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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 11



Interlude: Shadow Play

Vickie was rappelling down the side of an active volcano with Duke Faraker, who was wearing a blue Speedo, when she heard it.

Among Vickie Dare’s many impressive talents was the ability to go from deep REM to action in 3.5 seconds. Pluvious had timed her once.

The secret agent whipped a yo-yo from the small table by her bedside and sent it whizzing across the room in the direction of the unnatural voice she had heard whisper her name.

Light streaked from the enchanted toy in all directions. Vickie, who had averted her gaze as she threw, would have the advantage in the five to ten seconds the intruder would be blinded by the flash.

That should be enough time to ascertain whether it was a nice surprise or someone whose ass needed some whuppin’.

Only this time there was no one there.

She checked, then checked again. The room was empty.

Fool Me Once, Shame On You; Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

“Huh.” Rani squatted easily and ran a finger along the fading bloodstain in the old warehouse. “What do you have?”

“If we had anything,” Novoa said crossly, “we wouldn’t be outsourcing fortune-tellers.”

“Try to let it bother you a little less, will you, Detective? You’re interfering with my signal.” She found a strand of dark hair and peeled it from the faint sepia smear of two-day old blood, her eyes sliding shut.

As the hard-armed woman pulled her to her feet she ducked and made a break for it. “Anjhaite masae!” shouted someone. There was a flash.

Diari?

A large hand--five fingers--crushed shut on her jaw and snapped her head about, arresting her flight before it had begun. She gasped. There was a burning across her wrist as the rope still binding her hands together chafed against it. “Help!” she screamed, not like she was expecting any.

“White human female,” said Rani, “age nineteen, Nylevian-accented Dalen.”

“Enjha kasi har savri gharin.”

“Veshant,” responded the man holding her, in a terrible kiljhac accent. He struck without warning and her head slammed into the floor of the warehouse.

Gharin. Five.

She smelled her own blood. She heard her own frightened crying. “It’s a pleasure doing business with you,” said the human man.

Through the loose dark hair, she had a very good look at his face.

“And that’s all I got,” lied Rani, opening her fingers and letting the hair fall. Novoa would know it was a lie, and he would know it had been something Rani could not admit to knowing in front of the undoubtedly corrupt cops in the room. That would be the best she could do for him right now. “I hope that helps you narrow your search a bit.”

Rani walked out of the warehouse and down to the pier, without hesitating and without hurrying. She did not stop off at her flat first.

Savri gharin. Rani had a mind like a steel trap, and she didn’t leave cases.

John Tucson, she thought to herself, what in God’s name are you involved in.

She got on the first sail to Lianth and began her journey to New Trade to find out.

For All My Days Remaining

Jack and Ebreth had lunch at the same time every week, one o’clock PM, each Wednesday. From what people said, it was one of the few times Jack ever left his room in the Rat Trap. Whatever it was Jack had been working on the last month-and-a-half, it had had occupied not just most of his time, but most of his attention span. The few times Ebreth had seen his friend outside of Wednesday lunch, he had been distracted at best and obsessed at worst.

Today was different. Jack sat down across the table from Ebreth with a smile on his face. It was a weird expression: satisfied, but not actually happy. “Happy Wednesday,” Jack said.

“You look better,” said Ebreth. “Solve your math problem?”

“Yes and no,” Jack said, his expression becoming more wistful.

“That doesn’t sound like a very, ah... mathematical answer.”

“I’m eschewing math for the solution to my problem,” Jack said. “I actually wanted to talk to you about it today.”

Ebreth nodded. “I’ve been a bit worried, Jack. You’ve kind of been shutting people out.”

“I needed to solve this as quickly as I could,” Jack admitted. “I haven’t meant to be, uh, all antisocial and all. That’s going to change, don’t worry.” He laughed a short laugh.

“So what can I do to help?”

“Well, let me explain what I found out, first,” Jack said. “You need to know the situation, and I guess the best way to tell it is just to tell it.”

Ebreth frowned. “Tell me what, Jack?”

“I’ve got three months left to live.”

Ebreth had nothing to say.

“You see,” Jack continued, “I noticed that ever since... the other Jack died... my reactions have been off. I kept tripping on things and missing easy throws and stuff. Remember how you beat me at darts that one night?”

“I... thought you let me win,” Ebreth said, trying to take it all in.

“Nope,” Jack said. “It really hit home when we were in the Tower of Wax and Mina almost died because I miscalculated the topology of the World Automaton. When I got home, I went back and got Robinson’s notes to see if something was wrong with my equation. Well, it turns out that despite having inherited a few memories from my Other, I’m still a small subset of the Jack Paris equation. A subset that, temporally, will be closed in three months, twelve days and eighteen hours.”

