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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 7

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A small, complicated little parcel of soft origami paper was waiting for Jack at the Rat Trap.

He undid it carefully, the tabs and panels unfolding into an orchid-like paper sculpture. Nestled in the heart of the flower was an intricate ring of interwoven gold and silver--and a folded note.

Jack,

I’m sorry I didn’t get this to you in time for Yule; I wasn’t sure it was appropriate, for reasons I’m sure you can guess. I made plans for this gift before the Rat Pack ever encountered the Remnant, and never had the opportunity... or the wisdom... to give it to your Other. I think he would have wanted you to have it.

Jack once told me how vulnerable he was to being magically dispelled. There are prayers that can protect an individual against a specific spell or sort of magic, and I have enchanted this ring to protect against dispels. Khyrisse, who once recalculated your Other’s equation, was kind enough to check it for me, and assures me that it should interact with you properly.

Please wear it, for the sake of all those who love you and who loved your Other, if not as a gift from me.

Valende

“Hey, Vickie!” Jack shouted into the hallway. “Have you seen Valende around? Is she coming on this thing of yours?”

“Don’t think so,” Vickie said. “I saw her last week, but she was heading off again. She seemed really nervous about something.”

“Huh,” Jack said, looking at the ring with puzzlement. This makes things a heck of a lot more confusing, he thought. So why does that make me feel so... happy?

“Look, mathboy, we’re on a schedule. You with us or not?”

“Hang on,” Jack said. He took a piece of paper and quickly scrawled a note to Valende. I don’t want to get any hopes up... but maybe if we talk it out... He folded it and wrote her name on the outside. As an afterthought, he put a small heart next to it. As they ran through the Rat Trap foyer, Jack saw the hotel-style cubbyholes that Mina had suggested for holding messages when the Pack was out on missions. Jack felt the air and tossed the note in a perfect arc to slide right into Valende’s mail cubby.

“Come on, loverboy,” Vickie said, grabbing him and pulling him along. “Time’s a-wasting, and the Tower won’t wait forever.”

Jack never noticed that he somehow missed Valende’s cubbyhole.

The cubby the note landed in was labeled lightly in white chalk, “Rani.”

On Preferring Lightness To Yar: A Sailing Parable

“Arghhhhhh!” Khyrisse threw her arms up in exasperated fury. It wasn’t that she minded her lover’s quick reflexes keeping her from being pitched overboard, exactly, but the frequency of it was really starting to get on her nerves. “I suck at this!”

“You’re doing fine,” Ebreth protested gamely, righting her with one hand and the jittery Boat with the other. His effortlessness made her want to step on his foot. “You just need some more practice, that’s all. This isn’t really a beginner’s boat. She’s designed for maneuverability, not stability, and she’s an extremely light touch. You can bet I didn’t learn to sail on any racing keel.”

Khyrisse blew her bangs out of her face with an aggravated puff of air. “A light touch?” she said, retrieving her lost sheet. The mainsail crackled a little, almost like it was laughing at her, and Khyrisse scowled at it.

“Responsive,” he said. “She’ll react to very slight adjustments. Generally speaking a lighter touch means a better sailboat, but it also amplifies errors. She’s really tuned for an expert. I--wonder if she was one of Caimen’s.” Ebreth frowned, and shook his head. “Anyway, we can get you your own boat if you’re too frustrated with her, you know. Something with a little more stability, a little more yar--”

“No,” Khyrisse said, quicker and sharper than she meant to. Ebreth raised his eyebrow at her, and she flushed. “I, like her,” she elaborated lamely. “And I’m not ready to give up yet.”

“Well, cut yourself a little slack then,” he said, bemused. “You’ve got a Stradivarius here. You’re going to squeak a little.” He squeezed her shoulders in the wet breeze. The air was warm but the spray was cool. “I’m glad you like her,” he added, after a beat. “She reminds me a little of you.”

“Temperamental and easily capsized?”

“Spirited,” said Ebreth, “high-performance, and very, very rewarding if you treat her right.” He mussed her hair up a little more, grinning.

“You’d better watch yourself, Captain Tor. One of us is liable to get jealous.”

“I’ll take my chances.”

The mainsail crackled in the March winds, for all the world like it was laughing.

Escape from the Tower of Wax

“I can’t believe you talked me into this,” Garal winced to Vickie as the two raced down the subtly shifting passageway.

