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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 9



A Diagnosis

Skitch looked mad. “Where did you go? That wasn’t nice! You made Khyrisse cry! Melissa’s still under the bed!”

Khyrisse laughed despite herself, both of her hands flying guiltily over her mouth.

“This isn’t funny!”

“I’m sorry, Skitch,” Ebreth sighed. “I was just at Jack’s. I needed to give your mother some space.”

“Do you know what a mess my room is?” Skitch flung his arms in furious release. “This whole house is a mess!”

“We can clean up today, Skitch, I promise,” Khyrisse said, desperately suppressing more laughter.

“You threw my stuff all over the floor,” yelled Skitch, “and you went in my drawer without asking me, and you took the only thing I have from Alphred and you busted it!”

“Evil artifacts aren’t a good thing to remember people by, Skitch,” said Ebreth.

“And you made Melissa pee under my bed!”

Khyrisse was cracking up and weeping at the same time. “I’m sorry... Skitch, I’m sorry. Merde, could I be handling this any worse? I ruined Schneider’s life... somehow I made Ebreth think I didn’t want him here...”

“That wasn’t exactly what I said,” murmured Ebreth.

“Scared my son... I even upset the cat!” She collapsed across the sofa back in utter exhaustion. “Sometimes I think I’m the ten-year-old, Grendel!”

“You know what your problem is?” Skitch interrupted what Ebreth had been going to say, his voice still cross. “Solipsistic negativism.” Khyrisse raised her head to stare at him. “That means when you hurt somebody, you react by saying bad things about yourself instead of trying to make them feel better,” he explained. “It’s stupid. It just upsets you and makes everyone feel bad.”

Khyrisse looked at him dizzily. “What--what should I say, Skitch?”

“I don’t know. Rauvin’s book didn’t say. Maybe I’ll ask Tarrin.” He shrugged, and gave her a wobbling smile. “You could say I did okay trying to cheer you up last night and that things are gonna be all right and you’re not mad at me for keeping the oyster totem and the creepy guy doesn’t have to come live with us and you’ll clean up the cat piss and I’m a good boy. Or you could just give me a hug.”

She wrapped him up very tight in her arms. “You’re the best boy in the whole world, Skitch,” she whispered intensely.

Learning Curve

“You just seemed so--final,” said Khyrisse. “I thought it must have been something terrible. How could you be threatening to leave me over something reasonable?”

“Why would I leave you over something unreasonable?”

“I don’t know. I--I haven’t had the best luck with relationships.” She exhaled, shakily. “You scared me, Ebreth Tor.”

“I scared myself.” He squeezed her shoulder. “This--is the part I didn’t tell you. Because I didn’t want it to, influence your decision, you know. But it would have broken my heart, Khyrisse. I mean it would really have broken my heart.”

Khyrisse buried her face in her hands. “I am so sorry I did this to you.”

Ebreth paused a long, perplexed moment, and then tried “I’m not.” It made her hiccup but not stop crying. “I think,” he said, “I missed my mark again here. I was trying to say I didn’t want to go.”

“I got that part,” Khyrisse sobbed, as much releasing pent tension as anything else. “I can’t believe I put you in this situation. I don’t deserve you, Ebreth. All I ever give you is stress.” She shook like she was going to fly apart, trying to steady her breathing. “Shhhh, that’s not true,” he was saying, stroking her hair anxiously. It’s stupid. It just upsets you and makes everyone feel bad. My son the doofus. “I love you,” she tried, in a throttled voice. “I need you. You are my family. Have I really never told you this? Of course I want you here. I don’t care if I have a, a dragon avatar doppelganger baby. I love you. I never, ever want you to go. You’re the best thing that ever happened to me. Losing you would be like cutting my own heart out. There’s more; should I go on?”

Ebreth closed his eyes, holding her against himself. “I think I get the idea.”

“Anything else we should work out while we’re here?” Khyrisse shivered wearily.