“There’s got to be some way of adjusting this. Three months is a long time, we can come up with something.”

“Ebreth,” sighed the mathematician, “that’s what I spent the last month doing. I’ve fixed the kinks that affected my reactions... that’s not a problem. But the fact is, there’s no mathematical way to maintain my consciousness beyond the subset. That’s why I came to you.”

“Jack, I know nothing about math...”

“But you know how to live a life, Ebreth,” Jack said. “Sure, I could spend my last three months doing math in my room trying to solve a problem that’s unsolvable. Or I could grab my friend and live a life worth living. Do some great deed, get myself remembered, sing... dance... Heck, I still, uh... I mean, I’m still...”

“I know, Jack,” Ebreth said, laughing over the pain. “No one who isn’t avoids the topic so assiduously.”

“Assiduously?” Jack asked, impressed.

“So I’ve been reading,” Ebreth said. “You pick words up that way. Look, let’s go to Khyrisse and maybe we can find some way to transplant your mind or something.”

“I’d rather not, Ebreth,” Jack said. “I really don’t want to go through my last days with everyone worrying about me. I’d rather not tell anyone else, at least not this soon. I want to enjoy their company first. Enjoy life with my friends. The way you enjoy life.”

“Oh, right,” said Ebreth. “You want to spend your last weeks in a coma? Or burdened with guilt?”

“I want to take chances,” Jack said. “I want to try things I never would have imagined. I want to spit into the eye of death and go down smiling. You went to Hell for Khyrisse without a second thought... I never told you how much I admired that. Not for the sacrifice, but for the courage it took. I want you to teach me some of that.”

“I can’t just let you die, Jack. You can’t ask that of me.”

“Look, if you figure something out, I’ll try it. But in the meantime, can you just help me live?”

Ebreth paused a long moment, and then he reached across the checkered table and pushed a piece of Jack’s hair that had flopped into his face back with improbable tenderness. “Jack,” he said, “you have no idea how much I’m winging this. I don’t know how much I’ve got to teach anyone, but I’ll try.” He took his hand back, frowning. “If you also let me try to do something about this. I don’t give up this easily. You’re going to admire my resolve, you have to put up with not being able to get it out of my head with a plunger.”

“Subsets are finite,” Jack said quietly. “It’s just how math is.”

“Yeah, we’re all finite,” said Ebreth. “Long finite is better than short. Math isn’t our only option here. Maybe we could find a wish spell somewhere. Khyrisse could cast it, I know, but it’s one of those spells that age you. It could kill the baby.”

“No.” Jack shook his head emphatically. “No, Ebreth, absolutely not, I--”

“Hey.” Ebreth flipped his fork and pointed it at him, squinting down it like a scope. “We are not going to go behind your back and kill our child for you. That’s beyond Passagish. Give me some credit.” He speared a meatball. “I don’t know any other sorcerers powerful enough for that, but maybe we could find a wish somewhere else. They say you’re allowed three in your life, and I’ve only used one.”

“What on?”

“Last guy,” Ebreth said. “Don’t ask.” He made a half-consciously flirty motion across the café with his empty glass, and the waitress cut an immediate detour to pour him some more water. “Look, you don’t have to tell people you’re on the clock here, but will you at least let them know what’s wrong with you? Otherwise someone may find the means to do something about this and never know it. That’s just too tragic even for us. If we don’t find anything by September...” Ebreth made a helpless shrug. “No one has to know you knew when this would happen but me. I can promise not to cry in my beer here, Jack, I can promise not to let people have a flarking three-month funeral. But I’m not letting you go without a fight. The world’s a better place with you in it.”

“I know,” Jack said, softly.

“You better,” said Ebreth. “What exactly is it we’re looking for, here, a way to make a subset permanent?”

“Extrapolate the subset of a lost equation,” sighed Jack. “It’s mathematically impossible. I could prove it in another three weeks. I don’t want to waste them.”

“Impossible things have happened before,” said Ebreth Tor. “Let’s tell everyone what you need, tell them it’s very important but doesn’t need immediate attention. That’s technically true, so you ought to be able to handle it.”

“You’ve figured me out,” Jack smiled sheepishly.

“I had a head start.” He gripped Jack’s forearm across the café table. “Let me see that everything that’s in our power to do gets done, Jack. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t. And in the meantime, let’s see how much living we can get done.”

“Starting?”

“I don’t know,” he said, “let’s dig up an adventure and go kick its ass. Khyrisse has been stir-crazy ever since she lost her evocation spells, and Vickie’s started calling me a kept man.”

