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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 11

Teach Your Children Well

Khyrisse was pouring syrup over a stack of pancakes in front of a sleepy-looking Skitch when Schneider wandered in. “Kind of early for you, isn’t it, young man?” said the jester, with a wan smile for both of them. “Looks good, Khyri. Can I have the same?”

“Sure,” she smiled, getting down another plate.

“I like getting up early,” lied Skitch.

“Well, when you’re a little more alert, there’s a present for you in the arboretum.”

“I don’t want it!” Skitch pushed his breakfast away in agitation.

“Skitch,” said Khyrisse, warningly.

“It’s all right, Khyri. Let the kid do what he wants.” Schneider sighed, sadly. “Your new dad tell you to keep away from me?”

“Ebreth’s not my dad,” said Skitch, frowning. “He’s my mom’s boyfriend.” Schneider shrugged and backed off, though he was privately thinking there had damn well better be a wedding before the baby arrived. “And he doesn’t tell me what to do,” the boy added, crossly. “I don’t want any more presents from you because your last present was mean.”

“The playing cards were mean?” Schneider was more confused than anything else.

“The things you left in the mansion. To scare Ebreth with.” Schneider glanced at Khyrisse to see if she was following this; the sorceress was standing with one hand over her mouth, her eyes wide. “And you said you did it to protect me,” Skitch accused. “I didn’t want you protecting me by trying to kill my friend, and neither did Kit, either, so you can keep your old present. It’s probably going to hurt someone.”

Schneider paused a long, long moment. “Skitch,” he finally said, “what in Paninaro’s name are you talking about?”

“Your magic mouths!” the boy yelled. “You made Ebreth try to kill himself!”

Schneider blinked a few times. “Okay,” he said, “that wasn’t really me, Ski--”

“Yes it was. You can’t trick me. You said mean things to him when we got back from the Abyss, too. I overheard Khyrisse talk about it with Jack.” He looked narrowly at the jester. “When I say mean things to people I don’t like, I get a spanking.”

Neither Khyrisse nor Schneider quite had anything to say to that.

Skitch folded his arms and waited for one of them to find one.

***

Khyrisse’s blood ran hot and cold. The three of them had been so successfully ignoring the whole situation since January she’d forgotten about Skitch. Little pitchers have big ears, she could almost hear her mother scold her father.

“Somehow, I doubt your mom gives you spankings,” Schneider was saying. “You’re too old for that. So let’s try this without the white lies, shall we?”

“I’m not the liar, you big butthead, you are!” Skitch shouted fiercely. “You said you were going to help us find Ebreth and then you went behind our back and tried to kill him. Then you pretended you were giving me and Kit a present so you could try and kill him again. I know Khyrisse doesn’t think it matters--” Khyrisse flinched. “--but you’re not fooling me one bit.”

“Skitch,” Khyrisse tried, her voice a tight whisper, “there’s a lot going on here you don’t--”

“Tell you what, kid,” Schneider cut her off, raising his hand. “Just so you don’t have to listen in on people and try to guess anymore, how about I explain a few things about yours truly and Ebreth Tor.” Khyrisse’s throat constricted. It was the first time she had ever heard him say the name. “You’ll have to trust me on this, kid, when I say I hope nothing bad ever happens to your mom, or to anybody else you care about. Because it did happen to me, and maybe I see things a little bit differently than you do.”

Skitch was looking madder and madder, but he didn’t say anything.

“When I was about your age,” Schneider continued, “my mom and dad were murdered. They were killed by some goons who were working for Ebreth Tor. I spent the next six years as a slave. I got bought and sold and beaten to a bloody pulp, by guys working for Ebreth Tor. When I finally got out, as you can probably imagine, I kinda took an interest in fighting against slavers. And you know who was the numero uno baddie of the slaver’s guild, a guy whose name was said the way people today say ‘Trillarillia Carraria?’ Ebreth Tor.” The jester had locked eyes with the child. “Let me ask you a question, Skitch. Lessay... Ariath shows up at your doorstep, wants to rejoin the Rat Pack. Says she used to be bad, but that’s all behind her now. Do you trust her?”

“Is it my decision?” snapped Skitch. “I wasn’t the one who let you in.”

Schneider’s back stiffened. Khyrisse watched in some kind of horrible slow motion. Skitch was still talking about Schneider’s attacks on Ebreth, she was sure, but Schneider would take it as a comment about his crazed murder spree, and he would lash out before Khyrisse would have the chance to do anything to smooth things over, and Khyrisse knew all of this in the split second before it happened. She had just enough time to register the plunge in her own stomach.



