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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 10



Trade Federation: Be Careful What You Wish For

Khyrisse practically flew up the stairs, rosy and a bit short of breath. “Look at this,” she bubbled, waving a sheaf of papers in Ebreth’s face.

He laughed at her animation and stilled her hand enough to read what was in it. “Looks like a list of businesses?”

“Forty-eight!” she said. “There are twenty-nine commercial ventures currently in New Trade and another nineteen in the works!”

“Is that a lot?” he said. “The urban economics, I’m not going to be much help with. That was really more Lucas’ thing.”

“That’s the part I don’t need help with.” Khyrisse grinned, and jumped on her toes. “It means our commercial growth rate is outpacing our population growth. That means outside interests are taking the city seriously enough to invest in! Look, we’ve got a silversmith moving here from Malachi, an elven winery, a weaponer from Kyoko-Ra... these are people leaving the best, most saturated markets in hopes of getting in at the ground floor here. This is exactly what I wanted to happen.” She laughed a little giddily, and threw her arms around him. “It’s working, Ebreth. I haven’t been this happy in..” She puffed air and leaned into him, suddenly a bit winded. “Well, in a long time. ...If only I could get one of the big Dalencian cities, it’d be perfect. I don’t want this to turn into New Trade vs. the Dalencian Empire. Even Dascold would be a big help.”

“Well, give it time,” said Ebreth, his eyes twinkling, and lifted her up for a kiss.

***

Khyrisse awoke to an insistent ringing from the front door.

She slid out from under Ebreth’s arm, sighing, and pulled her bathrobe on. The house in New Trade was real, not a magical construct, so Sennett’s duration was limited even at her high level. She tied the sash and went down the stairs to get it herself. “Hold your flarking horses,” she yelled, as the ringing continued. It was probably Vas with some news. Maybe Jack, if he had come out of his room at long last.

She was certainly not expecting the face that met her when she opened the door.

“Morning, Khyri!” smiled Ariath, handing her a scroll. “I just got here and thought I’d tell you the good news myself!”

Khyrisse was frozen between strangling the woman and blasting her with a meteor swarm. Her fists clenched at her sides.

“Who is it, Khyrisse?” Ebreth called down from the rail.

“Hey Ebreth!” Ariath waved. “It’s me! Glad to see you made it out!”

Ebreth nodded and waved.

Khyrisse was counting down in Impish when the little thief turned back to her. “I’m your new ambassador from Tobrinel!” she smiled. “So I’ll be around here for us to hang out again!”

“Like h...” Khyrisse caught herself. “Not. Acceptable.”

“Geez, Khyri.” Ariath rolled her eyes and thrust the scroll at Khyrisse again. “Read it. Merry’s willing to accept all the terms on your charter--full support--she just wants someone she trusts here. Besides, I get diplomatic immunity, according to the agreement.” When Khyrisse didn’t take it, Ariath placed it on the floor in front of her. The seal of the Duke of Tobrinel gazed up at the archmage.

Tobrinel. The richest surviving country in Ataniel. Full support.

“Look, I guess I woke you. I’m going to go find my room and dump my stuff off... we can meet for lunch at the Sienna Café I passed in the plaza, ‘kay?”

Khyrisse stood, clenching her fists, unable to move without slugging the blonde thief. Ariath leaned forward and gave her a quick hug. “Hey, is Vas still around? Oh, I’m sure I’ll find him. See ya!”

As quickly as she had crushed Khyrisse’s morning, she was gone.

Khyrisse stared at the door, unmoving.

“She looked well,” Ebreth offered.

An Unwelcome Visitor

“I can’t believe you’re so calm about that bitch,” muttered Khyrisse.

Ebreth shrugged. “She’s not my favorite Rat Packer, but... I mean, at least she kept her word and didn’t kill you. You don’t, really understand where we’re coming from on this one, Khyrisse. I know what she was trying to get away from. There’s only so far I can blame her for doing whatever it took to stay out.”

“You didn’t.”

He paused a long moment. “And it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” he finally said, “and I wouldn’t have done it for Ari, and I can’t get too personally insulted that she didn’t do it for me. Look, I’m not saying I’d piss on her if she was on fire. She just doesn’t cause me a lot of stress, that’s all.”

“Well, that’s one of us,” said Khyrisse, crabby but well shy of fairy-nailing, and handed him a vellum. “How’s this?”

To Omeria Gothspadin, Duke of Tobrinel, greetings.

Pleasantly surprised though I was by your generous offer of Tobrinel’s full support in New Trade’s international endeavors, it is my duty to inform you that your choice for Ambassador Presumptive is, regrettably, unacceptable.

