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Okay, she thought, pulling herself away from the showers in the TSC gym before she got pruney. So maybe planting evidence on a technically innocent man is the sort of thing my "honorable" father would've endorsed. Maybe it doesn't feel exactly Troubleshootery. But it's better to get him out this way than risk an armed confrontation once he was entrenched. She knew she was quoting Greg Tai's words almost verbatim. But they were true, right? This was part of what it meant to head off trouble before it happened. And n.o.body'd gotten hurt who hadn't deserved it.

Seeking distraction from her thoughts, Kari chose to don her skimpiest top and tightest, shortest shorts before going out into the gym (and tried to ignore the fact that she'd felt the need to shower before her workout). I can be bold and s.e.xy without needing Emry to push me into it, she thought. Still, she blushed when she emerged to yowls and whistles of approval from the men present. But getting that attention on her own, without Emry, was heartening. Even her embarrassment was stimulating. Her battle peace co-opted her capacity for fear and anxiety beyond a certain threshold level, and though her father had meant it as a blessing, Kari sometimes saw the imposed serenity as a curse. So a safe, manageable anxiety like this was refreshing by contrast.

But Kari lost her confidence when she saw Maryam Khalid over at the weight equipment, her body fully covered in a loose gray sweat suit with a raised hood, her large dark eyes studying Kari dispassionately. She was halfway tempted to retreat back to the showers, feeling very exposed for reasons that had only a little to do with her attire. But after a moment, Maryam stood and began coming toward her.

"Hikari."

"Hi." It was a tiny peep.



Maryam proceeded slowly, carefully. "I ... suppose you heard that I ran into your brother recently."

"I'm sorry. Are you healing well?"

Maryam gave a tight smile. "It's not your fault, Hikari. I didn't come over here to confront you about your ... family ties."

Kari looked away, shamed. The Vestan yakuza was closely allied with the Yohannes syndicate which had murdered Maryam's husband. One day, when Malik Yohannes had come to Rapyuta to dine with the Koyamas, twelve-year-old Kari had overheard him discussing the impending hit with her father, but she had done nothing about it. It had troubled her, but she had been an obedient and loyal daughter then. Both women knew rationally that there was nothing Kari could have done to prevent the assassination, but guilt and blame were irrational responses. It had only been a few months ago that Kari had learned Hijab's identity and realized why the mysterious black-veiled Troubleshooter had been so cold to her.

"To answer your question," Maryam said, "the cuts Katana inflicted are healing quite well. I was more embarrassed than injured; he exposed a great deal of my skin during the fight in order to humiliate me."

"Oh. Well. Uhh, I'm just glad he didn't ... cut your mask open."

"He was saving that for last, he said. Luckily his delay gave me a chance to blind him with a light flare from what remained of my suit. I'm afraid I was in no condition to do more than crawl away, so he escaped again."

Kari was nodding. "Kenji's always liked to gloat over others, rub in his power. It was a nightmare being his kid sister. But-I mean, of course it's not as bad as-"

"No," Maryam said simply. "It is not."

"I, I hope you weren't too embarrassed," Kari said, feeling self-conscious about her own exposure. "You know, you've ... got nothing to be ashamed of. I've seen you in the shower...." She trailed off, feeling stupid.

The quirk of Maryam's eyebrow didn't do much to ease that feeling. "Would it surprise you to know I'm very proud of my body?" Kari just stared. "Mm-hmm. That's why I'm selective about whom I choose to share it with."

Kari bristled. "And I'm a s.l.u.t who gives it away?"

"I didn't say that."

"You didn't have to. You don't hide as well as you like to think."

Maryam frowned, seeming to come to a decision. "As I fled your brother, he called out to me. Said he had a message to deliver to you."

Kari looked up, feeling a mix of anxiety and hope. "What was it?"

"He said that your family honor compelled you to carry out the contract on my life. That if you kill me, it will not save you from his sword, but at least it will help cleanse the stain you inflicted on the Koyama name."

Kari blinked away tears. Then she ran back to the shower and turned it on without bothering to strip first, letting the tears blend with its streams. Maybe I am dirty, she thought. Maybe it's in my genes and I bring it with me.

After a time, she sensed a presence and saw Maryam standing there, watching. "I apologize, Hikari. I should not have been so cruel. I didn't realize it would hit you so hard."

"It's not your fault," Kari replied. "I just..." She wanted to ask Maryam, Have you ever falsified evidence for the greater good? Was it worth it? Are you doing it now for the Troubleshooters, like I am? Is it just part of the job?

