The shrubbery rattled noisily.
...... Standing quickly, Justin reached over his shoulder for one of his swords. The packhorse lifted its head from the bed of ferns in which it was grazing.
...... With a final shove at an impeding branch, Misty burst out of the undergrowth. She stood still for a long moment, tugging at her sleeves, then pushed her braid back out of the way, combed at her bangs with her fingers, and slowly walked forward through the thick, wet grass into the clearing.
...... "I was afraid that I'd be too late," she finally said, pushing the wide leather strap of the big satchel from her shoulder. The bag fell heavily to muddy ground.
...... "Reminds me of a previous time," Justin admitted, as he eased the sword back into its sheath. "My . . .leaders are sending a special transportation unit to pick me up here, and I won't be going for another two hours or so. If they somehow manage to get this one right," he added acidly, glancing at the packhorse. "Given the way that it's been running lately, they'll probably arrive at the right time . . . tomorrow!" He sat back down on the flat rock.
...... Stepping a pace forward, she halted with one hand braced on her hip, slowly shaking her head. Water dripped from her bangs, and she impatiently brushed it away.
...... "Thank you for coming to see me." He paused to look at her, his hands tightly clasped in his lap. "I don't dare return to the town, from what Igthorus and Xyly said, but I really didn't want to leave without any chance to say goodbye to you." He held out one hand, palm upward. "It's still raining."
...... "Yeah. It often does. Well. That's . . . as soon as I realized what had happened, I tried to go back to our inn, but Lady Xyly caught me and assigned a bunch of trivial errands for me to do. By the time I'd finally managed to get there, Xyly was there first, waiting for me. I didn't stay to hear all of what she had to say. She'd done enough already."
...... "Did you receive the tradegoods?" He flicked a dead leaf away. "I left it all for you."
...... She nodded once and waved a hand to brush that away. "It's not exactly to tell you goodbye that I came all this way in such a hurry." She angrily shook her head, causing her braid to swing. "As a matter of fact, I have an extensive list of things, which I want to say to you, and Goodbye isn't even at the bottom!" She stopped to wave a clenched fist at him. "You've sure made a complete mess out of my life . . . from the very first time I saw you! The Witches are finished. The Guild is ended. My career, everything I've built up for myself, is gone forever. You're the cause, and I'm so angry with you, I don't even know quite where to begin!" After a long sigh, she plopped down on the rock next over, folding her arms across her soaked, leather shirt and frowning at the ground.
...... "I know. I can't say that I'm very surprised about that." He looked down at the puddle next to his boot and rubbed a score line in the mud with his heel. "I do love you, Little One. I didn't deceive you. Not about that . . . or really about anything. It was that . . . ."
...... "Oh, shut up!" she snapped, waving her fist for emphasis. "I know! I know all about it! Xyly finally told me a lot." She brushed angrily at a sleeve. "But you can't blame me for thinking that for few hours. All those questions you asked me. Everything I talked to you about. You're impossible!" She jumped up, then sat back down, sighing theatrically and idly kicking at a dead branch.
...... "I didn't . . . ," he offered.
...... "Keep quiet! I know that you could've gotten all that information from anyone anywhere. We talked to pass the time, all those hours together. That's not what I mean . . . and that's not what I came here about." She yanked at a clump of grass, pulling several blades free to wave them in the air. "Don't you have anything to say to me?" she demanded, glaring at him. "You sure ought to."
...... She waited silently, while he simply sat looking at her, his hands still clasped in his lap.
...... Finally, he shrugged. "Only that I love you . . . and that I'm going to miss you terribly. How did you get here?" he asked, as a neutral topic.
...... "Igthorus lent me his riding mule," she sharply replied. "And that was very nice of him, considering the way I treated him, early this morning. There's no use in leaving it tied up here for hours, so I turned it loose to find it's own way home." Tossing the grass away, she twisted back to glare at him. "It's considerably smarter than some dumb animals I regrettably know! I thought that you'd have something to ask me about."
...... "I don't know what's left to say," he conceded, after another minute's silence. "I love you, and I'll miss you terribly. You're not one to be forgotten, ever. I'm glad to know that you'll be working with Lady Xyly. At least, I won't have to worry about where you are or what you're doing."
