The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 1
The Ataniel Book Lover’s Club
“So what’d you think of The Mezzanine?” Jack asked.
They had run into each other at the under-construction Rat Pack Headquarters (the Rat Trap, Vickie had called it, and Jack found he couldn’t get the name out of his head). Jack had been hoping Valende might still be in town, but she and her brother had apparently gone off to Annwych to help with the Necropolis again.
“I’m still only about half done with it, Jack. I never did much reading before you made me an annex for your library.” The man’s smile told Jack that he didn’t mind.
Jack wanted to tell Ebreth how much it meant to him... all of what the pirate had done. But he wasn’t sure how much was from the old Jack and how much was his own admiration. Ebreth Tor had made it his mission to put all he cared about on the line for his friend, and that had impressed Jack even before he adopted the last memories of that very friend.
“I’m not sure I know how to read it best,” Ebreth continued. “He’s got these giant footnotes and I can never tell whether to finish the paragraph I’m in before I read them or cut right to the footnote.”
“I read them simultaneously,” Jack admitted.
“Neat trick,” said Ebreth. “You’ll have to teach me sometime.”
“Right after you teach me that thing with the bra strap.”
“Vickie heard about it from Garal. They’ve become close.”
“I won’t even ask,” Ebreth laughed. “Rat Packing makes strange bedfellows.” Ebreth suddenly paused, awkwardly.
“I was kind of hoping she’d be around to talk to,” Jack said quietly.
“Maybe better she’s not,” said Ebreth. “But I shouldn’t get involved,” he added, thinking of Khyrisse’s words.
“Hey, what else are friends for?” Jack said, and felt a great relief about having put the f-word out there.
“Book recommendations,” Ebreth smiled.
The pair had come to the foundation of what would be the New Trade Federal Building. The cold air of the Northlands made hardening a slow process, and the concrete floor was still setting. Ebreth looked around, gave Jack a wink and jumped into the hole, landing on one of the workmen’s scaffoldings. “Want to put yourself in history?”
“What?” Jack asked, confused.
Ebreth took his left glove off and pressed his finger into the cement that made up part of the basement floor. “ET+KS” he wrote.
“Come on down,” he said to Jack.
Jack smiled, shrugged, and leapt.
He must have misgauged the jump, because he suddenly found himself missing the scaffolding and heading for the wet concrete.
Fortunately, Ebreth Tor was faster than that, and he caught Jack’s arm as he passed. Between the two of them, they got Jack up onto the platform without messing up the new floor.
“Thanks,” Jack said. “That’s one I owe you.”
“We don’t count,” Ebreth said. “That’s a mistake your... other made. We’re friends, Jack. We’re just there when we’re needed.”
Jack didn’t remember every book he read to Ebreth, or everything that transpired to form such an unlikely friendship. He didn’t remember the look on Ebreth’s face when he cried Lita’s name in his sleep, nor what words had been exchanged on that Remnant ship. He did know that he trusted the man, needed the man, and loved the man. And that was enough.
He wasn’t the first Jack Paris Ebreth Tor had befriended, but he was happy to be included in the number.
He reached out and under Ebreth’s embarrassing little heart, wrote his own name.
“I won’t tell her if you don’t,” Jack said.
“Deal,” Ebreth nodded.
“You know, when you’re done with that one,” Jack said, beginning to scale the wall of the pit, “I just got this great story about a doctor in India... it’s got midgets and transvestite prostitutes and movie stars...”
Nothing at All
Rani hated herself for missing this place, but Paris Island was a surreal winterless haven where organized criminals retreated to forget everything but their solidarity, and New Trade was too recently settled to have any impressions to it at all. Rimbor City was in some ways the realest place on Ataniel. All the despair in the world was ground into its weary asphalt, and all the dreams there could ever be glittered just out of reach somewhere in the dirty snow.
Rani was on a case. There were enough cases in Rimbor City to support five Ranis, and she’d been out of town for the holidays, so they’d been piling up. This one seemed straightforward: woman trying to find a cameo of her dead mother, a non-magical item of great sentimental value that never turned up after a theft investigation got closed. No one could trace that kind of emotional imprint like Rani. “I’m going to start with the pawnshops,” she explained, though she didn’t know why she was bothering. “Mostly because it’s so easy to check, but also because it’s the most likely route the thing would have gone.”
