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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Tidings of Comfort and Joy: Part 2



The Rat huddled next to the headboard in Jack’s old room. It was not the smell of the place that reminded him of Jack, for his friend had no real odor.

It was the math. The entire room had the air of true math. Of perfect symmetry, of clarity, of harmony, and--for only the Rat knew the true connection--of love.

Here, Seeker of Places would remember, and grieve.

Quietly he built himself a nest in Jack’s pillow, next to his stuffed Woobie.

And the Rat bedded down for the winter.

¯

Ebreth dragged over a chair and sat on it backwards. “What’s on your mind, kid?”

Skitch made a big sigh. “Lorrini.”

“Girl, huh?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s she look like?”

“She’s Diarrrrrrrrri,” said Skitch, shyly, kicking his feet.

“Mmm!” Ebreth said. “Diari women are pretty.”

“Yeah,” said Skitch, smiling at his own hand. “She’s got silver hair... and big eyes, and they’re the color of the sky.”

“She sounds real nice,” Ebreth said softly. “What’ve you got on the table there, Skitch?”

“Alphred’s oyster totem.”

“Yeah, That’s what it looked like. You know how much trouble you’re going to cause if you set that off in the house while Praxis and all the Shikinti diplomats are having dinner down there, don’t you?”

“I’m really careful.”

“Stay that way, right?” Ebreth grinned at the boy. “So are you thinking about using that on your girl friend?”

“No.” Skitch sighed, and kicked the table leg. “Kit said it made everyone have sex. I just want a kiss. I wish I could turn it on just a little.” He eyed the shell on the table.

“Well, you’re supposed to get a girl to kiss you yourself, Skitch. It’s not very nice to use magic. Remember how mad Kit made you controlling your mind that time?” He nodded, slowly. “Don’t trick her into kissing you. You’ve got to make her want to kiss you.”

“I don’t know how,” Skitch moaned. “What do girls like, Mom?”

Ebreth knocked over the chair and fell into the table turning around. Khyrisse was leaning on the doorframe with one hand over her mouth, her eyes laughing, and she said “Ask the expert.”

“Aaaaaaaah!” he yelled. “How long have you been standing there?”

“It’s my house,” she pointed out. “Carry on, this is very educational.”

“Lesson over.”

“Nuts,” muttered Skitch. “I wish Kit was here. Maybe she’d practice with me.”

¯

“Shit,” sighed Rani, twirling her fork idly through the remains of her pasta salad. “Yeah, of course it meant something, Val, it just--Hello! Excuse me! Can I get a check here? Thank you!” She shook her silver head. “Lousy service. Listen, Val, of course I’m still here if you need someone to talk to and all that. I still consider you my--Hey, will you watch it?... You’re still my friend, Valende. But I’m not going to do this to myself again. We--” She exhaled, and sprinkled coins on the table. Outside, carolers warbled in the dirty snow, incongruously: Tidings of comfort and joy, and of joy. “I can’t believe I’m about to put it his way. We, shared a moment.” She shrugged helplessly, standing up from her chair in the crowded, messy Rimbor dive that was by far the best deli Valende had ever eaten at. “Take care of yourself, Val. I mean really.”

¯

Khyrisse sat on the edge of the bed, brushing her hair out more to keep her nervous energy from making her fingers tap than because it needed any more brushing, and said “Ebreth,” very softly and levelly. It didn’t fool him much. “Problem?” he said, rocking back from the box of books he was unpacking. Since they’d pledged to put away one box of stuff a day, the place had started to look less like a storage locker and more like a messy house.

The sorceress sighed. “Not really. It’s just--I talked to Dad via dream last night. He and Karel and Miyrr want to know if I’m coming home for Yule.”

Ebreth frowned with his eyebrows. “What’s wrong with that? Cynystra, you mean, or the place in Dyved?”

Khyrisse blinked. “Cantrip Cottage,” she murmured, and smiled faintly. “No. None of us go there anymore, really. I don’t think anyone’s actually lived there since my brother and I left home...” She brushed the wistfulness of that aside. “No, Karel’s house in Cynystra.”

“Do you want to go?”

“Yes. And I really should, too--Karel and I are a little worried about Dad. He’s been kind of quiet since he...” Khyrisse twirled the brush through the air, looking for a tactful way to put it. “Recovered his marbles at the expense of his magic,” she finally said. “This is really his first Yule without Mom, strange as that seems. And the first year since then that the three of us have been able to get together, what with insanity and inadvertent godhood and being afraid to incriminate people and things...”

