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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
In The Arms Of The City: Part 9

A Few Things To Teach Each Other

“You need another 1.34 degrees counterclockwise,” Jack said. “You’re going to hit the ball but the spin’s going to be all wrong.”

Ebreth sighed and put his cue up. “Jack,” he said, “I don’t learn by math. It doesn’t help knowing how you do it.”

“Then how am I supposed to teach you?” said Jack, confused.

“You play, and I’ll pick it up.”

Jack shook his head as the pirate lined up again. He was off by even more this time, and his hand wasn’t especially steady. “You’re tired, aren’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Shouldn’t you be getting some rest?”

“It’s eight o’clock at night. If I fall asleep now I’ll be up again before anyone else even goes to bed.” Ebreth didn’t sleep more than four hours a night. “If I can make it to midnight tonight, I’ll be back on schedule by tomorrow.” He took the shot and missed the pocket.

“I think your fine motor skills are impaired, though.”

“I don’t shoot pool with you to win anyway, Jack.” He took his coffee mug off the mantle and drank from it, leaning back against the wall.

“So what did Octavian’s letter say?”

“I don’t know,” said Ebreth. “I haven’t read it yet.”

“A mysterious vigilante gave you a secret message and disappeared, and you’re playing pool instead of reading it?”

“I’m saving it to read with Khyrisse tonight.”

“Is this going to be one of those things I don’t need to know about?”

“Nah,” he said. “We just like to do mysterious stuff together. It’s less fun if I know what it says in advance. Take your shot, Jack. Pool is social, you shouldn’t stop the game just because we’re talking.”

“Five ball,” said Jack, “side pocket.”

Ebreth laughed softly as he sank it. “Jack,” he said, “don’t hold your tongue in your teeth. You look like a flarking accountant.”

“I am an accountant.”

“Right now you’re a pool player,” Ebreth said, “and the best damn pool player I’ve seen since--well, since Jack scratched Queen Ailonwy in the Abyss, really.” He rubbed his neck. “Anyway, you kick ass at this, so move with a little confidence, not like you’re dissecting a bug.”

“Jack beat a demon queen at pool?”

“He sure did. Jack, you’re stopping to talk again.” Jack shook it off and set up. “Course he was a woman in a leather thong at the time.”

“I think I remember the thong,” blushed Jack.

“Yeah, well, I was a catatonic husk at the time. We’d had better days.” The ivories clicked. “Tough break.”

“That shot had only a 14.53% chance of sinking,” Jack admitted.

“Then you shouldn’t have been staring at it like it’s the only thing in the room,” said Ebreth, chalking his cue. “Look around. Take in what’s around you. There’s not much right now, but a real pool hall’s just full of life. Act like the game’s secondary.” He flipped the cue stick over his arm effortlessly and shot in a single fluid motion, grinning up at Jack as the three ball caromed into the corner pocket.

“You’re losing,” Jack pointed out.

His friend leaned across the green felt. “But I’m losing with style.”

Jack contemplated that.

Ebreth laughed and moved to the other side of the pool table.

The Greatest Thief on Ataniel

The book was in a language Kit couldn’t even recognize from her position in the trees above the campsite. Still, it looked to be old, and therefore was likely to be pretty valuable.

She no longer had the Stone of Command. It would have made stealing the book easier, but after the last time she’d used it, Kit hoped never to see that particular artifact ever again. The gloves of titan strength were cool enough for her, useless though they might be in her line of work.

-You’re welcome to come down and join us for dinner-, said a voice in her head. Kit yelped with surprise and lost her balance. She tumbled from the tree but twisted around to land on her feet.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” Praxis said to the young thief. “But I’m afraid we can’t allow you to steal this particular book.”

“He was trying to steal my book?” frowned Shilree.

“You’re... a mind dancer...” Kit whispered in awe.

“And you’re Kit, if I’ve got my guess right. I’m Praxis, a friend of Khyrisse’s.”

