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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 34

Pit Stop

“So,” Fancy said in an upperclass accent, “you’re Jack Paris. I liked your paper on nonlinear topology. Never thought of surface mapping that way.”

“Huh?” Jack looked up from his notebook.

“Surface mapping on a non-Euclidean plane. Bloody brill.”

“Oh, thanks!” stammered Jack. “Nice, uh, dress.”

“You really think so? Seemed a bit long, but it rides up nicely in combat. I noticed you didn’t pick up any flak back there. What’s your secret?”

“Uh, I’m naturally low-key.”

“I’m naturally posh, myself.”

“I, uh, noticed.”

“You seem busy. Another paper?”

“No, I, ah, just noticed a few significant tactical weaknesses while, uh, just standing there. I’m writing them all down. You know, disadvantages they had that we could, uh, take advantage of.”

“Well, anything I can contribute, let me know.”

“Actually,” Jack said, biting his pencil, “could you check on Ebreth? I know Khyri’s taking care of him, but I keep losing my train of thought worrying.”

“I’ll see if I can squeeze over to ‘im.”

“Thanks, uh...”

“Fancy. I’m the smart one.”

“I won’t forget,” Jack grinned weakly.

***

The three-wheeled Carriage listed in a very ugly way. “I can fix this for real in the morning,” said Rani, her denim-clad legs sticking out from under the bed of the carriage as she used her Gift and a monkey wrench to juryrig the fourth wheel tight enough to get the vehicle back to Rimbor City in one piece.

Ebreth nodded, though he knew she couldn’t see it, and breathed the night air as steadily as he could.

“Excuse me,” came a smooth, modulated voice from his other side. He turned his head with as close to a smile as he could muster. It was one of the Price Girls, the one who was actually on the attractive side. “Are you Ebreth Tor?”

“Why doesn’t anyone ever ask me an easy question,” he sighed, “like how we’re going to get back into those ruins tomorrow, or something?”

She looked a bit taken aback, in a posh way, but apparently parsed that as a yes. “Jack Paris asked me to pop by and see if you were doing quite all right. He’s worried about you.”

Ebreth put his hand over his face. I don’t deserve a friend like him. “I’m all right,” he said, a little bit throttled, “thank you. Tell him I’m fine, I’m just, I’m having a difficult day, just, trying to make sense of some things. That’s all.”

“Don’t we all sometimes,” she smiled, and swished away.

Ebreth closed his eyes and wished the world were simple.

Interlude: Going Native

Sahree picked at her bland steamed salmon with the fork her sister had sent her from Tesin. She had missed the delicate, spicy Diari cuisine so many times in the past year that it had almost become routine, but today it made her feel somehow sad. “Why the long face?” boomed Olaf Trollslayer, crashing into the chair beside her and pushing a tankard of the Norse ale she had never grown fond of at her.

“I’ve been recalled to Irla, Trollslayer,” Sahree said softly.

“Recalled?...” The big priest frowned at her phrasing. “They don’t think you’re doing a bad job out here, do they? It’s hardly your fault they assigned you to a county without much mental illness. You were a tremendous help bringing Videsund through the winter.” Sahree smiled a little at his support, remembering how much he and the other Norsemen had resisted her placement at first. That seemed so long ago now. “If you need someone to come to Irla and vouch for you--”

“No, no, that’s not it at all.” Sahree found herself too ashamed to tell Trollslayer he couldn’t go to Irla even if she needed him to. “They’re recalling everyone. I, I guess our work out here is done.” Sahree resented that. She hadn’t wanted to leave Diaria in the first place, but if she had known it would only be for a year she would absolutely have put her foot down. Thank the Goddess she didn’t have serious mental patients here, because abandoning patients so early in the recovery process would have been gut-wrenching for a devoted healer like Sahree.

“Oh!” said Trollslayer. “Well, you must be excited to be getting back home. This weather’s been hell on you, pardon the Tobrinese.”

“If they’d recalled me in the winter,” she laughed, “I would have been dancing in the streets. It’s almost July now, and it’s seventy-two degrees out here, and the doorknobs are just starting to melt in Irla.”

“In a few months,” he grinned back at her, “think of us and have the last laugh.”

Sahree looked down at her plate. “I don’t know if I’ll recognize it when I get back,” she confessed. “I don’t understand the changes that are happening there. They’ve banned the use of the Gift now.”

“Your brain powers?” exclaimed Trollslayer, apparently forgetting how suspicious of them he had been back when she first arrived. “How can they do that? Aren’t they sacred in your religion?”

