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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Prologue: Tidings of Comfort and Joy

Khyrisse looked out the bay window of her new living room at the construction going on in the main square. The excitement she felt at seeing New Trade slowly emerge from the hillsides was not entirely succeeding in assuaging her moving jitters. Khyrisse had been a refugee much too long to feel comfortable putting down roots. Anything more than would fit in her backpack was just an extra thing to worry about. And so though the housewarming presents she’d gotten from people were nice, they were making her feel less comfortable, not more. And so though Khyrisse admittedly did enjoy shopping, her new acquisitions didn’t feel very much like hers. And so though the layout of the first house standing in New Trade was the reassuringly familiar one of Khyrisse’s mansion, the feeling it gave her was not really that of a home, but of a recurring waystop.

Khyrisse looked across the partially unpacked boxes littering the living room. And so, though her virtual house had been literally crawling with loved ones and strangers alike for months, the thought of moving in together was still giving her flutters. The last time she’d lived with a man--

“Mom!” yelled her apprentice, banging the door behind him. “Can I have a cat?”

“Can it wait till we get the house in some semblance of order, Skitch?”

“Uh--” The boy balked. “Well, not really, actually, no.”

Khyrisse frowned. “Why not?”

“Because I already found a cat.” He came in carrying it by the armpits. It was a smallish long-haired grey-and-white, with a scraggled tail. “I found her in Edimon when me and Vas went to talk to the Mages’ Guild this morning. Can I keep her?”

“Skitch!”

“She’s a stray,” he said, defensively. “Just like me.”

The cat yowled plaintively, as if on cue.

Khyrisse pressed the bridge of her nose. “Skitch,” she said, “you can keep her, but she’s the only one. You can’t bring every stray animal you find home with you. Okay?”

“I’m going to name her Melissa.” Skitch bounded enthusiastically up the stairs with her.

“And you have to be the one to take care of her, Skitch!” she yelled up after him, belatedly. “Not me!”

He didn’t answer.

Khyrisse hoped to all the dead gods she was up to this.

¯

The sun hadn’t risen in Riklandir since November.

It was a forbidding land in winter, Flicker knew. This was not the season for tourists here. Neither, though, was it the season for Riklanders who could afford it to take their own vacations, and though part of that had to do with not wanting your friends to think you were a pansy, Flicker had also chosen to believe that there was part of it that had to do with faith. If you shouldered through the dark days you could make the sun rise again. Flicker believed that. And this year, the increased relevance of that sunrise both to Ataniel and to him personally aside, it was particularly important to return home. Here as elsewhere, the Madness had taken its toll, and the country was short-handed. No crops grew in Riklandir in the dead of winter. They couldn’t afford to lose hunters of Flicker’s caliber.

So Flicker was skiing cross-country to Ringebu, through a snowstorm, in the dark. The bridge of skin between his eyes, the only part of his face exposed between his drawn hood and bundled scarf, was raw and red with wind. Flicker guessed it was five or six at night now, but the wind was bitter and strong, and he was tired. He turned in at the next homestead he reached, a run-down cottage but with a fire inside. “Gastenrejk,” he said to the older human woman that opened the door.

She moved aside to let him in, honoring the ancient laws of hospitality, and Flicker unhooked one of his skis and then the other. It wasn’t much warmer in the house. When he looked he could see that the back wall had been smashed out; the stones someone had laid to brick up the damage had fallen, perhaps in heavy wind, and were not retaining much heat. “Mother,” he said, “the wall has collapsed.”

“Ragnarok,” said the woman, and shrugged wearily.

He nodded and took her axe from the wall without asking. “I’ll cut a log to split,” he said. “Rocks will only fall again.”

“I’ll put up soup,” she answered, hobbling stiffly across to the fire.

Flicker strapped his skis back on and pushed wordlessly back out into the darkness.

It was good to be home.

¯

“I wanted to talk with you about this city of yours,” said Eric’s voice, crisply. “I have no intention of handling this for you, you understand, but I’ve got a lot invested in this now and I want to make sure you’ve thought through more than the economic aspects of this.”

Khyrisse could feel her face flush at her ex-husband’s dismissive tone despite herself, and was glad they were on an audio link. “What do you mean?” she said, as calmly as she could.

“Well, I know you haven’t got much of a head for politics, Rissa, but to found a city you’ll have to get people to follow you there. Has there been an interest? Your last city didn’t exactly fare so well.”

