Fiction Inferno: The literary magazine that burns you up

Seri Ember

Lazette Gifford


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f I hadn't celebrated that night, I would never have gone to the café, nor afterwards taken a walk down toward the park. I was there to mark the day, five years standard since my release from the Verlack Crèche, and to drink a toast to all those who did not make it out with me.

And another toast to Seri Moss, who might still be here on Terra Nova. I hadn't given up. I wouldn't.

I left the café a little after sunset, and stood outside taking deep breaths of the sweet, flower-scented air. I knew people watched me. I looked exotic. I was made to be that way, and though I doubted anyone knew I was one of the cloned Seri, they could still see the difference that made me not quite human.

Tonight I wanted to be with one of my own. I wanted to find Moss more than I had in years. I felt the time slipping away: the weight of failure, and the fear of my friend suffering at the hands of the person who had bought Moss.

I turned toward the park and the pond. There I could sit and watch the other exotics; the ducks, geese and swans imported from Earth to entertain the masses, just as I had...

No, I would not be bitter tonight. I closed those thoughts away as I walked. The bright white streetlights made pretty patterns against the cracked cement where an occasional stray green-leafed weed had worked its way upward, searching for life in places it was not allowed. I liked the weeds better than the cultivated flowers.

If I had not been walking there, I wouldn't have seen the murder.

I noticed the spots of blood before I heard the whimper, and then the words, as she begged the man not to kill her.

"Please. Please--you know we can't hurt you. You know Sofian can't be the one! Please don't kill me!"


A cry of pain, followed by a bark of surprise from the man. Someone came around the building's corner and ran at me. She was small and dark-haired, her face bloody, and her already ragged clothes ripped. She saw me, gave a little cry, and shoved me aside. I fell into the flowerbed, and went unnoticed as the killer ran after her.

I tried to scramble back to my feet and grab him, but I had drunk one too many toasts to my lost and dead friends. By the time I even made my knees, the two had run half a block. The girl tumbled at the edge of another streetlight's glare, and the man stopped between her and me. I could not see what he did, but I could still hear too clearly.

"Please," she said, so softly that her voice was almost lost in the night.

"I need you dead. You and your brother. It's all that will make him happy. No more questions about who betrayed us."

"Please, oh please..."

A blow and then... a sound that stopped me. Made me ill. It was, I knew without seeing, the sound a long blade makes cutting through human flesh. I had heard it before, from the very night that I had been celebrating. So many had died--

A cry, choking ... silence. Before I could move, the man stepped back, and pushed something I could not clearly see into his long, dark coat. He looked around, but not down into the shadowy flowers where I still knelt. While I watched, he pulled a communit from his pocket.

"I got the girl," he said into it. "I don't know where that bastard brother of hers is. Shouldn't be too hard to find him, though. And that'll be the last we need to worry about any trouble on this end."

Except for me, I thought. I stayed very still, there on my knees in the sweet-smelling shadows. The ambient light of the street lamp half blinded him,  but as soon as the killer came away from it I would be clearly in view. I dared not move. The night, even in this city, was too quiet as he put the communit back into his pocket.

He looked down, nudged the girl with his foot, obviously just to make sure--

People came around the corner behind me, and I looked back in panic, wondering if the man had accomplices.

"Hey," the woman said, looking down at me.

The killer obviously thought he had been spotted. I looked back at him in panic, fearing he would come for us, but he had turned and started to flee.

"What's happened?" the woman said. Her eyes went wide and she held tighter to the man's arm. "Donal!"

"One of you should call the officials," I said very quietly. "He just killed someone."

"No. Oh."

"Go back and call from the café," Donal said. "I'll stay here with--"

"Ember," I said. I lifted my head, knowing what he thought: Male? Female? They couldn't tell. "Seri Ember."

Their eyes went wide. We are rare, the Seri. The astonishment helped the woman past the shock of the murder. She started away, but I saw her pause at the corner and look back--not at the body, but at me.

I didn't attempt to stand. Donal didn't ask anything about the murder, though he did walk the few yards to make certain the girl was truly dead. When he came back, he looked considerably paler.

The authorities arrived quickly, and the news teams as well. I didn't like the way the reporters kept turning their cams toward me, even before the Captain took me aside for questioning. I could imagine all the people, watching the live news line, pausing in their lives to look at me.

"I'll need your name, designation. You aren't a local," the captain said.

"I've lived on Terra Nova for three years," I said. "My name is Seri Ember. Would you like my ID?"

"Yes, please." He had hardly a flicker of eye movement at the name, and no other show of surprise. Captain Rhyden was very well trained. "Tell me what happened."

I carefully reported the details. When I finished, he nodded, impressed and possibly grateful. I had heard part of Donal and Tara's report, which--even as late as they had been--had run far longer than mine, and jumbled many of the facts.

"Sofian," he said as he finally clicked the pocket comp off, my report already transmitted to his HQ. "You are certain that was the name?"

"Yes sir."

"Found out who it is, Captain Rhyden," another man said. He was not nearly as well trained. His eyes kept flickering back toward me, even as he spoke to his companion. "Sofian is the dead woman's younger brother. He's a mutie."

"Mutie?" Rhyden said.

A longer stare toward me, a bit of a reddening. "Not like... ummm... I meant that he can't hear or speak."

Rhyden shook his head, and I rolled my eyes, which very nearly got a smile from the Captain. "Any idea where we can find this Sofian?"

"Got a home address down over The Edge, just a street--no building. Better get patrols down there, and see if we can ferret the little Rat out."

"And find out what they were involved in, Ordway," Rhyden added. "I want to know why he killed her."

"Obvious she was just a little hooker who found the wrong--"

"That was not what happened," I said.

"What would someth--someone like you know about it?" Ordway said.

"More than you could ever imagine."

Ordway had not, obviously, expected such an answer. He went bright red, and not from embarrassment this time. But Rhyden stepped between us, nudging him away. "Go do your work and stop harassing the only reliable witness we have. Weren't you paying attention? Who did the killer sound like to you?"

"The killer?" Ordway said. He blinked and the color left his face, along with the anger. "Post. It sounded like Post."

"Go locate this Sofian, and find out what he and his sister were involved in."

"Yes sir."

Ordway didn't even look at me again, which made me worry. "Is Post someone I should have heard about?" I asked softly.

"No," Captain Rhyden said, but then shrugged. "But it is someone you need to know about now that you're involved. Shall we go somewhere more discreet?"

I wanted out of the eyes of the reporters and  their live cams, and away from this place. I would never be able to walk along this path to the park again, I realized. Not if I meant to be relaxed when I got there.

"Seri?" Captain Rhyden said.

"Yes sir," I said. The reporters still watched us. "Some place discreet would be welcome."