“I’m the Greatest Thief on Ataniel,” Kit said proudly. There was a snort of derision from the Diarian woman. “I am!” Kit whined at her.

“I know Tila, majhae,” Shilree said patronizingly. “And I’ve been in that line of work myself.”

“Then why do you carry these?” Kit asked, pulling a clear spell sphere from her pouch. “I thought they were for wizards.”

Shilree lunged at the child. “Give me that!”

Praxis intercepted Shilree and held his hand out to Kit. She gave the blond man the sphere readily enough. “Join our fire, son,” said Praxis. “And perhaps you can tell us why you’re here.”

“Rather not say,” Kit said sullenly. It was cool that she’d fooled even the mentalist of legend about her gender, but her last adventure had been so crappy Kit didn’t even want to think about it, much less explain it to anyone else. “But I bet you’re on a quest, huh? I could help out, you know... I was a member of the Rat Pack. I helped steal a soul from Hell.”

“Stealing a soul from Hell?” Hsin said sternly. “That sounds like a serious matter, young Kit.”

“It wasn’t a bad soul. He was there cause some old villain tricked him.” Kit stood on one foot. “What are you guys doing? Is it fun?”

“Going to the Dark Islands to destroy a Gilan portal,” Flicker summarized.

“Need a good thief?”

Shilree put her hand on the twelve-year-old’s shoulder. “We might,” she said. “But first you and I need to have a talk Kit.”

***

-Though the boy is indeed clever, he has not learned to temper his enthusiasm with responsibility,- thought Hsin, -or with right behavior.-

-Khyrisse said he worked well with her team, for the most part,- replied Praxis. -Perhaps he just needs a little guidance.-

-I fear disciplining him may be difficult while absorbed in our quest,- thought Hsin, -but if it is a project you are willing to take on, Lord Praxis, I will accept your decision.-

-It’s not really my decision.- Praxis glanced across at Kit and Shilree. -Shilree’s the one he stole from. We’ll have to see how she handles it.-

-She hasn’t killed him yet,- offered Flicker, optimistically.

***

“Kit,” said Shilree through her teeth, “those spheres and that tome are very very dangerous. If you ever fool with my pouch again I will--” She pinched the bridge of her nose, clearly trying to keep her temper. “Look Kit, I’ve stolen some really risky things myself, some of them from my friends. But there are two things you have to be aware of. One is the danger associated with the item you’re stealing. If you dropped that sphere there wouldn’t have been enough of you left to scrape off the ground.”

“I didn’t drop it,” said Kit, a little offended.

“You could have when you fell from that tree. It isn’t safe for you to carry.”

“Well, then why’s it safe for you to carry?”

“Because I carry it in a magically protected pouch,” said Shilree.

“So what you’re saying is I need to steal the pouch.”

Shilree grinned despite herself. “Maybe. Maybe. No, what I’m saying is you need to be very careful about what you steal for your own safety. It is better not to steal things until you have an idea about how they work. But it’s really the second point that matters to me. Kit some items, some things, are more important to their owners than their simple value. If you stole one of my spell spheres I would be annoyed but it would be okay. If you stole the tome it would ruin everything for me. Someone I love was killed and that book and the Gem of Dimensions are the keys to avenging that death. It wouldn’t be right to take them. It would hurt me more than it would help you. And it would gain you an enemy.”

Kit paused, absorbing that. “Oh,” she said. “Then, uh, here, I guess.”

Shilree smacked herself in the forehead as the child proffered the red jewel, and then, with a slightly shaking hand, took it back. “Thanks Kit,” she sighed. “You are good at this aren’t you?” Her own son would have been eight, Shilree was remembering without wanting to. “You know, if you’re going to be stealing magic items--I have been doing this for a long time. Maybe there are some things I could teach you. About how to pick magic items to steal safely I mean.”

Kit grinned. “Cool. What level are you? Maybe I could teach you some things too.”