Ms. Rapkin has spoken to me of the concerns which led you to this choice; most importantly, of the necessity that your representative here be someone in whom you have complete confidence. This is of course understandable, and I hope it will be possible for you to select a mutually acceptable alternative. I am loath to casually discard the benefits Tobrinel’s membership in the federation of New Trade would bring to both our countries.

May I suggest that another member of your personal circle might be willing to take up the role? While the bearer of this missive cannot serve in such a fashion, certain of your other advisors would be acceptable to New Trade. Jun Si K’Mar suggests himself to my mind as a possible alternative, if such an arrangement would be agreeable to you both; if not, any Tobrinese diplomat who has your trust might also be acceptable.

--Khyrisse Starshadow, Director of New Trade

“Looks good to me.” Ebreth had actually thought it was going to be pissier, from the look on Khyrisse’s face as she was writing it.

“Good.” She pointed to the title in front of K’Mar’s name. “That means ‘lord’ in Kyoko-Ra.” She smiled, slightly, crookedly, down at the parchment. “More or less. It’s sometimes used as an honorific for a ninja. I’m basically telling Omeria that if she’s got to send me an assassin from Bloodscar as an ambassador, she can at least pay me the courtesy of sending me one that hasn’t backstabbed me yet.”

“Yes, I got that part. Anything having to do with people you pay to kill someone, I probably know the right word, I’m sorry to say.”

Khyrisse laughed. “I should have asked you, then, and saved myself a lot of time in reverie,” she said, smiling impishly up at him.

***

Ariath smiled and waved at the large, lithe pirate making his way across the café. “Ebreth! Hi! Over here!”

“Hey Ari.” He hooked the rung of one of the empty chairs with the heel of his boot and pulled it under himself with careless grace.

“Nice pants,” she commented.

“Thanks.” Ebreth produced a folded letter from his long cloak. “Got a message for you.”

“Where’s Khyri?”

“Come on, Ari, you’re smarter than that. Last time she gave you her friendship you stabbed her in the back, and I know you know her too well to think she’s forgotten it.”

“At least I didn’t tell her I saved her life when I didn’t cut her head off,” she said innocently.

“Ha ha.” He put the sealed vellum on the tabletop with a tap of his fingertips, grinning his impenetrable white grin. “Little over-the-top, wasn’t that, Ari? Woman you’ve betrayed and you want a business deal with her. I’ve been there, you know. Your best shot would have been strictly professional, putting aside your history and appealing to her business acumen. You didn’t do that. Instead you gave her a hug and said “Meet me for lunch,” as if nothing had happened. Drags it all up without assuaging it. Very unlikely to get you what you wanted--if this ambassadorship was what you wanted. It had a halfway decent chance of provoking an attack on an official diplomatic envoy, though. What a shocking international incident that would have been. But hey, my Guild Management percentile’s only 95; for all I know this could have been a bet you had going with the Duke. Take this letter back to Tobrinel with you, will you? And Ariath?” Her eyes flicked up to his. They were very blue. “You are not the highest-level thief to make it out of Hell,” said Ebreth. “Don’t fuck with her again.”

He flipped his cloak and walked away, his back deliberately to Ariath, and she watched him go until he was out of sight, tapping her nails contemplatively, and then she smiled a little, tilting her head down. “Ebreth Tor,” she said, not without a bit of amusement at her own expense, shook her head, slid the vellum across, and broke the seal to see what Khyrisse had to say.

Bloodscar: When A Beautiful Woman Asks For You By Name, Do You A) Go, B) Go, C) Go, Or D) Go?

“So can I go, Merry?” said K’Mar. “I think she likes me.”

“She doesn’t like you, butthead,” said Hotspur.

“She asked for me specifically! Look!”

“Get a life, K’Mar.”

***

“So?” Marhault asked as K’Mar came out of Omeria’s office, followed quickly by the dwarf.

“Say hello to Ambassador K’Mar,” Hotspur said with a grim humor.

Marhault peered at the ninja, particularly at the fresh burn scar that now adorned his forehead above his right eye. “What’s that from?”

“He tried calling her ‘Merry’,” said Hotspur.

***

After the two had left, Ariath stepped out from behind the arras.

“Men,” she sighed amusedly.

“Don’t remind me,” said.Omeria.

“So...?” said Ariath pointedly.

“Here,” said Omeria, tossing Ariath a small golden key. “You win the bet.”

“And you thought she’d try to kill me. You’ll never understand good guys, Merry.”