“Just one,” said Ebreth. “Cat piss, cat vomit, cat shit, or anything else that comes out of a cat is your job.”

She laughed breathily and clung to him on the sofa. Outside the bay window, the crocuses poked obstinately through the spring snows.

***

“Fifty-nine, sixty-two,” Ebreth said over lunch.

“Ninety-five point one six one two,” Jack answered.

The Aquatic Ape

The first thing Otter noticed was the pressure on her ears.

Her humanoid body wasn’t actually that well-adapted to life underwater. Otter had eardrums. Her nostrils looped up through her nose so that she could breathe through them topside but not smell the water. Her buoyancy was low, her shape not very hydrodynamic. Truth to tell, it wasn’t that efficient on land, either; bipedalism was slow and clumsy, her air-based smell sensors were nothing to sound home about, and having no fur cover was a pain in the ass. Otter would have shaped herself like a dog topside and a dolphin or even her namesake otter below, but it wasn’t a choice she had, and she supposed her own body was a reasonable compromise between the two.

Her people, though, had a connection with the sea beyond simply living there, a spiritual connection, a supernatural connection. And so even though they weren’t deep sea dwellers, it was strange for the depth to be bothering Otter’s ears.

The second thing she noticed was that she seemed to be trapped in a bubble.

Otter pushed against the shimmering skin and it pushed back, like the surface of a pond against a water-skimmer’s legs. On the other side was a profound darkness, which should not have been either, for Otter had supernatural vision in the water. And it was water, beyond the bubble she was trapped in; she could see, dimly, three-dimensional pockets of bioluminescence, weaving through the sunless depths, moving with the slow and sensuous turnings that only water supported.

Where Otter floated was salt. Beyond that she had no way of telling.

The naiad pirate pushed her shoulder blades back into the skin of the bubble and planted her boots hard against the opposite side. The long muscles of her legs strained as she pushed, but the bubble did not snap. Otter gasped water through her system and pushed harder. Still nothing. Otter was annoyed: this wasn’t much of a leverage point, but even overextended as she was she should be able to leg-press at least one or two hundred pounds. That meant the skin of the bubble was responding to the amount of pressure exerted on it.

Otter put her lips gently to the surface of the bubble and sucked.

That was when the creature glided by.

Otter found screaming an inexcusable waste of energy in a startle situation, but she did pull back hard from the bubble wall.

It was as long as she was, flat, broad, and armor-plated, with toothed pincers the length of Otter’s arm jutting forward from either side of the yawing mouth on its moon-white underbelly, not three feet from her face. It had eight fluttering, crablike legs, and an articulated spiked tail. As it twisted past her bubble, Otter had a glimpse of one curving, window-like eye; then it was gone into the darkness again.

She had never seen anything like it.

“Where in Doris’ name am I?” she whispered, aloud.

Trade Federation: Grace

The still-penitent Vas had returned from the mission Khyrisse had sent him on with a bright new idea for redemption, and he’d been pestering the sorceress ever since to let him help build a pair of Trade Carriages by casting the two spells she wasn’t allowed to: haste, which aged the caster a year, and permanency, which ran about a 5% risk of draining a point of constitution. Much as she’d wanted to keep the entire process a jealous secret, Khyrisse couldn’t hold out long. It was all the much slower phantom coaches could do to keep up the loop from New Trade to Dyaromn, Lianth, Eyria, Wyndar, and back, with Khyrisse’s personal Carriage having to make the semi-weekly runs to Tremontagne and Annwych. Two extra Carriages still wouldn’t be enough to open the freight lines she had planned, but at least she could expand the passenger routes into something genuinely useful: improve the speed and frequency of the existing routes; extend service to Shanghai and Michang, Riklandir, and Javin; and, perhaps most important, add stops in more cities that weren’t yet part of her Federation, for Khyrisse expected the convenience of getting to New Trade to be part of the motivation for those countries to join.

So she gave in. Vas was professional and discreet. And when the new intern buzzed up about a job applicant, Khyrisse assumed it was for one of the new coachman’s positions this had opened up.