We ended up back at the café, but in a private booth this time. Rhyden seemed to know the proprietor, which I found odd and amusing. They seated us immediately, and a human waiter came to serve the table, rather than a robo menu. He did not ask the Captain what he wanted. After taking my order for coffee, he scurried away.

"You come here often," I said. I didn't, suddenly, want to talk about the murder.

"I live in the Skyview Apartments a few blocks away. My wife and I dine here at least once a week. I've seen you here a few times as well."

"It is half way between home and the park. I like to sit by the pond. And the food is exceptional." I could see the waiter coming back with a tray. "Not to mention the service."

Rhyden smiled this time. "The owner is my cousin."

"Ah. Good. I had visions of . . . favors done," I said. The man carrying the tray slipped through the sound baffle with a little woosh of sound. "And of waiters bribed."

"I don't make enough money to bribe Starin," Rhyden said. "Do I?"

"No sir, you don't. I make more money than you do. At least that's what your cousin tells me, and he wouldn't lie, would he?" Starin said with a little quirk of smile. I was used to the robo service, and found having a human waiting on us rather disconcerting. "Cream or sugar, Seri?"

"No, thank you," I said, taken aback by the use of the proper appellation. People usually called me sir or ma'am.

"Thank you," he said, stepping aside, tray under his arm. "If you need something more, please ring."

Then he turned and left. I let my hands brush against the cup, but didn't lift it just yet. I felt shaky, and I suspected that caffeine was not going to help.

"Perhaps you should tell me more about this trouble. About Post?" I said.

Rhyden nodded, setting his cup aside. "Post is someone who works for Theo Martin, an Earther who emigrated to Terra Nova nearly 50 years ago. He's reclusive and very rich."

"And given to having people killed?"

"Yes, though not on a whim. Whatever Evina and her brother were involved in, I can guarantee it is not trivial. And that, Seri, brings us to you."


"Had I any indication of the seriousness of this murder, and the implications of where it would lead, I wouldn't have allowed the reporters to follow me in. As it is, I've put you in a dangerous position. You are a very high profile witness who has already been seen on the live feed."

"Ah." This did not settle my nerves. I started to pick up the cup, and changed my mind again.

"There is another question, however. One I wanted to discuss with you before my superiors hear your report. It was very good, you know. Filled with considerable detail."

"I am glad that you found it useful."

"And where did you get that skill? Specifically, you said that Evina had been killed with a long-bladed knife, though you didn't see the weapon."

"I heard it." My mouth went dry. I had no choice but to pick up the cup, but I shook so badly that I spattered brown against my skin and the cuff of my shirt. I sipped and set it down again. Captain Rhyden looked surprised. I took a deep breath and continued before he could ask. "I had heard dozens killed that way in the crèche the day that the troops arrived."

"Not killed by the troops," he said, looking appalled.

"No, no. Your pardon. The Seri were killed by the owners--those who bred us--rather than let us be freed. It was, I think, a way to protect their more illustrious clientele. Some of us had seen the people who bought Seri."

"Ah." He had his Captain's face back in place, emotionless and calm.

"There's another reason why I gave you such a carefully worded report. Part of the creation and cloning process for Seri concerned memory, establishing the ability to recreate exact patterns that would please my owner, either for physical or mental enjoyment. Part of my brain is a living recorder. It can be erased or turned off with the proper codes, but until then, I will continue to collect extensive and detailed data on everything in my life."

"I had no idea. I thought, to be blunt, that the Seri were nothing more than sexual playthings. Is it true that you change gender at the whim of an owner?"

"If he knows the code, yes," I said. "And without the code that unlocks us, we remain genderless, as I am. And there is another Seri myth that is true."

"That having sex with a Seri is addictive?" he said, eyes going wide.

"Yes, I'm afraid so--though not the kind of addiction that will kill a person. It will, in fact, wear off in time. It is more of a problem for the Seri than the... other. The biochemical addictiveness ensured that those who bought Seri would continue to buy them. The longer a person avails himself of a Seri, the longer it takes to overcome the addiction. Even a kiss, if certain hormones are engaged, can trigger the release of the pheromones in a Seri's body. But you need not worry about me, Captain Rhyden. I no more want to enslave someone to me, than I want to be enslaved again."

"Ah." He shook his head and frowned. "How did we get on this subject?"

"I'm Seri. It's inevitable that the conversation would turn to sex. Best to get that part out of the way immediately."

He nodded, and glanced back at his pocket comp, as though to remind himself of why we were really here. "So, you remember details about everything?"

"Nearly everything. Sometimes I can tone it down, and I can, eventually, bury details under a thick blanket of new ones. Something as intense as this, however, is bound to be deeply ingrained and hard to overlay."

"And you can't forget."

"Not until the code is given and the memories erased or--"

"Until you go crazy."

"Or until I die," I corrected. "Insanity is a possibility, but not an option. I would still go on recording, even if I were quite mad. I saw that in Seri at the crèche."

"I'd never heard this before," he said. He sipped his own drink. I thought he looked troubled, but I wasn't certain why.

"People are generally more interested in the physical aspects of being a Seri. Very few cared much if we had minds or not." I stopped, a little shocked by my words. "Your pardon. This is not a good night for me to discuss such personal matters. The crèche was freed five years ago standard tonight, Captain. I came here earlier to--celebrate."

"You were not celebrating the death of so many friends," he said. "Memoriam would be more appropriate, wouldn't it?"

I blinked, and blinked again because I felt the sudden urge to cry. How odd. I had never expected . . . but I pushed that all aside yet again.

"Yes, you're right." I put both hands around the cup, breathed deeply. "What do you need of me?"

"Need? Does it have to be need?"


"Does your interaction with others always have to revolve around need on their part?"

He caught me off-guard with that question. It was, quite plainly, a central part of my life--of my very persona--that I had never seen before.

"Seri?" he said.

"Pardon. You caught me by surprise. I'd never realized something so obvious."

"A night of revelations for both of us." He sipped and set aside his cup. "And perhaps we should dispense with any others, and get back to business. What I would like is your cooperation in this investigation."

"You already have that. What you really want is for me to help you catch this man, Post--and possibly his mas...his employer."

"Yes," he said, ignoring my little slip.

I wish I hadn't drunk so much earlier, or that I was drinking more now. I stared at my cup for a moment. "You want bait."


I looked up, surprised that he had been that open about it. He met my look. I found that oddly disconcerting because I was used to people staring, but not looking at me. I wondered how much of this was a trick he used for his work. I wanted to be angry, but I found myself sighing instead.

"What do I do?"

"I'll put you into my personal care. Anything less, and Martin would know that we're just using you as bait. But it means that at some point we must--get lax."

"Or have a falling out. I don't like being kept, you know. It's what I escaped."

