Taro early book one
Taro was still somewhat shocked at how very crowded and lively taverns could get. One of his more relaxed training Pairs had snuck him into taverns during his training tours, but they had chosen sedate times for the visits, usually mid-afternoon. This provided an opportunity to be around regulars and experience something of life outside the boundaries of Taro’s training, but it also allowed his chaperones to control his exposure. It wouldn’t do for him to spontaneously bond with an undiscovered Shield.
Though he had gotten to a place where he wouldn’t have cared if he did bond to an undiscovered Shield. That would be better than never bonding at all, despite the emotional chaos such bonds were said to cause. And, if such a thing happened, well, that person was meant to be his Shield, weren’t they? Besides, the chaperones would be there. It wouldn’t be like two children suddenly going insane surrounded by regulars who would have no idea what to do.
Still, he’d avoided looking people in the eye, as was usual when he was beyond the walls of the Source Academy. He then overheard people claiming he was too arrogant to give them proper attention. There was no winning, sometimes.
He wondered whether other Sources were given similar exposure to the regular world during their training tours. If not, he imagined their first experience would have been overwhelming, perhaps dangerously so. But for him, it was invigorating, the loud music, the ceaseless chatter, the dancing. And he didn’t have to worry about spontaneously bonding anymore. He could look anywhere he liked.
He was in the largest city in the world, with thousands of people engaging in a huge variety of pursuits. He couldn’t imagine ever feeling bored. He’d been there for weeks and it still seemed as though there was something new around every corner.
He’d already developed some habits, though. Such as coming to this particular tavern, where the wine wasn’t bad, the beer was excellent, and the cubes of spiced pork on sticks were fantastic. His friends said the music was superior, as well. He couldn’t really determine the appeal of the melodies, but it was certainly lively.
“Taro!” half a dozen patrons called out from a trio of tiny tables shoved together in a corner.
Taro smirked. Regulars could be entertaining. They thought what he did was so fascinating and mysterious, and they wouldn’t believe him when he described channelling. They thought there had to be something more, that he was keeping secrets.
Well, that was what most regulars seem to feel. There were others who thought Sources were nothing more than charlatans who created a dramatic display to fight disasters that didn’t actually happen, all this to receive housing and clothing and any manner of luxuries that everyone else had to work for, that some people would never be able to make enough money to purchase.
He’d been warned of such opinions at the Academy, but coming across it for the first time had been a shock. His own emotional reaction had been just as much of a shock, it was so strong, but he thought it was legitimate. He wasn’t a parasite. How dare people who didn’t even know him assume he was?
Darcy hooked a chair from another table with his foot, ignoring the squawking from those seated at that table. Taro put his hand on the back of the chair. “There’s no need for that,” he protested.
But one of the people seated at that table rolled her eyes and waved him off, giving tacit permission to take the chair. Her two companions stared at him. That happened a lot. It could be flattering, alarming and aggravating all at the same time.
“Taro, my love,” said Darcy as Taro sat down. “You’re late.”
“You’re early,” Taro retorted.
“None of us wanted to miss a single moment in your presence.”
That was so sugary, Taro couldn’t help rolling his eyes and groaning.
Darcy exaggerated his expression of dismay. “I’m wounded! How can you be so harsh? I lay my heart at your feet, only to have you stomp on it.”
“Your poetry doesn’t scan,” Taro told him. “Can we talk about something that isn’t me?” Sometimes he felt like a dancing bear. “The Blue Smoke filly looks good for the third race tomorrow.” It was an abrupt change of subject, but he was a Source. He didn’t need to be subtle.
“Every race she’s run for the last quarter, she’s come fourth or more,” Michael objected.
“Her jockey was changed three weeks ago and she hasn’t run since,” Taro reminded him.
“Yes, yes, Venes Rint is an excellent jockey, but how much do you think she can accomplish in three weeks?”
“The trainer is still Botnel Klenar,” Teal interjected. “It’s the trainer that matters.”