“Yes,” she said in a small voice. “I... have been wondering if the Emperor sent we priests of Pysyri to foreign lands only to keep us from interfering with the development of this new policy.” It was something that might have occurred to a Riklander, not to a loyal member of the Diari hierarchy. Sahree felt miserable for even thinking such a thing about the Great Emperor.

“You must protest the policy,” Trollslayer said, banging his stein on the table solidly. “If your church refuses to support it, maybe the Emperor will change his mind.”

“That just isn’t how Diaria works, Trollslayer.” Sahree pushed her plate of bad-tasting fish away ferociously. “Let’s not talk about this anymore.”

The bearded priest looked at her curiously, but nodded. “What would you like to talk about, then?”

She still hadn’t gotten over the Riklanders’ directness. Sahree had yet to meet a Norseman as clever as the Diarians she had known at home; they didn’t even try to figure things out on their own, or if they did they kept it to themselves. But if the lack of subtlety kept Riklandir from reaching intellectual excellence, there was something clear and fresh about it, like a cold bath in the morning, and Sahree wasn’t at all sure she was looking forward to the sophistication and double-entendres of Irla. “I’m going to miss you, Trollslayer,” she admitted.

He paused only a moment and then pulled his heavy pewter signet ring from one of his thick fingers. “You don’t have to, you know,” he said. “You’re a strange woman, Sahree, and I don’t think any of us really understand you, but you have the heart of a Viking warrior in that little frame of yours. You have done great deeds for this fylke, and I would be proud to call you my younger sister.” He put the ring in her palm and closed her six fingers around it. “You are welcome in Videsund as long as you want to stay here, Sahree, and the goddess who calls you to heal your fellow men is welcome in the Church of Risen Balder.”

Sahree felt somehow like a weight had been lifted from her heart. She looked down at the signet ring in her hand and up at the burly priest. How strange I once thought men with beards looked. “I would be honored to be your younger sister, Olaf,” she said.

“Then by Asgard, let us feast tonight,” he bellowed, slamming his fist on the table so hard her fish jumped from the plate as if it wanted to join the other salmon on their journey upstream.

Breakdown

The Trade Carriage tore through the night sky, heading back towards Rimbor City.

“Um, Mom... Where are we going?”

“We’re going back to Rimbor and finding a safe place to spend the night and heal up,” she said. “And anyone who doesn’t like it can get off here and kiss the ground hello.”

Skitch pursed his mouth up in an alarmed and silent whistle, and promptly found something fascinating to pay attention to in the darkness whizzing by.

Khyrisse scowled ahead at the lights of Rimbor City, grinding her teeth at the sound of the inane chatter behind her. “I take it you wouldn’t suggest the Augustine Arms?” she said sarcastically to the vigilante sharing the driver’s board with her.

“No.”

“Gosh, I’m so surprised. Why not?”

Octavian studied the angry archmage for a moment. “Because half the staff is in the pay of the underworld and the other half is incompetent. You would do better to find a derelict building in which to set up your mansion, Ms. Starshadow... if you can restrain your group sufficiently to avoid attracting attention.”

Khyrisse muttered something under her breath and parked the Carriage outside a long-closed cannery. “If you want to--”

The vigilante was gone.

Khyrisse sighed violently. The damaged Carriage rocked as she jumped down from the driver’s board. She turned around and studied it morosely, and said not a word.

People disembarked from the Carriage in a chattering waterfall of humanity. Khyrisse didn’t move.

“Aren’t we setting up the mansion?”

Khyrisse threw her backpack at the ground so hard that it rebounded up into the side of the Carriage. “No, no gods-be-damned mansion!” she shouted at the poor hapless Rat Packer who’d been foolish enough to ask, not knowing or caring who it was. “No personal Trade Carriage, no fancy international headquarters, and no traveling bed-and-breakfast! The Rat Pack is disbanded, as far as I’m concerned! I’m sick of playing den mother to a pack of bickering irresponsible juvenile delinquents, afraid to open my mouth or put my foot down for fear of stepping on someone’s ever-so-sacred independence! I’m going to leave you all here to the Locusts and the Scorpion and the rest of the vermin and go home, and Rimbor City can go to Hell for all I care!”

There was a stunned silence.

Rani, already unsteady, gave it up and burst into tears. Khyrisse turned to stare at her, eyes wide, shocked out of her fury.

“Don’t go!” she cried out, raw with despair. “I’m sorry I called you a crappy leader. I just can’t take this chaos right now. Please don’t go. I need your help. Please. I can’t do this alone. I don’t know how. Please don’t leave me here.”