He looked a little startled, though I didn't know why. I wasn't certain of anything right then, except that the girl had been killed, and I regretted that I hadn't been able to help her. Regretted it enough that I would go along with this charade.

"What now?"

"You'll go under close watch. I'll tell the office that I am pulling you into my personal custody. I think I'll call my wife and tell her to prepare the guest room."

"You don't think she's going to protest?"

"No. She understands about my work."

"But will she understand about... me?"

"Does that really worry you?"

"Yes," I said. "Because if I am going to be spending time in someone's home, I do not like to feel unwelcome."

"Ah. Oh." I thought he blushed a little this time. "That's understandable. You need not worry, though. She'll be happy to have you come and stay with us for awhile."

"I'm not used to such easy acceptance."

"Very likely because you're not willing to give it yourself."

I started to say something blithe and bitter, but I held it back. "I thought we were done making revelations."

"Sorry," he said, and smiled this time. He pulled a communit out of his pocket and thumbed it on.

I realized I had just agreed to go home with this man. How odd. Everything in my life suddenly seemed slightly out of alignment. It felt as though changes were coming, and I wasn't  ready for them.

I had lived five years in relative anonymity. Dull, quiet days that had soothed me into a belief that the rest of my life would go that way. I should have known better.

We went past my apartment to pick up a few belongings. Captain Rhyden came up with me. I think the blank walls and dull furnishings surprised him. This was my retreat, my place where I could stop recording for a while. I almost dreaded going to some place different where there would be new colors, feels, scents.

"Seri?" Rhyden said.

"My apologies," I said. I picked up the travel case and nodded toward the door. "I am bothered by this entire business. I wish--not that I hadn't been there, but that I could have done something to help the poor girl."

Captain Rhyden looked at me, his head slightly tilted. And then he nodded. "Yes, I believe you. I'm sorry you couldn't save her. Perhaps, together, we can save her brother."

That, at least, gave me hope of some restitution for my failure to save Evina. I'd gladly  help Captain Rhyden. A shame that we were so careless leaving the apartment.

I tried to open my eyes until I realized cloth covered them. I had been spread eagle and tied down on a flat hard surface. I wasn't naked. Most humans have an uncommon curiosity of seeing Seri naked, especially if we are un-gendered at the time. That should have told me, right then, that this one had known Seri before.

"It's awake," someone said.


A familiar voice. I knew it, and knew to whom it belonged in the next moment. Bannon. The man who had bought Seri Moss.

My mouth had been covered. I couldn't ask. I tried to be very still, to listen. I would know the sound of Moss, from the whisper of Seri's step to the cadence of Seri's breath. We had grown up together, both of the same cloning, both of the same breed. In a human world we would have been siblings--brothers or sisters. I wanted to know Moss was here. I wanted not to be alone--

"I remember you, Ember," Bannon said. He came closer, the brush of cloth caressing my arm. He had been an old man, gray with gray eyes, gray wrinkled skin. I didn't imagine he'd changed much. "I tried you out at the Crèche, didn't I? I know your secrets."

Fear for the first time. He knew the code. He even knew how to apply it. I felt him pull at the shirt I wore. Something cold brushed against my skin, and then the shirt ripped. Knife.

"I know," he said again. His breath felt hot against my cheek.

The knife cut, a quick, easy pattern into my shoulder. My body grew hot, ready to be triggered. I could feel the blood flowing down my arm, soaking the cloth. I didn't know what he would do, but I knew that it would not be kind.

"I think," he said, and his hand pressed a little at my groin. "Male."

Unlocked. Flesh that otherwise remained sealed spread open, and hormones began to spread quickly, flooding my body.

The knife traced again. "No. Female."


The time stretched out forever, pain building on pain, each agony engrained in my mind. Time meant nothing. I only knew that at some point another voice whispered, "We've been found, sir. We must go."

"Damn. I was enjoying myself."

Bannon's sweaty hands moved away from my face, lingering at my shoulder. He pressed and my body jerked with the shock of renewed pain. I wanted to curl up now, knowing the worst was past. Even if he killed me, it was done.

"Sir, you had better kill it."

"Oh no, no. I would never waste something so precious. One moment." The knife cut again. "Lock, Ember. Close."

Flesh sealed again. I know I whimpered. He probably thought it came from new agony, but it was only relief to know that the worst was done.

Hot breath caressed my ear. I shuddered. And then a hand pressed against my wounded shoulder sends sparks of pain, pattern... "You will remember every moment of agony. You will remember every cut, every touch. But you will not remember me--not from now, not from before at the Crèche. You will forget who was with you here, Ember. You will not know who did this to you."

Gone! I cried out as something important ripped free from my brain. I yanked with such force that I pulled my right arm free. My fingers reached and caught a retreating hand, but . . . someone snarled and pulled. I held tight for a moment, wanting knowledge back. He jerked free, his ring tearing at my fingers. Gone.

I wept.

"Careful," a familiar voice said. Rhyden, I realized, through a haze of pain. Someone cut away the cloth around my eyes. I opened them to a dull, gray light. The room was filled with junk, the ceiling cracked and peeling above me. I stared up at it, marking the pattern, etching it forever into my brain.  Trying desperately to overlay everything --

"Damn, damn," I whispered.

"Careful Seri. Your shoulder is cut to ribbons, and there's blood--elsewhere."

"Bastard," someone else whispered. Ordway. He sounded upset. "Med team is on the way, Captain."

"Stay still, Seri Ember. Tell me what you remember. Do you know who did this?"

"No." The word came as a whimper. "He took that from me."


"Code," I said. The world felt hot and cold. "He knew the codes. The patterns of pain to unlock..."

"Pain? Code?" Rhyden's breath hissed in half a curse. "God damn them--"

But I didn't hear the rest.

Hospital room, soft and quiet. A place of healing and peace for some, but not for me. I awoke to the intense and real memory of agony. It was not current pain, but I almost heard a voice telling me to remember it.

"Animals," I whispered. "Damn them all, who created us and those who bought--"

Rhyden sat in a chair by the bed.

"My apologies," I began.

"Why? For saying something that should have been said long ago? For saying things that anyone would think, if they were at all human?"

"Human," I said, and moved a little.  My shoulder ached but not the intense--that came back in a flood of feeling. Alarms rang, then quieted. "Damn, damn."

"The doctors say that the regen is working very well, that your body is strong."

"Yes, it had to be, since my code is pain." Rhyden said nothing, meeting my look. I finally sighed and looked down at my hands, noting bandages, bruises, blankets. "Not all Seri were coded to pain. Some were coded to words, some to sound and touch. A few were even coded to a kiss--fairy tale Seri, pretty and sweet. But there were a few of us who were coded to pain for those with darker tastes."

"It's not right."