But if she asked, then Maryam might want to know why, and Kari was afraid where that might lead. If what she did were exposed, it would undo whatever good could come of it, and whatever good she could do in the future. Wouldn't it?

"I'll be okay," she told Maryam. "Thank you." She began to dry herself off and change clothes, hinting to Maryam that she could go. In the wake of her outburst, Kari was realizing she'd been a fool. Of course it wasn't her fault what had happened to Hoenecker. She'd done the right thing, struck a blow against the mob. Most likely, once Hoenecker was no longer of use to them, the mob had decided to ensure his silence. He hadn't really killed himself in shame.

So it wasn't her fault at all. The blood was on the mob's hands.

Not hers.

Not this time.

She just needed to keep believing that.

Vanguard Psyche Thorne was truly a woman of all seasons. She could be a charming hostess, a skilled negotiator, and apparently an effective seductress, but she could also be just one of the girls, a fun person to hang around with. Emry knew there was a sales pitch going on, a kind of seduction; yet there was nothing necessarily deceptive about that. Anyone who wanted to build a relationship with someone else, whether personally or diplomatically, would do the same. Psyche simply did it exceptionally well.

"Okay, I admit it," Psyche said as the two of them dined at an outdoor cafe. "I'm the whole package, body as well as mind. I'm designed to be good at relating to people. My father believes that's the key to truly elevating humanity. We've made people smarter, made them stronger, let them live longer, but it's only created more conflict, more danger. Because nothing we've done to enhance ourselves has addressed the root causes of our conflicts. What we need is to make people better. Better at understanding and connecting to one another, smarter at bridging their differences. Not just enhanced intelligence, but enhanced social intelligence. That's what I've been designed for. Reading people, empathizing with them. Sensing what they need, what they value, and thereby knowing how best to open their minds. Sometimes that means being alluring, even seductive."

"The pheromones help, I'm sure. And the oxytocin."

Psyche showed no surprise or guilt, just a slight self-deprecating shrug. "Just normal ingredients in human bonding. Call them social lubricants."

"They're a way of affecting people subconsciously," Emry countered. "Getting them to react a certain way without knowing why."

"Pheromones aren't magic, Emry. They don't affect everyone the same way, and they don't work over distance. You can't just pour on more and get a stronger effect, since any scent becomes unpleasant in excess.

"And they're just one part of a tapestry of human interaction that involves all the senses and the mind as well. Hormones are part of the chemical machinery of our brains, pheromones part of how we communicate. It's all linked. Intellect, emotion, subconscious drives, physical impulses-they're all facets of the same whole.

"Think about it, Emry. How easy is it to get people to listen to reason even when you have it on your side? Humans are creatures of instinct, of passion. Those drives have been built into us far longer than our capacity for reason has. So even the most sensible, beneficial points of view have always needed something more visceral to back them up. Sometimes it's the personal charisma of an individual, like Gandhi or my father. Sometimes it's an appeal to faith or nationalism or some collective drive. Sometimes it's the fear of the alternative. And sometimes it's seduction, even outright s.e.x. Whatever it is, when it's on the side of reason it helps promote it, and when it's turned against reason it swamps it. So even those of us who want to promote reason and understanding still need an edge to help us sell it.

"That's what I'm about. Connecting to people on every level. Understanding what drives them and knowing how to win their understanding in return."

"Maybe. It still sounds like seduction to me."

"Is that so bad? Seduction has been a part of politics for thousands of years. Xishi used her allure to distract the Prince of Wu, weaken his state and allow its overthrow. Hurrem effectively ruled the Ottoman Empire from her harem for decades. And I'm sure you know about Lysistrata."

"I don't know. Is that contagious?"

Psyche laughed. "Ideally, yes. s.e.xually transmitted disarmament. Anyway, the only reason history's frowned on s.e.x as a political tool is that men were writing the history and painting any source of female power as a negative. As though it were somehow n.o.bler to get your way with a sword than with a kiss. I don't think we should be bound by that anymore, do you?"

"To be honest," Emry told her, "my mother said a lot of the same things. About how s.e.xuality could be a source of positive power."

"She was a wise woman. Physical affection improves mental health in general. It produces oxytocin, which enhances trust and social bonding, and it helps balance our neurotransmitters. The cultures that discourage touch and s.e.xuality the most are, as a rule, the ones most p.r.o.ne to violence, bigotry, fanaticism, addictive behaviors, all sorts of pathologies. Children who are raised with regular affection grow up healthier, kinder, better adjusted than those who aren't.

