Chapter 11


The food wasn't as good as Riyad Shihar's, but as far as home-cooked meals went, Du'shan couldn't complain. He was used to the blandness of most Solacian foods, but it seemed that being married to an Arcadian had at least given Lisa a broader sense of spices, which gave the meatloaf an oddly nostalgic taste. Ath'ran certainly hadn't married her for her cooking, but Du'shan wagered that as far as Solace women went, Lisa was practically a gourmet. The assortment on his plate was certainly more creative than any of the white bread sandwich past lovers had made for him. At the very least, Lisaís cooking didnít come with the nagging suspicion that there was poison in it.

Flanking him on either side were Riyad--Ath'ran's Riyad--and Kimberly. Their meat was cut into small squares, and was accompanied by only a few spoonfuls of vegetables, which Kimberly made faces at while keeping her fork far away from them. Riyad, however, seemed more intent on Du'shan's plate than his own. When Du'shan scooped the corn onto his fork, Riyad did the same, only eating them when he saw that Du'shan had. When Du'shan ate meat, Riyad ate meat and Kimberly, while she couldn't have cared less, at least tried the things her "uncle" did. It was beginning to make sense to Du'shan why he'd been stuck on the childrenís side of the table.

Opposite him was Ath'ran with Lisa and Riyad Shihar seated to either side. Whether it was to be referee or to make each occupant feel less threatened, Du'shan didn't know. It always amused him on some level that being loved was as much a war zone as being despised. With Riyad Shihar and Lisa both present, Athíranís home was always a minefield.

Du'shan recalled the first time he'd met Lisa and that one of the first questions she'd had for him was if Ath'ran and Riyad Shihar had been lovers. He'd laughed. She'd gotten defensive. For Solacians, affection almost always revolved around sexual attraction, an idea that had been and still was in some ways very alien and backwards to Du'shan. Ath'ran and Riyad Shihar loved each other perhaps as a man might love his wife, but it was love of the heart, not the body. They loved each other as an extension of themselves: a pair of hands or feet that could function apart but were accustomed to working together. He hadn't expected Lisa to understand and by the jealousy she still sometimes exhibited, he felt rather vindicated in that assumption. All that she seemed to care about was that there was love between the two of them and its existence was somehow a threat to her. And in the beginning, Riyad Shihar had appeared to feel the same way.

Du'shan might have envied his cousin his family, but never for the stress Lisa and Riyad gave him. Neither enjoyed sharing and no one would be good enough for Ath'ran if Riyad Shihar had anything to say on the matter. He hadnít accepted the situation until he saw Ath'ran holding his newborn son at Lisa's side. Naming her son Riyad had been Lisa's moment of acceptance.

They still were capable of bickering as though they were the married couple, but with seven years between them the battles were mostly petty ones. Lisa had won this time, though. Ath'ran had quit with Protectors of Antiquity to be a family man, choosing her over him in the most obvious way possible. It had given Riyad Shihar some of his bite back, which was continuing to make the evening...interesting.

"You know, if you used a little less cinnamon and a pinch more clove, maybe some saffron in the sauce, this would taste really good," Riyad Shihar noted, smiling past Athíran at Lisa with a bite hanging from the end of his fork.

Lisa smiled back. "Well, we can't all cook as well as you, I'm afraid. Some of us have jobs to do and children to raise. If I had the option of staying at home doing nothing all day like you, I'm sure I could perfect some Arcadian recipes as well."

"Du'shan, pass the, uh...potatoes," Ath'ran asked, one hand already to his forehead to rub away the headache brewing.

Du'shan did so, hiding his smirk well. It was going to be an interesting evening indeed.

When dinner was over and the table had been cleared, Lisa settled the kids down in the living room in front of a movie, while wine was poured in the kitchen for the adults to drink while they talked. Du'shan never turned away any sort of libation, but had little love for wine, even the deep red variety poured into his glass tonight. It was still alcohol, though, and a fair compromise from the mother's milk, liquor. He drank his down in one gulp then filled it again to give himself something to sip on. Ath'ran let him keep the bottle on his side of the table.

"So there are still no clues available?" Ath'ran asked at the conclusion of Riyad Shihar's recap of events. Du'shan hadn't been paying attention, but it wasn't hard to assume they were speaking about the disappearing Healer.

"Nothing except what Surge provided in the beginning. Julian's gone. I haven't heard anything from Rabbit, but I'm sure he's working on it. Other than making sure Surge found a way to get his information out, there really isn't anything else we can do at this stage." Riyad sipped his wine, his disappointment obvious. "You should have seen those two. I've never seen Rabbit so bitchy and Surge was something of an asshole. I was this close to putting them in time out. As long as we've known Rabbit, he's never been like that to anyone in our building."

Ath'ran nodded, contemplating the tabletop. This wasn't his job anymore, but he was hardly detached from it. "Could be he was just shocked to discover a friend of his was missing. I wouldn't let this reflect badly on him in the long term. We may have dealt with him often, but not under these circumstances. Being rude to a customer won't be allowed in the future, though."

"Surge isn't exactly a customer, but I agree. I'll talk to him later. I really just don't want to bother him right now. He's already doing us a favor."

Du'shan refilled his glass again. "Maybe Rabbit'll go see the Oracle about it."

The table became quiet for a moment and Du'shan could feel all eyes on him. He looked up at the others and cocked his head to the side slightly.

"The Oracle?" Ath'ran repeated. "What makes you think Rabbit knows the Oracle?"