"No, it isn't. But it does exist, like so many other--things that are not right." Pain flickered through my shoulder. Rhyden, unexpectedly, took hold of my hand, and looked worried. "He told me to erase all memory of him. But he told me to remember every moment of pain."

"God damn--if I find--"

I squeezed his fingers, surprising him. "That's a different matter than that which we are working on. First we must do what we can for the dead girl and her brother."

"Seems more than coincidence that someone grabbed you now."

"Not coincidence, that's true." I sat up. Regen is a wonderful drug. I would have mended, being strong--but regen made the healing faster. "Whomever had me knew the codes, Captain Rhyden. Knew how to use them, knew how to make me forget just what he wanted me to forget."

"Someone who had owned you."

"No. I was never actually sold. I was, to put it crassly, a floor model. People came to the crèche, uncertain of what they wanted. They got to try me, among others."

"You should be more bitter than you are."

"More so?" I said, looking him fully in the face. "Do you think that would help?"

"No. All right. You think your attacker knew you from before you were freed."

"Yes." I sipped from the glass of water he handed me. It helped. "I came to this world looking for a Seri I knew had been sold here. Seri Moss. We had been very close for years, but Seri was sold a couple weeks before the raid. Sold to someone who's name... I am no longer allowed to remember, and whose face is wiped from my mind. No matter. I had quickly learned that the name used at the crèche was not the real name. But now even that is gone. No matter, no matter."

The feel of a knife cutting through my shoulder. I held my breath through it this time.


I gasped. I fought the pain away by rubbing my fingers on the fine, soft cloth of the blanket, overlaying that sensation on my mind as I spoke. "I think the person saw the vid of me at the murder scene. I think it has nothing to do with the killing, Captain Rhyden. If it had been so, there were other things I would have been told to forget."

I looked to find calculations going on in Captain Rhyden's face. He nodded. "You're right."

"I want--" Pain. I held my breath. "I want out of here. I want to go work on other things, Captain. It's the only hope I have to keep this at bay."

"Do you know the codes, Seri?" Rhyden asked. "Do you know how to turn it off?"

"No. Those are on permanent erase. Used and gone."

"Damn. The medics are worried. You keep remembering the pain too well."

"It's the curse of being Seri," I said. "Can we go?"

He looked at me for a long moment before he nodded. "Yes. I'll arrange it. There's clothing for you in the closet."

He left. I stood unsteadily and limped to the closet, aching in every bone and muscle. The mirror showed bruises and cuts, all healing. Eyes that... would not heal, not of the madness and pain there. I looked away, found the clothing, and dressed before the medic and Captain Rhyden returned. I sat, carefully sealed in my cloth shell, safe from the prying eyes, protected by my mental armor. Politeness returned. I thanked the medic for her care, and left meekly with Captain Rhyden.

I wanted to howl. I wanted to scream--not at the pain that came at unexpected moments, but at the loss of things taken from my mind again. Forgotten, the person I had been hunting for five long years. At least Seri Moss remained still. I clung to the memory of a sweet smile and soft hands, treating wounds.

Intense pain.

"Seri, maybe--"

"No, no. I have to learn to not dwell on what ha--happened. To go past it and overlay it with everything I can find, or else to ask someone to put me down."

"Put you down? Like a rabid animal?" I saw his shock and outrage this time. "You are not an animal, Ember. Don't pretend to me that you are."

"My apologies. That was... unthinking. It was what they said of us at the crèche, and the crèche seems very close to me right now."

Captain Rhyden looked at me, his hands on the controls of the aircar. We hadn't left the hospital, and I wanted very much to be away before he changed his mind, and didn't take me with him. Before he turned me out, alone and unprotected.

"I want safety, Captain, at least for awhile. I'll have that with you. In return, I will do all I can to help you solve the murder of the girl. Do you have any word?"

"Her brother, Sofian, appears to have gone to ground," Rhyden said as he started the aircar and headed upward at last. "We've had reliable rumors that he's been seen, but we haven't found him yet. It's obvious he knows he's in danger."

"Resourceful. Good. That means he may, in fact, be able to help us in this."

Rhyden nodded, but he didn't look as certain of this help as I felt. "Anything else?" I asked.

"No. Nothing more. We're going to rest today, Seri. You and me both. Don't argue. I stayed up all night trying to find out who had taken you. And I apologize for that, Seri Ember. I apologize that I failed you. I don't know why you trust yourself into my care now."

"We both failed," I said and frowned. "I don't remember what happened."

"Gas pellet, activated when we opened the door to leave your apartment. I awoke hours later, with Ordway there, frantic. He'd already set the force looking for you, and he must have been damned persuasive. His people turned you before dawn."

"I've lost a day," I said, frowning. Then I shook my head. "No matter. I won't argue about resting for today, Captain Rhyden. I need to get my balance back."

The Rhyden Apartment was filled with calm, peaceful blues and greens. I hurried past the mirror that stood above a cabinet just inside the door, unwilling to look at the bruised and battered person who stared back. I followed his wife, who insisted I call her Lina, into the sitting room. She put me next to a fish tank filled with dozens of brightly colored species, and I found myself enthralled by the rapid sinewy movements and the bright neon colors. I found escape watching them.

Lina brought tea and cookies, and sat in the chair across from me, looking casual and at ease. Captain Rhyden made a call, though he was not out of hearing. No secrets. I appreciated it.

"You must tell me what I can do to make your stay here pleasant, Seri," she said, leaning forward with an intensity that I hadn't expected.

"Ember," I said. "My name is Ember, especially if I am calling you Lina."

She nodded, and then waved a hand toward the platter that sat on a low table between us. "But I am serious, Ember. I like my guests to have an agreeable visit to my home. I feel as though I've achieved a goal when I can be certain of it."

It seemed an odd vocation, but she looked sincere. That made it easy to put myself into her care. I ached still, but her calmness soothed me. And when I took to staring at the fish, she left me to that contemplation.

We ate a light meal. Captain Rhyden left to do some work, but he assured me that guards had taken positions outside in the hall and down on the street.

"I'm sorry," I told Lina after he left. "I hadn't meant to put you into this situation."

"There are always guards, Ember," she said and sighed. "Eric is an honest man in a job that makes enemies for honesty."


"I love him. Some day we'll retire and move to another world. We haven't decided where yet. Perhaps one of the fringes."

"I've never been away from the core of Inner Worlds," I said. I leaned back. "I'd never thought about going elsewhere. I'm not certain I would like being somewhere that I might stand out even more."

"It can't be easy. How many Seri are there? Do you know?"

"No more than fifty survived the raid, but several committed suicide soon afterwards. We don't know how many might still be in captivity. Very few have been rescued."

"Why is it that powerful people, people with money, become so evil?"

"I don't know. But to be fair, I've seen much cruelty in those who are very poor as well. I think it is a part of human nature."

