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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 28

Trouble Me

Jack sidled nervously up to Valende as Octavian drew Ebreth aside for a little chat. “Uh, Val? Can I ask you something, uh... privately?”

Jack couldn’t tell what the emotion that crossed Val’s face was, but it animated her features in a way that caused Jack to remember once again what it was that he still carried from his Other.

“Are you all right?” the elven woman said low, as they moved away from the others. “You look... well, it seems to me that you look concerned.”

Jack nodded, though her familiarity with his expression and mood still caught him off guard. “I... well, I was curious if there was some way for you to magically determine if someone had a soul.”

“You don’t mean John Tucson, I assume,” Val said.

“Uh, well, no,” he admitted. “I know you know... about me. About what I am.”

“You’re as much a person as anyone here,” she said reflexively.

“I, uh, thanks.” Jack blushed. “But all this has sort of brought home that people really do have an ineffable spirit component. Soul, chi, ka... the thing that goes on to the afterlife when someone dies. I’ve always assumed I didn’t... as a math equation, when my sequence runs, uh, out, I just stop. Cease being. But I wanted to know if there was some way you could see if there was something else there.”

Val smiled. “There are artifacts that reveal the true nature of your soul,” she said, “and masters who can read the fabric of your spiritual aura... maybe when we’re done here we could find one of those.”

“Uh, is there anything that could check a little more quickly? Just to see if it’s there, not any of the, uh, other stuff.”

Val laughed. “Why the rush, Jack? It’s not like...”

She stopped and paled.

“Uh,” Jack said eloquently.

Val stood there, open mouthed.

“Two months, twenty-six days, fourteen hours and, uh, thirty-one minutes,” Jack admitted. “And I might have just sold my soul earlier today if I have one.”


“What of Tucson’s henchmen?” Kingfisher wanted to know. “Did you slay any of those foul villains?”

“I wish,” Rani said, sounding even crabbier than usual. “Aithne piggified a couple of guards, I guess. And I think Schneider goaded Tucson into whacking a torturer.” Schneider blinked at the detective, thoroughly confused by that allegation. “No sign of Princess Punkette or elfboy’s boyfriend.”

“For the last time,” snapped Vastarin, his usual geniality starting to wear thin, “I am not attracted to that--that pervert!” The elf crossed his arms in disgust. “He’s no more my type than he is yours.”

“Really?” said Rani, surprised. “Huh. Go figure. I would have sworn you went both ways.”

“Female and male,” said the elf, “not normal and disgusting, Rani.”

Vickie rolled her eyes. “Cover me.”

“What?” started Schneider, but Vickie had already moved with a nimble grace that Schneider knew all too well from years of knowing Tila.

He watched her wander over towards the Augustine Arms, then change direction so suddenly that if he hadn’t been paying close attention he would have assumed she continued on into the hotel. Instead she ducked back into the shadows below the ramada and started to creep towards where Octavian was busy grilling Ebreth Tor.

“Cover you,” sighed Schneider. “How do I get into these things?” He started over towards Tor--Khyri’s fiancé?--then forced a trip, shouted in mock surprise, and somersaulted three times to roll to a halt right in front of the vigilante and the ex-slaver. He looked up with feigned surprise at them.

“Oops!” he grinned.

“So I guess we’re done here?” Tor said to Octavian, looking almost welcome for the interruption.

That was when Vickie Dare grabbed Octavian’s hood and mask and yanked back hard.

Interlude: Shilree B’s Most Effective Vengeance By Far

It had been some time, but things were starting to look up for Don Alliejin.

He still had not learned who had framed the Diari mafia for the murder of a policeman. The aged don had run a Xihadist purge of his own ranks and had acquired nothing but dead bodies. He had taken the largest financial hit of his lifetime trying to normalize relations with the police, and, worse, lost his third son Kairan to underground warfare. In short, the Alliejin family was wielding less power than they had in decades, and losses were being cut.

