“So how are you going to manage this?” asked Arkmar an hour later as the elf and dwarf stood along the rail near the bow.
“I don’t know, Arkmar,” said Ryel, “let’s just find out, shall we?”
“Elfmans,” he said. He grinned at her: she gave him a single raised eyebrow. “Elf or human. More or less the same thing to the dwarf community.”
“Like you’re so different.”
“We don’t let our gonads run our lives,” said Arkmar. “Do not deny. Your gonads run your life. They do.”
“No, I have no children. At least give me that much credit.” But at that innocent remark, Arkmar looked aghast and angry. But he didn’t stay that way. He quickly changed to glum. He leaned forward on the rail and took an interest in the way the water splashed against the side of the boat. “What, hit a nerve there, did I? Let me guess.”
“No,” said Arkmar, “I am not interested in guessing games. I say we are different; you say we are not. It is not a useful debate. The terms aren’t properly defined.”
“This from someone who used ‘ain’t’ the first time I met him. No, I want to know. Why is my personal life such an acceptable subject for discussion but yours not?”
“It’s different,” said Arkmar.
They spend a minute looking down into the water.
“Does it seem,” said Ryel, “like you can see awfully far down?”
“I thought that, yes. Ferd said not to go swimming.”
“Oh, I have no plans to, believe me.”
Dinner was very good: a poached something or other that Ryel and Arkmar probably did not want to know more about, some lovely greens from Parg, a risotto so delicate Arkmar was afraid he might shatter it, a red wine, a white wine, a coffee that could only have come from somewhere south of Parg where the people are the same color as the drink, and then a dessert beyond any description other than chocolate ganache. Ryel noticed everything about dinner because she was concentrating so hard on it.
At the table were Captain Alkwadir, his wife Elena, Arkmar the Dwarf, Ryel the Elf and a very rich old lady named Liz who had struck a vein of gold somewhere in her dreams so deep she never bothered to go back to waking. She talked and talked, while Elena gave Ryel sidelong smiles and Ali kept trying to catch her eye.
Eventually he resorted to a note, which half distracted Ryel from dessert and coffee. Please meet me in the ship’s library, it said. I must tell you what is in my heart when I look upon you. Oh really. Must you.
When Ryel thought about it, she could easily let herself go and desire Ali totally. She could really fuck the daylights out of that boy. They would lie back after, smiles on their faces, and he would say, “It’s fine that I age and die and you go on, it’s just a privilege that I get to make love to you.” Ryel was not by nature a lover of women. Elena just did not have the equipment that Ali had, and she certainly did not have his lovely scent or his hairy chest or his hairy belly or his, well, everything else.
But then she turned it around, as she turned around a piece of that namelessly compelling dessert, and it was Elena’s embraces, Elena’s sweet kisses, Elena’s secrets, her soft, hard body, her smooth skin, her scent that seemed exotic and pricelessly precious.
And Elena knew something. She was onto something. She was waiting for something. She thought she was waiting for Ryel.
But since Ryel had no idea what that was about, how likely was it she was waiting for someone else? What would they do? What was she here to do?
Ryel looked up and Elena was smiling at her. She winked and looked away, and ten seconds later Elena said, “I’m sorry, Liz, this is all most interesting, but I need to excuse myself. Good night, darling,” she said to Ali, and then they both made great show of kissing and giggling about it as if they were embarrassed. And then she was gone, with a cute smile at Arkmar and the tiniest cute wink at Ryel.
Ryel waited five minutes, during which she only managed to push the last few bites around on the plate. She rose leaving the note on the table. “You can finish mine,” she said to Arkmar.
“Sure,” he said, his eyes gleaming, “I can manage that. So, Captain, I wanted to ask you, have you done the run to the Cloud City of Serannian? Is there a trick to it?”
Ryel left the Captain’s dining room and climbed the steep steps to the deck of the Storm Queen. True to her name, she was riding the gale and the mountain waves in a spitting rain. Ryel almost retreated (to the library?) but then she saw Ferd at the helm and she joined him, sheltered slightly by a roof and partial walls.
“You think this is bad,” said Ferd, “I seen things worse than this on the Inquanok run.”
“You think this is bad,” said Ryel, “they both—never mind.” She stood beside the big man for a full minute, then sighed and went back out into the rain. “Good night, Ferdinand.”
“Good night, Ryel.”
She strode forward and stopped outside the forecastle. The air was whipping across the ship, throwing the water around like a child in her bath. But there was something about that water that made Ryel glad the air was pushing the ship along so fast.
Then she heard a sound and there was Elena, in a doorway, gleaming just slightly.
“Elena,” said Ryel, “are you fully human?”
“Yeah,” said Elena breathlessly. She pulled Ryel into the room beyond. It was dark, but it was full of little noises: clicks, whirs, a sort of happy little fast clatter. Ryel looked around: there was a dim light, from a sort of thick glass bulb on top of some sort of armoire. It gave off a sick inner glow, a yellow that seemed like it wanted to be gold. The rest of the room seemed to be given over to odd cabinets connected by pulleys and belts and flywheels.
“Sh,” said Elena. She took the elf by the shoulders, turned her around and pushed her against the cabinet opposite the door. Ryel, dreading and desiring, reached up to stop those perfect breasts with her hands. She felt herself shoved hard against the cabinet, but then the melting together of lips and bodies was both hot and gentle. A minute later Elena pulled back for a moment. Elena was smiling. Ryel was caught between desire and dread in a way that really ticked her off. The sick yellow had suddenly grown to a halfway golden.
“Elena,” the elf maid managed to say before the next kiss, “are you a time tech?”
“Yes,” said Elena, “journeywoman fifth class. You’re here. Thank goddess.”
“Elena, how do you know it’s me you’re waiting for? Elena, are you about to make Mistress grade? Are you leaving Ali?”
“No, no, no,” said Elena, stepping back. She had so wanted more kisses. “No, I plan to stay right here. But you were coming and I had to help you.”
“With what? Help me? And what does the—what does the sex have to do with—?”
But just then there was a series of noises from out on deck, including several hatches slamming, things falling, and voices, including Ferd’s and Arkmar’s, shouting. But Elena pushed Ryel back against the cabinet and kissed her like the elf hadn’t been kissed in a long, long time, a kiss that reached her toes and fingertips and spent a lot of time in her thigh area. Mmm, that pressure: this was not just a means to an end. And yet it was a means to an end. Still, Ryel found it hard to muster any interest in resisting, in spite of the alarms going off all over her head. That light was now a fine warm golden, and the gadgets it revealed, packed tightly all around the two women standing there necking, were happily whirring.
“Just tell me,” Ryel gasped out, “is it me? Or would anyone have done?”
“Oh, it’s you.” They kissed one more time, lingering, their hands, their bodies merging and flowing, and then they stepped back, gasping for breath. “Come on,” said Elena, taking the golden bulb off of its socket. “It’s time.”