"So why shouldn't the same principle apply to diplomacy and politics? Is it uncouth to use seduction as a diplomatic tool? Or is it irresponsible not to?"

Emry mulled it over. "I guess I see what you mean," she said. "Back when I was running with the Freakshow, you know, we sometimes tried to help people we thought were getting treated unfairly. Or at least struck out at people we didn't like." Psyche nodded. "Well, once we ended up, don't ask me how, on this habitat deep in the Outers, run by these ultra-Puritan fanatics, condemning the sins of the flesh and all that. They actually made it illegal for people to show physical affection to each other. Even in private-children were conceived artificially and it was a crime for a man and a woman to be alone together."

Psyche's eyes widened. "My God, that's barbaric!"

"I know, that's why we had to fight it. So my gang and I, we joined up with their criminal underground."

"Really!"

"Yep. We became key players in a massive snuggling operation."

After a second, Psyche laughed uproariously. It was a contagious laugh, and Emry joined her. Once she caught her breath, Psyche said, "Wow. Did they ever catch you?"

Emry silently thanked her for the perfect straight line. "Yeah, but they couldn't hold us."

After dinner, Psyche took her on a tour of Vanguard's artistic scene, their theaters and art galleries. Emry was entranced by the virtuoso singing, the incredibly athletic dancing, the mind-twisting sculptures and soligram animations. This was an aspect of Vanguardian genes she hadn't given much thought to. Her mother had been the artistic one.

Psyche then took her clothes-shopping, as promised. The stores contained various designer pieces they tried on in combination with more generic, programmable items that they tweaked to fit their whims. Psyche ended up choosing a coppery thong with a high, broad waistband and a midnight-blue off-the-shoulder cape fastened by a gold clasp above the sternum, covering the top halves of her b.r.e.a.s.t.s so long as she didn't raise her arms. "For someone who's all about the unity of mind and body, you sure do emphasize the body," Emry teased, though she made no secret of admiring the view.

"Look who's talking," Psyche countered, admiring her view just as openly. Emry wore a vivid red half-dress that left the entire right side of her body bare, held on by van der Waals adhesion with only a g-clip under it. She'd chosen it as a way of hinting that her loyalties might be subconsciously divided. "Sure, if it were just the two of us sitting around at home eating ice cream, I've got my share of old broken-in t-shirts. But I'm treating you to a night on the town, and that means getting noticed."

With their other clothes (including Emry's uniform) in shopping bags, the two women headed for one of Psyche's favorite nightclubs. It was fairly sedate compared to many Emry had been in. Vanguardians were a health-conscious people, not p.r.o.ne to abusing alcohol or other intoxicants. Still, they were clearly more than capable of relaxing their inhibitions without chemical help. The music was invigorating, the dancing athletic and sensual. The two women drew immediate attention, even though the tavern was full of beautiful people revealingly attired. Emry was flattered to find she drew as much attention as Psyche, though she assumed it was the novelty factor. But Psyche was still the life of the party, introducing Emry around and rallying the crowd to higher levels of activity. She seemed to know everyone here, as well as everyone they'd passed in the street, and she showed the same ability to tailor herself to their personalities and likes as she had with the delegates.

At the crowd's urging, Psyche took the stage and sang "Love Is in Our Genes" in one of the most beautiful, captivating alto voices Emry had ever heard. Then she dragged Emry up with her and goaded her into singing along on "Solar Flare," a song that Roche Limit's lead singer had composed about Emry after their brief fling had ended amiably last December, and which had enjoyed a few weeks of infamy following Chakra City. Emry was less embarrassed by the song than by her merely adequate singing next to Psyche's award-worthy skill, but Psyche offered only encouragement and praise. If anything, following Psyche's lead seemed to bring out the best in her own voice.

Then came the dancing, and there was no shortage of intriguing partners competing for their attention. The dances were raw, sensual, tactile, a good audition for what would follow. Attuned with the emotions of the crowd, or perhaps driving them, Psyche became pure s.e.x, her lissome, leggy body moving with the athletic, aggressive eroticism of a stripper. The way she writhed against her various dance partners, Emry half-expected an orgy to break out right there. But eventually, Psyche picked her two favorites of the available men and invited Emry to do the same. Once Emry picked out two burly specimens strong enough to take her on (and made sure they weren't related to her), the six of them retired to Psyche's penthouse apartment.