Khyrisse closed her fist, her pupils very dilated. Ebreth rolled his eyes and ran his middle finger up her back. She pushed his arm away. “That was hardly my fault,” she told Eric, through her teeth.

“Take the credit for an economic boom,” he said, “take the fall for Armageddon. That’s the way of politics. ‘New Trade’ doesn’t evoke the most positive connotations in the world right now. Did you have anything in mind for damage control, or were you just assuming everyone would have forgotten?”

Ebreth kissed the back of her neck. Her back arched and she pushed him away. “Not now,” she hissed.

“Why not?” he whispered in her ear.

“Um...” It was a good question, actually. Khyrisse rolled her head. “Eric? Can you call back later?”

“These spells aren’t free, you know.”

He put his arm around her from behind. He was very warm. “Then I’ll--send you a report. I need time to--investigate your--very relevant point, anyway. I’m sorry, Eric. I’m busy.”

“Suit yourself,” he said. “I thought this was important to you.”

“Tell him I’m more important than he is,” Ebreth said in her ear. She barely stifled a laugh.

“What?” said Eric.

“It is important,” Khyrisse said. “It can wait. Business isn’t the only important thing in the world, Eric.”

The Cynystran ruler paused for a long moment, rather longer than Khyrisse had been expecting. “Quite,” he said. “Good afternoon.”

¯

“We shouldn’t be in Diaria long,” said Khyrisse. “Lunch with Tarrin and a meeting with the Regent. If we’re not back by tonight contact Praxis and tell him to get ahold of Shilree. She should at least be able to find out what the government’s up to.”

“If you’re not back by tonight,” Ebreth said, “I’m contacting Don Alliejin and to hell with the government.”

“You’re not coming?” said Skitch.

“Ah, no,” said Ebreth.

“But it’s Diaria! Diaria is the best country in the world!”

“And they have the best law enforcement in the world,” Ebreth said, “and the best memories in the world. Send if you’re going to be late. I don’t want to use my contacts over nothing.”

***

“Heyyyyyyyy,” Skitch said, looking around. “This street is just like streets in Dalencia! And these are just sycamore trees! This isn’t so great!”

“I think it’s a very nice town,” said Khyrisse, trying not to be smug.

“Tarrin said this was the best country in the world!”

“Home is always the best place in the world,” Vas said seriously.

“Look at the dresses in that window! Khyrisse has prettier clothes than that!” Skitch looked utterly crestfallen. “Nothing here is better than anything I’ve seen bef--”

“Little Skitch! Khyri!” Tarrin hurried over, beaming. “It is good to see you! Please meet my daughter, Lorrini. She is eleven years. Say hello in the Dalen, Lorrini.”

“Hello in the Dalen, Lorrini,” she said, rolling her china-blue eyes.

“S-sarasto,” Skitch stammered out the High Diari greeting, his thought lost in flight. The girl put both of her hands over her mouth and giggled, and Khyrisse folded her arms in grim amusement. Payback time, kiddo.

***

“The Regent of Western Diaria,” said the young man, with a stiff bow of his head.

Khyrisse blew all her air out. “Have you ever heard of signing a letter?” she yelled.

Shilree grinned at her wickedly. “Trillarillia’s still dead.”

The courtier left as the two Mithril Dagger Heroes embraced.

***

“And that is how we defeated the undead butthead and the King of the Kings,” finished Tarrin, simultaneously in his quaint Dalen and in psychic broadcast for his family.

“I heard this story already,” his son, Sajhir, complained in Diari.

“Goodness, Tarrin, you could have been killed,” said Coyri, also in Diari.

“Tell the romantic part, papa,” Lorrini said in Dalen, smiling shyly at Skitch, who missed his ice cream with his spoon. “It is just like a fairy tale.”

***

Ebreth met the Carriage at the docks. There wasn’t much of a town here yet, of course, but Khyrisse liked to land here anyway, just to get the routine set. “How’d everything go?” he asked up at Khyrisse, flanked by her bodyguard and her apprentice.

“Fine,” she said. “I was right; it was Shilree.”

“Makes it easy to put together an economic federation when your personal friends run all the countries, doesn’t it?” He lifted his arms to jump her down to the fresh pavement of what would soon be New Trade. “How’s Tarrin, Skitch?”