“Oh, man, I’m totally scared of pawns,” shuddered Marty. “They have, like, little round heads.”
“Of course, if it was just sitting there she probably would have found it without any help,” Rani continued, ignoring her ‘partner’s’ useless input, “but someone might have bought it already, and I’d be able to trace it from there.”
“You’re so totally smart,” beamed Marty.
She was going to have to find a way to tell this kid to go elsewhere soon. It wasn’t that he was annoying, though he was; Rani was starting to get used to that. And he might be dumb as a post, but he made good backup. He’d been a big help back in December when she found that blue mist demon in the Carroway estate. Rani was really just uncomfortable about taking advantage of a mental incompetent’s pathetic crush on her to get a free bodyguard, and he certainly wasn’t worth actually hiring on.
The first two pawnshops didn’t yield anything useful. Marty thought it was suspicious that the pawns were missing. Rani didn’t bother correcting him.
In the third, she got emanations from the missing cameo. That was good; it had been fenced and someone had bought it, which meant she’d probably have a lock on the item by nightfall. The client had already paid Rani much more than the cameo’s value, so unless something weird happened she’d probably just wind up buying it back.
She asked the pawnbroker a few questions, but pawnshop customers didn’t generally leave their names or addresses, so she didn’t waste the PSPs reading the guy’s mind for more details. She was ready to head out when she sensed... it.
“That’s not normal,” she said aloud before she realized she was saying it.
“Whoa, seriously,” said Marty, looking at a hocked pen-and-pencil set and shuddering.
“What’s not normal?” frowned the broker.
“Something...” Rani frowned. It was gone. She took off her glove; it didn’t help. “Huh. Never mind.”
The two walked back out into the sleazy East End shopping district that housed the pawnshop. Rani headed for Skyler Street so they wouldn’t have to walk by the wig place again. “So like, what did you sense?” Marty asked eagerly.
“Nothing,” said Rani.
“No, like, you can tell me,” Marty protested. “I promise not to tell the bad guys this time.”
“That is what I sensed,” said Rani. “Nothing. It’s like there was... nothing there at all, somewhere in there. There’s always something there. Even when there’s nothing.”
“That is so Zen,” nodded Marty.
“Well, I’m sure it’s not important,” she shook it off. “Trick of the air currents or something. Let’s go track down girlfriend’s cameo.”
“Are cameos good vegetables or bad vegetables?” Marty said uneasily.
“They’re good vegetables,” Rani assured him with a sigh. “Kind of like you, Marty.”
“Cool!” beamed the paladin.
Interlude: Fires of Heaven
The new year had passed when Garal received a visitor. It was Amatsu.
The ninja arrived in the Land of the Little Folk dressed formally, gifts of tea in hand. He seemed happy to see Garal again. The halfling, for his part, came out of his shell a little bit to talk about his travels through the planes and his ideas for his province’s future.
“Your plans are noble,” approved Amatsu.
“Oh, they’re not really my plans,” Garal said modestly. “They’re my friend Keri’s. I just have some ideas about helping her to implement them, that’s all... what brings you here?”
“I have a matter of honor to which I must attend before I may go on in life. I was honorbound to protect the life of Cori Yashida. I--” He looked down. “--failed. For honor to be regained, I must gain dispensation from Lady Yashida herself.”
“So... you want...”
“I need your help, your abilities, to enable me to travel to the afterlife.”
No guards stopped them as they entered the gates of Heaven.
Garal looked back and forth, frowning a bit. “Strange,” he murmured.
“Is something not as it should be, Garal?”
“I’m--not sure.” The air felt liquid here, running through their lungs like a river through a valley. “I’ve never actually been here before, so maybe this is normal--the emanations just seem so tempestuous for a plane of law.” The planeblazer shrugged. “Heaven has many aspects. I doubt it’s a problem. How will we find Cori?”
“With this.” Amatsu held up a sapphire amulet. “It belonged to a member of the Silver Crane clan seven generations ago. It was recently stolen by one of the Black Serpents, but,” his voice grew cold, “he no longer had a use for it.”
