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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Negotiations and Love Songs: Part 4



The Mathematics of Mattering

Jack was in his new quarters on the Rat Trap’s second floor, busily packing his satchel. Asinus had sent Word that he might be able to get some information about Amatsu and Heaven, and Jack wanted to go talk it over with him.

Ebreth Tor sat across the room in the battered recliner that Jack had picked up at a Shikinti yard sale the other day. He had just told Jack the news.

Jack knew that Khyrisse was pregnant, of course. A shift in balance and weight ratios like she had undergone indicated either a pregnancy or an ovarian cyst, and Jack hadn’t seen the worry associated with the latter. Still, he had assumed it was Ebreth’s. The news about Schneider came as quite a surprise.

“Did you know he’s taken to calling me ‘Eight’?” Ebreth sighed.

“Why ‘Eight’?”

“Because I’m the eighth person he saved the life of. Want to hear how he saved my life?”

“He put something over that shirt of his?” Jack offered, looking at one of his own, dull-colored shirts.

“He didn’t kill me when he wanted to,” Ebreth said, shaking his head.

“And that counts as saving your life? That’s one flarking solipsistic piece of reasoning.”

“I’d agree with you if I knew what that meant.”

Jack reached into his satchel and pulled out a rock. Ebreth didn’t even ask why Jack carried around a rock in his pack. He aimed it like a dart at Ebreth’s head, then put it away again. “There. I just saved your life by not beaning you with a rock. You owe me one.”

“But I didn’t hide in shadows and backstab you while you were thinking about it,” Ebreth replied deadpan. “So we’re even.”

Jack laughed. “Fair enough,” he said. “It’s getting through dangerous times like this that really bond people, you know?” He picked up a stack of rat-chewed papers, and stuffed them hopefully into his pack. “Eight out of how many, dare I ask?”

“Fifty-six.”

“So he’s only not killed fifty-six people? His class reunions must be really lonely.”

“The most upsetting thing,” Ebreth continued, “is that if it’s his, he’s going to be around all the time. I don’t know if I can be in a family where I’m no more important than some guy my woman was magically impelled to sleep with.”

“Well,” Jack said, hefting the bag to gauge its weight, “importance, someone wise once told me, isn’t something that can be mathematically quantified. It comes from the people who care about you, and you’re not going to be second best in that.”

“I hope,” sighed Ebreth.

“If you’re really worried about it, though,” Jack said, “you just need to make sure his value is less than eight. You should start calling him ‘Zero’.”

Ebreth laughed. “Out of how many?”

“How many are there?” Jack smiled. He tossed his satchel towards the bed, but it caught the edge and fell. Ebreth picked it up and handed it to his friend.

“Don’t be gone too long,” the pirate said. “We could use your level head around here.”

“I’m sure Khyrisse has everything under control,” Jack said, slinging the pack over his shoulder.

“Who was talking about her?” Ebreth said. “I meant me.”

“You don’t need someone balanced,” Jack said. “Eight’s a perfect cube, remember.”

Interlude: Puppets

The penguin traveled unseen through the winding streets of Samanal. It was his kind’s gift to go unnoticed even in plain sight. It had been this way for millennia.

The bird slowly shuffled down the road. Humans and Little Folk alike walked right past him, taking no notice. Occasionally someone would see the penguin out of the corner of an eye, but when they tried to look straight at him they would see nothing and the bird would go about his business.

With a deliberate pace the arctic fowl waddled directly into the living room of Toby Salzar. The bird’s Master wanted to know what the Little Folk were up to. If the right buttons could be pushed events would unfold in a manner conducive to his plans.

The penguin was one of many, all bound to their Master’s service. They were his eyes and ears on the world of Ataniel, collecting information for him to take into account in his careful and inexorable plans. Patience was a virtue for the penguins and their Master alike, indeed, for all those who remain unseen in the world.

Interlude: Wedding Invitations Are Worse Than Crop Reports

“So how is the list coming,” asked Anjra.

“Well I have gotten it down to two hundred. I never realized how political a wedding can be.”

Anjra laughed. “You were the one who told me everything was political!”

“True. But in my heart I hoped for at least one exception.”

“Well who have you got?”

“Other than our families?” Shilree said. “Let’s see, the entire Imperial Council of course, the main hierarchy of the House of Pysyri, at least the High Priest of Rekzyr, my staff, the mayors of all the Western cities, the guildmasters, the heads of state of the other countries we have relations with... this isn’t even counting our friends.”

“At least most of your friends are heads of state,” joked Anjra.

“Even so Anjra. Why can’t we just elope?”

