Book 2, Chapter 18

Upon first impression, Ath'ran found the woman before him to be very ordinary and charming. She and the child were well dressed, well mannered and apparently knowledgeable enough to get past Jin's preliminary questioning and make it to his office. The little one looked half asleep; his large gray eyes were half-lidded.

"This is Cross Rhodes." Jin perched himself on Ath'ran's desk despite the look of disapproval it earned him. "Cross works with Teyen, aka Surge, and was hoping we could help find him. Soon as I told her what was up, though, she kinda demanded to see you."

Ath'ran raised a suspicious brow. "Demanded? And what magic does she possess that she can command your actions when I still can't even get you to refrain from sitting on my desk?"

"I'll be happy to demonstrate for you in the course of this meeting." Cross stepped forward, adjusting the infant to one hip to extend her hand. "It's a pleasure to meet you. I hear you have been expecting me."

Though confused, Ath'ran shook her hand, aware of how small it felt in his own. "I'm not quite sure I understand."

Cross smiled. "May I have a seat? Sem's heavier than he looks and the tram was full this morning, so my feet are pretty tired."

"Please." Ath'ran stepped back, ushering the young woman toward the chairs before his desk. "Did you travel very far to get here?"

"Not very." She crossed her legs and straightened out her skirt across her thighs before setting Sem in her lap, much to Jin's apparent pleasure.

"That'll be all, Jin." Ath'ran frowned at him, motioning for him to get off of his desk.

Jin's sigh was as long and exaggerated as his motions. "Yes, sir. Right away, sir. My pleasure, sir. Your wish is my command, oh captain, my captain. Sir." He waved to Cross as he walked past, taking a second to ruffle the baby's head before he crossed behind the chairs to the door and left them in peace. The door closed quietly behind him.

Ath'ran sat behind his desk, making sure nothing had been misplaced by Jin's backside.

"He wants very much for you to praise him--doesn't have to be anything big. He keeps his workstation tidy, though. It's the first thing people see when they walk inside and it makes a good first impression. You should let him know you've noticed and that you appreciate it."

"What?" Ath'ran looked up from his desk.

Cross continued to smile as the child in her lap nodded off in her lap. "It's what he was thinking and I quite agree. To explain, I’m a Shard Mr. Mukshah. My talent extends to thoughts. I can hear them and sometimes gently manipulate them, as I did to gain immediate access to you. As I said, you've been expecting me."

Ath'ran paused.

"Please don't be worried. I'm not in your mind right now. I'm well aware the mind is an intimate place and I don't wander into people's thoughts unless I feel I have to."

"Is it a coincidence you tell me this as I wonder to myself whether you are in my head?" Ath'ran sat back in his chair, on guard.

"Not entirely. I do get surface thoughts without trying," Cross explained, smoothing down her son’s hair. "It's your memories and conscious stream of thought I have to put effort into accessing."

"I see." Ath'ran remained cautious; appearances were definitely deceiving when it came to the petite young woman before him. "I generally ask for some measure of proof to these claims. If it is true, do I have your word you will take only the information from me that I have asked you to seek?"

The woman nodded. "I promise."

"Very well then." Ath'ran stood and paced to her side of the desk, leaning against it slightly with arms folded over his chest. "Then if you could tell me, please, what is tattooed on my left breast?"

She laughed. "And here I thought you'd ask me how many fingers you were holding up behind your back or what number you were thinking of."

"You can guess at those," Ath'ran explained, expression unmoved. "If you can guess this, I'll be more amazed than if you are as you say you are."

Cross nodded, sitting calmly in her seat. She looked at him for a moment then turned her face away quickly. Ath’ran saw her eyes widen before they were hidden behind her hair. "I'm sorry. It was on the surface," she apologized, hand going to her face. "He was very young. I'm sorry."

Ath'ran stared at her for a long moment, not wishing to speculate as to what she might or might not have seen. That didn't bother him, but the idea of that she could do as she’d claimed was still rather frightening. "You have an answer?" he asked, waiting for her to speak again.

She nodded, blonde curls bouncing. "It's their names--your children. Riyad, Kimberly, Gaelen and Paelah. Your wife has them too, wrapped around her ankle. You got them because you lost one and didn't want to forget. I can't imagine what that would be like. I'm so sorry."