Across Heaven the amulet guided them, towards the Home of Honored Ancestors. Amatsu desperately wanted to seek out the Pagoda of the Red Crab, but he knew that this was a personal desire, and he was called here by duty. They passed through the celestial village, where buildings of varying splendor (in accordance with the clans’ age and honor) stood like dignified grandfathers.
“Amatsu Mikaboshi!” a woman’s voice shouted in Shikinti. “No! You cannot be here! One such as you cannot!”
The woman stomped towards them, clad in sandals and an aquamarine tunic. “Greetings,
Chih-Nii,” bowed Amatsu. She landed a roundhouse punch to his face. He made no move to avoid it. “It... is pleasing to know you have found an honored place of rest,” he said slowly.
Garal flushed, fearing he was witnessing a romantic tiff. It was worse. “As I have since you murdered me in my sleep, you bastard.”
“This one is still among the living.” She spat at him. “Honor compelled my actions,” Amatsu answered. “The same honor compels a new course now. The Clan of the Red Crab is destroyed. This one seeks to lead a more... just life now, to redeem the errors of his clan. Perhaps when this task is completed, we may meet here again.” He walked away slowly, pretending he didn’t feel the daggers she was staring into his back.
Amatsu entered the anteroom and knelt. “Ancestors of the Silver Crane clan, this one honors your deeds and memory. I come to beg one of your number to hear my plea for absolution.”
There was a period of silence that chilled him to the bone. Then Cori Yashida appeared before him in a full formal kimono. “Greetings, Amatsu-san.”
“Lady Yashida,” he answered, bowing low.
“Hari tells me Chu-I Po is destroyed, and the Silver Crane avenged.”
“Yes. Lord Ælwyn is also... disposed of, and the Remnant is no more.”
The spirit nodded. “I guessed that when my revenant was released. I’m glad. I didn’t want to hurt Jack... is there something I can help you with?”
“This one wishes to beg your forgiveness for failing to protect your life.”
“My life is here in Heaven with Hari,” she said simply. “It was my choice. There’s nothing to forgive.” Amatsu didn’t rise. Cori sighed. “Look, just pretend I committed seppuku, all right? It had nothing to do with you. You helped take Po out for us, and you helped release me from undead servitude. I’d say you served our clan very well.”
“Then you release me from my debt of honor?”
“Yes, Amatsu,” she said patiently. “And tell Jack it’s not his fault either, okay? He gets even guiltier than you do.”
Garal did a double take when he saw them. Great grey and black shapes swooping down with destruction in their wake. In Heaven?
A terrible swath of black energy came straight at him, and the halfling winced. Nothing struck, though. When he opened his eyes he was unharmed and an incredible creature stood before him. Its majesty and raw power was like nothing he’d ever seen, and Garal Tinderhook had seen a lot.
“You are still alive,” said the bull head.
“Your place is not here,” said the eagle head.
The Pagoda of the Silver Crane exploded in a mass of black flame. “Amatsu!” Garal shouted.
“You must leave this place,” said the lion head.
“But my friend was in there!”
“Then it is too late for him,” said the human head.
“They’ve been in there a long time,” Jack said.
“Yup,” Vickie said.
“We should have gone with them.”
“Someone had to anchor them,” Vickie reminded Jack. “And from what I hear, no one wants to see what you look like in Heaven.”
Jack had a momentary flash of what it felt like to wear a thong. He nodded. “More coffee?”
“Sure ‘nough,” Vickie grinned.
Jack poured Vickie a mug. “Here you g--” he said, returning, but somehow lost his balance. The coffee flew from the suddenly free mug and splashed all across Vickie’s tank top.
“I’m so sorry!” Jack said, pulling a handkerchief to dab her shirt. “I--”
“Watch the breasts, Paris,” Vickie laughed.
Jack yanked back. “I... I wasn’t--”
There was a flash of light from behind them.
The mathematician and the secret agent both turned to look at the oddly-damp figure of Garal Tinderhook. “You’re back!” Jack said, relieved.
“Amatsu?” Garal muttered. “How’s Amatsu?”
“He didn’t... come back?” said Jack.
“Matsie wasn’t with you?” Vickie demanded.