Psyche had chosen sleeker partners, not Emry's usual cup of tea, but Emry took turns with all four men as Psyche did, and found them all satisfyingly skilled. However, Psyche's pair ran out of energy well before she did, so once they'd succumbed to sleep, Psyche joined Emry in getting the most out of the two big ones. But eventually, the women were the only ones still conscious, though Emry herself was pretty well drained. She didn't know how Psyche kept up her energy. "Aww. We ran out of men," the leggy blonde moaned as she and Emry lay side by side, draped across their partners' naked bodies.

Emry reached back and fluffed up the b.u.t.t she was using as a pillow. "Where do we call to order some more?"

The other woman smiled. "That's not what you need, Emry."

"Hey, I'll be the judge of-"

Psyche rolled over, took Emry's head in her hands, and gave her a deep, passionate kiss. When it finally ended, Psyche said, "You seek out casual, empty s.e.x because you feel the men you've loved have abandoned you. You're afraid of being hurt, so you isolate yourself emotionally from men. Maybe a woman can help ease your loneliness." Their lips met again.

Emry was breathless when it ended. "Psyche ... that's a sweet offer, and you're gorgeous as h.e.l.l, and ... oh, Goddess, I think that's the two best kisses I ever had. But ... well, not a lot of women are strong enough to handle me."

Psyche regarded her with a wry tilt to her head. "I'm a Vanguardian too, Emry. Believe me..." She clenched Emry's upper arms and squeezed them tightly, hard enough to hurt. "I'm a lot tougher than I look." Pinning Emry's sweaty body beneath her own, she kissed her again, hard and rough this time.

Suddenly Emry felt reinvigorated. She broke Psyche's grip and wrestled with her until they both fell to the floor, giggling. Psyche yelped as Emry landed atop her, pinning her shoulders and sitting on her thighs. Laughing, Psyche clutched Emry's muscular ass and pulled her forward, kissing her with a different pair of lips. "Psyche!" Emry cried. "Come on, I've fantasized about being naked with your father!"

Psyche chuckled, writhing languidly against Emry's body. "So? It's not like you're married to him. Come on, Emry, stop making excuses. I gave you what you wanted," she said, glancing at the pile of naked men on the bed. "Now let me give you what you need."

Emry gazed into Psyche's shimmering silver eyes, seeing prismatic colors within them. Suddenly it all seemed so simple. This time it was she who initiated the kiss. It was many minutes before their mouths parted, and that was only to begin devouring the rest of each other's bodies. Their fatigue vanishing, they wrestled fiercely, playfully jockeying for dominance, enjoying their defeats as much as their victories. Psyche was every bit as strong as she claimed, and Emry reveled in the freedom to let herself go in a way she'd rarely been able to do with another woman. Both women would have interesting bruises in the morning, and much of Psyche's furniture would never be the same.

But in due time, the ferocity of their passion gave way to tenderness, gentle intimacy, and the sheer joy of exploring one another. The lovers reveled in their contrasts, not only of body but of approach, raw impulse and appetite versus expert pleasuring and generosity. But Emry was no slouch with technique and Psyche responded with undeniable passion. They brought out the best in each other. s.e.x with a woman had never felt so perfect to Emry. s.e.x with anyone had rarely felt so perfect.

And it wasn't just the s.e.x, she realized between o.r.g.a.s.ms. It was the company. She felt completely at ease with Psyche, as though they'd been best friends her whole life. True, Psyche's chemical signals had to be a part of it, but there was more. Psyche understood her. She sensed her needs and responded to them selflessly. And she let Emry see her own vulnerability, her own need to let someone get close without the games and seduction. After a while she stopped trying to impress Emry with her prowess and simply let it happen spontaneously, technique giving way to raw hunger and joy.

As Psyche's lips devoured hers again, as her hands cradled and kneaded Emry's head, Emry felt herself letting go, feeling more at peace than she could remember being in the past decade. Was that smart? Was she forgetting her mission, her assignment to spy on these people? Right now, she didn't care. All she knew was that Psyche was her friend, and she was beautiful, and she made Emry happy.

And then the next o.r.g.a.s.m came, and Emry knew nothing at all after that.

9.

Thornes of a Dilemma Emry awoke to find daylight streaming through the windows. Psyche stood over her, clad in a t-shirt and tight blue shorts and with her hair in a gleaming Rapunzelean braid. After kissing Emry good morning and passing along the good-bye kisses of their guests, Psyche wrinked her nose and said, "Umm, honey, you smell like six sweaty people. You better take a shower before you come out for brunch."