Khyrisse slumped a little, looking pained and guilty. “I’m sorry, Rani... I want to help. There’s just too many of us, and nobody’s working together or consulting anyone else, and we nearly got ourselves permanently smeared back there. What is this, a kindergarten outing?” She covered her eyes and stopped, realizing that she was shouting again. “Sorry,” she apologized again, softly. “Merde.” But her other hand was still clenched in a white-knuckled, shaking fist, as if she were ready to belt anyone who gave her the slightest bit of backtalk.

“Maybe we should have a team meeting,” Ebreth said wearily, not meeting anyone’s eyes. “Talk some of this out, hammer out some boundaries we can all either live with or leave the group. You... can skip the part where you kack the people you think are asking for too much.”

“Do I have to?” Khyrisse sniped bitterly, but under her breath. She rubbed her temples, eyes closed, and finally nodded. “All right. I’ll set up the mansion. Anyone who gives a damn is welcome to attend and speak their piece. I reserve the right to kick anyone I please out of my house afterwards.”

“Thank you!” the Rat squeaked.

“...I think you should lead.”

As If This Day Hasn’t Been Long Enough

“Uh, Jack?” Ebreth asked.

Jack looked up and nibbled on the end of his pencil. “Hm?”

“We’re, ah, closing up the carriage.”

“One second... just want to... okay.”

“We’re convening a team meeting in the mansion, if you want to come.”

“Team meeting? About what?”

“Uh, about the nature of the group... organization, chain of command, that sort of thing.”

“Why? Is there a problem?”

Ebreth laughed.

“What? Did I miss something? I’m not going to have to lead again, am I?”

“Just sit in the back and make sense. I’ll try to keep you off the hot seat.”

“Gee, how come I never see these things coming?” Jack mused as he climbed out of the carriage.

***

Not only was Schneider’s Hawaiian shirt shredded beyond repair, the light leather armor he wore underneath it was too. He discarded both and closed his spare shirt gingerly around his bandaged chest.

Oh, come on, Faraker was saying. Tell me you don’t wanna help these guys any way you can. Didn’t it break your heart when the Diarian started crying? Didn’t you want to give her a hug?

Yes, boss--except she’d kill me or something. Aren’t you forgetting, if I try to help, or even open my mouth, I’ll get pasted.

That’s no reason to stop trying, said Flicker.

You’re trying to be a force for good in the world, said Faraker. That means helping the good guys even when it’s no fun, clown-o-mine. And make no mistake, these are the good guys.

Even the brain freak, said Princess Kristin, in a sad, hurt voice that made Schneider wince.

Even the slave dealer, said Luthien, grudgingly.

Even the witch, said Rhynwa. Well, I think.

Our point is, said Faraker, you can’t bail out on people just because they hurt your feelings.

In the real world, Max agreed, people forgive each other.

And you’ve personally seen where evil people end up, which oughta be comforting.

Tough to think of Hell as comforting, thought Schneider, but got up and went to the meeting.

***

Ebreth finished dragging the kitchen chairs into the living room for the impromptu roundtable. Even so, some people were going to have to sit on the floor. Valende had revived Aithne, and the two priestesses were expending the rest of their healing on the badly battered party as best they could. Sennett was serving drinks. “I just hope no one nominates me to lead the group,” Jack confessed nervously, pushing his hair out of his face. “What a disaster that was.”

“I think Jack was a very capable leader,” Ebreth said loyally, and then, after a beat and rather quickly, “and besides, you know a lot of things he didn’t.”

Jack doodled anxiously with his pencil.

There was a tug at Ebreth’s cloak, and he glanced down to see Skitch. “What’s up, Skitch?” he said, and then, figuring acknowledging the boy’s helpfulness was more important than trying to put out of his mind how utterly useless Ebreth had been in the clutch, added “Thanks for getting me back to the Carriage in one piece. Guess we’re even now.”

Skitch grinned. “You’re welcome. Note for you.” He stuck it into Ebreth’s hand and squeezed across to Thalia. “Look out for the Price Girls,” Ebreth heard him tell the princess in a stage whisper. “I think they might be from the Lower Planes. They’re kind of hanging out of their clothing.”

Ebreth smirked and unfolded the paper. Consigliere, it read. That was usually what she called him when they were working on New Trade stuff. I miss my city. At least there I know exactly how much I’m in charge. Where do I start?

“Pencil?” Ebreth asked Jack, who produced another one from out of his pocket. Jack had a seemingly endless supply of pencils. What are your conditions for staying on as leader of the group? he jotted on the bottom of Khyrisse’s note. Role of the leader & of RP members. What do other people need in order to work together effectively. He signed it “ET” and, after a moment, added a heart, then slid it across the coffee table to Khyrisse.

He hoped to Hell this was going to be productive.

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