“Look,” Vickie said, “I had no idea the Brass Overlord had reclaimed the place! Who knew?”

“Nynia knew! She told us we had already lost that which we sought! It seemed clear to me!”

“Oh, you’re just mad that I took you out of conference,” Vickie said. “We’ll be back--”

The two stopped short at the edge of a crevasse. The Tower of Wax had split apart through the passage, and the gap was widening.

Vickie sighed. “All right, you stupid spirit, do your hoodoo and get us out of here.”

There was a flash of light in Vickie’s mind, and the bo staff appeared in her hand.

“You must be the short man with the big dream,” Vickie said to Garal. “Nice to meet you. I am the Monkey King.”

“Vickie?” asked Garal.

“I’ll be playing the part of Vickie for this rescue,” the Monkey King said, and his staff extended across the crevasse.

“That’s... phallic,” Garal muttered as Vickie lifted him over her shoulder and started racing along the wooden pole bridge.

***

“Have you people gotten your act together yet?” Kingfisher shouted at Jack.

Jack looked up from where he and Orlen were trying to disable the World Automaton. “Uh, no?” he said.

“Then get it together. We can’t hold them off much longer!”

“And they’re really really creepy looking!” Marty added, swinging at another of the brass figures.

“Look, if we don’t get Mina out of this thing, we’re all... uh... in big trouble.” Jack offered.

“Just say it. We’re screwed,” said Rani. “Learn to curse. It helps.”

“I’ve got a teke handle on the next level of gears, Jack,” Orlen said.

Rani closed her eyes and tried to ignore both the battle and the babbling of the other Rat Packers. “Twenty... thirty degrees to the right,” she said. Her hand rested on the Automaton and it was her psychometric abilities that told them what Orlen needed to move.

“Plea hurra,” Tarrin said, his broken jaw still bleeding. -She’s alive, but not for long-, he thought, switching to psionic contact with Orlen.

“We can’t hold them off much longer,” Kingfisher snarled again through gritted teeth. “Fix that thing fast or get ready to make peace with your gods!”

Just then, Flicker and Nynia fell through the flux point, crashing down in the middle of the Brass Overlord’s minions.

“Whoa, totally synchronistic!” Marty cried.

“Wanna do it again?” yelled Nynia.

Flicker just shook his head.

“Now can you feel a set of three levers?” Rani demanded. “Raise the middle one!”

Orlen frowned and squinted. A loud “click” resonated from inside the World Automaton.

“That’s done it!” Jack shouted happily. “We should be okay now!”

“Okay now that Monkey’s made the scene!” came a shout from the other side of the room. Everyone turned to see their two captive companions vault across the brass antechamber, over the heads of the Overlord’s servants.

“You guys aren’t dead?” Marty asked, confused. “But we, like, saw the bodies and everything!”

“Ask her,” said Garal. “She can explain it better than I can.”

Just then, there came a loud screeching from the flux point.

“Did we mention that he’s right behind us?” smiled Nynia.

“Then we’ve got another chance to cut off the head,” Kingfisher spat.

“He... doesn’t quite have a head... anymore,” Flicker said.

And the Brass Overlord, his final transformation complete, stepped out of the flux point.

“I’d say now we’re well and truly...” Jack started.

“Screwed,” Rani said. “Say it with me.”

“Screwed.”

Trade Federation: Khyrisse Hears a Hu

“Hi, Marty,” said Khyrisse. “Come on in.”

“Whoa!” Marty said, opening the door to her office. “How’d you know it was me?”

Khyrisse pointed to the window in the door. “It goes, ah, both ways, Marty.”

“Cool,” he said, staring at the door.

“What can I do for you, Marty?”

“I, uh, well... I want to be a bassadoor.”

“Ambassador,” Khyrisse corrected.

“I know you are,” Marty said. “And so is Lora and that Viking dude and the big hairy guy...”

“The big hairy guy is my father,” Khyrisse said.

“Whoa,” Marty whistled. “You must shave every day, huh?”

Khyrisse pinched the bridge of her nose and took a moment. “You can’t be an ambassador, Marty,” she finally said. “You have to represent a country to do that.”

“Lora doesn’t,” Marty offered.

“She represents the Paris family,” Khyrisse said.

“I could represent the Hu family,” Marty said. “And, like, since I’m one of them, it’d be, like, really accurate representation!”

“Marty, the Parises are a thousand people strong across Ataniel. How many Hus are there?”

“Uh, two.”