"Well, Alan does. And Rabbit knows AlanÖ. Oh, right. By the way, Alan knows where the Oracle is." Du'shan gulped down his third glass of wine to hide the warmth already growing in his face. He knew he'd forgotten something during their last meeting.

Riyad Shihar's palms slapped down on the table. "What do you mean he knows? When did he tell you? When were you planning on telling us?"

"He told me when I got the books from him. Sort of slipped my mind after that. Maybe he was just being an ass, though. He said the Oracle works in a brothel."

"Yeah...that Alan's the kind of guy who would say something like that just to jerk us around," Riyad agreed, settling down a little after the excitement.

Ath'ran looked less than convinced. "You never know. It might be good to follow the lead. What all did he say?"

Du'shan shrugged. "He said to go see Billie. I don't know if that's the Oracle, but he said she was the one who ran the brothel. So at least we can narrow down which one without having to scout out the area."

"Wouldn't that just do wonders for out reputation?" Riyad remarked sarcastically. "The Protectors of Antiquity frequenting every brothel this side of the Core. Now those are the people I'd want to represent the Shards. You can really see where that hard-earned money goes: straight back into the economy via the prostitution rings." He gave Ath'ran a long look. "If we follow this lead, we can't do it as the company. We'd have to elect an individual to do it. And it's not going to be me. I hear places like that have great services, but if word got back to my family, seeing as the Oracle is supposed to be a man, I'd be disowned. And I'm not even going to bother asking Nyr if he'd do it."

"What about Jin?" Ath'ran asked. "I doubt he'd have any issues going into a brothel and asking for a male."

Riyad shook his head as he finished his glass. "No, you might be right about that, but I'd really rather he didn't have sex with another Shard. Itís sort of a conflict of interest. It's not that I don't trust him to be completely professional about this, but things happen and I'd just as soon they didn't. I'm not so sure sending a sexually abused man into a brothel is all that smart a thing to do, anyway."

"Daddy, what's a brothel?"

All eyes looked down at the curly top of Paelah's head as she stood at her father's side, black eyes wide with an inquisitive arch to her brows. Lisa stood in the entryway, arms crossed over her chest. "Yes, Daddy. Why don't you tell your daughter what you're talking to your friends about?"

Ath'ran went as pale as he could. "Sorry. We'll continue in Arcadian," he explained to his wife, petting his daughter's head as though it would make the question go away.

"Daddy?"

"When you're older, Paelah."

Lisa shook her head, steering Paelah back towards the movie. "Okay, let's let Daddy finish playing with his friends. Your favorite part is coming up." The two of them hurried back to the couch, where Riyad and Kimberly were still engrossed in the film.

"Daddy, where do babies come from?" Riyad Shihar mocked--in Arcadian as promised.

Ath'ran punched him in the arm and said no more on the subject. He knew exactly what he'd gotten himself into, yet another thing Du'shan did not envy him.

"If you think it escaped me that you ticked off everyone but me from the list, you're mistaken," Du'shan noted, eying Riyad. "What makes you think I want to go looking for the Oracle when he might not even be there?"

Riyad Shihar shrugged. "Maybe you don't want to, but you are sort of the obvious choice. You're not so great with the being personable stuff, but you could get in and out without any harm to your clan status and if a situation exists that would land you in bed with the Oracle, I'll be really surprised. Besides, you could use a little fun almost as much as Jin could. When's the last time you were with a woman?"

"When's the last time that was any of your business?" Du'shan shook his head, emptying the bottle among their three glasses. "I really don't think we need to worry about the Oracle. We met the Impulse by accident through Nyr. The Witness met Jin without any trouble. The Healer and the Messenger walked straight into our office. We don't seem to have any trouble locating them when we need to, and if it's ever really that imperative we know who the Oracle is, we can ask Alan if he's telling the truth or just blowing smoke out his ass. My wager is we'll meet this Oracle when the time is right."

"He's got a point." Riyad Shihar looked up at Ath'ran. "What do you think?"

"I think the Protectors of Antiquity is yours now and this is a decision reserved for its leader."

Duíshan didnít have to be bilingual to read the message in Riyad Shihar's expression. "I was asking for your advice, not asking you to make the call. But since you handed it off to me, fine. I think we've got enough to handle right now. Maybe once Jin's had more time to adjust or Du'shan's got Alan's books done, we can reconsider a follow up. We'd just be spreading ourselves too thin if we took on any more."

Ath'ran nodded, patting his friend on the shoulder. "I knew I left it in capable hands."

"Stop reminding me I should be mad at you. It really counter acts the warm, fuzzy feeling." Riyad Shihar stood, taking his glass to the sink and washing it out. "Du'shan, you about ready to go or you wanna veg out and watch the rest of the movie with the kids and them?"

"Veg." He could make it home on the buzz no problem, but he preferred to let the warmth last rather than waste it fighting it for balance. He put his own glass in with Riyad's and slunk over to the couch, where Kimberly quickly scooted over to make room for him. Once he was sitting, she wiggled practically onto his lap, cuddling up against him with her eyes glued to the terminal. Du'shan put his arm around her and leaned against the armrest, watching Riyad Shihar get comfortable on the floor and Athíran settle into a chair, where Paelah quickly joined him. It was the closest to a family as Du'shan could remember having in a very long time. It wasn't his, but he was welcome here and that was more than enough for him. Still, in the back of his mind--the part that still dwelled on his resurrection--he wondered if they knew that their father's life was dependent on him, and if they would still welcome him if they felt the same dread that he did.