“A good thief is always learning Kit,” said Shilree, and patted her on the shoulder.

***

“So what’s our name?” Kit said, stuffing marshmallows in her mouth. “Our party name, I mean?”

“We don’t actually have one,” said Praxis.

“Don’t look at me,” said Flicker. “The last team name I came up with was ‘Sewer Tour’.”

“Yeah, that’s pretty bad,” agreed Kit. “How about Gila-Busters?”

“Maybe you should sleep on it,” suggested Praxis.

“Before we depart tomorrow,” Xiang said to Jason, “I should like to work on some... fencing moves with you. Training is vital to success at war.”

“He’s a good shouter, too,” Hou-Hsieh vouched.

“Thank you,” Xiang said proudly. “Another important facet to the art of war.”

“I didn’t realize that,” said Jason. “The shouting part, that is.”

Parsing

Tor--

Times have changed in Rimbor. I don’t know how you managed to return
after your long absence, but I know your previous reputation well ~ and the
manner of your information-gathering continues to cast doubt upon your
intentions. A warning: such abuses as your kind once dealt with are no
longer tolerated in this city, as the Scorpion will soon discover. For your
sake, I hope your new companions indicate a corresponding change of heart.

--Octavian

Khyrisse stared at Ebreth, sitting frozen at her dressing-table with her shell comb half-raised in one hand and her damp hair still piled on her head with the other. “What on Ataniel is that all about? Octavian wrote you a letter just to warn you that you’d better not be a slaver anymore?”

“Looks like it,” he said, tilting the scroll towards her. “That’s fair enough. I wind up pretending to be that first Ebreth Tor every time I come to this city. Octavian’s probably got contacts in some of the same circles, and they told him about it.”

“Then why warn you about your means of getting information?” She scoffed and resumed pinning her hair up. “Seems a little hypocritical to me.”

“Yeah, well. At least he had the courtesy to send me a letter about it. I’m not too worried; if I did any of the things that’d set him off, I’d pretty much deserve kacking anyway...” He frowned at the message. “Neat penmanship the guy’s got.”

“Maybe he’s the Flautist.”

“More like he’s trying to hide his handwriting. Not that strange for a guy with a secret identity, I guess.” Ebreth shrugged off whatever was seeming odd about the writing. “I don’t know, it’s kind of neat to get threatening letters from mysterious vigilantes, don’t you think?”

“That is kind of cool,” Khyrisse admitted, joining him in bed. “I’ve never gotten one.” She ran a fingertip gently over the stressed lines at one corner of his eye. “Ebreth, are you sure he didn’t do anything to you?” she whispered.

“Nothing.” He looked as if Schneider were the last thing in the world he wanted to discuss just now. It probably is. “I’m serious, Khyrisse, this wasn’t his fault. He was just trying to warn me when the thing went off and he got caught in it himself.”

***

There was a slight, hesitant tapping at Jack’s door. At first he wondered if it was the Rat trying to get in, but he could see the subtle rising and falling in his satchel where the prophetic rodent was sleeping soundly.

Jack closed his book without worrying about a bookmark--one of the benefits of an eidetic memory--and went to answer the door. He was a bit surprised to see the Rat Pack’s other leader there, holding her big white bathrobe around herself. “Hi, Jack,” Khyrisse said, smiling hesitantly at the mathematician. “I’m sorry, I know it’s late... but I’m really worried about Ebreth, and...”

“Why?” Jack frowned. “Where is he? Is something wrong?”

“No... no, it’s nothing like that... he’s asleep already, it’s just, well... I was wondering if I could talk to you about him, a little. I’m having trouble understanding where he’s coming from lately, and you’re his closest friend, so I thought mabye...” The sorceress waved her hands helplessly.

“Maybe,” Jack corrected, and moved aside to let her in. “This is about Schneider, isn’t it?”

“Got it in one.” She gave him a wry smile. “Has Ebreth--has he talked to you about this at all? I have a hard time talking to him about Schneider, and I get the feeling that it’s mutual.”

