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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 10

Conference Call

-I really appreciate this, Orlen.-

-I am always glad to be of assistance.-

-Hello?- came the third mental voice. -Who is this? Do you know what time it is?-

-I do apologize...- began Orlen.

-It’s my fault,- Ebreth interrupted. -It’s Ebreth Tor, and I’m sorry to call so late. I need your help.-

-Oh, God. Khyri.- There was a mental thunk, as if Karel’s feet were hitting the floor. -Something’s happened to Khyri, hasn’t it?-

-No, no. No, she’s fine. She’s great. I was just, ah, wondering if you knew how Tremontagne proposed to her.-

There was dead silence on the line for about five seconds. -What?-

Ebreth leaned back in his chair and put his heel on the windowsill, grinning down at the ground. -I, ah, I’m trying to cause as little stress as possible, here.-

Karel was the first to laugh, a bright, gasping staccato, soon underscored by Ebreth’s deep and hearty laughter.

***

“Oh, Haneli...!” Valende covered her mouth in a gesture conveying sympathetic dismay, though her eyes were laughing at the younger elf. “And you have no idea when the other shoe is going to drop?”

“I don’t even know if the other shoe is going to drop!”

“Trust Jack,” the priestess said, shaking her head fondly. “Although I’m sure he had the best of intentions.”

“I know he did...” Khyrisse lowered her head briefly onto her folded arms. Suddenly she laughed. “Well, it’s better than the last proposal, at least. If infuriatingly similar in some ways.”

“How so?” Val smiled.

“I found out through a mutual friend. In a... disappointingly matter-of-fact way.” Khyrisse made a rueful noise. “I found the marriage papers in Pieret’s ‘In’ box,” she confessed. “It took me half a page to figure out what the flark Eric was talking about. Nothing but jabber about reported tax revenues and parties of the first part and transferral of properties to the heir presumptive... Then when I deciphered the damn thing it took me till the last paragraph to figure out he was talking about me. I thought he was marrying some noblewoman for several agonizing minutes; it kept referring to Her Grace...”

Val teetered precariously on the verge of mirth. “What did you do once you figured it out?”

“Ran up the hill, wheedled Sibley into letting me into Eric’s office, threw that idiotic stack of paper onto his desk, and jumped into his lap,” she replied lightly, although she still trembled a bit. “What do you imagine I did? Signed them in triplicate and sent them back by registered courier?” she added defensively, when Valende dissolved into helpless laughter. “I was fifteen!”

“I think you should have saved that response for this proposal,” Val said merrily, once she got herself under control.

“Oh, I don’t know.” Khyrisse sighed, but a faint spark of amusement did flicker briefly in her troubled eyes. “Ebreth wouldn’t be nearly so surprised.”

***

-She found the receipt?-

-It wasn’t a receipt, exactly,- Karel mitigated. -It was a formal petition for her hand. It’s fairly standard in that social circle.-

-It was fairly standard in a couple of other social circles with which I have some acquaintance, too,- growled Ebreth. Karel didn’t respond immediately. That probably hadn’t been the best thing to remind him of just now. -This ratbastard is not making my life easier right now.-

-Yes, well.- Karel’s mental voice was wryly amused. -Welcome to the family.-

The Blank Slate

Jason stared into the emerging fire as Praxis and his group milled about, making camp. Like they just... knew... each of their places in the whole. Maybe with the Mindnet they did. Or maybe it was all about the time they had spent with each other, learning this unspoken dialogue.

Shaolin brushed past the little mage Hou-Hsieh and they both turned their heads slightly to blush. Or maybe not. Jason smiled at the irony of it--they were obviously infatuated with each other and oblivious of the mutuality. Cedric and I must have been like that--he convinced I was too young and I so sure he could never put aside all he knew... But we figured it out on our own. So will they, I imagine.

Jason watched Hsin pass by in even steps, his arms filled with kindling which he gently deposited by the fire. He still couldn’t erase the picture of Hsin dying before him. Jason didn’t know if it had been the priest’s intent to stand between Jason and the deadly blast or if it had just happened... he didn’t know much of anything about Hsin, really. He had just been one of the anonymous faces in the party to Jason until today.

If he had died today, that would be all I would have known of him. That he seemed nice enough and then he saved my life. Just like that. Jason shook his head. Maybe that’s something to learn, from all of this. That you get a limited chance not only to live, but to get to know. And to understand. “Hsin?”

“Yes?”

“I--I guess I was realizing today that I don’t really know you. That well. And I’d like to.” He extended his hand. “I mean... if you wouldn’t mind talking about yourself a little.”

