"She's ex-ASD." Norian Keef sauntered into the alley. I wanted to kick his kneecap. Break it, too. I'd just been thinking of Lendill and wondering if I were going to have to play that card to get myself out of this. Instead, Norian showed up. Lendill can't fold. I can, came the mental message. "This is sloppy work if your employees missed this before," Norian went on. "I ask one of my former employees to check on this and what do we find?" Norian had already whipped out his credentials, cowing all of them. The Falchani faded away the minute Norian showed up.
"We'll handle this from here-no need to call in the ASD," the detective snapped.
"Then don't force us to do your work for you," Norian grabbed my arm and hauled me out of the alley.
"Reah, they're touchy as hell about this," Norian said as soon as we got out of hearing distance. "They don't have any leads. I know you were on Bardelus-that idiot innkeeper described you. You know what happened there. I also know that you don't work for me anymore, but if you can file a report, I'd be more than grateful and it may help us track the scum responsible. Lissa is ready to go if we find Ra'Ak, and if it isn't Ra'Ak, we need to know that, too. Our agents-all of them, could be putting their lives on the line needlessly if we don't know what we're dealing with."
"I'll file a fucking report, Norian," I said, jerking my arm from his grasp.
"Reah, I didn't mean to be rough with you, little girl. Lendill is about to go crazy without you. Please consider throwing him a bone now and then. And file the report." Norian disappeared.
I filed the report. In official ASD form and fashion, sending it to Lendill and copying Norian. Was I supposed to send a personal message too? I couldn't think of anything to say.
"I hope we have more ox-roast. We've already run out of the oxberry dessert," Oris placed the last salad on a tray for the waiter to take to a table.
"We've got five more servings," I said. The restaurant was packed and people without reservations were turned away-it was nearly closing time. I'd suggested we send the ones we turned away through the door with a small dessert and a sampling of our other dishes. That turned grumbling into surprise. Many of them we took reservations from for the following Eight-Day.
"The man with the long braid is back, asking for noodles," a waitress rushed into the kitchen. I'd held some back, just in case.
"What else does he want?" I asked.
"He wanted to try the ox-roast. I told him we might be out." She gave me a wry expression.
"I'll put his dinner together." She actually helped, putting a light salad on a plate and taking it to him as I threw rice noodles into broth and cooking that while plating up the ox-roast.
"There you go," I said, loading it onto a tray for the waitress to carry to the Falchani's table.
"He wants to talk to you again," the girl winced.
"I want to bust his nose," I muttered, making the girl laugh. I hefted the tray up and carried it to his table.
"I had to wait two clicks to get in here."
"I told you to call ahead," I said, settling the tray on a stand and handing off his noodle bowl, followed by the plate of ox-roast.
"I thought you were making that up."
"I never lie about food," I said. "Is there anything else?" I swept the tray off the stand.
"That's what the Director said. And he's not high on my list, unless it's the list of people I never want to see again."
"What's the problem with Director Keef?"
"Where do you want me to start?"
"Start with the most recent."
"My dead daughter," I snapped and walked away.
"Tread lightly around Reah," Lendill said. Lok had contacted him as required, and reported on the alley incident. Lendill had already received Reah's report. "Reah has special talents, so don't ever underestimate her," Lendill went on. "Too bad you don't have mindspeech-she'd be a good contact if you ever got into a tight spot."
"She doesn't look big enough to get herself out of a tight spot."
"I think the last person who thought that had a knife to his throat in less than a blink. Don't fuck with her, Lok. She'll be armed and most certainly dangerous. Harm her and I'll see you kicked out of the service."
"Sorry, we're completely booked," became a byword on the third Eight-Day. This time, we sent a waiter down the line of hopefuls with a comp-vid and a tray, passing out samples and taking reservations. The Falchani learned his lesson; he had a table reserved every Eight-Day for the next six moon-turns. I found that out by checking the reserve list. His name was Lok-he'd never bothered to introduce himself.
"Are you going to force me to serve you every time? Is this your way of torturing me?" I asked, setting his bowl of noodles down, followed by the pork special.
"It wasn't my intention; I just thought you might want to talk."