“You want it, kid,” Schneider said coldly, standing up from the breakfast table, “you got it. Once we’re done mopping up Big Daddy Tucson, if you tell me to get lost, I will. But right now, your mom and I need each other’s help. And let me tell you something, Skitch. Whatever you may think of me, whatever I may think of Ebreth Tor, at least we’ve both been able to do something you haven’t, and that’s keep our mouths shut and work together for the good of the group.” Skitch took a wobbling step backward. “And here’s the part you missed, kid, because I did give him a second chance. If I was going to kill the guy I would have done it back in November. I decided not to, and I’m sticking with my call. But I want you to know, kid, it ain’t easy. The guy gives me the wig every time I even think about him, maybe he always will. He and your mom have a good thing going now, though, and more power to ‘em. It’s hard work finding someone who cares about you in life, you’ll understand when you’re older.”

Tears sprang to Skitch’s eyes, and he opened his mouth like he was going to say something, but nothing came out.

“Now here’s the part where I am gonna bitch at you. I don’t care if your mom never wants to see my ugly face again, it’s more important for her to be happy than anything that has to do with me. But it upsets her when me and her boyfriend fight. We both know she gets upset easy, and that ain’t healthy for a woman with child. So please, try not to throw any more oil on the fire, huh?”

The jester stood up. “Well that’s my two cents. Excuse me, Khyri, I’m suddenly not so hungry.”

***

Skitch felt his face grow hotter and hotter as Schneider tore into him. He wished he was anywhere else right now: New Trade, Hell, even Peteser. Anywhere but the traveling mansion of this lousy version of the Rat Pack, in a rotten city Skitch didn’t much want to save, getting a tongue-lashing from someone he wished was still in a mental institution somewhere. “That’s a stupid way to give somebody a second chance,” he stood his ground, though, tears still wobbling in his eyes. “Being cruel to them when they can’t defend themselves. Khyrisse didn’t even do that to Ariath when she came back. I hope you never give me a second chance, you, you... you kiljhac!”

He escaped from the other side of the kitchen, trying to hide the fact that he was crying.

A Much-Needed Matriarchal Moment

Aithne paused with one hand on the kitchen door as the fracas erupted.

She couldn’t follow conversations when the Ratpack tribe spoke so quickly, so she just watched their interaction from without. Skitch spoke with fearful defiance, Schneider with angry certainty. Aithne frowned, not missing the look of white fury on Khyrisse’s face. It was not a consort’s place to discipline the son of a queen. Schneider was overstepping his bounds. Aithne backed away slowly and crept back through the living room, deciding to forego breakfast rather than risk being embroiled in a family dispute.

Crossfire

Schneider looked like he was going to say something, but got hung up on it, blinking. Did he just call me... kiljhac???

***

Khyrisse just stood there with her jaw hanging open.

Then she pushed out of the kitchen and after Skitch, not even pausing to look at Schneider.

She was halfway up the stairs when the magic mouth popped out of the wall, scaring her out of a good five years of life. If she hadn’t been mad at the jester before, this tore it. “I can’t believe you cast this fucking spell after what Skitch just told you,” she said through her teeth.

“Actually, I’m a little surprised you big-time wizards don’t use spells like me more often,” said the mouth. “If I do say so, I’m probably the coolest spell there is.”

“Spells aren’t supposed to have professional pride,” muttered Khyrisse. “Make this quick, mouth, I’ve got a son who needs me.”

“Well, uh, first of all...” The spell cleared its nonexistent throat. “My creator’s real sorry about dropping a load on the kid like that. He’s had a rough week. Anyway, the main thing was something he didn’t want to forget to tell you in the ass-kicking you’re about to give him. He thought he might have a suggestion to help you out with a little problem.”

Khyrisse sighed impatiently. It’s probably something important about Tucson and Rimbor City. Skitch can wait five minutes while you deal with it, Khyri. “Go on,” she said.

Her good intentions went straight out the window, though, after about two seconds of listening to unsolicited advice about--of all unbelievable things--marrying Ebreth. Khyrisse dispelled the magic mouth before it had even finished its first sentence, shaking with rage. Had the jester been spying on her conversation with Jack, or, even worse, Jack and Ebreth’s? “Sennett!” she screamed.

The magical butler appeared, both eyebrows raised in alarm. “Yes, milady?”

Khyrisse took a deep breath. And another. “Tell Mr. Schneider that if he ever casts that spell in my house again I am never speaking to him again.”

“Very good, milady.”

“And,” she hissed, “tell him if he wants to talk to me he can damn well do it like a man instead of skulking around using spells and letters and circumstance to avoid having to have a real conversation in which I can fucking respond to him. If he doesn’t want to get yelled at, he can save his inappropriate intrusions into my private life for a time I’m not angry and busy, like everyone else in this house. Until then I’m giving his communications all the attention they deserve, which is none. Understood?”

“I shall get him the gist of the message, milady.”

“All of it. Word. For. Word.”

“Yes, milady,” sighed Sennett, with a particularly respectful bow, and disappeared.

Khyrisse was the rest of the way up the stairs when she realized the last exchange had been in Cynystran.

***

Sobbing, Skitch slammed the door to his room.

There was a box sitting on his bed, a note in flourishing cursive attached to it. Master Skitch, it read. While making my morning rounds, I noticed that you left one of your parcels in the arboretum. Your humble servant, Sennett. Skitch’s name was written on the box in green crayon, in a hand the boy also recognized.