She looked up, met my eyes, and looked down again.

"I don't know if the Seri share that nature," I said. She blushed when she looked at me this time. "And sometimes I'm not certain that Seri are entirely human."

"Well, if you aren't, then you're most likely better than human," she said. "You can't be worse."

Later she let me help make dinner--real food, cooked right there. I hadn't done that in years, and I enjoyed the act of creation. Rhyden seemed pleased as well, and we had, all in all, a nice evening.

I retired to a quietly decorated room of blues and grays. I settled into bed with a reader I had borrowed from Lina, and entertained myself for another hour or more before I finally ordered the light out and slid down into the warm, fine blankets. I fell asleep almost immediately.

And awoke, bathed in sweat, with the cry of pain and fear still on my lips. For a moment everything had felt so real again that the darkness of the room confused me into thinking I was still with... whoever had taken me.

I stayed very still, ardently wishing for calm. It would not come. Instead, I realized that I was going to be very violently ill. I struggled to my feet, the light coming on to a soft glow as I pulled on my robe and stumbled out of the room and across to the bathroom.

Pain, illness, the memory of that poor girl dying, all wove into a moment of agony. I remained for a long time in the bathroom, recovering. In the end I ran water over the back of my neck, drenching my hair. It helped a little, the soft brush of water against taut skin.

I stepped out of the room to go back to bed, and found Captain Rhyden in the hall, lounging against the wall.

"Your pardon, Captain," I said, embarrassment so strong that I felt almost ill of it again. Rhyden caught my arm when I swayed. "I apologize for waking you."

"You didn't. I was reading. I often do, long into the night. And, to be honest, I was waiting. You had that look, Seri Ember. I've seen it before, and I knew the actions of the last day were going to catch up with you. Quite honestly, I'm glad to see you had some reaction. I wouldn't trust someone who witnessed a murder and then was tortured--and showed no sign of it at all."

"Ah," I said. It made sense. I nodded. "Yes. Not pleasant, the reaction, but you're right. Sometimes I--hold things too well inside. It doesn't help."

"Will you sleep better now?"

"I'm not sure. I'll read for awhile." I held out my hand to shake his, an old fashioned gesture. I'm not certain what prompted me to it just then. "Thank you."

He smiled and took my hand. "You are welcome, Seri Ember. I'll see you in the morning."

"Yes." But I still held on to his hand.


I turned the hand over, looking at the fingers and the ring he wore. "Ring," I said and finally released his hand. He looked at it, touching the plain gold band. So sweet and old fashioned, a wedding band. "I--I need some clay."


"The man who took me wore a ring. I held onto his hand when he started to leave, and I felt it--every ridge and indentation. I can make a copy of that ring."

"Can you? But I thought he told you to forget."

"He did. I grabbed at him afterwards."

Brightness filled his face. "Excellent. I'll have clay delivered first thing in the morning. Will that be soon enough?"

"Oh yes," I said, and smiled. "It's not like I'm going to forget."

He looked startled for a moment. And then he laughed.

I slept late. When I found my way to the dining room, Lina quickly arrived to make me some food. I protested.

"No. You must eat. You're pale, and shaky. Regen takes a lot out of a body, you know. Sit down. There's a package on the desk  for you."

I sat down and pulled the gray and palm size plastic box out of the paper bag. The white clay within felt soft and malleable. I also found that Captain Rhyden  had sent a set of tools for delicate work. I spread the paper bag over the table and began work even before Lina brought me a sandwich and tea.

"You have the feel for the material," she said, sitting down. "Have you ever done this before?"

"No," I said. I gently pushed white clay with my finger, nudging a little mound up. "It's going well so far, but this is still just the crude beginning." I wiped my hands on a towel she gave me. "And it'll be much larger than the original."

"Why not draw it instead?"

"Because the memory of it is in touch," I explained, and my fingers brushed against the plastic of the table. "I can't see it, I can only feel it."

Lina nodded. We chatted as I ate, and then she went about her work, and left me with mine. It took all my concentration to do the replication, and yet at the same time I found the work relaxing. For that entire afternoon I didn't think about anything but what I created.

Lina came in and turned down the opaque on the windows to a soft exterior light. I looked out at the sunset, and was surprised to find the entire day gone.

"Eric is bringing dinner home," she said. "He'll be here in a few minutes. That's very good."

I looked down at the palm-sized square of clay before me. I hadn't even realized the shape or design until now, and looked at the whole for the first time.

I had created some sort of emblem or crest into the surface, and suspected that the raised dots were gems of some sort. The design showed lightning crossed over a tree in the middle, and fruit--gems--hanging from the branches.

"That has to be unique," I said.

"I would think so. Eric might have no trouble at all tracing it."

A little shiver, suppressed. I didn't want to meet up with that person again. My fingers reached to destroy the design rather than risk it. Lina, surprisingly, caught my hands and held them as she sat in the chair next to mine.

"It won't help. He'll still be out there, Ember. He'll come for you again. At least give Eric a chance to stop him first."

I nodded, not daring to speak for fear of what I would say just then. I even let her take the worked clay away, out of my reach. She brought back tea, and I sat and sipped it, forcing calm into my thoughts while we waited for Eric. The day went dark outside, and with the clay gone, I found myself yanked back into the full nightmare of what had happened. Time and activity had at least dulled the intensity a little. I might buy clay to entertain myself later. It had helped.

Eric arrived carrying bags and small boxes from which came wonderful scents. I hadn't realized I was hungry, but it had been a long time since the meal before I started work on the ring impression.

Lina and Eric set the table, arranging the food in what seemed a set pattern. They'd obviously done this often in the past, and I enjoyed watching them. Then Lina directed him to the clay. I didn't follow.

"That's excellent Seri," he said as he sat down to eat.

"Ember," I said. "I don't want to be formal, not here."

"Good." Eric smiled. I felt accepted and at home. "Let's eat."

Dinner tasted quite good. We had a lovely little conversation about favorite foods and places we would like to visit someday. I helped Lina clear the table while Eric took a call from the police station. He came back before we were even done.

"Ordway is on his way over," he said. I saw Lina make a little face. "He's found the boy. He's bringing Sofian here."

A few minutes later Ordway pounded on the door. I wondered why he hadn't used the bell.  I had the answer when Eric opened the door and I saw he had his hands full of a young man who didn't come along calmly. Ordway hadn't knocked--he had kicked the door.

"In," Ordway ordered, and punctuated the order with a vicious shove. "Damn wild one, Captain, sir. I can't make him understand that we're not going to hurt him."

No wonder, I thought, seeing how Ordway treated him. Eric took hold of Sofian, but the boy didn't appear any happier about being in the Captain's hands. Lina and I stayed back. Eric finally pushed him half over the cabinet just inside the room. I could see the boy's face in the mirror just above the stand; young and dark with anger. He had not made a sound at all. I felt sorry for him, trapped here with no hope of knowing what we wanted.