She was surprised when the woman who walked in introduced herself as Lieutenant Grace Averdale from the Wyndar City Police Department, doubly so when she said Lora had asked her to apply for Chief of Police in New Trade. Khyrisse hadn’t been expecting things to go this fast, and found herself resenting the speed. She displaced most of it onto Grace Averdale. It was the toughest interview she’d ever given.

But the woman was a career police officer: twelve years on the force, glowing recommendations. A small-city cop, the kind who’d kick your ass on a murder charge and cut you a break on a traffic violation, who didn’t mind cruising around the neighborhood because somebody had reported one of their neighbors out crying on the curb. She had a simple, unfazed answer to every scenario Khyrisse threw at her, from a hostage situation to a diplomatic crisis to domestic violence, and they were good answers. She didn’t seem flustered at all by Khyrisse’s crossness. She gave every impression of being unhurried, competent, disciplined, thorough, and level-headed. She was, as her name suggested, Javinese, but not a follower of Morvon. In short, Khyrisse couldn’t find anything to object to. Lora had once again made too good a call to discard. This woman wouldn’t last a week in Rimbor City and didn’t care. They said they were going to miss her in Wyndar, and Khyrisse believed it.

“Flark,” she sighed. “The job’s yours if you want it, Chief Averdale.”

“Call me Grace.”

Cats Eat Anything

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“You’re sure Silence 15’ Radius is a cleric spell?” groaned Ebreth.

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“I’m sure,” sighed Khyrisse, clamping the pillow over her head.

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“Can’t we just let her outside?”

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“Skitch would never forgive me,” sighed Khyrisse.

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“Is she ever going to go out of heat,” groaned Ebreth.

“She passed another piece of the oyster totem yesterday. I’m hoping that was the last one.”

“Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao! Mrrrrrao!”

“Damn cat.”

Interlude: Sources of Power

April was in full bloom in the Diari resort town of Jhilamn. Water-lilies had opened into fragrance across the deep blue surface of Eyar Lake, and the surrounding hills and valleys were brimming with renewed life. It was, mused Anjra, the perfect spot for a vacation.

Shilree was still asleep, of course. She’d been a late riser since their school days together. Anjra was sitting out on the porch of the cabin they’d rented on the lake, watching the morning unfold. It was times like these that made her feel alive. As she watched, the priestess sensed Shilree beginning to stir somewhere in the bonded back of her mind. “Morning sleepy,” she called back into the house.

Shilree just groaned.

“Come and watch the morning with me kajari.”

“Ok ok. Give me a few minutes.”

Anjra giggled to herself at the sounds of Shilree stumbling around in the bathroom. She finally emerged in Anjra’s dressing-gown, her hair a rat’s nest of silver filaments and her eyes squinted up comically against the offending sun. “I can’t believe I’m going to be marrying a morning person.”

“Have a fasra,” smiled Anjra, proffering a honey roll. “I was just going over the imperial reports.”

“Anj we are on vacation!”

“The Emperor of Diaria never sleeps,” quoted Anjra. “Besides, I have an entire hierarchy of subordinates handling the details. It is not like I am doing crop reports or anything.”

“True, true. Well what does the report say?”

“We have achieved 85% economic control of the civilized territories of Ataniel,” read Anjra. “Belle and the Eighth Lancer Division have located the cult out in Sturtevant but are moving cautiously to avoid provoking further anti-Diari sentiment. Our spies in Cynystra report that the malanjh are not happy with their protection arrangements with Lord Eric. And--did you know your friend Khyrisse is pregnant and doesn’t know who the father is?”

“Why am I always the last one to hear these things?” grumbled Shilree. “What about the Shadowlands?”

This was a sore point. Shilree had never liked Anjra’s plan of reclaiming Northern Diaria. “Majji and Al-Harran are still scouting the land. Time works differently in the Shadowlands. I do not know how long it will be before we hear from them.” Shilree nodded uneasily, and Anjra changed the subject. “I have been thinking about our honeymoon. You know I always wanted to see the Montas Archipelago.”