"Not particularly-I have a restaurant full of guests. Didn't you notice?"
"Now who sounds sarcastic?"
"I always sound that way. It's normal."
"Then we'll talk when you're not working."
"Oh, did I grow three hands taller and dye my hair?"
"You don't dye it?"
"This is my natural color," I said. "I have to go to work. Sorry to disappoint you and all." His face showed no emotion, but his black eyes followed me as I went to the next table when a guest waved at me.
"It's a Falchani recipe. I went there to learn how to make it," I said when the guest asked about the noodles.
"You're the cook?"
"Yes," I smiled at the man. "I learned to make these noodles from an old Falchani man named Flyer, who was like a father. He let me stay in a small room in his home over the restaurant. He has one of the most popular noodle restaurants in Cedar's Falls."
"Where else have you cooked?" The man's eyes were dancing.
"I've cooked at the San Gerxon on Campiaa. I've cooked for the King of Karathia and the Queen of Le-Ath Veronis."
"Does the Queen really have fifteen mates?" The man's female companion asked.
"She has seventeen, two of whom are Falchani," I laughed. Drake and Drew would be so proud.
"And how was the King of Karathia?"
"He was well the last time I saw him, although he may have been in a bit of a snit when I left."
"If you're taking your cooking away with you, I can see why," the man laughed.
"Can we get a photo with you?" The woman asked.
"Sure." We got one of the waiters to snap the image, after the two had squeezed together while I stood behind them, smiling the best I could. At least I was dressed better now-the clothing Teeg had left in my closet saw to that.
"Reah, this is Wroth." I hadn't heard from him since I'd gone to work at Dee's.
"Hello, Wroth, what can I do for you?" He'd contacted me through comp-vid.
"You can come down to the restaurant," he said. "I'd like to speak with you."
"I'll be there in half a click."
I ran through the shower, cleaning up and dressing in record time. I'd gotten to bed late the night before-I was planning short trips to other worlds where children had come up missing, in addition to working on Tulgalan's disappearances. Now, Wroth wanted to talk. Was it because I was giving out samples to people we had to turn away? Had Lok complained or some other nameless, faceless individual? I was shaking when I skipped away from my apartment.
"Reah, I wanted to see you because of this." Wroth pushed a comp-vid across his desk. I stared at it in shock, and then stared at Wroth in shock. The vid-news contained a photograph of me posing with the two guests from the night before. When the restaurant ratings are done each year, nobody knows which food critics will be sent out to sample a restaurant's fare. This man had come every Eight-Day since I'd started cooking for Dee's. And he was the critic designated to handle the ratings this turn. Desh's still held top honors this time, but Dee's had gotten critical acclaim for their Eight-Day menu.
"He says that if you were the head cook, Dee's would have taken the top honor, hands down."
"Oh, dear," I sat back in my chair, shivering. I liked Silmor, although I'd never met him. Now, this would ruin everything. I could wave good-bye to any working relationship with the man.
"Reah, Silmor has known from the beginning that you are a better cook. I'd like you to take the Master's exam." Wroth's words came from far away.
"I need to think about it," my voice quavered as I stood. Just when I had my legs under me, something came along and knocked me down again. Silmor might say that to his employer, but he was still head cook. He could make my life unbearable. Wroth watched as I turned away from him, ready to walk out the door. Two people stood in the doorway, and the sight of them made my vision turn dark and then go black.
I dreamed I was crying. Someone was singing to me. That had never happened. No nanny, even, had ever sang for me. Addah wouldn't hire someone like that. Not ever. He'd hated me-a tiny babe he'd been saddled with when my mother had the temerity to die after being poisoned with a drug that made her bleed out. I'd never seen her. But the two men standing in the doorway had. One of them had even helped kill Raedah, after raping her. But then Kifirin had told me this wasn't the same man. That his spirit had been traded, somehow, for that of a future lifetime. How was that possible? The gods could shuffle your lives around like pieces on a game board?
"Hush, Reah. Shhhh." I trembled when I woke and I was crying-I wasn't dreaming it. And the one who held me might have been the last person I'd thought to do so. Edan Desh's face was over mine. Crooning to me.