“Diaria is the best country in the whole world,” sighed the boy, still sitting on the Carriage board, looking dreamily out across the Northsea.

¯

“Do you remember Belle?” Praxis asked, frowning over the letter.

“Of course,” his wife said. “Diarian genetic construct, severe attitude problem, poor impulse control?”

“That’s the one. She sent me a letter.”

“Not one of those annoying chain letters, is it?”

“No,” Praxis said. “She claims that the Emperor of Diaria planted a psionic curse in her mind. She wants to know if I’ll give her some help with it.”

“Belle, hm?” said Inez. “So... will you?”

***

“Don Alliejin,” Friydox said, bowing to the Godfather, “a missive for you. From Dama Belle.”

Don Alliejin’s lips tightened. “I knew this would come. Eventually. Bring it to me.”

Friydox exited. The Don pinched his temples in annoyance. Dama Belle had executed a contract for him three years ago, taking out a priestess of Pysyri who had... known too much. If Don Alliejin had sent a man of his own, his role in the Psi Inquisition would have been exposed. Dama Belle, with her alien-altered mind, had been able to hide her presence from the priestess long enough to “remove” her. The woman had done a professional job of it, implicating a Cynystran revenge squad for the crime.

And now the debt was coming due.

Friydox brought in the letter, and Don Alliejin opened it. He read it once, then again.

“Is this all?” he asked.

Friydox nodded. “It was all that was sent, Godfather.”

“Then prepare a return message. Tell her we will grant what she asks, and all accounts are clear.”

“Godfather?”

“To discharge such a debt for so little a favor? Don Alliejin knows when to close the books.”

***

“My Lord Avatar!” Gen Seeford cried. “Mail call!”

“Ah,” Jarth Averdale smiled with a manic Zaptian grin. “I love mail. How many bags today?”

“Three bags full, sir,” Gen said. “And a letter by special messenger arrived for a... Mr. George Biblio? Do we have someone by that name?”

Jarth grabbed for the scroll that Gen was peering at quizzically. “Gimme!” he cried. “It’s, ah, a... wrong number. Previous resident. Probably just a credit card bill.” Gen looked confused. “G’wan, scram, kid... the Avatar needs his, ah... meditation time. Nude meditation, so no visitors.”

Gen paled, nodded and left.

Jarth Averdale tore open the scroll and began reading.

“My Zaptian friend,” he read, lips moving. “Yes, I know who you are, and would be willing to keep that secret in return for certain favors. We are both familiar with a friend of yours named Frank...”

Jarth skimmed ahead.

It was from that Diarian chick that had kicked his butt in the Barrier, Belle. Apparently she had been able to put two and three together to get eight (in classic Zaptian mathematics) and deduced his secret identity. Now, it was blackmail.

Jarth strode to the large ceramic penguin that covered his entrance to the Brazeel Bat Cave.

Down, into the darkness, he descended.

There, in the small cave he had hollowed out using the power of Morvon the Mountain King, were the remains of his small Zaptian spacecraft.

That would contain all the technology he’d need to pay Belle off and keep this cushy gig.

Besides, it’d been years since he’d done any genetic engineering...

***

“We’ve got a letter,” Shilree frowned. “It’s from Belle.”

“Oh.” Anjra tensed noticeably.

“She’s encountered the assassin,” Shilree read. “And she’ll need... military backup?”

“Military backup? I thought she was the best assassin in Diaria,” the young emperor frowned. “That’s what my predecessor’s notes say.”

“She says he’s gathering a force in Sturtevant. A small cult, but one she needs some help with.”

“This might be good, actually,” Anjra mused. “We can appoint someone in the phalanx to keep an eye on her.”

“I know that’d make me feel better,” Shilree said, stroking Anjra’s hand.

“Then assign her one of the battalions from the Javin border. They’ve been doing nothing but laughing at Zerthimaniacs for the last six months.”

“I’ll also appoint agent Hiyrann to the group,” Shilree said.

“Make it so,” smiled Anjra.

Shilree shook her head. “I’ve got to keep you out of the crystal library,” she sighed.

***

“Zzenith Doctor Yarleen thanks,” the blob said, oozing out of the sorceress’ hut. “Ideas about bioadaption space of vacuum in your very are wise.”

“I wouldn’t have been able to make nearly as much progress without your help, my friend,” the raven-haired theoretical sorceress said. “For the first time, I think we might have a chance at getting you home once and for all.”