...... "Yeah! Right! Sure! And as I just said, you've made a total wreck out of my life. Those people back at Center may want to lynch you, but nobody's any too happy with me, either, having been involved in all of this. There's not much left for me here, after what you've done." She jumped up again to scowl at him, her fists once more braced on her hips. "They'd never lynch me, but they'll not go out of their way to make my life particularly easy, either. Nobody's happy with everything gone and changed!"
...... "Lady Xyly's going to need a lot of help with her plans," he repeated. "You'll work well with her. Your people are going to need as much help as they can get in the short term." He ran his hand across his hair, squeezing out water, then frowned upward in irritation at the dripping leaves.
...... "You not only ruined my career, you ruined virtually any chance I have of having anything here," she complained, right over his comment. "I know that it's not your fault. It's something that had to be done. But I don't have to like it! And now, you don't have anything to say. Men are stupid!"
...... He merely gestured his agreement and looked back at the puddle, which was dotted from falling raindrops.
...... After another minute's silence, she exploded: "But why? Why did you have to ruin my life here?" She sighed and waved her hand. "Don't answer that. That's a complaint, not a question!"
...... "I had to ruin your career as a witch, to save your life and your world," he quietly answered. "As well as the lives of the rest of your people." He drew another score line with his heel.
...... "So Xyly told me, not that she told me much about that," Misty angrily retorted. "That's not what I meant." She caught the end of her braid and tugged at it. "And you still don't have anything to say to me!"
...... "Only how much I'm sorry about what's happened. How is Lady Xyly doing?" he inquired, again as a neutral topic.
...... "You know what she's like. She has all kinds of plans which she's working on." Misty looked behind her at the rock, then slowly sat down again. "Merc is ruined as a SeaLord and is in a titanic rage. Willi, who was a minor SeaLord before Merc ruined him, is delighted about that. Igthorus is as cheerful as I've ever seen him, and he's helping Xyly with whatever he can. My parents are standing by me . . . at a distance, and my other relatives are pretending that they don't recognize my name. And that's shows just how well I fit in here now!"
...... "I'm sorry," he softly offered. "It's . . . ."
...... "Keep quiet! Since you apparently don't have anything to say." She gestured toward the trees. "I doubt that the Outlaws or the people of the Grand Bazaar even know that anything has happened." The ribbon bow on her braid pulled loose, and she retied it. "The peasant farmers may know, but I doubt that they care much. How do you know that the Master Crystal would've hurt my world? Where did you get that idea?"
...... "Didn't Xyly tell you? That's odd." He raised one hand and dropped it back to his lap. "But it's not important. One of those things, Crystals, destroyed my own world, back awhile. A handful of us were rescued . . . that's a long story, and not important either. Anyway, the HorsePeople were attracted by the cataclysm and picked us up. Those few who lived."
...... "So that's how you got involved in all of this." Her voice was softer, more gentle, as she inspected the toe of her boot.
...... He simply shrugged in answer. "The HorsePeople settled the others on other, similar worlds. I chose to work for them to try to stop these devices from doing any more damage. That's what I'll continue to do, I suppose."
...... She sat with her arms folded for a minute, then slowly turned to look over her shoulder, her mouth twisting down in an expressive frown. "The HorsePeople?" she repeated, looking at the packhorse, as it slowly ate a path through the fern bed.
...... "I can't pronounce their own name for themselves," he reluctantly explained. "So that's what I call them. Because that's what they look like to me."
...... She stood up on the rock, turning to glare at the idly munching packhorse. "Are you saying . . . ? Do you mean to tell me that . . . that . . . that . . . that?"
...... Sighing deeply, Justin wearily nodded. "He's stupid, ignorant, lazy, and worthless . . . but he's sentient. Also, he's a bureaucrat in his world. And in reality, he's my boss, on temporary assignment as Field Director." Justin paused to glance at the grazing horse. "When I said that he insisted that I rescue you from those Outlaws, a rescue which you obviously didn't need, I was telling you the exact truth. He would've preferred a chestnut or maybe a dapple, but a palomino was quite acceptable . . . his words. He's an inveterate busybody in other people's lives, particularly in mine."
...... "Are you telling me that he knew . . . while we . . . while we were . . . together." Her voice rose. "He was aware of it, watching us? He knew?" she yelped.
