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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 14



Interlude: Welcome Home

Jacob Gallowsdance was staring out at his fields under the moonlight when he saw the falling star. Jacob was too old to believe in omens, but the beauty of the arcing light was impressive, and reminded Jacob of his years in the King’s service. As the star disappeared on the horizon, almost as if swallowed up by the fresh crops, the old farmer turned back to his fields. The corn was beginning to sprout, and the wheat was still fresh and green. It had been a good spring in the area, and it looked like Darwood would have more than enough to make its quota for the local lord, with crops to spare. It was days like this that he could almost forget the ache in his back and the rapidly-shortening road of his remaining years.

That was when he saw the man in the cornfield.

At first Jacob frowned, thinking that one of the local boys was trespassing on his land again. He had had problems with this last summer, when one of them had decided (and told all his friends) that the large tree on the south end of the field was a perfect place to bring a young lady. But as Jacob watched, he could see that the man in the field was not only someone he’d never seen before, the man was naked and wounded.

Picking up his flail, Jacob Gallowsdance pushed open the ill-fitting front door and stepped out of the cottage he shared with Irene. The Banelight cast strange shadows across the field, and for a moment Jacob couldn’t find the man he had seen from indoors.

A second later, the movement of the corn directed him, and he stepped out into the field. “Who’s there?” Jacob shouted. “Show yourself!”

The figure in the corn turned as he heard Jacob, and for a moment the old armsmaster-turned-farmer thought it was an attack. Then the figure pushed through to where Jacob stood. It was a young man, maybe in his mid-twenties. He was dirty, and bleeding from several shallow cuts on his body. “Help... me...” he gasped, and fell unconscious at Jacob’s feet.

“Well, don’t this beat all,” Jacob muttered, and lifted the boy in his arms to take him back to the cottage.

***

“He’s waking up,” Irene said. The old woman dabbed a moist towel to the young man’s head. Jacob had laid him down in their bed, and Irene had wrapped him warmly with blankets pulled from the winter closet.

“Where... am I?” the stranger said.

“You’re on our farm,” Jacob said. “I’m Jacob, this is Irene.”

“Pleased to meet you,” the man said, trying to sit up. He groaned with pain and surprise, and Irene laid him back down.

“You’ve got a lot of bruising and abrasions,” Irene said. “You just lay back and let me finish washing those wounds out.”

“I do feel... kind of funny,” the man said. “I ache all over.”

“Mind if I ask exactly what you think you were doing running around starkers in my cornfield,” Jacob asked. “And a name would be nice.”

“I’m--” the man answered, holding out his empty hand as if to offer something to the old farmer. He stopped suddenly, looking confused. “I... don’t know,” he said. “I can’t remember.”

“Can’t remember who you are?” Irene asked. “My goodness!”

Jacob scrutinized the young man. “You don’t look like you’re lying,” he said.

“I’m not, sir...” the man said. “I... can’t even remember how I got here...”

“Well, we’re not the kind of people to let a young man in your condition just head back out in the world,” Irene said, giving Jacob a stare that told him she was going to make the decision on this one. “You’ll stay with us until we get you back on your feet.”

“I couldn’t, ma’am... I don’t want to put upon you...”

“Nonsense!” Irene said. “And please, call me Irene.”

“Irene,” the man smiled.

“Well,” Jacob sighed, “if you’re going to stay here, we’re going to need to call you something. Is there anything you remember?”

The young man frowned, intent in thought, but no recognition or recollection flashed in his eyes.

“No,” he said at long last.

“Do you know what country you’re in? What year it is?”

“A... Ataniel?” the man said, obviously guessing. “But it’s 814.”

“815,” Irene corrected. “And of course you’re on Ataniel. Land sakes, where else would you be?”

“I have no idea,” the young man said.

“Well, you’re a year late for whatever you’re about, son,” Jacob said. “How does the name John strike you? Until we figure out where you really belong.”

“John’s fine,” the man said. “John Yearlate,” he smiled.

“As good a name as any,” Jacob laughed.

***

John and Jacob stood down by the river that ran along the east side of the Gallowsdance farm.

On the other side of the river, the old mill stood, unused except by the local wildlife. The waterwheel was mosscovered, and the plaster outer wall of the mill itself was cracked and bare in spots.

“It worked for about a season,” Jacob mused, “but the river ‘tweren’t strong enough to keep the wheel going enough to run the millstone.”

“Well,” John said, “the first problem is your angle. Yes, the wheel’s parallel to the river’s edge, but it’s in a place where the river’s just come out of a turn. The water’s hitting the wheel on the flat edge. You’d need to rotate it about fifty degrees to get the best use of the waterflow.”

Jacob looked at John Yearlate for a long time. “You can tell that just by looking?”

“It’s just simple vectors,” John said, slightly embarrassed.

