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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms of the City: Part 2

Trade Federation: In Good Hands

It had been a nightmare trying to rearrange the Carriage routes so Khyrisse could reclaim her own. Jack said it was because the problem of travel routes was NP-complete. Apparently this meant it was mathematically impossible to truly optimize them, for some reason, but it also meant Jack’s approximation was twice as efficient as Khyrisse’s initial schedule, so taking her personal Carriage back wasn’t that serious a blow in the end. And it’s just as well, really; I wanted it back eventually anyway. And once the baby’s born, I’ll make the rest of the batch and there’ll be plenty for everyone. The freight Carriages were a straightforward business venture anyone could have come up with: you join my Federation, I give you a fast cargo line in and out of my city. The passenger Carriages, which she’d implemented first and routed even to cities not part of her Federation, were the product of an 18 proficiency in mercantilism. As the hub of Ataniel’s only public transportation system, New Trade not only benefited from the spending habits of the travelers passing through but positioned itself as the perfect crossroads and conference site. Randall Thrayn had refused to let her Carriages stop there unless she charged Lianthi passengers a fair price, something to do with not being beholden--I don’t understand that man, but so much for his protestations of not being the city’s ruler, if he’s forbidding entry...!--but travel from the other stops was free, and there was a fair bit of traffic already.

“And you’re sure you don’t mind,” Khyrisse asked Lora for about the twentieth time.

“Khyrisse, dear,” said Lora, smiling indolently, “if you’re looking for an excuse not to go, I can make something up, but we’ll really be fine.”

Khyrisse sighed. “I could use a break,” she admitted. “But it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve put something on hold for a couple of weeks and come back to find it completely destroyed.”

“It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve handled international trade and politics for a couple of weeks without incident, either,” Lora offered. “Caimen did take business trips, you know.”

“I know.” Khyrisse grinned ruefully across at the older woman. “You promise you’ll call me if anything comes up?”

“I seriously doubt there’s anything short of a third invasion of Shadow I couldn’t stall for two weeks, dear. I do have a brother with an infinite supply of red tape.” She smiled. “But I’ll call you if it’s necessary. I’ll give the city back exactly as you left it, Khyrisse. You have my word on that.”

“Thank you, Lora.”

Know When To Hold ’Em, Know When To Fold ’Em

Garal was glad he’d made it back to New Trade in time to join the Rat Pack for their latest mission. The halfling planeblazer had finished escorting Keri everywhere Ti’Ashentes might usefully make allies, and now she and Mr. Salzar were engaged in internal support-gathering, which was the part Garal wasn’t any help with at all. Vickie said there was some bad mojo in Rimbor City. Garal didn’t know what that meant, but he figured he’d do what he could to help.

Khyrisse was talking something over with Rani now, fiddling with her mirrored amulet. Garal tried to keep his eyes off the amulet area. When Garal had first met Khyrisse, the sorceress had been wearing battered leather armor, an overly white stoneskin, and a severe braid; her face, while certainly beautiful, was sharp and harsh. It had been easy not to think of her as the goddess of Trade then.

Then Garal had seen her naked, which complicated everything. And now she had eschewed the armor for an array of magic items, twinkling like distant stars to his swirling planeblazer’s eyes, and a flaring red tunic of some soft material whose neckline, while hardly Val’s, was still affecting Garal’s pulse rate. The stoneskin was probably still there, but she’d given up the alabaster look. Her hair had grown out considerably over the course of the last year and she was wearing part of it in some kind of twist on her head, a couple of fire opals winking from the golden-brown curls. She was a bit plumper, but frankly, Garal kind of preferred that. And as if it wasn’t enough that her current appearance was reminding him both of her days as his goddess and his inappropriate memories of her from Starcross--and evoking all the complicated emotions that contrast implied--there was something about her laughing eyes that reminded him maddeningly of Ember.

Garal had been telling Keri the truth. He wasn’t in love with Khyrisse--he didn’t even have what could really be termed a crush on her. The halfling wouldn’t have wanted to date her even if she was single, which she obviously wasn’t.

But he was really glad he could trust Rani and Orlen not to read his mind right now, all things considered.