“Who needs to?” Omeria said.

***

“All right, folks,” the One True Bloodscar said to the five men gathered in the underground chamber. “You know why Omeria hired you, and you know how important this is. That’s why I’m going to be in charge of making sure that you keep this enterprise secure. Any problems with that?”

Five heads shook “no.”

“Good. Come to me with any needs you have. They’ll be met. Until this is done, you’re all confined to this complex.”

Five heads nodded understanding.

“I’ll be around, so don’t get any ideas.”

Four heads didn’t get any ideas.

Mordecai, however, wondered how long his conscience could hold out.

The answer to that question turned out to be much shorter than anyone expected.

Interlude: I Ain’t Missing You

Khyrisse hung the empty picture frames on the wall at the shadowy end of the Rat Trap’s Memorial Hall, a simple brass plate affixed to the wall beneath each blank canvas. Garal had painted lovely watercolors of the Rat Pack’s other casualties and MIA’s, once Vickie had narked on his artistic talents; but there was no point asking him to draw these two, who had defected before he had joined.

Khyrisse murmured the words to the decorative enchantment and an image slowly formed on the first canvas: a whip-thin man with aristocratic features and peasant garb, the first faint lines of laughter crinkling his very bright hazel eyes. Pieret Laird-Clowes Minarye, the brass plate beneath it read. Khyrisse still wasn’t sure which was his real surname, or, for that matter, if Kardia Blackfeather was his real name, or if he even had a real name. Merchant, anarchist, and priest of Lucifer. Expelled from the Rat Pack, for the attempted murder of Cori Yashida and the freeing of Bloodscar from Hell. Deceased.

She sighed and looked up at the other blank canvas, and another image coalesced, that of a young blonde woman, as short as Khyrisse but curvaceous rather than delicate in build, sprawled voluptuously across one seat of the Trade Carriage. Her infectious smile seemed to be aimed at the viewer, and she was pouring a glass of wine as red as blood. Ariath Rapkin, the plate winked up at the sorceress, as if it were mocking her. Assassin. Expelled from the Rat Pack, for the attempted murder of Khyrisse Starshadow and the banishment of Ebreth Tor to Hell.

Khyrisse sat on the floor, arms around her knees, soberly studying the sordid little corner. Her uncle and mentor, confidante during her marriage and the darkest year thereafter... and the woman who had probably been her closest female friend, the sister she never had. The betrayers of the Rat Pack.

She hid her face in the shelter of her folded arms.

Armed And Dangerous

“No evocation spells!” Khyrisse kvetched for about the 456th time. “No lightning bolt... no cone of cold...”

“You can still cast Otto’s Irresistible Dance.”

“I don’t want to cast Otto’s Irresistible Dance!”

“You can still cast illusion spells.” Ebreth ducked the cushion she hurled at him without looking at it, grinning. “Hey, seriously, Khyrisse. Tremontagne couldn’t have been able to cast evocation spells either, and he’s still a force to be reckoned with.”

“You’re not helping.”

“How many times do you expect me to listen to you whine about the same thing?” He got up and went over to the desk. “If you can’t cast evocation spells anymore, you’re just going to need to learn to use the other ones more creatively for a while. You’re obviously smart enough.”

Khyrisse stood tapping her boot on the floor for a few seconds, and then puffed an errant curl of hair out of her face. “This is your fault.”

“I hope so, anyway.” Ebreth rifled through one of the desk drawers.

“I like evocation spells! I don’t like tricking people and summoning other things to do my dirty work, I like blowing things up! What am I supposed to do when I feel like being violent, kick them to death?” Khyrisse stomped fiercely around the living room. “Or maybe sit on them, that ought to work in another three months when I can’t see my own feet! I’m not much of a fighter to begin with, by August I’m going to look like I’ve swallowed a watermelon, and now I’m losing all my good combat spells? What if someone attacks me?”

“This is a gun,” said Ebreth, handing it to her.

She stopped abruptly just as she’d been starting to warm to her rant. “What?”

“It’s a Diari pistol.” He tossed the open case on the coffee table. There was a second gun in it, and some ammunition. “I picked these up from a guy I used to know on the Islands. You’re about due for a new weapon proficiency, right?”

“You--got me a gun?” Khyrisse blinked at it.

“It doesn’t really do any more damage than a crossbow,” said Ebreth, “but it makes a nice loud bang doing it. I think you’ll like it.”

“Is--it loaded?”

“Not yet.” Ebreth grinned, and went back in the desk. “There’s more. Max put together a little care package for you, from some of your friends.”