After a brief battle between his natural curiosity and his panicky rage that he couldn’t get away from the jester he was so mad at even in his own bedroom, Skitch opened the box. Inside was a rose, an iron ring, and a note.

Howdy, kid. Awhile back I picked up this ring, and I thought of you. Once a day it lets you cast mend, and I figured you might need it. We both know that adventuring can be murder on the threads, and it’d sure be wasted on my wardrobe. Toss them daggers mightily but stylishly.

Skitch flung the whole box across the room. “Stop trying to bribe me into liking you, you liar!”

All My Good Intentions

“Skitch?” Ebreth put his book down just in time to catch the boy as he flung himself onto him, sobbing. “Skitch, are you all right? Where’s your mother? Is something wrong?” He went for the nearest weapon, Khyrisse’s sheathed longsword lying across the dresser.

Skitch hung on to him, crying and obviously furious. “Stupid mean lying butthead JESTER!”

Ebreth stiffened. “Did he hurt you? Sennett! Get Khyrisse in here!”

“No, but he’s a jerk and I hate him and he won’t leave me alone!” The boy shook miserably.

Ebreth just kind of looked at him for a moment. “Sennett,” he said, putting the sword down, “Schneider or any communications from him are to be kept out of Skitch’s room from now on, got that?”

“Very good, sir,” came the spectral butler’s voice.

It made Ebreth feel better to know Sennett was keeping the unstable jester away from him as he slept, but if it reassured Skitch at all it didn’t really show on his face. “He keeps talking to me like I’m stupid and then giving me stuff,” he cried. “Like that’s supposed to make me like him!”

Ebreth held his arm around the boy very awkwardly. He couldn’t remember Skitch ever really giving him a hug before. He must have seen the pirate as a natural ally in this. There was no question, of course, as to which of the two Ebreth would support if it came to it, but he didn’t even know how to start trying to comfort the kid. Skitch was old enough and mature enough that Ebreth usually just got by speaking to him as if he were an adult. This time he could tell there was something more that was needed, and he didn’t have it. Before he could think of anything to say, Skitch was continuing.

“He talked down to me about how he had such a bad childhood because his parents died and he had to be a slave and he knew it was hard for me to understand something like that. I don’t even remember my parents! I had to live with bad people who beat me up! I had to live on the street and eat out of a garbage can! One time I had to live with an old man who made me steal things...”

Skitch was crying with abandon now. This obviously wasn’t stuff he talked about. Ebreth stretched for something to say. “I’m sorry...” he started, uselessly. “It wasn’t your fault...”

“He never even asked me!” The boy was starting to choke on his tears. “He just assumed he was the only one who could understand being alone because his stupid girlfriend left him! Does he think I’m retarded? I know why he was saying that! I’ll understand when I’m older?”

“Look,” said Ebreth, “just ignore him. That’s what I do.”

Skitch cried harder. “I don’t want to ignore him! He’s a big bully. He doesn’t really care about anyone else’s problems. He only cares about his own. He only helps other people to make himself feel better. He doesn’t care if he really helps them or not. He only cares about himself.”

Even Ebreth knew that wasn’t fair, but he could tell saying so wouldn’t be productive. “Skitch,” he started, clearing his throat. I want to make you feel better. He touched the boy’s hair helplessly. This is all I know. “Listen, what do you want?” Skitch looked up at him with an indescribable expression, and Ebreth winced but pushed on. “I’m sorry, Skitch, but I don’t know what you want. If you tell me I’ll help you get it. But you have to tell me.”

Skitch sniffled fiercely and scrubbed at his eyes with his fists, trying to swallow his sobs. “I want it to be okay for me to be mad at him,” he finally said, in a very small voice.

“Hell yes,” said Ebreth.

“That’s all,” said Skitch, in a muted voice that said otherwise.

Ebreth gritted his teeth. You fucking idiot, the kid tells you his life story and you’re problem-solving. “Look,” he said, changing tacks so sharply a ship might have gone over. “I know what it’s like out there, growing up on the streets. But you handled it a fuckload of a lot better than that last Ebreth Tor did, I’ll tell you that right now, Skitch.” Ebreth wondered dimly if he should be using the word “fuck” with an eleven-year-old. It was too late now. “Maybe Schneider assumes you had an okay childhood because you’re so well-adjusted most of the time. I know I’m impressed.”

The boy flushed a little, making a wobbly smile. It obviously wasn’t what he had come hoping to hear, but at least it connected. Can you tell, at least, that I’m trying? “Some people just push around anyone they can,” he said softly. “Kids are smaller, so they’re easy to pick on. But I’m going to be a hero when I grow up... and then anybody I catch doing that, I’m going to bust them one.”

“Go get ‘em, Skitch,” said Ebreth Tor.

Which, mercifully, was when Khyrisse and all her maternal attentions finally came whirling in the bedroom door.

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