"I don't think the little bastard even knows his whore of a sister is dead," Ordway said, shaking a hand that had obviously taken the brunt of the attack.

I was still looking at the boy. His head came up, his eyes blazing.


"He can hear," I said.

Eric and Ordway both looked back at me as though I had gone mad, but the boy's face paled. He looked  in the mirror at me, and for the first time I saw fear there. I regretted having so casually given away his secret. I should have realized that it was his shield and safety.

But Eric looked at the mirror as well. He took one deep breath and pulled the boy around. "Damn. Sofian, no more games with us. None. Can you speak?"

Nothing for a moment, and then a shake of his head.

"Can you write?"

Another shake. I saw him look down at his hands, and swallow.

"But you have a sign language that you used with your sister," I said, stepping forward.

A nod.

"The Seri had one of sorts as well, our little secret. Show it to me."

He looked up, disbelieving, but didn't fight when Eric pulled him over to a chair by the window and pushed him down. Ordway hovered nearby, glaring even worse now that he knew he'd been made a fool. I wondered what Ordway had said in front of him. And then I realized that very many things might have been said in front of Sofian.

I took the chair across from Sofian. He met my look with disdain and disbelief.

"Do you have a basic alphabet?"

He nodded, smirking.

"Show it to me."

He did, a flurry of one and two-handed gestures. Then he sat back, arms folded, and smirked some more. I saw a bump and bruise forming on the side of his face.

I leaned forward and repeated the entire sequence back to him. Sofian's mouth opened in a comic look of disbelief. So did Ordway's. Lina brought tea for me and for Sofian, who took the cup with a startled look of surprise and then nodded his head in thanks. That was better. The little politeness showed we were reaching the human beneath that shell of anger and fear.

"How the hell did it do that?" Ordway demanded. "Does it know the boy?"

"Ordway, I might have to put up with your damn bad manners at work, but not in my home. Out. I'll take over the care of Sofian. And if anyone hears that he's in my home, I'll know where they learned it."

"I need to report in," Ordway said, though he backed up. I suspected he had come up against Eric's anger before. "If I'm here, I don't need to tell anyone else. I'm still under your command."

"Good point. Sit down, and don't say another damn thing that's going to annoy me."

"Yes sir," Ordway said. He settled into a chair by the door. "But--how?"

"It's a Seri ability," I said. "A memory enhancement that allowed us to be taught only once for any job."

"Damn. Dangerous, I would think, people with that ability."

"Well, you need not worry," I said, looking straight at him. "There aren't that many of us, and it's not like we're going to outbreed the rest of humanity, you know."

Ordway started to speak. Stopped. He sat back, silent at last. Good. I wanted my attention back on Sofian, who looked intrigued now. I thought there might even be hope in his eyes. I wondered if he had thought there would never be another to speak with again.

We spent an hour going through words and forming sentences. I hadn't picked up very much yet, but by the end of the hour we could speak in some manner.

The young man who sat in front of me didn't look much like the wild one who had come into the room with Ordway. He'd had no hope when he came in, but now he could see some future.

"Can you speak with him?" Eric said, pulling a chair around beside me.

"Somewhat. It will be difficult."

Eric nodded and looked at Sofian. "Why was your sister killed?"

"Because someone was care-less," I said as the boy's hands moved, slowly still, as though he carefully picked out each word. "Someone gave out information gathered from the organization's private meetings."

"Gathered how? And given to whom?"

He sat still for a long moment, but then he sighed. "I'm dead anyway, if they catch me now. Evina was one of Theo Martin's women. He likes young, wild ones, but he grows tired of them quickly. He also likes young boys. Having brother and sister amused him. He kept us around longer than he had anyone else."

Color had come to Sofian's face. He looked down at his hands, still--silent--for a moment.

"Sofian?" Eric said.

The hands moved, still very slow and carefully. I knew he would want to repeat this tale. "He was careful with Evina, of course. But not with me. He kept me around, even during some meetings. I began to hear things. Evina and I--we began to sell that information."

He looked up, tears at the corner of his eyes, though his face remained impassive. He must have had years of practice in making that mask, hiding the fact that he could hear.

"We were going to leave this damn world," he said, quick, sharp movements this time. "We were going to go to the fringe and have a real life."

"To whom did you sell information?" Eric asked.

"To whomever it best suited, and where we could get the best price."

Eric nodded and leaned back, looking bothered. "He figured out it had to be you--"

"No," Sofian signed and I said. "No. Evina and I only sold  little things, stuff that mostly went unnoticed. We weren't stupid. This thing that he's worked up about--Martin lost an entire half year's shipment of drugs--mostly Soft--to another cartel. Half a billion creds, minimum. We weren't stupid enough to draw that kind of attention. I think someone used us to cover his own ass."

Eric frowned. I began to reassess my impression of Sofian. The wild look had been an act: a deaf and mute boy out on the streets would have to show that he was dangerous. But Sofian was more than he appeared to be.

"Who do you think turned on you?" I asked.

He frowned but I knew he'd considered that question already. He just didn't have the answer. He finally shrugged.

"Who had the most to gain?" Eric asked.

His hands moved more quickly now. "Whomever needed a lot of money. Someone risked everything, selling the information he did. I wouldn't have done it."

"Did you have that information?"

"I did. Not Evina.  She tended to be..."  He stopped moving his hands and shook his head.  "But whoever sold it couldn't know that I heard him give Post the code and file names for the shipment."

"Who else heard?"

"No one while I was there. But there were others in the organization who might know."

"Something about the killing," Ordway said and stood, drawing our attention. "I read something Post said, and it sounds different now, with this information."

"Post," I said, and raised a hand, quieting the others. "He said 'I need you dead. You and your brother. It's all that will make him happy. No more questions about who betrayed us.' Without this knowledge, it just sounded as though he did what Martin ordered. But now it does have a ... different feel."

Eric nodded. Sofian's face had lost the mask. I saw anger, loss, betrayal--surely he hadn't thought that Post would be loyal to him and his sister? Or that the organization he had worked with had laws of good and right?

I stopped myself from expressing any of those thoughts and glanced at Ordway, who thought many things about me, without any of them being true. He didn't know life in the crèche. I didn't know life in Sofian's world. I wouldn't judge.

"What can be done with this information?" I asked.

Eric looked at me and frowned, shaking his head. "I don't know. It would be advantageous if we could use anything to turn Martin against Post. I don't want that man loose to murder any others."

"What we need is bait," I said. "What you need is Sofain and me to draw him out."

"I don't like that at all," Eric said. I noted Sofian looked surprised by his sincerity. "I know we talked about this before, Ember, but after what happened to you, I don't think it's a very good idea after all."