“For someone who’s forgotten everything about himself, you sure do know the damndest things, John Yearlate.”

“Just seems second nature, I guess,” John said.

“Look, John,” Jacob said, putting one strong hand on John’s shoulder, “I know you’re curious about who you are and where you come from and all...”

“I guess...” John said absently. Unspoken was the ambivalence in the young man’s voice.

“Likely as much that your own kin are out looking for you,” Jacob continued.

“I... don’t think so,” John frowned. “I don’t know why... but I don’t think so.”

“Well, then I might yet get the answer I’m hoping for,” Jacob nodded. “I was wondering if you’d like to stay on here. With Irene and me, I mean. Pitch in on the farm, maybe see if you can do something with that mill? In return, I can see what I can do to find out where you might’ve come from. I’ve still got some friends in high places.”

John smiled, and he appeared to visibly relax. “I think I’d like that, Jacob. I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve had a real home like you and Irene have.”

“Well, Darwood’s not much of a town, but of all the places I’ve been--and it’s more than just a few, mind you--it’s certainly the most peaceful.”

John laughed. “I’m sold, Jacob! I’d love to stay and help. But on one condition... you guys charge me rent for room and board, which I pay off with whatever I make helping out. I’m not going to just freeload on you guys. It’s not how I was raised.”

“And how were you raised?” Jacob asked, hoping to press the memory.

“I...” John started. “It must have been on a farm. For just a second I could see a donkey there.”

“Hh. It’s a start,” Jacob nodded.

“That it is,” John agreed, smiling.

And it was.

A Small Memorial Day Gathering

Ebreth Tor answered the door. Flicker was still getting used to that, but his facial expression betrayed none of it. “En annet aar,” he said, in Riklandic: another year. “How is she?”

“About as well as can be expected,” said Ebreth. “Luthien gave her a little sedative.”

“Is he still here?”

“Yeah, he and Max. Most of your other people are in Lianth. Come on in.”

“I brought some wings.”

“It’s all I can do to get her to take orange juice.”

“Well, Max likes wings.”

“Mrrrrrrao!” said Melissa, twining as inconveniently as possible around Flicker’s legs.

“If there are leftovers,” Flicker told her, and closed the door quietly behind him.

Interlude: All That Matters

In the Mithril Dagger, Randall Thrayn played his flute, alone, in memory of his family.

Khyrisse was in New Trade, dealing with her losses however one would go about handling the loss of a city. Max, Flicker, and Luthien were with her. The rest of the Mithril Dagger Heroes had drifted here, to Lianth, to the pub whose name they had acquired.

Except for Shilree, who was in Diaria mourning the assassination of her fiancée. Praxis felt terrible about that, and hoped fervently that Belle, and the assistance he’d given her freeing herself from the Emperor’s control, had not been involved. Zzenith, too, had lost his lover this year, apparently to an attack by the archer Edyric. Praxis could think of no one who deserved such pain less.

Everyone had recited the memorials to the dead as they wished. The list of names had been frightfully long. -I wanted to tell you something last year--thank you for saving those people, crucified on the walls of Trade.-

-You’re welcome,- Signet replied through the Mindlink, and clinked his Bloody Mary into the psionicist’s Guinness.

For some reason, everyone expected him to say something. He wished, for about the millionth time in the past five years, that Alain MacLir were there. He went slowly to the front of the group, and then he spoke.

“There’s a lot that I could say, but in the end, all that matters is this, something people think, but say aloud all too seldom: All of you mean a great deal to me, and I’m honored to say I’ve known you. I’m glad you’re alive.”

New Life

Khyrisse sat in a cleverly designed folding chair of carved wood and suspended cushions in her office in the New Trade Federal Building.

Her hair was well past her shoulders now, a scarf tying it loosely together at the nape of her neck; the dusting of white at her temples was growing in nicely, more visibly on the right side than on the left, a scatter of confectioner’s sugar in the honey-blonde curls. She’d gained a little bit of weight already, the blade-sharp edge to her features gradually being smoothed away. Pregnancy apparently suited her, though you needed sharp eyes to see the curve of her abdomen under the loosely belted tunic.

There were darkly shadowed hollows under her eyes, though, and she was paler than usual. She hadn’t slept much this week. The impact of the anniversary of Trade’s destruction was relieved only slightly by the liveliness of the little city that had coalesced around her in the last six months. She sat wearily slumped in her chair now, ignoring the jumble of blueprints and half-finished magical sketches spread out across her desk and lap, and gazed deeply out the window at the sunshine playing across the courtyard garden.

She was startled out of her blue study by Vastarin coming in for an unexpected landing right in the center of said garden, his blue-black hair flying artistically in the wind. He had a wrought-iron bench balanced comically over his shoulders. “Vas? Vas! --Don’t put that there, that’s supposed to go on the roof!” she yelled.