Then the new Emperor had banned the use of the Gift.

Most people, of course, called it “a bold new directive of the Emperor’s,” but the man they called the Silver Fox was one of a very few dozens of Diarians to know the truth about the leadership of the Empire, and he had not been born yesterday. It was the day after he had discharged his debt to the genetic warrior GA-4 that the course of the country had begun, if subtly, to alter. Don Alliejin had not reached the position he had by missing such cues. GA-4 had assassinated the last Emperor. And once again, repaying a favor with a favor rightly due had somehow found its way around to Don Alliejin’s karma.

For the Psicorps had been disbanded.

The Family’s own use of the Gift would have to be watched carefully now, of course. But the Diari government, with its much larger population to draw on, had always had the advantage psionically. It was the Psicorps, the jackbooted thought police, who had stymied the mafia more than any five other Diari initiatives. With them gone-- with the forcible mind-reading that was legal in Diari court of law gone--‘enforcement’ and ‘prosecution’ were suddenly swinging the Family’s way.

Hostilities with the local authorities in Srankaijhi and Tesin were finally starting to calm down, due to prodigious bribery and Don Alliejin’s ability to parlay the painful loss of his son into an eye-for-an-eye settlement for the slain police officer. His second son Relan was firmly established now as ambassador to the economic federation Ebreth Tor and his apparent ajhilia Khyrisse Paris were carving out, and the joining of forces once again with an old friend thought dead made Don Alliejin’s heart glad in his chest. The Diari economy had never been better. If the heady Tucson boy could stave off the machinations of Hajhizae Hasfur, the international trade through Rimbor looked well. And now this: freedom from the Psicorps. A whole new playing field. Even more profoundly, contraband psi. There was racketeering to be done here.

So Don Alliejin was characteristically nervous to receive a chartered missive from the office of Emperor Corwin. No news was good news in times of recovery. Alliejin feared a conflict he didn’t have the resources for yet. He slit the envelope, though, with the sinuous kris knife on the desk before him, and opened it immediately. Don Alliejin had never been one to put off bad tidings.

Hey, Mr. Mafia, read the letter, prompting Don Alliejin to think, momentarily, that it was from Belle. According to this Emperor gestalt thingy, you guys are running a slave trade out of Srankaijhi! What gives?

The Diari government had long known about the highly illegal slave trade, of course, but for the most part had looked the other way so long as it preyed upon lower-caste bevrin and foreign kiljhacs. Don Alliejin thought quickly. Without the thought police or the psionic extraction of evidence, it would be impossible for the Emperor to stamp out the slave trade entirely. Evading an active campaign would have a heavy toll, though. Perhaps the drug markets and the new trade in illicit psionics could take up some of the slack. He sighed and read on.

I don’t know what kind of slipshod governance you’re used to, but if you think I’m putting up with being cut out you can think again. I want taxes paid in full monthly, and I want sixty nubile foreign youths delivered to my palace by the end of this week! Don’t you skimp on the pretty ones, either, or I’ll start cutting people’s fingers off. Ad Caesarum Caesarae, as one of the blowhard old guys always says.

Cheers, Yyrkie.

Don Alliejin stared at the paper for a full six minutes.

“Godfather?” whispered the messenger, trembling at the knees. Alliejin looked up and waved his hand gently at the girl. “Go, go,” he said. “You have done well. Fetch me my son Hassan.” He looked at the letter again. The man is completely mad. But if I can stay out of his way and provide him with ample tribute, the Diari slave trade is going to take off like a Shastyri skyship. “I appear to have received an offer I can’t refuse,” he chuckled, dryly.


The Rat Pack stared as Vickie Dare yanked off Octavian’s disguising hood. “My God!” Schneider said. “Octavian is really--”

“--no one any of you would know,” Octavian replied, in tones of frozen steel. The slanting rays of the sunset fell on on a lean, older man’s face carefully covered with blacking, all but the glittering eyes and mouth. He whirled and seized Vickie by the wrist with one hand, removing the hood and mask from her grasp with the other. “This is my property, I believe.” He yanked her upwards until she was nearly dangling off the ground. “Do that again, and you will find yourself missing this hand,” he whispered ominously into her startled face.