I lifted my hand and waved that away, a gesture that seemed to surprise Ordway. "That trouble came from my own past, and had nothing to do with this case. Chances are, whoever it was would have caught up with me at some time anyway. Let's work at doing this right, and with the least amount of danger to Sofian and me. I am assuming, Sofian, that you would like to be part of this."

He nodded emphatically. That didn't surprise Eric or me, but the Captain still frowned.

"What can we do?" Captain Rhyden finally said. I heard Ordway make a sound of surprise, and saw that Lina looked worried. It would get worse.

"Sofian was your last chance of learning anything about his sister's death. Since you can get nothing from him, there is no more you can investigate."

"Yes? But what about you?"

"You brought me here when I was still too weak to protest. I don't like being locked up, Captain. And I intend to go to the nearest reporter and tell him so."

"And how is that going to help?" Eric said, sounding confused.

"It gets the news of our break with the police out as quickly as possible. And it allows me to publicly take Sofian under my wing, since he was mishandled by the police as well."

"Seri--" Captain Rhyden began.

"We can sit here for days, Captain. But I'd rather get it out of the way. Besides, Ordway is going to have to leave sooner or later."

Ordway grinned. "I thought I was going to be sleeping on the floor."

Lina laughed, but she plainly didn't like the plan. Neither did I, but I had made up my mind. I could see no reason to drag this out.

"What about the ring?" Lina said, with a wave toward the table where the clay sat.

"I've done my part. I'll leave that case in your hands."


We walked out on the street within the hour, with a nice little scene at the apartment door. Ordway did an excellent job of yelling, and Captain Rhyden, in the end, held him back while I put my arm across Sofian's shoulders and led him away. He seemed a bit reluctant to go with me, playing the part to perfection.

We were watched. Oh yes, I could feel them staring, and I had to force myself not to look in the shadows. But it didn't do any good to be too brazen, either. That would be far too obvious. Instead, I kept a hand on Sofian's shoulder, as though to make certain the boy didn't stray too far, and headed quickly toward my own home.

We made it without any problems, but then I remembered that I had made it this far before and knew that didn't mean safety. Sofian gave me an odd look as we went up the steps toward the building.

"My home," I said softly. "We'll call the reporters from here. It'll be safer than wandering around on the streets, looking for trouble."

Sofian's hands moved. Nothing is safe. 

"True enough."

But we reached the apartment, and I locked the door behind us. Madness, I thought, and wondered why I had dragged Sofian into my own suicidal mood. Sofian sat down on the sofa, watching me. Waiting.

"Why are you here?" I finally asked.

Because you are the only one who gives a damn that my sister is dead.

"That's not true. Captain Rhyden cares. Ordway does not."

He gave a little gesture of his hand; capitulation of the point. I hadn't noticed how tired he looked until then. We could have rested a day, at least, under the watch of the police. I felt like a worse fool now.

My computer beeped, announcing a call. I jumped, but Sofian had sat perfectly still through it.

"You're damn good at that."

Saved my life, he signed.

I nodded and crossed to answer the computer, steeling myself to calmness as well. That was an old act of my own. A reporter looked back from the other side of the screen, and he quickly keyed in his ID and had it verified before he asked me any questions.

I did a credible job of being outraged by the police treatment, and cutting it short because I had Sofian to deal with. He even did his part, by wandering behind me, allowing the reporter to get that part on his vid capture as well. Sofian came to stand beside me when I signed off. I didn't know what to say.

Rest, he signed. We both need rest.

I didn't argue. We went to the bedroom and both lay down on the same bed. I think he was used to sharing company with his sister, and didn't consider it odd. And it reminded me of being in the crèche again. We probably both shouldn't have slept at the same time, but I suspected it would be the last chance we got for awhile.

We slept until morning, then passed a few hours in the apartment. Sofian asked me about the Seri, and I told him much the same information I had given Captain Rhyden at our first meeting. He asked, in fact, about many things. I found a mind hungry for knowledge trapped in that flawed body. I hoped I could help him find a better future. I wasn't poor, after all. All the funds confiscated from the Verlach Crèche had been divided among the Seri survivors, and there had been damn few of us. 

By late afternoon I had prepared to go out on our first foray into danger. Sofian thought that I should stay behind.

"I'm going," I said, straightening my black tunic before I tied my hair back. "That's the entire point of this, isn't it?"

I'd rather just--go away, he signed, looking at me with the anger gone from his face. I'd rather leave this to the fools who give a damn. I don't anymore. 

"Maybe it is time we leave," I said. "But after this is settled."


I shrugged and said no more, hiding my confusion and embarrassed at my statement. I hurried us on our way, more anxious to face danger than my feelings.

I saw Ordway as we left the building. He stood across the road talking with some other people. I wondered if they were all police, or if he had just found a convenient group, and insinuated himself among them. For the first time I thought that he might be good at this work--that his gruff, even impolite demeanor would work well on the streets.

I knew Sofian had seen him as well. I had already discovered that very little escaped his attention. He made no more sign of it than I did.

"I know a place, down by the pond, that I enjoy," I said, and then remembered it had been where I was heading when Evina died. I made an expansive gesture off to the right, just to make certain that Ordway and any of his companions weren't taken by surprise. I knew that if the enemy truly watched us, then we did not want to go wandering off without some kind of protection.

We walked a long ways, though I did suggest we take the trans line. Sofian shook his head. He wanted to walk, he said, if I didn't mind.

I didn't. Walking had always been my way to touch freedom. To go where I pleased; along the paths of the city, without ever once having to ask permission or give reasons for my presence. Never once having to fear that someone I met had the code--

But someone here did. I shivered at that thought.


"Ember," I corrected. "Not Seri here, for a moment. Just Ember."

Sofian looked at me, his head tilted a little. I wondered what he saw in my face. It might have been all the years of denial, all the years of not allowing myself to feel anything for fear of bringing the pain back as well.

He put a hand on my arm. We walked on in silence.

I didn't take the street where I had seen his sister killed. I don't know if he knew the location or not, but I didn't want to relive that moment--and I would relive it all too well. Instead, we went down a slightly longer path, and finally came to the park and the pond's edge that I had loved so well.

Still loved. I hadn't realized how much I needed this place until I saw the ducks and geese move toward the shore as though they recognized me.

I laughed, and that startled Sofian into an uncharacteristic reaction to sound. It made me sad to think that I'd been so somber that a laugh should be alien. Emotions were rare to me. There were moments when they shown, crystalline and bright, but for most of my life I had kept them buried.

I headed down toward the pond and the ducks I enjoyed so much. Sofian came along, looking a little surprised and pleased. It felt unexpected relief to be here, especially with Sofian. Sofian was a catalyst for me, I realized. A surrogate for Moss, whom I had come to believe I would never really find, though I didn't know why.