Vas ignored her, gracefully swinging the bench to the ground. “No, no, the design most clearly called for the bench in the courtyard, beside the waterfall. ...Should you really be leaning out of a third floor window, milady? In your delicate condition?”

“I am not in a delicate condition!” she snapped, her ragged nerves spilling instantly over into annoyance. She flipped an irritated hand at Vas when he grinned impudently at her. “You have the wrong bench! That one goes on the roof, by my landing platform. There’s a stone bench for the garden!”

Vas blinked at the bench. “Really? What’s wrong with this one?”

“It’s iron, Vas. It would rust next to the waterfall.”

“Oh.” Vas looked rather disappointed. “Well, up, up and away, I guess...”

“Look out, look out!” a woman’s resonant voice shouted.

A gout of pressurized water jetted into the elf just as he was starting to take off, knocking him ass over backwards into the wall of the Federal Building. Khyrisse gasped and then, when it was clear the only injury was to Vas’ pride, allowed herself to giggle at his woeful wetness. He looked amusingly like Melissa after a bath. “And in your delicate condition, Vas,” she said, with a mostly straight face.

“Apologies!” Ieshala darted across the courtyard to fuss with the fountain pipes. She was technically a diplomat, the ambassador for a Salagian tribe of hunter-gatherers called the Firisaka, but she’d taken up with Vas about two days after arrival and had been using her elemental magics to help him set up the waterworks. “I seem to have assumed this elemental was a bit happier with our current arrangement than she truly is... oh, you look like a drowned rodent, thissit.” She laughed at Vas’ plight, rumpling his wet inky hair affectionately. “How very appropriate.”

Vas shook his hands out by the wrists, sputtering and giving the shaman a faux-offended glare. “Rodent, I will confess to, cherie. But drowned...?”

“Tcha,” she said airily, flipping her hand at him in a flash of gold-decorated nails. “Many spouses would greet the news of your watery demise with joy, my illustrious playboy.”

Both of Vas’ eyebrows went up, and he gave the necromancer a slightly dazed grin, as if he were simultaneously delighted by her audacity and completely uncertain what to do about it. Khyrisse collapsed into peals of laughter at the sight, the strained look of grief that had haunted her face all morning finally vanishing.

“Milady, do you want this thing on the roof or not?” Vas demanded indignantly. Khyrisse stopped laughing suddenly, eyes wide. “...I didn’t expect that to work,” he remarked in amusement, tilting his head at her.

The archmage was staring into space with an utterly bizarre expression. Her hands fluttered over her stomach, and she crinkled her nose, looking almost as if someone were tickling her.

“Khyrisse, are you all right?”

“Huh? Yes, I’m fine...” Khyrisse flashed him a sudden, brilliant smile as she hopped off the windowsill, one hand still on her stomach. “I’ll be back! Get that thing up onto the roof!”

Vas sighed good-naturedly as she vanished.

***

A rather out-of-breath Khyrisse ran down the pier. “Excuse, please! Director in a hurry!” she called to the knot of children ahead of her. They tumbled out of the way, and she hopped rapid-fire through the elaborate tree of squares sketched on the planks, landing at the top with both feet on ‘Sky Blue’. She flashed a grin at the urchin with the chalk and ran on. “Woo, Mom!” she heard behind her, in the midst of the high-pitched laughter.

Grendel, Skitch has half the underage population of the city calling me ‘Mom’ now... She pounced on Ebreth, who was kneeling by the Boat with his shirtsleeves rolled up, in the process of cleaning her hull. “Hi!” she gasped at him, breathlessly, and then sat abruptly down on a convenient crate and tried to get some of her wind back.

“Hi,” he said, amused. He rocked back on his heels to look her over. “You’re in a good mood.”

Khyrisse bit her lip, looking just a bit embarrassed. “Um.”

“What’s up?”

She fluttered both hands over her stomach again. “...The baby moved!”

Ebreth blinked. “It... Are you sure?”

Khyrisse nodded rapidly. “That couldn’t have been anything else. It felt like I had butterflies flying around in there!” she said, nose crinkling up again with laughter.

He put a hand lightly over hers, as if testing for motion. “Did... it kick you?”

“Not yet.” She smiled at him, entertained by his obvious fascination. “But you might be able to hear its heartbeat now, Rhynwa tells me.”

***

“Shh... stand still, Khyrisse,” Ebreth murmured, kneeling on the dock in front of her with his ear pressed against her stomach, his eyes half-closed in concentration. Khyrisse covered her mouth with both hands and stood still, trying her best to suppress her rather giddy laughter.

Like a distant echo of her own excited pulse, like the fluttering of moth’s wings against a windowpane, like the sound of the incoming tide... into Ebreth’s hearing drifted the rapid and repeating whisper of a second heartbeat.

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