The vigilante dropped Vickie on top of Schneider, and flipped the hood back over his features with an air of forcibly restrained anger. “Can you vouch for this person now, as well, Ms. Starshadow?”


“Geez, he’s a nobody...!” Vickie said. “He’s not even that cute.”

“Ixnay on the acefay, Vicks,” advised Schneider, in a stage whisper.

Octavian pulled his mask back into place, glaring coldly at the jester. “This potential expedition of yours gets smaller by the minute.”

Khyrisse yanked on her hair in exasperation. “I don’t believe this! I spend hours trying to hunt down the man to come help us, swear on the soul of my mother that we’re telling the truth and don’t care who he is--and by the time I get back, we’ve got John Tucson in tow and half of us are trying to rip Octavian’s mask off his head?”

“You may wish to sort out your group’s priorities while we’re gone, Ms. Starshadow. I believe Lord Tor and I still have a few things to discuss.”

By the time Khyrisse had spun around, both the vigilante and the former pirate had vanished.

“I hate Rimbor City!”


Vickie held her hand out. Vas dropped ten gold into it.

“I told you it wasn’t Javert,” Vickie smiled.

“I have got to give up gambling,” Vas sighed.


“Are we all packed?” Tarrin asked his wife. “The coach will be here any minute.”

“Yes. Tarrin, do we have to leave?” said Coyri, who was very pregnant with their third child.

Tarrin just turned from her with a sigh and called upstairs. “Lorrini! Sajhir! Are you kids ready?”

“We’ll be down in a minute,” yelled Lorrini.

“It just seems so rash, Tarrin. Just to leave like this. Lorrini was going to head off to university next year and Sajhir is still a child...”

Tarrin crouched in front of his wife and looked into her eyes. -Coyri, we have no choice. Both of us know what will happen if we stay. Already five priests have been killed for disobeying the Emperor’s decree. If we and our unborn child are going to have any hope we must leave.-

- I know. Tarrin, I know.- Coyri buried her fingers in her hair. -But I’m scared. The stories I’ve heard of the outside... they frighten me. How will we raise our family?-

-I’m sure my friends in New Trade will give us shelter. They’re simple people, Coyri, but they’re good ones. You’ll see.- Coyri didn’t say anything. -And we’re not going to be gone forever, after all. When the time is right, we will return.-

“Father!” yelled Lorrini’s voice from upstairs.

“What is it?” he called back.

“We need help closing the trunk.”

“I’ll be right up!”

Tarrin kissed his wife and walked upstairs to help the kids. Coyri watched him then closed her eyes. She felt the tears coming but held them back. She had to be strong for her husband, for herself, but above all for the family.

An Inability To Let Sleeping Dogs Lie

Rani shook her head dizzily, trying to clear it, as Octavian flipped his dark cloak in creepily melodramatic fashion and he and Tor were gone into the night. I don’t care who Octavian is. I don’t care who Octavian is. Oh, girl, you and your PI reflexes are going to get your ass so killed. Rani stood on the darkening street and tried not to think about why Octavian’s face had looked strangely familiar, why she couldn’t place it, or, most especially, why she had the intuitive feeling that that face had looked very different when last she had seen it.

Rani, whose mind moved much faster than her willpower even in her current wooziness, failed at all these things.

“Where’s Mina?” she said suddenly, distracting not only herself from her musings but Khyrisse from the ass-chewing she was just about to launch into Vickie.

Everyone frowned and looked around. No one answered.

“Fuck,” muttered Rani, thinking of Mina Paris out alone on the streets of Rimbor City at night.

Strangely, she was less afraid of what might happen to Mina out there than of what the young sorceress might see, and how it might change her.

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