"Brunch? I slept that long?"

Psyche swatted her rump. "Sign of a clear conscience." Emry didn't let Psyche see her face as she hurried to the bathroom.

The shower was heaven. It was hard to find a shower head that could spray forcefully or scaldingly enough to pummel the tension and fatigue from muscles like Emry's. Most showers weren't equipped for it, due to safety concerns. Zephyr's shower tube suffered from the vagaries of water pressure at shifting accelerations, and in free fall the water flow had to be kept low enough not to overwhelm the tube's suction draining. But Psyche's shower could be used for crowd control. Thank the Goddess the Vanguardians were a robust people.

She would've gladly stayed in the shower indefinitely, but she was starving. She availed herself of its air-dry mode, though she still needed to wring water out of her thick mane and towel it off before blow-drying could commence. As she emerged from the bathroom, she heard Psyche calling from the doorway, m.u.f.fled by the thick towel around her ears. "Emry, could you come out here for a sec?" Still toweling her head, Emry followed Psyche's voice out into the living room.

Only to be confronted by the sight of Eliot Thorne, who stood by the sofa, calmly sizing her up.

Emry gasped. She'd always found this man spectacularly gorgeous in images, but standing mere meters away from him was a whole different matter. He was over two meters tall, powerfully muscled, and even standing still he showed the grace of a panther. His black and burgundy garment was elegant and businesslike, but it hugged his awesomely sculpted contours and was cut in a deep V that bared most of his chest and midriff. His face was strong, unyielding, and deeply beautiful. His eyes were the deepest, most colorful black she'd ever seen. His tightly curled hair was shorn in a close, utilitarian style, and a faint, dignified frost of gray around his temples was the only indication of his seventy-three years. His skin was a brown so deep and saturated that it shone like burnished iron.

Emry had been fantasizing about this man since she was twelve. Yet it hadn't prepared her for the stunning reality. He radiated charisma and sensuality more powerfully than any three other men she'd ever known.

And he was looking right at her and she was completely naked except for a towel around her head. Once that sank in, she let out a yelp and hid her body behind the towel.

Psyche laughed out loud, earning a glare from Emry. "I'm sorry," Psyche said between giggles. "I couldn't resist."

Emry sidled over to her. "Where are my clothes?" she hissed.

"Oh," Psyche said in a normal tone, "I just put them in the laundry unit. They should be ready in, ohh, ten minutes or so." She was still giggling. At Emry's continued glare, Psyche moved in to whisper in her ear. "I just thought I'd help make a fantasy come true."

Thorne himself took a step closer. "My apologies, Ms. Blair," he said in the deep, mellifluous voice she knew so well from the history tapes. Her legs almost melted at the sound of it. "My daughter enjoys her practical jokes. And I am sometimes too quick to indulge her. I assure you, no harm was meant."

After a moment, Emry had to question her own burst of unwonted modesty. Usually when she was naked with a man, it put her in the more powerful position. But Eliot Thorne wasn't just any man. He was indeed a fantasy come to life, and that made her vulnerable. She wasn't comfortable leaving her body exposed to him right now, letting him see exactly how it was responding to the sight of him, the scent of him.

Then again, she reminded herself, the Green Blaze wasn't just any woman. And acting so modest was itself a confession of vulnerability. Gathering herself, she smiled. "That's okay," she said, lowering the towel and taking her time wrapping it around her waist like a skirt. "You just took me a bit by surprise, is all. My hair must look a mess. And I haven't eaten yet," she added, turning to Psyche. "You said something about brunch? I'm famished."

She let Thorne escort her to the dining room. He chuckled. "Proud and stubborn. You are Richard Shannon's child."

She wanted to glare at him, but was hesitant to meet his eyes. Instead she focused on helping herself to some fruit. "My father was a very selfless man," she said. "And if he was stubborn, it was only about the good of other people."

Psyche, who had gone back into the bedroom for a moment, returned with a dressing gown that she helped Emry don and a hairbrush that she deftly applied to Emry's ginger tresses as an apology for her prank. Thorne went on in the meantime. "True enough. He was quite the crusader."

She managed to meet his eyes this time. "So were you, once upon a time."

He studied her. "I was never an idealist. Merely someone who decided that the state of affairs on Earth was untenable and that we were capable of doing something about it."

"Yeah. Whatever happened to that?" She was practically trembling at daring to talk back to him this way. But her memory of her father's resentment toward the Vanguard gave her the strength.





CHAPTER DISCUSSION