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Bai took his spectacles off and rubbed a hand across weary eyes. It seemed like an endless tenday, and the day had left him feeling stretched thin. Ressa had abandoned the office early, and her clerks were struggling without her: several folders were missing, an irate citizen, upset over a denied form that had never even crossed Bai's desk, spent nearly an hour in his office alternating between pleas and threats, and a pile of last-tick justification forms had been dumped on him just as the office was closing. At least the tenend was ahead - a few days to try to make sense of his life again before returning to the whirlwind of the office.Here is a short excerpt to whet your appetite:
Bai put his glasses back on, and Urti swam into focus in the doorway. "Oh, good," he said. "If you'd been anyone bringing me more forms to resolve, I would have driven you out and locked the door. I've already had one citizen in here who should never have gotten past the front complaints desk. I'm thinking about switching offices with one of the managers, just so they can't find me anymore." He scrawled a signature at the bottom of the page he'd just finished and put it carefully at the top of one of the stacks on his desk. It may have looked like chaos to anyone else, but the piles were carefully organized and sorted by importance, topic and date; Bai could find any form requested in seconds flat.
Urti took a seat opposite him, but it wasn't with his usual casual ease. He looked as tense and tightly-coiled as a cablecar spring, and though the spring day was warm, it didn't explain the bead of sweat at his brow. "What's the problem?" Bai demanded, all seriousness again.
"It's Ressa-" Urti started, and stumbled.
Bai's chest felt too tight.
Urti rose, and collected a drink from Bai's personal bar without asking, and returned to his seat clutching a glass. Bai bit back his desire to prod Urti, only waited as patiently as he could, and reminded himself not to drum his fingers.
Urti must have guessed how much restraint it was taking Bai not to demand the information that Urti was clearly reluctant to share, and he finally tipped the glass to his mouth and downed the liquor.
"It wasn't my idea," he apologized.
"I know how you feel about her, Bai. I wouldn't have done it. She's just... she insisted. I tried to say no, but, well, you know she's a damned fine woman and she wouldn't take no for an answer. Said you didn't need to know, and... gods of the Purists, she knows all the Carnal Guild tricks."
Bai felt something cold settle in his stomach. "What do you mean?"
Urti gave a dry laugh. "A man doesn't like to admit when a woman makes a fool of him, but she seduced me, Bai. And I admit, that pretty face of hers and that solemn air convinced me as surely as it did you. I should have guessed what she was up to when she didn't want to file our... meetings... but I thought maybe she just wanted to spare you. I thought - damn, it's hard to think when she's blowing on your ear and using those fingers..."
"You slept with her?" Bai tried not to say anything, but it spilled from him anyway.
"I had to," Urti said plaintively. "I thought it was just... a thing. But then, this." He put a folder in one of the few bare spaces on Bai's desk.
Struggling with the raw feeling of jealousy and possessiveness that was uncoiling in his chest, Bai opened the folder and stared at the paperwork without seeing it.
"This came into the monitor's office today. I... Bai, what if she really did kill those railcar drivers? She's a strong woman, she could have done it. What better way to deflect real suspicion than by making it look like she was being framed?"
Bai made himself focus on the paper; the chaos on his desk was nothing to the confusion in his head and it took a tremendous effort to make the letters into words. The form was a statement of suspicion - and it was a well-written witness to the fact that Ressa had been hired by each of the dead railcar drivers shortly before their deaths. It went on to detail classified contents of Ressa's Carnal Guild file, expressing concern over her jealous tendencies and occasionally peculiar behavior, and it was witnessed by a high-ranking Carnal Guild madam.
He had to remind himself several times that he was reading about Ressa, and banish from his mind the jolt of emotion when he thought of her with Urti. Seducing Urti? The whole idea was ridiculous and painful. "This doesn't make sense," he said gruffly.
"It makes too much sense," Urti countered. "She's a beautiful woman, Bai, and she's been playing you for a fool the whole time. Did it ever seem like maybe she stood a little too close to you, and flirted just a little? Oh, not the way that Olarali would flirt, she's too clever for that. She knows what you like, and gave you just a little taste of what you couldn't have. You weren't being set up with her - she was setting you up for her own uses. You and me, both."
Bai could taste her on his mouth from more than a tenday ago, the kiss they'd shared - was it just a little too perfect, too practiced? Was the passion all a ploy?
Urti was watching him from across the desk, silent for a long moment while Bai struggled with the evidence before him. "Your brother slept with her, too, you know," he said quietly.
If the idea of Urti tangled in Ressa's arms had brought a wave of envy to Bai, it was nothing to the flare of jealousy that the idea of Rai and Ressa caused. "I don't believe that," he said flatly, pushing it aside. He didn't want to believe it. "Rai would have told me..." But a tentick earlier, he would have said the same thing about Urti...
"Ask him," Urti said confidently.
"I will," Bai said, standing. "I... I have to go, I have to think about this." Ressa? A murderess? Seducing his friend and his brother? Seducing him? Urti reached across for the evidence folder, and Bai surrendered it to him. "I trusted her," he said wearily. "There was no one I trusted more."
"You were in love with her," Urti reminded him. "That can blind you to a lot of things."
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