Of course not, Taro thought. Not alone. It took two people who worked well together.
“Del Sar and Klenar hated each other,” Darcy pointed out. “He and Rint get on.”
“Get on a lot, I hear.” Teal raised her eyebrows suggestively.
“What do you do with the money you win, Taro?” Michael asked.
Taro sighed. And back to him. How was he going to get to know anyone if everyone wanted to talk only about him? He knew himself. He really wasn’t that interesting.
“Do you get something illegal?” Michael’s grin was sly. “Something the Triple S would never allow you to have?”
That was something he’d never thought of.
“He wouldn’t need it,” Teal pointed out. “He’s still Triple S. Everyone has to give him whatever he asks for.”
Well, not quite.
“Not if he asked for something illegal,” Michael persisted.
“Why would that make any difference?”
“Because it’s illegal! What’s he going to do if someone refuses to give him what he wants? Tell a Runner that so-and-so wouldn’t give him any frost drugs?”
“That is a really interesting idea,” Taro admitted.
“So you’ve never done it?” Michael asked.
“Would you be willing to?”
Taro hesitated. It sounded like fun. Stupid, but fun. Still, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Why not? Nothing’s going to happen to you if you get caught. You’re a Source.”
Of that, he had no doubt. While Sources would be punished for the worst crimes – those who committed murder or rape might find themselves transferred to a site considered unimportant to the Triple S, – minor ones like theft or trespassing were pretty much ignored. But he really didn’t like the idea of indulging in crime purely because he wouldn’t be punished for it. This would merely give weight to the arguments of his detractors. “No, I don’t think so.”
Teal appeared disappointed. “How very staid of you.”
That people seemed to think they could say whatever they wanted to him, about him, was a lump of interesting wrapped in a blanket of aggravation. “My dear pretty one,” he said, “There are far more interesting ways to display vigour and creativity than finding a street slipper willing to give me mind benders.”
Teal assumed an expression of innocence. “Really? I have no idea what you mean.”
Taro grinned at her.
And suddenly found himself with a lapful of woman. A pretty woman, with nice wide green eyes and lovely cheekbones, but a stranger, and he didn’t really enjoy being tackled by strangers. A tap on the hand or the arm was about right, he thought, for people who hadn’t even been introduced.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time it had happened to him, so he smiled and used the greeting customary to such incidents, “What can I do for you, my fair one?”
“Oh, I think you know, Stallion.” She trailed a fingertip along his jaw line.
He was, perhaps, in an odd mood, because he found her invitation with its heavy seasoning of assumption annoying rather than enticing. It didn’t help that he really hated that moniker. It had been inflicted on him by a fellow student, such a mean spirited ass that Taro had felt deep sympathy for his future Shield. It had been no compliment, and Taro had been horrified and disappointed to learn that the nickname had spread beyond the walls of the Academy. “I’m terribly sorry, mistress, but I have obligations to meet tonight.”
She pouted. “Surely you can convince them to meet with you another time.”
She thought herself something special then, to believe he would drop everything just to have sex with her. All she had about her of any appeal was her face and form. He had aged beyond such superficial tastes. After all, there were plenty of pretty people about.
“I’m available, darling,” Darcy said.
She threw him a look of disdain that would have sliced off any interest Taro might have had in her. “People who look like me don’t associate with people who look like you.”
Whoa, what a bitch. And Darcy was fine to look upon. That someone of her distasteful nature found Taro appealing was almost an insult. “Not tonight.” Not ever. “Though it breaks my heart to say so.”
She redirected her poisonous glare to him. “I thought you were supposed to be fun.”
And, of course, the only fun he could provide was sex. “At times words float higher than soil.”
She looked baffled. He didn’t blame her. He didn’t understand what he’d just said, either. Sometimes words just came out.
“Fine,” she huffed. “Eunuch.” Finally, she rose to her feet and flounced away.
Michael watched her leave before saying to Taro,” You know, I’ve never seen you accept any of the invitations you get.”