Anjra laughed. “Now now, it was your idea to make this a grand state affair. I wanted a simple wedding.”

“I know, I know. Well let’s see if we can trim this list a bit more.”

***

“Mom!” yelled Skitch from the front door. “Some guy from Diaria here to see you!”

Khyrisse quickly made herself presentable and came to the door. The Diarian was obviously a courier. Only a courier could emanate the air of self-importance that this fellow did.

“Khyrisee Starshadow?” the courier asked.

Khyrisse rolled her eyes at the familiar Diarian mispronunciation. “Yes.”

The courier took out a ornate scroll from inside his pouch. “This is for you.” He handed over the scroll, bowed his head sharply, then departed.

“Maybe it’s from Tarrin!” piped Skitch.

Khyrisse carefully broke the wax seal on the scroll and unfurled it. To her relief, it was written in Dalen; the sorceress spoke credible High Diari, but had never learned the Diari alphabet.

She read it once and then read it again, blinking. “Oh, this should be interesting.”

“What does it say?”

“Looks like we’ll be going back to Diaria this summer, kiddo. Shilree is getting married.”

“Cool! Can I bring a date?”

The Constructive Side Of Voodoo

Ebreth came back in with a bottle of very expensive Cynystran brandy. Khyrisse smiled a little, sadly. “Getting drunk doesn’t help anything,” she quoted him back at himself.

“We’re not going to be drinking it.” Ebreth turned the dried flowers out of a polished silver bowl. “I can’t stand seeing you like this, Khyrisse. Enough.”

“Ebreth,” she said, “listen, if this is about Schneider--”

“This has nothing to do with Schneider, believe me. Khyrisse, part of your soul belongs to the first person you ever love. Now this is a very old island custom.” Ebreth poured brandy into the bowl. “And we are going to ask him for that back.”

She gasped suddenly. “No. No, Ebreth, don’t you dare.” She grabbed at him. He held her effortlessly at arm’s length. “If you call him now I--Ebreth, please.”

“Do I look like a sorcerer?” he said. “This isn’t a spell. It’s a sacrifice.”

“Don’t sacrifice my good brandy to my rotten ex-husband,” hollered Khyrisse.

“Since I think you’re worth more than it is,” he said, “and he doesn’t, I’d say it’s a good trade. Sit down.” She didn’t. “Eric Tremontagne.” He put the candle into the bowl. Khyrisse jumped a little, she wasn’t sure at the name or the sudden fwoosh into flame of the brandy. Ebreth only flinched back from it a little bit. “I call your name tonight in the name of Khyrisse Starshadow, because you still have a piece of her soul and she needs it back. Because I love her.” Khyrisse turned her head at him slowly. He was looking, steadily, into the sublimating alcohol flame. “And she needs what you have to be whole. So I’m asking you to think kindly of her tonight and free her from your memory.”

Khyrisse thought bitter thoughts about Eric thinking of her anything like kindly. “He doesn’t want me to be free,” she whispered harshly. “He doesn’t want me to be whole.”

“Does he care?” demanded Ebreth. “Does he want you? Does it benefit him that you’re like this, does he think about you at all?”

“No,” she whispered.

“Then he’ll let you take it back, Khyrisse. Take it back.”

“I don’t know how,” she said, muffled.

“Tell him what you gave him.” He turned his back on the bowl, wisps of flame rolling across its surface. “Tell him how much he meant to you and then take yourself back. You’re never going to get better trying to hide from him that it mattered. Tell him you loved him. Tell him you needed him. Just admit it and let’s go on.”

She was dizzy with brandy fumes and bitterness, remembering her demonstrative indiscretions in the palace and the park, in the bursting joy of the early mornings and in front of the bemused courtiers. Had he had a good laugh with them later? Khyrisse was miserable and flushed and she fought tears back, screaming at herself in her head. Ebreth put his arms around her and he held her from behind. “Khyrisse,” he said. “It’s all right. You’re safe here. You can say it.”

“I loved him,” she whispered, throttled.

“Tell him.”

“I loved you.” She started to cry with abandon. “And you didn’t love me.”

He held her as she shook; she twisted in his arms and grabbed on to him like a drowning woman, sobbing. “But that’s over now,” Ebreth said quietly, stroking her hair over and over. “Khyrisse. Honey. Khyrisse. There’s nothing wrong with that. So you loved him. You trusted him, that’s good. He’s the one with the problem, not you.”

“It’s not that,” she sobbed. “I’m not sorry I loved him. I made a fool out of myself. I babbled everything. I told him everything. I didn’t hold anything back and when he turned on me I had nothing left, I had nowhere to hide, he knew everything.”