“I don’t think you need an ambassador, then.”

Marty looked crestfallen. “But what if I want to invade a country? Who’ll negotiate the peace?”

“Look, Marty,” Khyrisse said, standing up and taking him by the arm. “If you decide to invade any countries, you tell Ebreth and he’ll tell me, and I’ll make sure we assign someone to your case. You’re... not planning on doing that right now, right?”

“Well, duh,” Marty said. “I’m only one guy, I’d get my ass kicked.”

“Good,” said Khyrisse, escorting him to the door. “Then I’ll see you later, Marty. I’ve got lots of work to do.”

“Okay,” Marty said. “See ya!”

Khyrisse closed the door behind him and returned to her desk.

It took twenty minutes before Marty stopped looking through the glass.

Irreconcilable Differences

“Mina?” Flicker blinked at her. “You dyed your hair.”

“Do you like it?”

“Yes,” he said, readily enough. Mina made as pretty a blonde as she had a redhead. “It looks very nice. Have you shown Khyrisse?”

“Khyrisse?” said Mina, way too offhandedly. “Not yet...”

Flicker, who had been a nineteen-year-old girl twice, estimated she’d done it yesterday or the day before, and that if emulation of her hero and third cousin six times removed wasn’t the only reason it was certainly part of it. “You should show her,” he affirmed, “she’ll like it. It looks good.”

“Thanks,” Mina smiled. “I’m going to New Trade tomorrow. Don’t tell her, or Aunt Lora either. I want it to be a surprise.”

“Okay,” promised Flicker.

“Are you--all right?” she asked, hesitantly. “I mean, the flux point--I know it, wasn’t easy--”

“I do what I have to,” he said softly.

“Well, thank you,” said Mina. “I probably owe you my life.” She paused. “Nynia’s really sorry.”

Flicker said nothing.

“I mean, she’s really sorry,” the young sorceress tried again, clearly not knowing how to interpret the Riklander’s silence. “Won’t you see her?”

“Mina,” Flicker said, “I know you mean well, but Nynia does not want to see me, and I do not want to see her. Don’t tell her otherwise.”

“She really is sorry,” Mina insisted, sadness in her voice. “She didn’t mean any harm.”

“That’s not enough.” Flicker paused a long moment. “I forgive her, and you may tell her so, but I do not want to see her again, Mina, and that is all.”

Confessions of St. Augustine

“Ebreth,” Khyrisse said slowly, “do you--remember what happened, when I came for you?”

Ebreth looked down. “Not really,” he admitted. “I remember everything that happened in Hell, maybe more vividly than I remember anything else in my life, but I--don’t know what really happened and what didn’t, you know, I don’t know what order anything happened in, I don’t know for how long. It’s all very fragmented. And... you figured in it a number of times, really.” Ebreth tapped his fingers together, not meeting her eyes. “I wasn’t in love with you, I don’t think,” he said, “not then. But I did care about you. They used that, when they could.” Khyrisse put her hand on his, and he was quiet a moment. “And it’s all sort of mixed up together,” he said, “everything before I left. Jack said you traded Lucas for me. I guess that’s one of the things I remember.”

“It wasn’t my first option,” sighed Khyrisse. She decided not to tell him that Pieret betraying them to Mephisto had been real, or her offering the arch-devil her own soul. Painful mistakes that can stay in Hell. “We were unexpectedly discovered, and Asinus had to draw us up a contract. It’s probably better that way; at least it was a permanent solution. I was just going to scarper off with you.”

“If he ever gets out,” said Ebreth, “he’s going to kick my ass.”

“He can try,” Khyrisse scoffed. “I don’t think much of someone who continually threatens an archmage who has his soul trapped in a gem. Did he really think enumerating all the things he was going to do to me was going to move me to let him go?”

“He probably figured he was already signed, sealed and delivered. The Tor he knew would have had plans for his soul from the minute the trap was conceived. How was he supposed to know I was winging it?”

“He had plenty of choice things to say about the Tor he knew, all right,” said Khyrisse. “I thought you two were friends.”

“We always were the kind of friends who would have sold each other out in a minute if it really benefited us, though,” Ebreth said. “There was never really any trust to betray. He was probably more pissed off than anything else.” He shrugged. “Maybe he was trying to give you second thoughts about allying yourself with me, hoping he might come off the better for it somehow. Or maybe he just thought as long as he was hosed anyway he might as well try and ruin my chances of getting laid. That’s very Lucas.”