“Your family has had its share of bad luck, hasn’t it?” She gave a rueful puff of laughter and didn’t reply. “Look, Khyrisse... do you want to tell me what’s really bothering you about this?”

“They asked me if you were coming, too,” she finally said, muffled. Her cheeks were slightly red. “They’re probably going to tease us to death. You don’t have to go... Do you want to?”

“Sure,” he said. “Why wouldn’t I?”

Khyrisse rolled her eyes. “You don’t know my family very well!”

“It takes a little more than that to scare me,” said Ebreth, with an amused sparkle in his eyes.

Khryisse sighed in relief. “I’m glad. I didn’t want to go alone,” she confessed in a small voice. “But I didn’t want to push you into it, either. I’m--probably going to be rather stressed while I’m there. I think I’ve voluntarily set foot in Cynystra twice since my marriage went up in flames.” She looked as if she was going to add something, for a moment, but turned rather pale and glanced away instead.

“He’s not going to mess with you, you know.”

“I know,” she said wearily. “And I’m tired of running from it. I just want it to be over.” She knelt beside him on the floor and leaned her head into his shoulder. “I was more afraid of Cynystra than I was of Hell,” she whispered. “This whole thing was my personal Hell.”

Ebreth made a slightly exasperated sigh, pulling her close. “And you think I’d let you go it alone. Khyrisse, you know, for such a smart woman, occasionally you’re pretty damn stupid.”

Khyrisse laughed, startled. “So I’ve heard.”

¯

For weeks now, Vas had been directing the construction of the modest Dyved-style cottage that would be his New Trade residence. Yesterday had been the first night he’d spent in it. (Coincidentally, he noticed, looking across the street at his Lady’s estate, curtains had suddenly appeared across her large bay window. Doesn’t she trust me?)

It wasn’t feeling very much like a home, though. Vastarin looked sadly up the stairs at the silent second floor. The walk-in closets he’d had installed for Val, with the beveled mirrors inside, had not been opened. Vas had been dividing his time between his inward-turned sister in Dyved and his increasingly enthusiastic liege in the Northlands, and his best efforts to bring the two worlds together were not succeeding very well. Vas looked at the fine snowflakes sparkling down in the midmorning sun. He loved Valende dearly and would sit through four continuous days of theological exposition about the true nature of Arawn if it would make her feel even a little better, but Vastarin was a free spirit in his heart, and it had to be admitted: Khyrisse, and her emerging proto-city, was a lot more fun right now. The elven archer sighed and rubbed his neck beneath his inky puff of manga hair.

Just then, the doorbell rang for the first time.

It was not, as Vas had guessed, Skitch; instead it was Otter, in a heavy parka, her long brown braid trailing out from a brightly colored knit cap and flecked with glittering snow. “Hi,” she said. Her cheeks were pink with the cold. “Would you and Val like to come home with me for Yule?”

It took Vas a minute to register it. “Would we--”

Otter shrugged. “Well,” she said, “I don’t suppose you have a home to go back to, anymore. And you did save my life.” She flashed his fire ring at him idly from her right hand. “I don’t know, you’re the one who said your people liked to give ours gifts on the holidays, right? Maybe it’s time we returned the favor.”

“Milady,” said Vas, “you don’t have to--”

“Well, but I’d like to,” she interrupted. “I mean, I’d feel less like an idol and more like a friend. I don’t really like receiving tribute or anything.” She shrugged. “Besides. I think it would be fun.”

“Yes,” said Vastarin, slowly. “Yes, I think it would. Thank you, Otter, we’d love to come. I will--contact my sister immediately.”

And maybe, he thought, it will be just what the doctor ordered for her.

***

Otter had a fairly large family, of which she was both the least attractive member and the only one who wore clothes.

Needless to say, Vas was having the time of his life.

“You can keep that, dear,” Otter’s mother smiled at Val, who was restlessly turning the abalone-shell necklace that let her breathe the Deepsea in her hands. “We have drawerfuls of them.”

“Yah,” said Otter’s youngest sister, Selesuna, “cause sometimes I use them to, like, abduct human guys?”

“Shush, dear,” shushed Otter’s mom.

“I see your sister favors the elven sort,” Vas grinned in Otter’s direction, his hair floating delicately in the warm water.

“I like gnomes,” she said, deadpan, cracking a clam with her thumbnails.

“Can’t you smile once in a while, sweetling?” Otter’s mother cajoled at her.

“So are you, like, not doing him?” Selesuna wanted to know. “So, like, can I?”

“You leave your sister’s friends alone, young lady.” The matronly nymph dragged her youngest daughter off by the ankle; she flipped under herself slapping at her mother’s wrist, laughing. Vas laughed too, and, after what seemed like a very long moment, Val, softly.