“It wouldn’t have hurt any less,” Ebreth said. “Being mysterious doesn’t solve your problems. Did it help with Ariath?” Khyrisse swallowed. “She probably still doesn’t know whether you believed her stories or not. Did that make it any easier? Just take that part that could say everything back from him. He can’t hurt you now, I promise. You don’t have to hide these things. Shhhhh, it’s all right.”

It was a minute or two before she could speak again. “I still loved him after he tried to kill me,” she croaked out in a terrified, throttled little voice.

“Well, of course you did,” said Ebreth. “Love is a powerful thing, Khyrisse. You can’t just say “Oops, I made a mistake,” blow it out like a candle. It takes a little while.”

“Over a decade? After trying to kill him? After being killed repeatedly by his--” Khyrisse clamped her jaw shut, looking utterly nauseated. “With a murdered family member still lying there on the floor? This is normal?”

“Do you have any idea how many women have been in love with that last Ebreth Tor?” he shrugged. “Your boy Eric deserved it more than that man did, I can tell you that. Some things they understand very well on the Islands, and this is one of them. Love is a powerful thing. It doesn’t just disappear like it was never there because the person you were in love with didn’t deserve it.” He stroked her hair, rhythmically. “You have to exorcise it. And to do that you have to accept it.”

Khyrisse shuddered. “I, sometimes wonder if the only reason I hated him so much was because I had to, to keep the fact that I loved someone like that from driving me insane,” she whispered hoarsely. “He treated me like dirt, Ebreth. He had me brought back in a cage, like a rabid animal, did I tell you that? What was left of me, anyway. There was blood and... everywhere, all over the floor. Even Eric was a bit pale.”

He held her very tight, and she shuddered and nearly pulled away, but didn’t. “Some people just... don’t deserve the gifts they’re given, that’s all. That’s something wrong with them, not with you, not with the people who have gifts to give. I’ve been on both sides of this, baby, please believe me.” She shivered in his arms. “There’s--not anything I can do about those things,” Ebreth said, “not now, but I swear, Khyrisse, by everything I’ve ever done wrong, you don’t have to be alone with them any more, I promise you that much. Please. Take that back from him. Take my hand. Let’s move on.”

She swallowed, her hand feeling unsteadily down his arm, and clasped his hand almost unbearably tight. “I loved you,” she told the wisping blue brandy flames, in a very small voice, slowly gaining in steadiness. “I loved you. You never loved me. And if you had been anything like I thought you were, you would have. I take it back.”

Ebreth Tor flicked his sailor’s knife out into his right hand and slit his right thumb open on it without looking at it, shaking it hard into the last of the burning brandy. It hissed. “So mi da fon,” he said, lifted her hand in his left, and pressed it to his lips, his eyes closing.

She turned and held onto him with both arms like he was the most precious thing in the world and she was afraid someone might take him away.

***

Khyrisse lay watching the dancing light of the fire through the translucent jade of the Kyokota firescreen. The one in the library was her favorite, a design of stylized butterflies on a rippling blue background. When there’s a fire behind it, it looks like it’s moving, she thought sleepily. Butterflies flying over the ocean.

Her tired eyes dropped to her hand, resting on Ebreth’s chest. She could feel his heartbeat beneath her palm. Khyrisse watched her hand rise and fall with his breaths, the Godmaker ring winking intermittently up at her. After a moment’s hesitation, she sat up and took it off.

Ebreth propped up to his elbow to look at her as she studied it. It felt cool and heavy in her hand, a glittering black-red stone set in silver filigree that managed to symbolize for her all the worst and best the last forty years had had to offer her.

Then she put it on her right ring finger, instead.

“Here’s to the maiden of bashful fifteen, and here’s to the widow of forty,” she murmured, spreading both her hands out to see what it looked like. Not as different as it felt. “Hmm, that’s as far as I think I’ll take that rhyme...”

Ebreth reached out and took her left hand in his, running his thumb lightly where her wedding ring had been. A wide alabaster band of scar tissue lingered there--thin streaks and tiny, jagged-edged spots that overlapped and ran together--souvenirs of the decade and more she had struggled to remove the symbolic fetters of her marriage.

She shrugged a little, her mouth quirking. “It wouldn’t come off. I didn’t quite have the courage to... get it off the hard way... but I think I tried literally everything else.” Ebreth shut his eyes for a moment, and brought the scar to his lips with that heart-shaking gentleness of his. “I’m all right now, s’parde-vois,” she whispered, very softly, lifting her free hand to caress the side of his face. “My captain... my port in every storm... my slayer of ghosts.”