“Zzenith’s joy boundless is! After holiday the Yuletime, return will Zzenith and plans together make we will!”

“Say hello to your friends,” Dr. Yarleen said. “I hope someday to make their acquaintance!”

Dr. Yarleen watched as the blob folded space to the mainland. She hadn’t wanted to tell Zzenith, hadn’t wanted to raise his hopes prematurely, but she had finally solved the cosmic energy conversion problem. Once she had tested her theory, she looked forward to giving it to Zzenith as a Yuletide gift.

“It’s silly,” she said to herself. “Why is it always the weird ones I fall for?”

She turned back into her house, whistling to herself.

Sitting in her living room was a dire looking woman with short dark hair and a scar along one cheek.

“Dr. Yarleen, I presume,” the woman said.

“Yes... who...?”

“A friend of a friend,” the woman said. With speed beyond anything Dr. Yarleen had ever seen, she nocked a bow and loosed two shots.

Yarleen looked down to see the fletched ends of both shafts barely protruding from her chest.

“Give my regards to the Lotus,” said Edyric. It was the last thing Dr. Yarleen ever heard.

The archer washed her hands in the doctor’s sink, then pulled out the letter she had received. At first, she had been hesitant to take on the contract. Killing the Emperor of Diaria would bring down far more trouble than it was worth. Besides, it didn’t advance her vendetta against her enemies--the ones who left her lover in the hands of Shadow to die.

Still, the last word her agent surveilling Shilree had sent to her indicated that the Diarian expatriate and her priestess girlfriend had recently become quite the fixtures in the Emperor’s court. Perhaps this job would give Edyric the opportunity to inflict the pain that Edyric had planned for each member of the New Mithril Dagger Heroes: the loss of their own true loves.

Edyric nodded. Belle’s plan seemed sound. She would take the contract.

As she stepped over the body of Dr. Yarleen, once the greatest theoretician in Ataniel, now merely a corpse and a warning, she dropped a small lotus flower, and it came to rest in the pool of blood.

¯

“No. No.” Ebreth shook his head. “I’m just--I’m thinking about Jack, that’s all.”

Khyrisse sat down next to him. “It’s only been three weeks,” she said. “I think, that’s really normal, Ebreth. I even still think about my mother sometimes, and she’s been gone almost thirty years. You’re--still allowed to talk about him.”

“People say ‘how are you’,” said Ebreth. “I’m supposed to say what, ‘I miss my dead friend’? What the hell kind of answer is that? ‘I have post-traumatic stress disorder’ is better than that.”

“I think it’s a fine answer.” She leaned her head into his shoulder, squeezing his arm. “You can say it to me.”

“He was a good man, Khyrisse,” said Ebreth, holding her head against him. “He was the best man I’ve ever known. It’s just not right.”

“I don’t understand it either,” Khyrisse admitted, with a sigh. “I never even understood it as a goddess. I wish I could be more help.”

“If we had only told him earlier, how important he was. What a hell of a thing to learn the day you die. If I had only told him. I keep thinking it would have made a difference. Maybe we could have found another way together, some way that didn’t involve Jack sacrificing himself. I don’t know how the fuck to say these things. I told him and it was too late. He said “It’s too late to stop now.” The best friend I ever had and I was too late. Oh Khyrisse.”

They shared a silence for a few moments. “Ebreth,” Khyrisse finally said, softly, “I... think I have to disagree with you in one respect.” She looked into the distance, thinking about the various ways she’d died, the things that she’d been thinking and feeling as she’d gone. Shame, grief, heartbreak, revulsion, bitterness, rage, weariness, futility. The belief that she was loved and valued and needed hadn’t figured much in any of them. “I think that dying after you’ve been told that, when it’s fresh in your mind, must be a pretty comforting way to die--knowing how much you matter to the people you give your life for must make it all the more worthwhile. You’re right... we should have told him how much he meant to us long before that. But no one ever thinks of the things they should tell someone until after they’re gone. You always think they’ll be there to tell later.” Khyrisse turned her cheek into Ebreth’s shoulder and closed her eyes. “I didn’t even tell you I loved you, in some stupid attempt to keep myself from being hurt, until--until after we got you back.” She tried not to think of Val, who had been pale and quiet and keeping to herself since Jack died. “I was just lucky enough to get a second chance.”

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