Hsin smiled at the boy. “Desire to learn is a sign of wisdom in itself,” he said, obviously pleased. His Dalen was the most strongly accented of the Shikinti adventurers, but was still quite good. “I would be happy to tell you anything you wish, Jason. Is there anything specific that interests you?”

“Well, you’re... a priest right? Which god do you worship?”

“I am a follower of Kung Fu Tzu--but he was no god. He was but an ordinary man of humble origins. It is his teachings which I seek to embody, his philosophy which gives me my magical abilities. I could go on for a long time about his teachings and do them little justice. If you wish to know more, I have a copy of The Doctrine of the Mean in Dalen. I would be happy to help you read it.”

“I’d like that,” said Jason. “It’d be a nice change of pace. I... didn’t really like church back home, to be honest. They spent most of the time yelling at us to repent for things or we’d all go to Hell.”

“I do not mean to condescend, but I think I prefer the Great Teacher’s method of trying to enlighten people, rather than threatening them.” Jason nodded. “What is the cause of Sturtevant’s hatred of sorcery? Is it part of the Talian religion?”

“Nah, just our church. They have mages in Dalencia and Tobrinel, and they all worship Tal too.” Jason shrugged. “The Church of Sturtevant is very, well, black-and-white. They think that if magic doesn’t come from Tal, it must come from Hell.”

Hsin shook his head. “Most contrary to Li. One of the Great Teacher’s five constants,” he explained. “It’s a complex concept, but it loosely translates as ‘common sense.’”

***

Jason awoke to find the camp filled with the activity he had observed the night before, in reverse. Have to start figuring a way into that. For all I know it may just take asking. Some breakfast remained above the smoldering embers of the campfire, and Toleski motioned him towards a pot of--stew?--which Jason took, attempting to mask his trepidation. It was surprisingly good.

“Ya like rabbit, son?”

Is that all it is. “Yes, it’s very good.”

“Well, we sure do grow ‘em different ‘round here.” He motioned to a carcass on the trash heap, which had not one but three fused heads. Jason fought the heaves in his stomach. He was more successful in halting them than hiding them. To his credit, Jethro didn’t mock the tenderfoot’s reaction.

Shilree sat down at the fire. “Any of that left?”

“Just enough for you, missy.”

“So I guess you slept in too?” Jason asked the Diarian.

“No I’m returning from scouting ahead. We ride towards New Gila today.”

Her curt statements cut through Jason’s lame attempt at conversation. Will I ever really talk to this woman? Or know her at all? “Shilree, I--” She looked up, her lack of interest obvious. “I just wanted to say I’m sorry. I mean--yesterday--what you said about your fiancé. His murder. I know what that’s like, to lose someone you love. Not that you’d want to talk about him or anything but I’m sorry.” Tal, that sounded stupid even to me.

“Her.”

“Excuse me?”

“Her murder. Talk about her. Anjra. My fiancée was a woman.” Jason looked at her blankly. “Marriages in Diaria do not have to be between members of the opposite sex.”

“I--I hadn’t realized--”

“That much is obvious.” The comment was snide but her expression didn’t really seem critical. Just preoccupied. Well, I guess if I was pushing towards vengeance on my--fiancé’s--killers, I’d feel the same. “But thank you. Now we must press on.”

Jason finished his stew and went to help Inez with the last of the dishes, perhaps the first kiljhac in the history of Ataniel to be stunned at the open-mindedness of Diari culture.

I Find That Things Usually Look Their Worst In The Earliest Morning, Personally

Ebreth woke with a sudden intake of air, rolling sharply to his back in a reflexive panic and flinging his arm out defensively.

There was no one there.

It took a few minutes for his senses to adjust to the bedroom around him: the shadows of the furniture in the pre-dawn darkness, the faint smell of incense, the light feel of his robe against his skin. The soft and steady breathing of the woman sleeping beside him. Ebreth exhaled and closed his eyes again as reality reclaimed him and then, in its broad wake, shame. Are you on crack, Tor? He stood slowly from the bed, holding his robe around him with both arms. Old cockiness died hard, he guessed. And it was easy, in the flush of emotion, to ignore things Ebreth was never going to forget. But he was a broken, defiled shadow of the man Khyrisse had fallen for, all that time ago, and he was lucky she was keeping him around on a day-to-day basis. His shoulder shuddered, and if he hadn’t already committed himself to Jack he would have put the idea of pressing her to marry something like him out of his mind for good.

As it was, he would just make it as painless as possible for her to say no.

Ebreth Tor turned the mirror to the wall and shut the bathroom door behind him.

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