Jack laughed. “What have you been doing, days other than Wednesday, anyway?”

“Not much,” Ebreth confessed. “High-powered politics. Hanging out. Like Vickie’s been doing anything but bopping around. We don’t any of us have normal jobs.”

“I’m a CPA,” Jack offered, producing a business card to prove it.

“Okay,” grinned Ebreth, “now there’s something not to do with the last few months of your life.”

“I’ll put it on the list.”

“Put list-keeping on the list.”

“How about more breadsticks?”

“Breadsticks are okay.”

Don’t Mess With Belle: Wheels Within Wheels

Belle sat in the tent command center of the Diarian brigade that was currently keeping Blackbone’s little cult of followers held in check. The curtain entrance to the tent parted, and a short-haired woman stepped inside.

“Edyric,” Belle said, unsurprised. “But why aren’t you in Diaria.” It wasn’t a question.

“Look, I’ve got to give up the contract,” Edyric said.

“Gee,” sighed Belle. “Could it be that your personal vendetta interfered with the job? Or were you contracted by someone who suspected that a hit on the Emperor might be called?”

“I...” Edyric started. “You knew.”

Belle rolled her eyes. “Yes, I picked the most obvious killer on Ataniel for a reason, you know. I never expected you to even make it to Diaria.”

“But... why?” The archer frowned. She wasn’t happy being used this way.

“Because it was obvious that I would arrange a hit on the Emperor. People aren’t stupid... well, comparatively they are, but they’re not dumb enough to think I wouldn’t try something. By neutralizing you, it puts them off your guard. Heck, I already told Praxis that I’d take you off the contract.”

Edyric frowned deeper. “You’re a cold and calculating bitch, aren’t you?”

“Guilty as charged,” Belle said. “But if you stick around you can join me in the fun.”

“Sure, what the hell,” said Edyric. “So you aren’t giving up on the Emperor?”

“Of course not,” Belle sighed exasperatedly. “Everything’s in place. Check and mate.”

The Shortest Distance Between Two Ears

“Uh, what’s a ‘Giant’s Burial Ground’?” Jack asked.

“Two shots rum, two shots grenadine, a cup of pineapple juice and a third level intoxicate spell, served with a pinch of salt and a little plastic sword,” the bartender rattled off. They were really putting him through his paces tonight, but he was acquitting himself pretty well.

“Two,” Jack said.

Ebreth and Jack clinked glasses and downed the eerily bubbling drinks.

“That...” coughed Ebreth, “was awful!”

“Too much salt,” said Jack, pulling the hilt of the plastic sword out and looking at the melted blade.

“Mm,” said Ebreth, looking out the window. “Here he comes.”

“Gotcha,” Jack winked.

Vastarin entered the Crossroads and started towards Jack and Ebreth.

“So, Jack,” Ebreth said only a hair too loudly, “this problem with your math... is it dangerous?”

“It could be,” Jack said, “if left too long. But it’s not something to be immediately worried about.”

Sensing that this wasn’t meant for his ears (even though it was), Vas innocuously pretended to look around for his sister.

“So is there anything I can do, Jack?” Ebreth asked.

“No, it’s a math thing,” Jack said. “I’ll keep my eyes out for a cure, but in the meantime, I’m just glad to be out of my room.”

Vastarin accurately pretended not to see Valende and turned on one heel, leaving the pub behind.

“Brilliant plan,” said Ebreth. “I don’t even have to hit him for this one.”

“I’m sure he’ll figure it out eventually,” said Jack, “but by that point Reena will have heard it.”

“Two more?”

“Two more,” Jack nodded, plunking another coin on the bar. “This time let’s try the ‘Altar Sacrifice’.”

***

Vas just could not find his sister anywhere in New Trade. How very annoying. She’d promised to be here tonight; and the one time she was sure to be interested in his latest gossip, too.

He stood hovering a few inches off the ground with his hands on his hips, looking around the main square. Jack and Ebreth were still in the pub. He’d found Marty and Garal in the Rat Trap, Mina in the library, and Vickie with Orlen in his nightclub. None of them had seen her. He’d also noticed Ieshala, his latest paramour, having dinner at Marjorie’s Bistro with Nynia Paris, but he’d chosen to avoid interrupting that conversation. I’m not half sure I want to know what you’re telling each other about me, my ladies...!

Vas’ merrily chaotic tangle of a brain danced from Nynia to her cousin Chloe to Annwych, and he smacked himself in the forehead. Oh, of course! Valende is in Annwych! She said she’d see me tonight, but the Carriage must not have arrived yet.