I heard the footsteps even as Sofian tapped my arm, his only show. I turned, hoping to find Ordway, or someone walking the park.

Post. I recognized the tall man. He looked much the same, in the long coat that I suspected concealed a knife in his hand. I pushed Sofian behind me, but I knew that wouldn't help.

"How convenient that the two of you joined up together," Post said with the same cold voice that showed he would not regret killing us any more than he had regretted killing Evina.

I looked past him, hoping to see help. The park was empty, the bushes tall enough to shield us from the sight of people on the street, and no one walked the path by the pond. I was a fool.

Post grabbed at my arm. Sofian leapt at him, swinging, but the killer had been ready for that reaction. He brought his free arm out, a knife in hand, and swung toward Sofian.


Seri were taught--coded--to protect others, but never to defend themselves. If Post had turned that knife on me first, I wouldn't have reacted. But protecting Sofian was automatic.

I surprised Post when I yanked free and swung. I heard him curse as I tackled him, and we went stumbling into the ducks and geese. They, in turn, screamed in protest and scattered to the water once more. It was, I hoped, a very good alarm.  In the next moment we landed in the muck, feet slipping on the mossy edge of the pond, and tumbling into the water.

Post still had the knife. I felt it cut once, twice, along my side. Though as off balance as me, he did have better training. He was able to get his heavier bulk on top of me, to literally sit on me while he pushed my head down. I could see his face, distorted by the water over my eyes. Blood dripped down from his nose, and dispersed in wild, rippling patterns before me.

I did not breathe. I watched him, forcing my body to be still, somehow hoping that he would give up too soon, believing me dead. A fool's hope. He could feel the life beneath his hands, and he would know--

And then movement. I thought my vision had blurred, that I saw double. I wanted--


Post tumbled, someone else clinging to him. Sofian! But no -- Sofian pulled me up out of the pond. I coughed and gasped, my legs numb, my side and arm bleeding. My hair had come loose and covered my eyes. I pushed it away and saw Ordway and Post, struggling in the water.

"Must help--" I said, still gasping. I tried to pull free of Sofian, but he wouldn't let me go. "We can't let Post win--"

He wouldn't. Sofian spun me around to see a half dozen more men coming at a run, Captain Rhyden in the lead. I would have only gotten in the way.

I sank back down into the mud by the pond's edge and stayed there with Sofian by my side. His arm bled from a shallow cut, and I shakily tore cloth from my shirt, and wrapped the wound. I looked up as Rhyden and his men finally subdued Post. I watched as they led the assassin away. He was white-faced with fear, and I hoped, vindictively, that it lasted a long time.

"You did damn good work, Seri," Ordway said, coming to stand over me. He was dripping wet, and muddy. A clump of moss clung precariously to his hair. It made him look comical, and I smiled. "I saw you save the boy--Seri? Ember? Oh hell! Rhyden, get a medic in here!"

Ordway dropped down to his knees and pulled the shirt away from my side. The wounds bled bright red now, staining the ground. The shivering became worse. Cold, even when Sofian wrapped his arms around me and held me close. I only barely noticed when the medics arrived and took me to the hospital again.

Soft lips against mine, a kiss of such sweet gentleness that I felt my heart leap, my body ache just for a kind touch. . .

I awoke later, in the hospital, feeling battered and bruised. Rhyden stood at the end of the bed, talking with a medic I recognized from my last visit.

"He must have told the boy about the Seri," Rhyden said softly.

The woman nodded, looked at me, and smiled. "You are awake again, Seri Ember."

"Yes," I said. I tried to reclaim the calm that had been essential to my life for so many years. "Where is Sofian? What happened?"

"You wake up too well," Rhyden said with a frown. Then he must have seen the panic in my face. "Sofian is fine. He's asleep across the hall. You've been mostly comatose for two days, and we had a hard time getting him to leave your side. You told him about the Seri, didn't you?"

"Yes," I said, and felt myself on the edge of either elation or panic. "I remember a kiss. Oh hell, Rhyden. Why would he--"

"Because he loves you."

"I--I am nothing. Genderless."

"You don't really believe that sex is all there is to love, do you? I suspect, given his past, that maybe sex is the last thing he wants, Ember. And are you going to tell me that you don't care for Sofian?"

"I--" My head pounded. Equipment beeped with alarms all around me, but even the medic stood back. I saw Sofian in the doorway, hovering there like a ghost, afraid of the light. "I never meant for anyone--"

My choice, he signed. My longing, and my choice, Ember. 

I would not have turned you out.

I wanted--A pause, a shake of his head--I wanted to be more than just a stray, Seri Ember. I wanted--needed--to be part of your life. And I knew that you would never willingly let me in.

"Fool," I said aloud. Ah, but the addiction of one kiss wouldn't last forever, and he would be free of me soon. I looked at him in the doorway, watching with a pain in his eyes that went far beyond any addiction.

I held out my arm. He came to the bedside, and leaned forward to brush the hair from my face before he kissed my forehead. I had never known such gentleness. It would, I knew, undo me in the end.

"What of Theo Martin?" I said after Sofian had settled into the chair beside my bed.

"Running, we think. Post gave us considerable information, thinking it was going to save him. It won't."

"Ah." I really cared just then.

"There is, Seri, more news," Rhyden said. He came to the side of the bed, drew something from his pocket, and dropped it into my palm. The ring, I knew. I only glanced at the pattern I had made in clay before I handed it back to Captain Rhyden.

"Seri Moss is dead," I said, far more calmly than I had expected.

"Yes," Rhyden replied. "We found the body buried behind Kav Jina's home. How did you know?"

"Because he so desperately wanted me, and didn't kill me when he should have. Addicted, Captain. I knew, but I didn't want to admit it even to myself. Damn. I had wanted to see Moss again. I had wanted to believe--"

I closed my eyes, stilling emotions, though that was almost undone when Sofian took my hand. I had known in my heart, and hadn't felt the shock to hear the truth now, but it made the loss real and unchangeable.

"How long?" I asked, fearing the answer.

"At least five months, possibly longer," Rhyden said. He looked into my face. "It had nothing to do with you, Ember. As far as we can tell, Kav Jani had no idea that you were here until you showed up on that news report. He says the death was an accident, a night together that went too far."

I nodded, swallowing back the memory of everything that he had done to me. Equipment buzzed in protest as pain swept through my body. I could imagine Moss in my place, and the police never coming to save him.

Sofian's fingers tightened around my own as I took deep breaths, fighting for control again.

My search had finally ended. Next year I would drink to Seri Moss in the same litany as the others. But for right now...

For the first time, I let my fingers hold to Sofian's hand. And I knew that though I hadn't found Moss, at least I had found what I needed.




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