Jack and Ebreth stood looking at the plaques along the wall of the Rat Trap memorial wall as they waited for the Pack to get ready to go. “They’re classy,” Jack said.

“This place looks like a museum,” said Ebreth. “I’m glad we’re going somewhere. I’m not dead yet.” He paused a moment he was unable to keep from being awkward. “Hey, listen, Jack,” he said, “you told me a while ago that you couldn’t rejoin your math because you’d be absorbed into the main equation. At the time that was bad because the main equation was Jack, and you would have been destroyed. But Jack’s--gone now. What would happen if you did it now?”

Jack gave Ebreth a bit of a strange look. “Nothing,” he said.

“You wouldn’t become the main equation anymore?”

“I am the main equation now,” Jack said. “You--don’t understand what I am at all, do you?”

“Ah,” said Ebreth, “when they put the epitaph on my plaque over there I don’t think it’s going to say that my main contribution to this group was my ability to understand esoteric stuff, no. I just thought it was worth asking.”

“No, I really am a math equation,” Jack said. “It doesn’t matter if I manifest the body or not. I can’t add functions that aren’t in my subset just by taking pure mathematical form.”

“I see.”

“No, you don’t.”

“No, but I trust you do.”

Val was approaching the two men tentatively. “Jack?” she said, so quietly it was almost under her breath. “Could I--have a word with you? Rani gave me a somewhat, garbled, message... I’d like to know what the original said.”

Her shoulder was turned just slightly to Ebreth, tensely, like she expected him to strike her or something equally improbable, so he left the two of them to talk and went over to help Vas pack up.



Valende breathed a faint sigh of relief as Ebreth left them together. Good. This would have been so much more difficult for me if he’d been of a mind to ‘protect’ Jack from me...

“Well, uh,” Jack mumbled. He looked as charmingly embarrassed as his predecessor once had. “After I, uh, got your present, I just thought we ought to, you know, talk about stuff. I mean, like, about my Other, I guess. You, um, just seemed like you could sort of use some closure there.”

“Oh, I see. I...” I wonder what Rani told him...! “I hope you didn’t mind the gift. It seemed appropriate, once I... regained the presence of mind to think about it.”

“No, no! I didn’t mean that! I love it. I mean, it’s great.” He showed her the ring on his right hand. Val laughed softly, unable to hide her pleasure at seeing it there. “I just didn’t want you to, you know, be confused about whatever Rani’s on about. I don’t, uh, think she likes me.”

“Rani’s just... confused by you, dear.” Val had added the ‘dear’ before she had a chance to think about it, and she winced at it internally, even though she called everyone from Skitch to Luthien ‘dear’. It was different with Jack, and she didn’t want to lead him on. “You don’t show up to her psionics,” she added quickly. “Rani doesn’t react to confusion very predictably.”

“Who does?” Jack laughed. “It’s usually easier to avoid things that don’t add up, I’ve found.”

“Detective that she is, Rani is more likely to keep poking things with a stick until she does figure them out, unfortunately! I suppose that may be why she gave me the message she did...”

“So we’re, ah, cool?” said Jack, hopefully. “You’re not mad or anything?”

“No, of course not,” Val said, suppressing dear. “If you want to talk about your Other, I--suppose we could. I just wasn’t sure I was ready... I mean, I still, miss him. Quite a bit. And I don’t know if I really understand your connection with him, what you share with him, how you feel about his absence...”

“We’re, um, mathematically congruent,” Jack said. “It’s not as complicated as it probably seems... we were the same equation till three years ago, and then we diverged. So I have everything the same up to that point, but then a lot of sitting around in a temple instead of all the stuff that went on with, uh, you guys. From those I have only the, uh, memories and feelings I inherited at the end there.”

Val’s eyes widened. “You inherited some of his...” She put her fingers to her temple, looking slightly dizzy. “Yes, of course you did,” she whispered. “I--remember you mentioning something, at the time, but I thought...” She shook her head. “Jack... How much of his memories?”

Jack fidgeted a little. “Memories? Really just a bit. Images. Nothing, uh, embarrassing, I promise. Well, something about a thong, but the p.o.v. on that one’s strange. Not much at all in the way of memories, really. Nothing worth worrying about.”