Khyrisse’s eyes went wide as he emptied the box on the table. “What is all this--is that a necklace of missiles?”

“That’s right,” Ebreth said, pointing, “and the amulet is spell turning, the wand is lightning, this is a bracer of healing, and a cube of force if you really get into trouble.”

“A cube of...” Khyrisse picked it up dizzily. “Where did you get a cube of force?”

“Tila stole it from Omeria.” Ebreth waved his hand. “It’s not important.”

“You... are going to spoil me rotten, Ebreth Tor.”

“Hey, don’t look at me. Max and his girlfriend picked this stuff out. And Tila wants what’s left of it back when the baby’s born.” Ebreth pushed the desk drawer shut with his foot. “You can keep one of the pistols.”

“One of them?”

“One of them.” He flipped the other one out of the case and stuck it through his belt, leaning back on the chair’s hind legs with a broad grin. “Haven’t looked right without that there, have I?”

Interlude: The Rat Trap

“Hey, Meen,” Vickie said, flipping herself down from the rafter where she had been doing her daily regimen of pull-ups. “What can I do you for?”

“I was just trying to set my room up, and I was looking for someone to tell me if the pictures were straight.”

“I thought you and the chief were doing that?” the secret agent asked, wiping her brow with a towel.

“Yeah, we just got back from shopping,” said Mina. “There was some sort of diplomatic thingie she had to deal with when we got back, though, so I’m doing the last touches by myself.”

“And you came to me?” said Vickie. “What about Jack? Or Marty?”

“Jack’s still holed up working on whatever math problem he’s about, and Marty... well, have you seen Marty’s room? One word: padding.”

“Well, I’m not much of an interior decorator either,” Vickie said, waving her hand to show the austere room. There was a bed, a table, a small bookshelf and a punching bag, and the rest of the room was in the state it had been when the building was finished.

“Gee,” Mina said, “I’d think you’d have all sorts of trophies and souvenirs and stuff.”

“Oh, I keep that in my secret headquarters,” Vickie said.

“You have a secret headquarters?”

“Yup. It used to be one of the Black King’s, but I liberated it from the Child of Storms and cleaned it out. I’ll take you there sometime.”

“Maybe I should start keeping trophies,” said Mina. “Or maybe Khyrisse will let me set something like that up for the whole Rat Pack.”

“Here, then,” Vickie said, tossing Mina a small red crystal. “It’s a piece of the Passage prototype from Ælwyn’s throne. I snagged it on our way out.”

“Cool,” said Mina. She frowned and stared at it. “I wonder...”

“No go,” Vickie said before the girl could get her hopes up. “I had a friend who’s kind of an expert look it over. It’s totally dormant and drained of magic. It’s just a rock.”

Mina sighed. “Well, I’ll put it in a safe place,” she said. “So... can you help with my room?”

“If you want, kiddo,” Vickie said. “Lead the way.”

The Director Is Out

“Hi, Val,” said Ebreth. “Not interrupting anything important, am I?”

The priestess shook her head. “No... no, we were just chatting. I really just stopped by to deliver a report from Rhynwa. I hadn’t even been expecting Khyrisse to be here.”

“Good call,” said Ebreth. “It’s dinnertime, Khyrisse.”

She looked up from her papers with a certain haggard relief. “That’s what I forgot to do, eat! Thank you, lover. Did you--bring me something?”

He put the basket down on the desk. “A nice tunic,” he said. “Put it on, we’ve got 8:30 reservations at the Jardin.”

“Ebreth, I can’t go out to dinner. I’m right in the middle of this Cynystran analysis.” Khyrisse made a weary sigh. “Do me a big favor and go pick me up some takeout, will you? We can eat it here.”

“We had takeout last night. You’ve had takeout for lunch every day this week. You’re going to turn into an egg roll.” Ebreth crossed behind her and closed the ledger gently but firmly. “Now New Trade is not going to fall apart if you close up the office at quarter of eight on a Friday night.”

“Ebreth--”

“Don’t make me kidnap you.”

“You can read Rhynwa’s report tomorrow,” Valende backed him up, bemused. “It’s not urgent.”

“And Cynystra can wait till morning.” Ebreth grinned. “If you’ll excuse us, Val. Khyrisse needs to change for dinner.”

“I look fine,” she said, gesturing impatiently at her business tunic.

“Which is exactly why you need to change,” he murmured into her hair, unfastening the first button from behind.

Valende shut the door behind her and turned the sign to “The Director Is OUT”, smiling softly into her hand.

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