“I will talk to Sunny. She, umm sorry he will know the best spots to go.”

Anjra reached across and took Shilree’s hand, and the two of them watched the sunlight dapple the blue blue waters of Eyar Lake together. For once, both women put politics out of their mind, silently enjoying each other’s company in the glorious spring morning: one rare moment of perfect peace.

Trade Federation: An Offer You Can’t Refuse

Relan Alliejin had not earned the reputation as a negotiator that had moved the Emperor of Diaria to send him to New Trade by his impressive bookkeeping.

“I’m afraid this contract doesn’t suit our needs,” he said, very softly. “You see, we already have--understandings--with the merchants’ guilds of many of the member nations of your alliance. We expect those tariffs to be honored.”

“I’m sorry,” said Khyrisse Starshadow, dispassionately, “but that’s not possible, Ambassador. I can’t allow Diaria to maintain supply-side tariffs the other members of my federation aren’t permitted.”

“Diari goods are highly prized across Ataniel, you realize.”

“Kyokota goods are even more highly prized,” she said, “and if I gave you monopolistic tariffs, Kyoko-Ra would pull out. They’re fairly isolationist themselves, Ambassador, you understand. I do of course recognize the economic benefits Diaria would bring to this federation, but not at the expense of my other member states. If Diaria wants to join the alliance of New Trade, she is going to have to play by the rules.” She said that last like she was trying very hard not to enjoy saying it. She tapped the contract on the desk between them with her fingertips. “Now, this contract is a draft, you understand. In light of the sensitive political situation in Diaria I am willing to make certain concessions. Bilateral tariffs, for example, would be acceptable under the charter of New Trade. I would be willing to add clauses protecting the Diari copper market if that’s what this takes. Work with me here, Ambassador.”

Relan sighed. He hadn’t wanted to resort to this. Starshadow was a personal friend of the Regent’s, he knew, but the Emperor himself had entrusted Relan with this deal. “I’ll tell you what, Ms. Starshadow,” he said softly, putting his hand on the contract. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

“Relan?”

He turned his head, frowning at the interruption.

“Relan Alliejin?” The man was crossing the office in long steps.

Relan paused a long, long moment. “Ebreth Tor,” he said. “We’d heard the worst.”

“Aah, who stays dead around here?”

It had been a good nine years since Relan had seen that grin. He had come no closer to figuring it out in the interim. “My father will be pleased,” he said. “Perhaps we can meet for lunch? I am in an--important meeting right now.” He let his voice carry the meaning. Ebreth Tor would understand.

“I can see that.” He crossed behind the desk and put his hand on the back of the Director’s neck, switching to Low Diari. “You’ve met my family, then.”

Relan looked at him, looked at her, and knew it was all over. Relan himself didn’t feel any great obligation to a kiljhac who had saved his life nearly eighteen years ago, but his father would be furious, and Relan Alliejin had nothing if not filial piety. He signed the contract wordlessly and slid it across.

It was not what could have been, of course, but it would still be profitable. The opium trade would no longer have to rely upon Rimborese middlemen, which had been the Family’s main goal in this, and Relan would just have to tell the Emperor that the 85% economic control he had promised--half-true, since between the member nations of New Trade, the northern trade alliances, and the understanding with the illegal Lianth merchants’ guild Diaria would have access to 85% of the civilized world’s markets--was worth abandoning a few tariffs over. The Regent, he suspected, would back him.

And no gain was worth letting his father down over.

“Let us all have lunch together, then,” he said in Dalen, without expression, and bowed his head in Diari fashion to his father’s kiljhac godson, who bowed his head back.

The Necromantic Midwife

Khyrisse leaned against the edge of her desk while Luthien scanned her. “I’m not tired all the time anymore,” she said. “But I’ve got these awful cravings. Last week, all I wanted to eat was strawberries and salted cashews!”