The three stood in silence.
“Okay,” sighed Garal. “I’ve sent word to the Order of Redemption. If he’s back on Prime Material somewhere, their leader should be able to find him. And a ki-rin I helped out once is going to keep an eye out for him on the uppers. There isn’t much more I can do about this right now.”
“We should probably start getting together some sort of rescue party,” Jack said.
“It’s not quite that simple,” said Garal. “Heaven’s not like Hell... it’s a lot harder to get to. Dead souls who haven’t really earned entry try to sneak in from other afterlives sometimes, and so security is very strict. I had to call in a major favor to get Amatsu up there in the first place, and I don’t have anything like that left.”
“Maybe Khyrisse can--”
“We don’t even know that Matsie’s in trouble,” Vickie interrupted. “I mean, it is Heaven... it’s not like they’re likely to screw people over left and right.”
“It’s just like in the prophecy,” Jack muttered. “One of us will leave Ataniel forever.”
“Prophecy?” Vickie asked.
“Oh, right...” said Jack. “I told Khyrisse about them, but I don’t think she got a chance to tell everyone before we split up for the holidays. Sit down, this is kind of a long story.”
“Uh,” Garal cleared his throat. “Can you get back to me on this? I really need to go pick Keri up. She needs to talk to Khyrisse and she can’t risk taking the Trade Coach in from Tremontagne.”
“No sweat, Garry. We’ll catch you later.” Vickie took Jack’s arm and the two wandered out.
Garal sighed and pushed back through the weakpoint to Helena’s. He was going to be late to Keri’s as it was. Things were happening faster than he had expected, and Amatsu would be safe until things settled down here.
Battered Wife Syndrome
“I can’t put it out of my mind for good because I just can not understand it. Why did he do this to me? At least when I understand things I can deal with them. He never even tried to explain. For twenty years I have been sitting here wondering why.”
“You were expecting a letter?” said Ebreth. “Dear Khyrisse, I’m an emotional cripple, love Eric?”
She made a shout of laughter despite herself. “Well I mean besides that,” she said softly, after a moment. “I was crazy for him, Ebreth. I was fifteen. I would have done anything he wanted. Why didn’t he just ask me to be his goddess? I would have done it. What did he have to force me for?”
“Well Khyrisse, turning you into a goddess meant having you beaten and poisoned and killed. When you have a plan that hinges on making people suffer it helps if you’re willing to treat them like objects.”
Khyrisse’s hands flew to her mouth. “Oh Grendel,” she whispered. “Betraying me was another trial for the damn Godmaker ring, wasn’t it? He wanted me to find out.”
“Well, I don’t know about that,” Ebreth said. “Kind of shot himself in the foot if he did. He probably meant to keep you around as his wife and let you suffer these trials in ways you couldn’t trace to him, so you’d still help him when you made goddess. Once you found out about it, I, I guess it was easier just to be directly abusive. But I’m going to give the guy the benefit of the doubt and assume he couldn’t have gone through with it at all if he’d been thinking of you as an equal the whole time. You don’t make a sincere partnership with somebody you’re planning on beating the snot out of.”
Khyrisse whispered something in a language Ebreth didn’t recognize, even paler than usual.
“Evil people have defense mechanisms too.” He held her shoulders, very gently. “Khyrisse, I’d be shocked if there was anything you could have done to make him think of you differently. He had this plan before he married you. You said you wanted to understand. Well I’ve seen a lot of evil plans, right. And I think I understand that part.”
“I think I do too,” Khyrisse whispered.
He stroked her hair. “Now, coming up with a plan that required him to live a lie for twenty years in the first place, that makes no sense. That’s the kind of thing normal people have to do in Hell. I don’t get illusionists.”
“How could I have been so stupid,” she yelled, her eyes filling.
“You’re stupid? Khyrisse, honey, you’re not the one who put half-assed political schemes over your personal life. That man threw away the love of a wonderful woman over three lousy wishes he didn’t even get because he was such a jerk. Now that is stupid.”
She laughed through her tears. “Oh, Grendel, and he did it again! He threw Shannon away over a country he didn’t even get, and he cared about her.”
“Well, there you go. That’s his problem. Not yours.”