...... Again, Justin nodded, tiredly. "To them, it's a semipublic ritual. Each to their own! He doesn't understand why our kind go away alone together. I told you that, when you found out the truth about him, you'd be ready to help me turn him into hamburger . . . horseburger!"
...... "How do you communicate with that . . . that . . . it?" she demanded, trying to scowl the packhorse out of existence.
...... Justin picked up and held out a tiny gadget on the palm of his hand. "The HorsePeople are telepathic, but I'm not, so I use this thing. Electronic, a kind of very tiny, safe Crystal. Supposedly, I need only direct my thoughts, but I have better luck if I speak aloud, as though he could hear and understand." Justin put the gadget away. "That's why I seem to talk to myself so much. You're telepathic, which is how you operated what you called the Master Crystal. So you probably can speak directly to him, the same way that you sent control thoughts to the Crystal."
...... Arms tightly folded and feet braced rigidly on the rock, she continued to scowl at the packhorse. A minute later, it neighed in a low tone and went back to grazing the shrubbery.
...... "And that is what is commonly called a horse laugh," Justin chuckled, wearily.
...... Shaking her head, she jumped down from the rock. "Can't you think of anything to ask me?" she loudly demanded, pointing a forefinger at him. "Anything at all?"
...... He shook his head. "There's nothing left to say, Little One. Other than goodbye, and I love you. And how much I'll miss you."
...... She frowned up at the dripping branches and slowly shook her head. "Xyly's right. Perfectly right. All men are stupid!"
...... "I'm inclined to agree completely with that," he allowed, waving it away. "You must have had a long talk with Lady Xyly."
...... She snorted derisively and kicked at a small rock, which turned out to be firmly anchored in the soil. "First, I was so disgusted that I decided to marry Merc, after all. An hour's thought got rid of that ridiculous idea! That merely shows just how crazy I was." She walked over to stand a pace away, gesturing practically under his nose. "Then I decided to do without men entirely . . . and that was even crazier. That idea lasted until just before daybreak." She theatrically sighed. "Then Igthorus came to talk to me, while I ate something for breakfast. I wasn't very polite to him, I'll admit that. I even forgot to offer him a cup of tea!"
...... Justin nodded but stayed silent.
...... "An hour later, Xyly showed up. You could say that we had a talk." She shook her head, whiplashing her braid. "I think that I may've gotten twenty words in, during that ten minutes. Lady Xyly has quite a command of the language, including what she picked up on shipboard." Misty grimaced in recollection. "What she said, in essence, was that I was totally stupid, as bad as a man, and would regret it all my life, if I didn't come out here now." She paused to rub the back of her head. "I now remember why I quit wearing my hair this way. It makes such a good handle, and Xyly has a grip like blacksmith's pincers."
...... "Well, I'm very pleased that you came to see me," he said, then finished with another aimless gesture.
...... "Haven't you got anything more to say than that?" she demanded, holding both hands out, palms up. "Don't you have any idea of what you ought to be wanting?"
...... He just shrugged and looked back down at the ground.
...... "Absolutely right. Absolutely! Xyly is absolutely right. All men are totally stupid!" She stepped forward, slid onto the rock beside him, and wrapped her arm around his waist. "But maybe, possibly trainable! There's two more hours before our departure, so you said. You might have the common courtesy, just so that I won't look like a complete and total fool, to tell me all about my new home." She snuggled up against him. "Thanks to you, my profession is finished forever, and there's nothing else to hold me here. I've never been to another world, and it'll all be new to me. New, and a little scary."
...... "Would you . . . ?" he began, putting both his arms around her and hugging her tightly against him.
...... "Just keep quiet!" she commanded. "And who knows? Your world may be a nice place for us to live, to make our own home there, HorsePeople and all," she continued, right over him. "It would've been nice to have been asked to come with you, but I suppose that's asking for too much intelligence from any man, stupid as they are. Only pack animals . . . mostly! Anyway, I don't want to look like a naive, ignorant fool in front of your friends. I'm not a goosegirl! So start talking." She wrapped her arms around his neck. "In a few minutes, anyway," she added, before she kissed him.
PLEASE NOTE: The above story is fictional - the characters and situations are imaginary. Resemblances to actual persons are accidental (and in some instances appalling!)