“There wasn’t anything--truly embarrassing for you to remember,” Val reassured him. Although I wish there were... She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek, a bit sadly. “Thank you, Jack.”

He watched her go, a disappointed slowness to her gait. He wanted to say something more to her but looked at his watch as a reminder. Not enough time.

“Not many memories,” Jack muttered to himself, “but far too many feelings.”



Vas had feared at first that he’d alienated Ebreth for good with his harmlessly intended palaver, but in the endearing manner of many human men, he seemed to consider the matter settled once he’d popped the elf one. Vas sort of wished Schneider would come by and hit him; he hadn’t heard from the jester since the thirty pieces of silver arrived by post, and the prospect of losing a five-year friendship over such a ridiculous trifle saddened his heart.

Unfortunately, his sister had chosen to discuss Rani’s intriguing message from Jack with him at precisely the time Vas was already involved in loading their provisions into the portal of Khyrisse’s Mansion and could not attend to the conversation. Illusion spells were not Vas’ forté, but apparently the illusionary food the spell provided would leave the party satisfied but unnourished, necessitating the sorceress to lay in real victuals if they intended to sup there. Illusionary food that satisfied but did not nourish must be of remarkable assistance to dieters, Vas pondered.

He and Ebreth finished stocking up the Mansion just as Val was heading back from her talk with Jack. “Well?” Vastarin demanded, drawing his sister immediately aside.

“Well, nothing!”

Vas made a sorrowful moue. “No?”

“No! What do you take me for? Bad enough that I hurt the three of us last time, by jumping into relationships without thinking first.” Valende looked down at the floor. “It would almost be like--like closing my eyes and imagining I was with someone else. I won’t do that to him. It wouldn’t be fair.”

“I don’t get the impression that he would mind overmuch, my sister.”

“That’s no kind of reason to take advantage of someone, flutterhead!” she snapped forcelessly, and turned away.



“I’ve been meaning to ask you,” said Ebreth. “Those cards you sent me for Yule. The message is what, don’t lose this one? Or just that you can kick my ass at poker?”

“It means,” Mina said, accepting the pirate’s help into the Trade Carriage gracefully, “that we’re all better off if you refrain from losing at poker any more.”

“No one wins them all,” Ebreth said softly. “The trick, I’m finding, is to make the right bets in the first place.” He gave the beautiful girl a half-joking and half-serious salute, and closed the carriage door carefully behind her.

It was ten minutes before he remembered Mina Paris shouldn’t have had any way of knowing about that.

Road to Nowhere

“Are we all going to fit in here?” Rani leaned out the window, fanning herself melodramatically with her deerstalker. “This is like a clown act or something.”

“Be glad Asinus isn’t along,” Garal said philosophically.

“We’re on the road to nowhere,” sang Skitch, leaning out the window on the other side and thumping on the side of the coach. “Come on inside. Taking the ride to nowhere, we’ll take that ride.”

“Skitch, don’t bang on the Carriage.” Khyrisse swatted down at him with playful irritation.

He grinned back. “There’s a city in my mind, come along and take that ride, it’s all right! It’s all right!”

“Stop that!”

“This is going to be a long trip, isn’t it,” groaned Rani, as the Rat Pack filled the Carriage.

Scorpion’s Nest: Back in the City

Mack Black and the Heart Attacks disembarked to the piers of Rimbor with their usual confident swagger. Rimbor, Mack thought, putting on his shades, though it was a typically overcast day. It ain’t much, in fact it’s the world’s biggest shitpile. But it’s home.

No one bothered the five rockers as they walked back to Mack’s nightclub, The Clap. The Heart Attacks were well dressed and carrying expensive instruments and valises, fresh from their recent tour, but it was well known in Rimbor that Mack and his boys were tough cases. His drummer, Hayes, had once pecked out a man’s eyes in a barfight. And besides, a lot of people liked their music.

Gorn, the Riklander who’d been bouncing at The Clap since it opened four years ago, greeted his boss at the door with a bearhug. “Mr. Black!” he shouted happily.

“How they hangin’, Gorn?” Mack replied. He was glad to see Gorn too, actually, but he didn’t smile. Wouldn’t fit his cool image.