***

Eric whistled the aria from Garibaldi’s Le Canard Absurde as he worked on the casement. Since the Madness, restricting the borders of the Cynystran empire had been more difficult. Now there was trouble with the Little Folk and new emanations from the southern peninsula. It seemed like the only time he ever got to spend by himself anymore was here in the lab. Even a regular regimen of wakefulness spells (his own design, and one he kept more closely guarded than the really powerful ones) only afforded him a few hours of work a night.

Still, once the casement was done, that would all change.

There was a knock on the laboratory door. Without even looking up Eric could tell it was Sibley. “In,” he called.

“Lord Eric,” Sibley said. “I don’t mean to disturb you...”

“...which is why you came knocking...”

“...but there is a matter that you wished me to inform you of,” Sibley continued, not losing a beat.

“What? I don’t recall...” Eric started.

“A long, long time ago, you instructed me on this.”

Eric sighed and put down the arcane spanner.

“Lay on, Macduff,” he said, bowing to Sibley.

Eric followed his steward to the library, where as usual, a fire roared in the fireplace, awaiting the master’s pleasure.

Sibley pointed.

Atop the mantle of the fireplace, where once had been a small shotglass with a butterfly motif, there was nothing but shattered glass.

“Well,” Eric smiled, “I’ll be.”

“Indeed,” Sibley agreed.

“Get me the brandy, then. One last toast.”

From the other end of the mantle, Eric took the butterfly glass’ twin, a shotglass with a moon symbol upon it, and held it out to Sibley. The steward poured a small touch of brandy into it, and Eric tossed it back.

“To happiness,” he said, smiled, and tossed the glass into the fire, where it too shattered.

“Sibley,” sighed Eric. “Get me a boat.”

***

Khyrisse lay in the circle of Ebreth’s arms, her breathing light and regular, the slight, spare curves of her body drawn more softly than usual. Her head nestled in the hollow of his left shoulder, her tapering ear pressing over his heart. A faint smile lingered around the corners of her mouth and eyes.

Ebreth stroked her hair, and she murmured something drowsily affectionate in Elvish, snuggling closer before drifting off again. She was pressed lightly against his side, her hand resting in a relaxed arch on his chest, the long fingers slightly curled like the ribs of a seashell... for the first time in a long while, sleeping peacefully.

Don’t Mess With Belle: Willing Sacrifices

“So let me make sure I’ve got this straight,” the psilord frowned. “You were minding your own business when out of nowhere the Emperor of Diaria blackmailed you into killing some serial murderer by implanting a psionic feedback loop in your mind?”

Belle nodded.

“And... have you been working on this contract?”

“Yup,” Belle said. “I hired Edyric, the archer.”

“I am familiar with Edyric,” Praxis frowned.

“So, Mister Fuzzybottom, think you can help me out here?”

Inez mouthed “Mister Fuzzybottom?”

“Of course such an abuse of the Gift is something I abhor,” Praxis said. “But if I do this for you, how am I to know that you won’t seek vengeance?”

“I’m... willing to deal,” Belle said softly. “My freedom is worth more than my vengeance.”

“Fine,” Praxis said. “If I block off this loop, I want you to promise me that you’ll recall Edyric. Immediately. If Edyric goes and kills the Emperor, you’ll have to deal with me.”

“I can make that promise,” Belle said.

“I also want you to promise that you won’t hire anyone else or try to kill the Emperor yourself.”

Belle sighed. “Done,” she finally agreed.

“Would you let my husband verify this?” Inez asked suspiciously.

“Sure,” Belle said to Praxis. “You’ve got to go in there to fix this anyway.”

Praxis stared at Belle, making contact with the uncannily high-level genetic construct. Finally, he looked up. “She’s telling the truth.”

“Huh,” Inez said.

“So, let’s get to it, then,” Belle said. “I’ve got an assassin to unhire.”

Calm Before The Storm

“Ankharji, Shilsa,” said Flicker, squeezing the Diari politician against him tightly as he congratulated her. She almost giggled. Flicker was trying to think when he had seen her so happy. “You must be Anjra,” he said over Shilree’s head to the taller woman.

“I am,” she said, looking with obvious curiosity at her fiancée’s strange kiljhac best friend. “I’ve heard so much about you.”

“And I you,” he said, switching to the Low Diari used between friends.

“Is this a social call Sunny, or do you have business in Diarni?” Shilree asked.

“Neither,” he said, deadpan. “Threnody’s here to plan your stag party.”

“Stag party?” said Anjra, incredulously.

Shilree covered her face.

“Know where we can schedule some male strippers around here?”

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