“Oh, he thought you already had,” said Khyrisse, her mouth quirking. “He made that quite clear.”

“Really?” Ebreth laughed. “Damn, I never knew how much faith he had in me.” Khyrisse laughed too. Ebreth looked away, his eyes a little distant. “He sold them his soul a long time ago,” he said, “and it’s not like they didn’t pay him. It’s no different than if you’d killed him, really. His soul would have gone to them anyway, and he did try to kill you first. I just... I guess I feel like I did him the same way Ari did me, that’s all. He was a bastard and a half, but was he bad enough to deserve that? I don’t know about that.” Ebreth shook his head. “I’m not sure anyone really deserves that,” he said.

Vote of Confidence

“He told me he thought you never wanted to see him again,” Flicker told Khyrisse quietly.

“Schneider said that?” Khyrisse sighed and held the bridge of her nose. “It’s not true. I... I did kind of light into him, the last time we spoke... mabye I shouldn’t have. But you don’t know the whole story, Flicker. Schneider is... I know he’s been having a tough time since the Madness, and I’ve been trying to cut him some slack, but he’s been saying some things that are really... it’s abusive, Flicker. He’s still my friend, yes, but I will not let him talk that way.”

“It’s just words, Khyri. I doubt if he even means them.”

“Flicker,” Khyrisse said quietly, looking away, “have you ever been broken. Really broken.”

Flicker paused a very long moment. “No,” he said, simply.

“I... didn’t think so,” she whispered. “Some things, Flicker... you just can’t ask somebody to take, to be rational about. Mabye you’re too together to really understand this.”

“On the other hand,” said Flicker, “maybe you need someone who doesn’t understand it. If you’re too sarindal not to be wounded by Schneider--” Flicker used the elven word for ‘damaged’, to avoid the negative connotations of the Dalen one-- “and he’s too sarindal not to wound you, maybe you could use some advice from someone on the outside.”

“Flicker,” said Khyrisse, very, very softly. “I wasn’t talking about me.”

The Sunfighter opened his mouth and then closed it. It took several seconds to shift gears; it had never occured to him she might not be, and he felt profoundly guilty for the assumption. “I’m listening,” he said, and sat down.

It wasn’t a pretty story, confirming as it did Flicker’s fears about how near the edge Schneider was. He was amazed Vas hadn’t told him about this already. It spoke volumes for the gossipy Liratyni’s true regard for the jester, but only because Schneider’s actions had been shameful enough for Vas to want to protect him from them, so there was no way to let him know. For Schneider’s part, it was obvious enough why he hadn’t confided this story in one of the few people whose good opinion of him was keeping him afloat, and there was no way to tell Tor that that meant at some level he knew what he’d done had been wrong.

But it was Khyrisse who was telling it to him now, and that was who he needed to answer. Flicker wished he was still Janther Moria. “Schneider’s a good man, Khyri,” he said. “He struggles, but he chooses the right path.”

“I want to believe that.” Khyrisse twisted one hand unhappily in the other. “But I can’t put it out of my mind. What he said to Ebreth was so cruel, and it... it scares me.”

“He’s a good man,” repeated Flicker. “He just--lashes out, sometimes, when he’s hurt. He did it to Janther once, after that awful summit in Edimon. Do you remember that?” He shook his light head. “Probably the worst day in our shared existence, and Schneider took a strip out of his hide the size of the Doomrift. It hurt like hell. But believe me when I tell you it wasn’t cruelty. He was in pain; it’s his defense mechanism.”

Khyrisse made a long, ragged sigh. “I haven’t always responded that well to being hurt myself,” she acknowledged. “People in pain can be selfish. I know that. But I’m not the one who’s been paying the price when I give him the benefit of the doubt and I’m wrong. Ebreth is. And he’s got a heavy enough load without any of this.” She turned half-away from the Viking. “If I’m wrong about him again...”

“All I can tell you,” said Flicker, “is that he’s doing the best he can, with everything he’s got. And if he breaks down and screams at people sometimes--well, there’s worse he could be doing. Have faith in him, Khyri. He’ll come through when it counts, I swear.”

Interlude: What Goes Around

“Khyrisse geased me to tell you that she only had sex with Schneider once, with Ebreth lots of times, and with you not at all.”

“Thanks for making my flarkin’ day, ya point-eared dandy.”

“It’s a geas! You think I have a choice about this?”

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