It was still early afternoon, and there were only three people inside the club. One was Vincun, the Diarian bartender. He never left The Clap if he could help it. He was a mousy guy, and the local kids tended to take advantage of it. The second was Mad Sallie, a homeless woman who took shelter in the club sometimes. Gorn let her in once, some Viking superstition about insane people or something, but it turned out her spontaneous crazed channeling of the dead entertained the goth crowd that frequented The Clap, so Mack let her come back in when she felt like it.

It was the third person, George Mahoney, that Mack Black sauntered over to as the rest of the Heart Attacks started putting their stuff away. “Hey Mack,” said the Scorpion’s enforcer. “Heard you might be back today. See the club’s still standing.”

“Damn well better be, with the money I pay ya,” growled Mack, and went for the strongbox. He wasn’t pissed off; Mack Black growled everything. He didn’t mind paying Mahoney protection money, to tell the truth. Some people thought it was extortion plain and simple, and Mack had no doubt the Scorpion would trash the place if he stopped paying, but it was also a good deal as insurance went. Back in the days of warring small-time mob bosses, it was fucking impossible to pay everyone off without someone getting on you for taking sides. A single crime lord with unified control was an investment worth paying for, in Mack’s opinion. The musician shook the month’s cut out onto the bar for Mahoney, tossing in the casual extra gold piece that kept the rates from getting hiked. “‘Snew?” he asked.

“Ebreth Tor’s coming out,” commented the hitman, pocketing the cash.

“Thought he was dead.”

Mahoney shrugged. “We got a friend of his down in interrogation, says he escaped from Hell.”

“Cool,” said Mack. He was a teenager back in the slave lord’s heyday and didn’t care about him one way or the other, but the anti-authoritarianism of escaping from Hell appealed to the rocker.

“Yeah, well, Stump’s got his shorts in a bunch about it, so if he comes in here, let us know, ok?”

“Sure,” lied Mack. He made a policy of never ratting people out from his club, not to the cops, not to heroes, and not to underworld assassins, but there was no need to tell Mahoney that.

“And Stump says Camaro’s back in town.”

“No shit. Tell her to come by some time, I’ve got a free Cannonball with her name on it.”

***

“Detective! Detective!”

Most of the other cops in Rimbor City just tried to whack Harry Novoa periodically. Sergeant Roy had to go and assign the Internal Affairs officer an eager and naive rookie to train. “What is it now, Rookie?”

“My name is Jim,” the kid objected.

“What is it, Rookie?” Novoa repeated.

“They found Johnny Dant!” This actually was news. Dant was a wanted man, a known pedophile of numerous sick perversions. Sergeant Roy, as crooked a cop as they came and so addicted to strength potions the locals called him Steroid Roy, had personally vowed to beat Dant to a bloody pulp after dealing with his latest perp. Roy didn’t get righteously indignant easily. “He was right on the steps of HQ, tied up, wearing nothing but his underwear! And get this, on the wall--”

“--was painted the word OCTAVIAN,” finished Novoa. “In white ink.”

The Rookie looked disappointed. “Oh,” he said. “I guess you already heard.”

Not really, but Harry Novoa wasn’t taking this irritating mentoring job seriously enough to explain his deductive process to his new partner. Much less tell the kid anything about his previous dealings with the mysterious crimefighter. Novoa hated vigilantes, but there was enough crime in the city to go around, and Octavian was still better than most of his colleagues on the RCPD. “Let me do the thinking here, Rookie,” he said, and got up to go, leaving no tip.

***

“So Johnny’s got a new enforcer, huh?” Camaro Pearl said. “He sure does run through ‘em fast.”

“George Mahoney,” Stump supplied. “He just got back this morning. He was out in Lianth doing a little enforcing.” The halfling frowned. “Nox, what the hell are you doing with that shrub?”

The elf glanced up almost embarrassedly from the corner where he was sitting and muttering. In his lap was a sickly looking azalea. “I’m stretching the boundaries,” he explained. “I’ve been both homo- and heterosexual. Now I’m experimenting with herbosexuality.”

“I liked you better as a one-dimensional caricature, I think,” sighed Stump.

“You are welcome to join,” Nox said. “She is quite the insatiable minx.”

“Where does he find these people?” Camaro asked the ceiling.

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