“That’s perfectly normal,” the necromancer replied, his voice distant and his eyes glowing eerily blue. He was half in a trance, examining her aura and the unborn baby’s. “As long as you stick with things that are healthy, eat what your body tells you to.” He frowned at her abstractedly. “You’re not wearing any magic items, you said?”

Khyrisse looked down at herself. She was wearing--after a fashion--Ebreth’s white terrycloth bathrobe, which she’d gradually absconded with after she’d given him the blue silk one for Yule. “Luthien, do I look like I have any--oops.” She removed the Godmaker ring from her right hand and tossed it carefully onto her lab table. “I still don’t know if it’s dead or dormant... There. I’m practically standing here in my skin now, okay?”

“And the only spells you have up are your contingencies?”

She nodded. “Not even my persistence. I let it run out.”

Luthien shook his head. “It’s you, then.” He switched off the blue glow and glared at her. “You’ve been using black necromancy. I’m picking up residue.” He cast something else and frowned at her again.

“Well, there was the small matter of a fleet of undead to get rid of, if you’ll recall! And--”

“You made a new carriage, didn’t you?” Luthien said suddenly, flatly.

“No!” she protested. “I mean, I did, but Vas cast the trouble spells for me...”

“Then you cast something else permanent.”

Khyrisse winced. “One. But it was months ago, Luthien; before Yul--”

“What did I tell you?”

“I know, I know! It was the last one, I promise!”

“You’re taking unnecessary risks,” the necromancer frowned on his old friend. “Are you trying to ruin your health?”

“It was necessary.” Khyrisse folded her arms stubbornly. Any improvement to Ebreth’s peace of mind does wonders for my health, thank you very much.

“What was it?”

“None of your business.”

The two archmages glared at each other.

“I got some help, like we did with Zzenith, just in case I screwed up,” Khyrisse finally sighed impatiently. “There’s nothing wrong with the baby, is there?”

“No, it seems perfectly healthy. But you need to be more careful.” Luthien narrowed his eyes at her, and swung the door open with his tk ring. “Captain Tor, would you come in here, please?”

Khyrisse rolled her eyes with an exasperated puff of air and threw herself into an oversized chair. Ebreth gave Luthien a brief, oddly thoughtful look, then sat on the arm of Khyrisse’s chair. “Problem?”

“Khyrisse seems to be having memory problems lately.” She made a horrible face at the necromancer, her arms folded, swimming in the white terrycloth robe. “I’m going to lay down some guidelines, and maybe you can help her remember them.” Luthien looked sternly at Khyrisse. “No black necromancy. White necro, healing spells and all that, are fine. No high-level evocation spells.” Khyrisse’s jaw dropped open at this unexpected new restriction. “I’d say nothing above second level.”

“Just slit my wrists right now, Luthien,” Ebreth muttered.

Something strongly resembling amusement flickered in Luthien’s eyes, but he refrained from comment. “Absolutely no polymorphs, not even alter self. And no spells that draw on the constitution or age the caster. That means no wishes, no haste... and no enchanting items.”

The expectant mother glowered at Luthien. “You don’t leave me with much!”

“You’re a resourceful woman. I’m sure you’ll manage.” Luthien closed his bag. “The baby’s about the size of an olive now, if you’re curious. I’m estimating a due date somewhere around Samhain.”

Khyrisse laughed.

“Oh, and Captain Tor...” Luthien’s mouth curved slightly, in something close to a smile. “I’m well aware of what Khyrisse is like. Strap her down and force-feed her, if you must. She’s underweight.”

A throw pillow flew out the door and into the hallway, narrowly missing the necromancer’s head.

Ebreth chuckled and put his arms around Khyrisse’s waist from behind as the unlikely midwife headed down the stairs. “What’s with ‘Captain Tor’?” he murmured into her hair. “I wouldn’t have figured Luthien for the nautical type.”

“I don’t think he’s quite comfortable with you yet,” she sighed. “At least he’s not calling you a number.”

“There is that.”

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