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One of the principal advantages to the offices of the License Master was that it overlooked the gardens. Bai didn't have a particularly green thumb, and one of the flowering trees made him sneeze, but he quite liked the riot of color that appeared in the spring, and it was a restful view. Author's Notes
The window was open, letting in a mild breeze, and the scent of wet, green things was odd company to the melancholy thoughts that Bai was turning over in his head. Urti was dead. All the evidence - convenient evidence - pointed to the fact that the monitor had been the mastermind behind framing Ressa and murdering a string of innocent people, but Bai didn't believe it for a moment. Urti had been involved, as painful as it was to accept, but he hadn't been the rudder of that ship. If his gut instinct hadn't been enough to convince him of that, the card he'd found in his chair that morning, complete with a single blossom of black-dyed chicory, would have.
There was a polite tap at the door, and Bai knew without turning away from the windows that it was Ressa. She came in quietly, a familiar rustle of skirts and the subdued tap of her sensible boots on the floor. "Good morning."
Bai glanced back at her then, and waved her with a gesture to the card by the chicory. The chicory had bled a little of the black dye onto the card - it was otherwise exactly the same as the calling card Ressa had collected from the old man at Alikara's party... a chilling hint that the sender knew that they had discovered that mask, though neither of them had mentioned that revelation to Urti. There was a single line of text neatly written across it: "Remember what I'm capable of."
Beneath the card, the grayrag that Bai had bought on the way to the office was spread open. Urti's death and Ressa's blackmail had been relegated to one of the back sections - the tiny spot illustration of an elegant, haunted-looking woman who bore little resemblance to Ressa sat next to the news: Dirty Monitor Frames Innocent Joy Girl for RailRage Murders, Jumps Off Bridge. The cover and first pages were full of the more pressing news; the title compelling declared: Visitor from the North Destroys Anomalies, Has Records of the Upheaval, Rides Giant Unicorns. Bai wasn't sure which one was more full of half-truths and fantasies.
Bai turned back to the window, but not before he saw Ressa frown at the card and cautiously finger the chicory.
"He's not done with us yet," she said softly.
Bai grunted in agreement.
Ressa gave a humorless chuckle. "I feel like I'm in a runaway railcar," she said wearily, coming to stand beside him at the window and look out. "I can only hang on and hope the rails aren't headed off a cliff."
Bai looked over at her sharply. "No one is giving you trouble, are they?"
Her sudden, unsavory celebrity could not have escaped notice in the Licensing Office. The grayrags seemed convinced she was a popular Joy Girl, with the barest mention in a few versions that she had a secondary career as a license clerk, not the other way around, but her name had been printed, and given the gossips that worked in the office, there was no way that her lurid story was not making the rounds. Bai had to wonder what strange warped version of the truth it was, held against Ressa's report of the unexpected evidence the monitors had against Urti, and the embellished tales in the grayrags.
To Bai's relief, Ressa shook her head firmly. "I'm certainly of some interest," she said wryly, "and the object of some pity at the moment, but I'm sure it will pass quickly. No one has been anything but kind, if slightly nosy."
"I think we've got some respite," Bai said quietly, relieved by her words. "He's not done with us, but your runaway railcar is crossing a plain at the moment, not hurdling downhill; he's gone to ground for the short term. I intend to keep following some of our leads - quietly - and we'll be ready when he tries to cause trouble again."
Bai shared her reservations about the monitor who had uncovered the evidence against Urti. "I don't trust him," he said. "But I'm not sure how much of that is just a monitor who wants his case to be closed. I'll be investigating other allies."
"What about... Olarali?" Ressa hesitated, but met his eyes steadily.
Bai was not quite as cool-headed, and had to look away out the window again. "I haven't canceled our contract," he said, feeling vaguely ashamed. "She's definitely involved, but I don't know if she knows that I... er... know it or not. I think she could be a useful contact to keep."
Ressa nodded, face composed, and they stood in silence for a long moment. "I'm... so sorry about Urti," she said at last. "I know he was your friend... our- No matter what he... I didn't wish that end for him."
Grief and anger conflicted in him, and Bai could only grind his teeth against it helplessly for a moment.
Suddenly, he felt her hand at his - a quick tangle of fingers and a brief squeeze he automatically returned, and then she was stepping away, all professional distance and efficiency as she handed him the files she'd come in with. "I've brought you a form that Lalya found doing a routine check that was incomplete but had been passed up by a junior manager. We'll need to check her other forms - I've got one of my clerks working on getting her recent approvals from the files. These are the error reports of the last tenday from the print room..."
Bai let her words wash over him like a balm as he turned back to attend the work at hand.
He and Ressa weren't in a cart on the rails, he thought suddenly, with a sideways glance at her profile; they were the rails themselves. If they were careful, and canny, perhaps they could choose their own path and direct their own destiny, despite the efforts of their unknown underworld nemesis. And rails might not ever draw closer together, but they never slipped any further apart, either, stretching into the future together as a matched pair, no balance without each other. If he couldn't be with her, it didn't mean he had to be entirely without her, either. If their friendship could weather murder, suspicion and blackmail, it could weather a little love.
There was some amount of comfort in that.
THE END. (for now)