Otter didn’t laugh, but she leaned against the coral reef without tension, her long, hard arms stretched contentedly behind her head, which, Vas was fairly sure, was her way of expressing pleasure anyway.

“She’s always been the weird one,” explained one of Otter’s cousins, a slim, naked boy, who darted off after a momentary ripple of sunlight in a silver flip of calves.

¯

It was good to be home.

Shilree had spent the last eight Yuletides in exile. Some had been lonelier than others. For the last six she’d been insisting to Sunny that Yule was a Diarian tradition that had been adopted by the kiljhac, but now that she wasn’t around to hear it Shilree had spent most of breakfast explaining in great detail to her highly skeptical family how the pagan holiday had originated in Riklandir and spread through the Seven Princehoods to Diaria. Her eldest brother, Jhlan, had been horrified, the more so when she offered sound historical evidence. Shilree was so used to being the most uptight member of a kiljhac adventuring group that she’d nearly forgotten her previous role as the most scandalous teenager at Tesin U. Here at home with her family and with Anjra, it was a role she found herself reprising, and it was a lot more fun.

“You have got to see this,” said Anjra, dragging Shilree past some fried-dough vendors to a storefront. In the window was a mannequin wearing the most elegant holiday dress Shilree had ever seen: dark green silk with subtle highlights, strapless, with white embroidered hems. “Oh Anjra it’s beautiful,” said Shilree.

“I thought so as well. I think I’ll get it for Yule dinner tonight.”

“Anj! You don’t even know how much it is!”

“And I don’t care,” she grinned. Anjra, Shilree was remembering, had been the most impulsive teenager at Tesin U. “It’ll be worth every idea to see the look on your face when I wear it. You shoo and finish shopping for your family. I’m going to get fitted.”

Shilree could only smile as her lover disappeared into the department store. The last few months had been the best in her life. It was strange, but without seeking it she had gotten all she had ever wanted: security, a position of authority, someone she loved who loved her as well.

She only wished she didn’t have the nagging vaksha that it was all going to come crashing down.

***

Silanna Avenue was at its most beautiful this time of year, all the houses decked out with magical lights and garlands of northern flowers. The Vestrin family was not overly wealthy, but they had always put aside money to hire a mage to decorate their graceful verandah, which was where they were gathered now. It was a bittersweet reunion, as Malaras had died in Trade during the Madness, along with two of Shilree’s maternal aunts in Ekyarn and her uncle Shandar’s entire family here in Tesin. Other families had lost much more, though, and Shilree’s return from exile was like an unexpected resurrection in such an insular land.

In fact, not only was she no longer an exile, she was something of a local hero in the port city. Her youngest sister, Salani, had apparently told every child in the neighborhood that her big sister had kicked the kiljhac witch’s pakta, because they kept coming by the house to peep at her in awe through the porch nettings. This made Shilree feel unexpectedly good about herself. So did Salani herself, probing her relentlessly with more questions of her adventures. The girl reminded Shilree of herself at that age. But now Shilree was in the position of power to see that the child’s curiosity came to a good end, not a bad one.

There was a squeal of laughter behind Jhlan, and Shilree couldn’t help sighing at it. His little boy was playing with his wife, Malani, who was glowing with her second pregnancy. Shilree had not told her family about her halfbreed child, nor did she intend to. She hoped it didn’t show, but she felt uncomfortable around pregnant women and infants. It brought her mind back to memories of her own baby, of how that baby had been conceived, how she had been deceived. Memories she wished would just remain buried forever.

“More apple pie?” Shilree’s father interrupted her brief funk. She smiled and shook her head. “No. No thanks. Umm... Father?”

-Now?- Anjra asked.

-Now.- “I have something to say. To--all of you.”

The verandah fell quiet. “What is it?” Shilree’s mother finally asked.

Shilree cleared her throat and swallowed hard. She didn’t know why this was so difficult. After all, she had negotiated with some of the worst scum on Ataniel and never had a twitter. Still, this was family. It was always different with family. “Well first I want to say it is good to be home after so many years. I have missed you all very much. Yes even you Jhlan.”

Jhlan mocked being hurt and small chuckles came forth.

“Well as you all know Anjra and I have been seeing a lot of each other lately.”

Shilree looked down at Anjra who looked back up at her encouragingly.

“By Diar. I don’t know why I am having so much trouble saying this. I guess it would just be better to show you.”