He went skimming across the darkening town to the harbor. There wasn’t a tremendous amount of naval traffic in New Trade, though it looked like someone was starting construction on a marina and Vas thought the Northsea would be a lovely place for a regatta in the summer months. According to the posted schedule, the coach from Annwych wasn’t due in till 7:50.

That was twenty minutes from now.

Plenty of time to fill in Khyrisse and Lora.

***

From his vantage point at the bar, Ebreth saw Vas dragging his sister through the square in the yellow light of the streetlamps, chattering at her animatedly. Valende’s smile of benign tolerance dissolved into focused attention suddenly, and she sat on the rim of the fountain and dragged her brother down to her for a whispered conversation.

This wasn’t Ebreth’s business, exactly, but Vas owed him a few, and Ebreth wasn’t pegging Valende’s feelings about Jack as well as he’d like to, especially given Jack’s current situation. He couldn’t hear them from the noisy Crossroads, but he watched their body language carefully. Val looked alarmed, Vas reassuring. She was clearly questioning him closely, and he didn’t have any more answers. He shrugged and gestured towards the pub.

Val glanced their way reflexively. She met the pirate’s eyes for an instant, then looked past him at Jack--and blushed, dark pink against the pale face and raven hair. She smiled and waved at them, her eyes on Jack... and stayed put.

Vas nudged her in the shin with his toe, grinning mischievously. She turned back to him and said something unmistakably scolding. Her brother sighed and lifted his eyes to the heavens.

“Do you think she, uh...” said Jack.

“Beats the hell out of me,” admitted Ebreth, watching Valende remain stubbornly sitting by the fountain, playing with the water to give her something to look at besides the mathematician.

Interlude: Scorpion’s Nest

“...confirmed dead,” Stump said to John “the Scorpion” Tucson, speaking of Caimen Paris. “It’s a golden opportunity to expand operations in the Islands.”

The Scorpion had been testier than usual lately. “What is with you these days, Stump? ‘Let’s fuck with Asinus Paris. Let’s fuck with Ebreth Tor.’ You sound like Wings Molloy on Bane. Leave sleeping dogs alone.”

“Asinus is one dangerous mofo, but he ain’t no pirate,” Stump said plainly. “I’m not talking gang wars with the family Paris here, I’m talking moving in on the Buccaneers’ Den now that Caimen ain’t around to kick our ass. And we’ve talked about Tor a hundred times. The Slavers’ Guild ain’t ours while that man’s still alive.”

The Scorpion nodded slowly. Most men had good reason to fear talking to John Tucson that way, but Stump was his second-in-command, and it was the ugly halfling’s job to dissent. Tucson had plenty of yes-men. “Green light on the Buccaneer’s Den,” he said, “but stay out of the Paris’ way. That’s all we need.”

“And Tor?”

“He’s got his own city to deal with. He hasn’t gone near his old Guild, and I’ve got someone in New Trade keeping an eye on him. A hit on him gains us nothing and risks a powerful enemy. And frankly I don’t think I have an assassin I’d trust with the job.”

“Word on the street is Edyric the Archer would do him for free if we could make the hit work.”

“Fuck that. I don’t want him dead that much. Talk to me when you have a professional who can handle the job and keep us out of it.”

Stump cleared his throat. “Two, actually.”

The Scorpion looked at him. “I’m listening.”

“I hear Belle came outta retirement to do a hit for the Diari government.”

“Not. Worth. It,” said John Tucson.

“And they say the reason Caimen Paris ain’t in commission has the initials Q.A.”

The crime lord was suddenly paying a great deal of attention. “Really.”

“Unconfirmed.”

“Confirm it. If Alverado’ll take the job, I’ll think about it.” Tucson paused. “I just wish I knew what the hell the old pirate’s up to. If he’s for real on this New Trade venture he’d make a good ally.”

“If he changes his mind about it he’d be the one thing that could stop our plans for the slave trade.”

“Let’s keep it on the burner till we find out which it is. See if it’s true about Alverado, and have Weasel work over anyone you get your hands on who might know more about Ebreth Tor.”

“Done and done,” smiled Stump. “Hey, speaking of the slave trade, Lianth’s starting to settle down. It’s getting on time to move on to more, ah, normal business enterprises there.”

“Had to happen someday. Who’s running the show now, Silverhammer?”

“Nah, some psycho self-help zealot.”

“Well, go put some scare in the local merchant’s guild when you get a chance. Weren’t we having some vigilante trouble out there?”

“Joker,” supplied Stump. “Octavian he ain’t. No one’s heard much outta him in months. Polly’s got a standing contract in case he starts acting up again.”

“Good enough,” the Scorpion nodded. “Have Nox meet me down by the warehouse. I have another meeting, and I’m going to need his help.”

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