“Why?” Jack said. “Uh, I mean... not why do you feel uncomfortable, but why do you need to talk about him at all? I thought stuff was all worked out?”

“I don’t know,” Khyrisse admitted, floomphing heavily down on Jack’s bed. “I thought it was worked out... but if it is, I’m not interpreting Ebreth’s behavior around Schneider properly at all.”

“Well, Ebreth doesn’t want to be around Schneider, I think is kind of the main thing.”

“That much I figured out. I’m just... trying to understand why, exactly.” She looked at the floor. “I mean, is Ebreth jealous of Schneider? Afraid of him? Angry at him? What?”

“Well, of course he’s jealous...” Jack peered at Khyrisse to see if she was kidding with him. “I mean, after, uh, you know...” Jack blushed a little. “I mean, he can’t help but be... and it gets to him that nobody ever seems to think there’s anything wrong with it. I mean, Schneider never even apologized.”

Khyrisse pushed her fingertips against one temple. “Schneider still believes Ebreth is the first Ebreth Tor,” she said a little irritably. “He told me he trusted my judgment, but it’s since become quite clear he was lying. That’d be why he hasn’t apologized for anything, I’m assuming...” She shook her head dizzily. “Wait, that nobody thinks threatening Ebreth was wrong, or that nobody thinks Schneider sleeping with me was wrong?”

“Uh... either, I guess,” Jack said, uncomfortably.

Khyrisse sighed. “Schneider and I have... a history,” she said tiredly. “Did--your Other--I don’t remember if I told him about this or not.”

“Neither do I,” said Jack, with a self-deprecating smile. “I mean, he’s your, uh, ex-boyfriend... I got that much.”

“That’s an--oversimplification,” sighed Khyrisse. “Back when we were Sewer Tourists together, he, fell for me pretty hard, but I was interested in Maxwell Silverhammer instead. Schneider was remarkably cool about that, and all three of us were friends, good friends... but then Max slept with someone else. Not his fault,” she hastened to add. “Everyone had lost their memories temporarily, except for me... but I was having a terrible time just then. The Godmaker ring was just starting to kick into high gear, and I was scared out of my skull. And Max had killed me not long before... that wasn’t his fault either, he was mind-controlled, but it... well, it couldn’t help triggering things for me... and then I was reincarnated as a thri-kreen, which made me feel ever so attractive anyway...” Khyrisse expressed air. “Anyway, I regained elven form at the same time as everyone else lost their memories, and Max was with this other woman, no one knew who I was, I was scared and hurt and alone... and, well, I wound up jumping Schneider. God, it was a stupid thing to do. I’ve been kicking myself ever since. And Schneider--well, I don’t know if he was so upset because I used him like that or because I didn’t go out with him afterwards, but he was really reamed, and I don’t think he’s ever forgiven me.” Khyrisse sighed again, heavily. “So I--I can kind of see why he doesn’t feel much like apologizing about this, really.”

“Hmm,” Jack said thoughtfully. “But from Ebreth’s perspective, I think he figures if Schneider isn’t going to apologize for anything... then he must think it was all okay. And nobody else has called Schneider on any of it either. It’s like everyone thinks it’s fine that he did the things he did.”

“I called him on it,” protested Khyrisse, faintly.

Jack blinked in befuddlement. “You, uh, did?” he said. “Does Ebreth know that?”

“I--don’t know,” Khyrisse said slowly. “He wasn’t there when I was doing the actual calling... But we had a huge screaming fight and I threw Schneider out of the house. I sort of assumed Ebreth knew that was why--I don’t think I’ve ever yelled at Schneider before in my life.”

“Yeah, but you’re not concerned about why Schneider feels bad,” Jack pointed out. “You’re concerned about Ebreth. And he’s the one who feels like he’s the punchline and everyone else is enjoying Schneider’s joke. I think he just feels like everyone’s so willing to forgive Schneider while he fights every day to get forgiveness for himself.”