Shilree walked into the house and a few minutes later walked back out holding two small wooden boxes. When she put them down on the table understanding slowly spread through the Vestrin family. Anjra stood up to join Shilree and the two of them opened the boxes at the same time. In them were two identical dull silvery bracelets--bracelets similar to those worn by Shilree’s mother and father.

Shilree’s father stood up and walked over to Anjra. His eyes were damp with tears. He put his large hand on Anjra’s arm and drew her to him in a bear hug.

“Welcome to the family,” he said, and joy erupted throughout the Vestrin household.

¯

“Women are like that, though,” said Karel. “Whenever a woman goes off saying she’s giving up men forever, she’s pregnant the next time you see her. Word.”

“I didn’t say I was giving up men forever!” Khyrisse protested. She had let Miyrr dress her up for the ball, in a rather formal off-the-shoulder burgundy gown. It was quite something. Maybe Ebreth could find dances to take her to more often.

“No, I believe your exact words were something like ‘I’m going to remain celibate for the rest of my mortal existence, see if I don’t’.” Derek’s eyes twinkled mischievously.

“Dad!” Khyrisse kicked at him, her ears pink.

“Like there was ever any chance of that,” laughed Karellion.

“KAREL!”

“What’s sell, sell a butt?” asked Karel’s son.

“It means--” Skitch started, but Khyrisse intercepted him and scrubbed his head furiously with her knuckles. “Hey!”

“Oh, no you don’t!”

“Celibate means not pregnant,” Rissa diplomaticized.

“Good girl, Reese,” grinned Karel.

“What I said was that I was trying to stay out of trouble.” Khyrisse folded her arms.

“Oh, that’s less likely than the celibacy thing!” Karel laughed.

“Shut UP, Karel!” She tapped her foot on the Maplemead floor. “I just said I thought I had bad luck with relationships.” She looked away, her eye creasing a little. “And I was right, too,” she said, softly enough that even Karel didn’t press.

“I think it’s worked out pretty well,” said Ebreth, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth.

“It got you sent to Hell,” she said sorrowfully.

“It was worth it.”

Khyrisse just kind of stared at Ebreth with her eyes taking up half her face, shaking--and then threw her arms around his waist and held him tightly, face pressed into his chest, almost as if she was afraid that if she let go, he might disappear.

“Well, of course it was,” said Karel. “She’s my sister.”

¯

The Pagoda of the Silver Crane seemed dull in the morning light. Jack remembered when it was a glorious sight, the polished roof reflecting and refracting the sun in a thousand directions and a million colors. It all seemed to be shades of grey this morning.

It had been the first Jack Paris who had, Jack had learned, sacrificed everything in an effort to save his first real friend. The sacrifice had worked, but the saving hadn’t. The Cori Yashida that had come back from the Remnant was merely a shade, and though Valende had halfheartedly offered to keep her in that state, both Jack and Val had known that it wasn’t the right thing to do.

It had actually been one of the few bits of successful communication between the two. Jack hadn’t wanted to intrude upon her pain... and looking the way he did (feeling the way he did) he wouldn’t have been able to help but do that.

So, with Amatsu’s help, he had brought her body back here to Shikintu himself. This morning they would lay her to rest alongside the body of her husband. Jack had recent memories of her... facing down a demon in Rimbor City, laughing over one of Crandall’s off-color jokes... but they were his Other’s, not his, and they were piecemeal and incomplete. Jack wished that he had actually gotten to see her once before... well, before everything fell apart.

That being impossible, the next best thing he could do would be to see her off on her journey one last time.

“She was the first person who ever believed in me,” he said quietly, looking down on the grave. “I wish she had been there to see him in those last moments. I think she would have been proud.”

“The Clan is not dead, Jack Paris,” Amatsu said solemnly. “It only slumbers. Her spirit will be seen in this land again.”

“I never got to meet her,” Vickie offered, “but it sounds like she had moxie.”

Jack laughed. “I think you would have liked her, Vickie,” he said. “Once you finished trying to kill each other.”

There was a long silence, then, like a prayer that needn’t be spoken.

“I remember the way the pagoda used to shine,” Jack repeated, this time aloud.

“In the barrenest ground,” said Amatsu, “the smallest seedling is cause for joy.”

“I hear ya,” Vickie said, and she picked up the sword of Oshi Yashida from the ground before the headstone.

Jack marveled at her grace as she raced up to the building, vaulted up a gingko tree, and landed perfectly balanced on the edge of the roof. She took three strides up the slope and thrust the sword down, through the shingles, to stand, blade visible, in a beam of sunlight.

The reflection struck Jack’s eyes, and he could feel them tear. Whether from sunlight or from saddest joy, he could not tell.

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