Ath'ran watched her for a minute, a little stunned and quite impressed, then placed a hand on her head. "It's alright. It was years ago. It is not something you should be bothered with. Neither is it something that needs to be spoken on. You are what you said you are and I apologize that my request has affected you this way." He stroked her head for a moment, accustomed to the motion after eight years of marriage. It was what worked best to comfort Lisa and he suspected most women felt the same comfort at the gesture. "How old is your boy?" He tried to change the subject as naturally as possible. The child was making interesting noises in her lap.

"Eleven months. They grow up so fast, don't they?"

"They do. Is he a Shard as well?"

"Oh no. He's perfectly normal. It's not hereditary." She turned her smile back on him, and he drew his hand away from her. "Sem really is surrounded by us though, I suppose, with myself and Teyen. Teyen babysits him for me. He's not exactly a conventional sitter, but Sem loves him. I love him too. Teyen's a wonderful person and whatever it takes, you have to rescue him. I couldn't bare to see him hurt."

"Surge's safety is of the utmost importance to us. You have my word we will see him freed." Ath'ran walked back to his chair behind his desk and sat. Three shards found in less than a month after years in operation; things were looking up for his business, at least as far as results were concerned. That was fine with him for the moment. Silently he thanked his grandmother for her wisdom in continuing the oral tradition of the Mukshah and giving him the stories that were unfolding into truth. The bedtime story he told his own children that night would have new characters added, and faces where before there had been only names.

"I'd like to know what you have planned. The Surge has a different and fragile biology and I'm worried you may damage him." Cross was blunt and to the point, something Ath'ran could appreciate given the circumstances.

"Our plan involves no violence, Miss. We do not plan to handle the Surge personally in any way if things go accordingly. Upon review, we've decided that it is in the best interest of the cause not to break him out, but rather to negotiate with the man holding him."

Cross's eyes lit up like small fires. "Count me in."

Ath'ran regarded her for a minute with uncertainty. The plan was still in its infancy, and many details were unchecked. Riyad, being of the best breeding and upbringing, would be sent in to relay their concerns to Mr. Maxwell and see if he could be made to part with his prisoner. Julian had been right to some extent: the man was not going to respond to threats or violence. If they went about things as a terrorist group, they were likely to make a powerful enemy. The chance for success was uncertain, dependent mostly on the Mr. Maxwell's mood and the terms of Surge's confinement. Asking another Shard to walk into the Maxwell estate felt like asking for trouble.

"While I am honored by your interest, I don't think that would be necessary or for the best."

The woman was not interested in being diplomatic. "My talent will be invaluable if you are entering into discussions. If things aren't going well, I can let your agent know, and I can try and make your target more susceptible to persuasion. Having me go along almost guarantees success. I'd doubt your organization’s credibility if you turned me away."

She was right. Even with Riyad Shihar's natural poise in such situations, there was still a chance things could go badly. As his bondsman, Ath'ran was obligated to ensure Riyad's safety and Cross’s participation would do just that. The better an idea it seemed, though, the more Ath'ran disliked it. "I can't with good conscience permit your assistance. Were you hurt or in any way endangered, I would not be able to forgive myself."

Cross looked hard at him. "Mr. Mukshah, I am showing you a great deal of respect in not making you agree. If I can trust you to make the right decision, then you can trust me. Just say yes and let's get started on the plan."

Ath’ran paused. There was little more to say on the matter, really, and he had no way to combat what she’d just said. "Alright. You will be working with Riyad Shihar then. We won't be going over the exact details until we have managed an appointment."

"Do you need me to set that up?"

"No. We have an inside informant who is going to see that’s taken care of. All you need to worry about is showing up for the meeting and assisting Riyad Shihar." Ath'ran rose from his seat. "If you would like, you can leave Sem here with our staff. They’d be more than capable of and more than happy to look after him."

Cross hesitated, then, apparently seeing no other options as far as her son’s welfare was concerned, nodded and rose with her son in her arms. "I left my number and address with Jin. Keep me updated, okay?"

"Of course. We will be in touch very shortly." Ath'ran shook her hand again then motioned her to the door. He watched as she walked down the hallway to the entrance before going back into his office.

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