She stared at Jack for a long moment; then closed her eyes, looking very ill. “Is there anything I can do about this, short of sending Schneider away?” she whispered. “Or do I have to do that?”

“Would you do that?”

“I don’t want to do that,” she said, almost angrily. “Schneider was there for me when I needed him, and he--he was a good man, one who was a lot more tightly wrapped, and it’s not his fault that he’s not anymore. But if that’s the only way Ebreth won’t be hurt by him? Yes. I just don’t know what he’s doing to him or how, and Ebreth won’t tell me!” Khyrisse put her face in her hands.

“Well, if he’s not telling you it’s probably because it’s between them, really... I mean, I doubt either of them is expecting you to get between them. That’s not your job. They’ll deal with each other in their own way.” Jack offered the archmage his handkerchief. “I think all you really need to do is let Ebreth know that you’re on his side. That you don’t agree with the stuff Schneider crows about. That you would send him away if you had to. I guarantee you won’t need to, then.”

“Why does he think I’m not on his side, for gods’ sake?” Khyrisse sniffled. “I don’t approve of what happened, I don’t agree with what Schneider said to him--I never did!”

“There’s a difference between suspecting someone thinks something and having them tell you they do,” Jack shrugged. “Ebreth can assume you disagree with Schneider all he wants, but he’ll never know unless you tell him where you stand. You wouldn’t be you if you didn’t have a good enough soul to give people the benefit of the doubt, Khyrisse. No one wants you to hate Schneider or anything. It’s fine for you to be friends with him... heck, I couldn’t even hurt Gabriella if she showed up around here, I’m as big a softie as they come. What Ebreth needs to know is just that you stand by him. That you wouldn’t let Schneider do something like that again. That you want him to know you’re on his side.”

Khyrisse sighed and nodded. “It wouldn’t be the first time I was sure Ebreth knew something that I never really told him. I’ll talk to him first thing in the morning.” She squeezed the mathematician’s hand. “Thank you, Jack. I have a hard time figuring this kind of thing out, when I’m too emotionally involved... If I understood people better, I probably wouldn’t have gotten into half the trouble I have.”

“You and me both,” laughed Jack.

Khyrisse sat back down suddenly. “Jack--you know, I don’t know if you remember this or not--did you know I once helped refigure your Other’s equation?”

“Why? What was wrong with it?”

“He’d been made incorporeal, sort of. He couldn’t reform his body. Val carried him around in this alien device for several days, before the Rat and I could figure out how to mend matters. I... could show you my notes tomorrow, if you want.”

She didn’t mention the impending closure of Jack’s subset, but she couldn’t be bringing this up for any other reason. “If it isn’t any trouble,” he said, though he was already relatively sure it wasn’t going to be any help. “Anyway, feel free to drop by anytime you have something you want to talk about. I don’t sleep anyway, and it’s nice to have visitors now and then.”

“Hmm.” Khyrisse smiled at him, something mischievous dancing briefly in her eyes. “I think I will. If you think of any other way I can reassure Ebreth, will you let me know?”

“Just be good to him.”

“I try hard to be.” She waved good night and was gone.

***

He was too exhausted, it seemed, for his usual tossing and turning. It gave him the impression of sleeping well, though Khyrisse suspected he was really just sleeping deeply. Ebreth skirted the edge of sleep deprivation as it was, and missing a night’s sleep went beyond difficult and into the realm of truly hazardous to his health.

Khyrisse sighed, looking down at the much-read paperback book in her lap.

“...and put up a prayer that she might ever be as true to him as her love aspired to be, and as his sorrows deserved,” she murmured, closed the book, and turned out the light.

***

Jack lay in bed, feeling unusually good. Not only had they found Ebreth, but his talk with Khyrisse had actually made him feel for the first time like he wasn’t just a Jack Paris stand-in.

You know, he thought, this might actually be a pretty good three months.

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