”

She can hear the momentary silence, the slightly longer exhalation as he breathes out after holding his breath. Susan looks up into Saengfai’s eyes to see them smiling, even though his expression betrays some nervousness. “Me too. It seems rather crazy, in a way, but… Well, that’s my whole life up to now, isn’t it? That I should end up halfway across the Disk, sometimes in another universe entirely, to meet you, a death goddess, a cop…” He puts his arms around her waist, touching his forehead to hers as her arms drape over his shoulders. “...and to have it work out. At this point, so many crazy things have happened, it feels like, of course it’ll work out. And the only thing that worries me is how little I am worried about that. It feels right, Sue .”

Susan smiles in bliss. “Then worry no more. It probably is.”

She tilts her head and touches her lips to his, delighting in his warm, tender joining empowered with a passion made stronger by excitement and relief. The kiss extends, delays in ending, sweet and languorous.

And when it ends, Saengfai holds her a little closer, looking at her with solemn seriousness. “The trees in your garden sang [link] that my secrets were creating a block between us. All my secrets are gone. My troubled youth, the death sentence on my head, my...uh, ‘hero’ status. All there is left is details, and I have no reason to hold those back if you feel any need to know them. ”

Susan strokes his hair and shakes her head. “No… I wasn’t all that worried when the trees sang. I knew that if I was meant to know and we were meant to work, you would tell me, eventually.” She considers her own secrets. “Well, I don’t seem to remember any secrets I’d bother keeping from you other than, maybe, things having to do with my divine calling. And even those are not that interesting.”

“Everyone has a right to secrets, as long as they won’t create a barrier, or endanger others,” Saengfai replies with a shrug. “But I have nothing, now, like that. Just things I haven’t had time to tell you yet, that’s all. And…” He smiles at her, leaning closer, breathing just before another kiss. “We will have time...”

“Hmm mmm…”

They break after another short eternity of communion, embraced, their breathing a little quicker.

“So…” Susan says against Saengfai’s shoulder as he holds her tightly, like a stone in a raging river. “How can we bring a smile to your parents before we leave?”

“Um...well, I think we don’t need to worry about that.”

His tone, makes her look up, then behind her, to where he is looking. Just by the kitchen door, Umai and Shkan are standing, turning away as if pretending not to have seen the young couple, their faces showing, with their guilty smiles, that they have been watching for at least a few moments. Susan cannot stop herself from blushing at this.

“Oh…” She chuckles quietly, her arms tightening instinctively around Saengfai , who holds her just a little tighter in return before releasing her. “Caught…”

“Oh I saw noooothing…” Umai chants to a tune that might belong to some popular song that Susan has never heard. “I saw noooothing…”

“I don’t think they know that one,” Shkan tells his wife, the stack of dishes in his hands jingling softly as he hands them to Susan down. “It’s only two years old.”

“Hmph. Susan will need to listen to more Phedrawn music!” Umai states. “So she understands my jokes.”

The demand makes Susan laugh, putting the dishes in a tin of soapy water. “I will have to learn the language first!”

“You already speak so well!” Umai argues. “Anyway, it is easier than that Agatean mainstream language. So much more logical! Other languages cannot compare.”

Susan , still laughing, raises her hands in defeat, saying in the same Agatean that Umai has just criticized, “I surrender.”

Umai laughs and repeats the phrase in Phedrawnese, adding, “A good one to know when dealing with me!”

On an impulse, she hugs Susan , a warm and close hug, friendly and motherly, the rarest of signs of affection in Phedrawn, even between family members, where closeness comes in a deep wai or held hands.

Susan hugs her back warmly, enjoying the feeling of her maternal embrace, the sweet gesture stolen from her so early in life by the death of her parents when she was but a baby. She finds herself almost overwhelmed by the simple, friendly hug, so happy that she is close to tears. “Thank you...so very much.”

As if sensing the young goddess’ intense feelings, Umai squeezes her a little tighter, all signs of jesting gone, holding Susan , the strangely pale, foreign death goddess, with deep, sincere warmth as if no one else exists in the world. She whispers in Susan’s ear, “This is your home. This is your family.”

Susan says nothing but nods, her eyes closed as she regains control over herself. Eventually, she lets Umai go. “So...uhm...what is this festival like?”

She looks to her side to see Shkan and Saengfai already entertained doing the dishes, discreetly but very obviously giving the two goddesses a moment of privacy.

“Well, everyone gets wet,” Shkan explains.

“No umbrellas allowed!” Saengfai states matter-of-factly. “Everybody wears light clothes and enjoys the rain on their skin.” He pauses. “Though, hats are all right. Who likes getting rain in their eyes?”

“Festival food,” Shkan adds. “Toasted rice cakes, roast corn and other traditional dishes.”

“Sounds like the kind of thing the children will enjoy,” Susan says, smiling.

“I understand the bunnies are like our monks,” Umai notes. “No meat. But there are still lots of food they can eat!”

“Oh yes,” Susan replies with a nod. “They will actually fall ill if they eat meat. Which means I barely cook my old recipes anymore.” She sighs with resigned nostalgia.

“Oh we have many non-meat recipes here,” Shkan tells her. “So many Phedrawnese do not eat meat. But we love food, so we have a variety of dishes we can share.”

“It’s true. I’ll cook for them!” Saengfai says happily.

Susan chuckles at his energy. “Very well, you’re hired! When can you start?”

“Sounds like I’ll be the ship’s cook for the voyage home,” Saengfia notes, smiling at her.

Umai , however, does not smile, patting her son’s arm and sighing. “Yes… You should go tomorrow. The storms can come on suddenly. It’s best not to wait.”

Susan nods. “It will be sad to leave but...My Patrician will be fuming already with our delay.” She shakes her head, but brightens up, mostly for the sake of Umai’s mood. “But today is not tomorrow. There is still some fun to be had.”

“Then let us dress you for the festival!” Umai says, reaching for Susan’s hand and tugging at it. “Come, come! My daughters are already dressing Nyrini and Mitzi and the children. Though Nyrini’s clothes seem entirely appropriate already. Even a bit more suited to rain than normal…”

The comment makes Susan laugh as she gets dragged away from the kitchen. “I think that is the first time Nyri’s clothes have been appropriate for anything!”