Taro assumed the most aristocratic accent he could drag together, knowing it irritated the hell out of people. “Your interest in every detail of my life is certainly intense.”
Michael blushed, understanding he had jumped over a line.
“We’re sorry,” Darcy said hesitantly. “It’s just, well, there’s so much we’ve heard. And, you don’t seem …. We’re all sort of confused.”
“And you put such stock in rumors?” Taro asked coolly.
“When they all say the same thing, aye. How could so many people be wrong?”
Taro didn’t want to admit Darcy had a point. It was all so unjust.
Part of the problem was his damned brother. Everything Taro was reputed to be, his brother actually was, and worse. Taro didn’t understand the logic behind the assumption that siblings must have identical personalities and habits, but there it was.
Yet he had to acknowledge that he was also partially responsible for his reputation. There had been a few years when he had slept with pretty much everything that moved, students, professors, staff. And why not? Sex was fun.
He was very good at channeling. Very good. Perhaps that had left him with more free time than students who had struggled with their tests. Perhaps that free time hadn’t been spent in the most productive or noble manner. Pranks might have been involved. Secret nighttime gatherings consuming horrid homemade alcoholic beverages that didn’t remain so very secret. It was at the Academy that he’d first learned to gamble, and when gamblers didn’t have money for stakes, they might have to get a little … creative.
So, no, he supposed he couldn’t blame the regulars, not entirely. But he was a proper Source, now. He couldn’t have people thinking he was unreliable, that a degenerate form of living might interfere with his duties. He had to convince everyone he took his responsibilities seriously.
And everyone included Lee, who also believed the rumors. That was baffling and disappointing, especially as it appeared her beliefs hadn’t been adjusted much in the time since they’d met.
He had been learning of her, though, even if she was still blind to his character. And it had quickly become clear that while she was a very talented and disciplined Shield, someone he was already confident would keep him alive in any situation, she was a terrible judge of character, and was largely ignorant of the impression her excessively cold formality made on others. Part of her responsibilities were to apologize to those regulars who might be offended by Taro’s more incomprehensible behavior, but sometimes it was necessary to operate in reverse, with Taro soothing the ruffled feathers.
Well, he’d always thought Shields had too many more responsibilities than Sources.
So, his primary task was to convince his Shield that he wasn’t a reprobate. Everyone else would come after. And it wasn’t as though he hadn’t made any progress at all. He was pretty sure he’d convinced her she could rely on him to take care of her when music was in the environment. He thought that was a good start.
She never accepted his invitations to go tavern hopping with him, though, which was immensely frustrating. How was she to learn of his character if she refused to observe him when he was off-duty, or meet any of his friends?
Sometimes, he just got sick of trying. Let her think what she wanted. But he would be damned if he would spent a lifetime with a Shield who thought he was useless beyond channeling. It would make him miserable. So, he decided to think of it as their particular division of labor. She read and wrote reports and performed all of the dozen other tasks he knew nothing about, and he made sure their personal relationship ran smoothly.
At this stage, the only way he could think of to accomplish that was to change the rumors about him. That meant moderate drinking, moderate gambling, and no sex at all.
Well, he’d slipped up on that last one a little, but no more. If he slept with anyone, he risked his partner saying all sorts of things about him. And anyone who heard him agree to sex with anyone, saw him sneak away with anyone, would have their own stories to tell. Instead, the young woman he’d just refused was likely to tell everyone she knew that he hadn’t lived up to his reputation. Perhaps she would tell everyone he was an arrogant ass, or maybe she really would say he was some kind of eunuch.
Not that he particularly wanted that sort of reputation, either, but right then it was all he could think to do.
He wouldn’t remain celibate forever, of course. He’d never gone without sex for so long since he’d first had sex with an older student when he was fourteen. It had left him feeling a little tense. Just a few more weeks, until Lee finally relaxed and trusted him.
He could manage that.
As long as he never watched Lee dance the benches ever again.