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The Book of Ataniel

The Art Of Losing Archives
Men Without Souls: Part 40

When Women Say Maybe

“So, uh,” Jack said, shuffling up to Aithne after the meeting ended. “I, um, wanted to ask you, ah, if sometime maybe you wanted to go out sometime. Like, uh, for dinner or something. A date.”

Aithne blinked at Jack. She knew the word ‘date.’ Thalia had explained to her all about it. “You... date... with me?” Jack flushed and looked down. “Val will not be angry?”

Jack looked up very suddenly. “Val? Why would Val be mad?”

“Vickie Dare say I should not sex with you because Val will be angry me,” she explained. Jack sat down. “Val is your wife?”

“No...” Jack said, his mind running hard.

“You are her consort? I don’t wanna make Val angry with me. Mabye I like a date with you if she is not angry.”

“Maybe,” corrected Jack.

“Maybe.”

***

Was that a yes? Or a no? He couldn’t ask Val... there was no way. He’d rather lead the group than that. Now she was standing there, looking at Jack. Maybe if he left then she’d forget all about it and he could pretend he never screwed up like this. All Jack knew for sure at this point was that he needed to get out of there.

“So, um, okay.” Jack said. “Well, if you, uh, do decide to, then let me know. I didn’t mean to, um, make you feel uncomfortable or anything. I’ve got to go, um, work on those decoder rings now.” Jack fled.

***

“And she said?”

“Maybe,” sighed Jack.

“Maybe, that’s good, Jack,” said Ebreth. “Women who say maybe are almost always interested in the end.”

“Actually she said ‘mabye’.”

“Women who say mabye are always interested.”

“I don’t think that’s statistically significant there, Ebreth.”

Scorpion’s Nest: Last Movement of the MacGuffin

“Do you really have to go, honey?” said the rookie, sitting up in bed.

“Yeah, it looks that way.” Tammy lit up a cigarette.

“I still don’t see why,” he whined, like a child denied dessert by a harsh parent.

“Because, the new boss wants me to ship out to Nylevia. Seems the big bosses are developing a jones for entrepeneurial spirit or some shit. So they’re sending a few of us more experienced girls to start biz till they can do some local recruiting.” Tammy’s new pimp was indeed hauling ass to please the lords of the City. Maybe because her last pimp had been killed.

“You want me to set ‘em straight, babe?” Rookie puffed up. “I'm a cop! We rule Rimbor and we don’t take shit from nobody!”

Jeez-us! Could he be any more naïve? She stroked his cheek gently. “That's sweet, Jim, but you’re first year on the force, and everyone hates your partner's ugly face. Give it time. You’ll need to wait a few years before you've got any real pull.”

“Okay. I'll be there for you! I love you.”

She kissed him. Right. That's how much more naive he could be.

From the window on the opposite side of the bedroom, a hand gnarled but steady slipped silently in, and with an unnoticed shudder of psionics the soul of John Tucson flew from the young policeman’s discarded trousers and into the waiting fingers.

The Education of Aithne the Ratpack

Aithne watched in distress as Jack fled. Had she rejected him? Had she opened a wound by referring to his relationship with the mysterious Val? What should she have said? She couldn’t possibly risk Val’s wrath by going on a date with Jack without her permission. She didn’t even know, really, what a date implied, socially. Did Jack want to court her, or was he asking to be her consort, or did he just want sex? She didn’t completely understand what relationships meant in this strange culture anyway. There didn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to anyone’s choices about men. Why would Val be possessive of a man she barely ever spoke to if he wasn’t her husband? Why was Khyrisse marrying her consort? Rani didn’t even seem to like men at all. Things were so much simpler back home, Aithne thought mournfully. There at least everyone knew their place.

She thought about what Mina had said last night. I’m still learning myself, but I do know that you don’t learn much without asking questions.

Okay, Mina, she thought, squaring her slim shoulders. I hope you know what you’re talking about, because here I go.

***

“Khyrisse?” Aithne bobbed her head anxiously at the older mage, lifting both of her hands in her gesture of fealty. “I can ask you a question?”

“Of course, Aithne,” said Khyrisse.

“I don’t say your decision is bad,” she said, carefully. “I only want to learn your decision way.”

“It’s okay to disagree with me, Aithne,” said Khyrisse, with a puff of a sigh. “I’m not a flarking drill sergeant.” She moved her hand vaguely, trying to rephrase for the girl’s benefit. “If you have another idea, you should tell me. Your opinion makes me happy.”

Aithne looked gratified, though Khyrisse was pretty sure she hadn’t understood all of it. “Okay. I want you to explain me please. Why you marry Ebreth?”

Khyrisse was a bit too stunned by the question to answer it right away. “I--what?”

“Marry Ebreth,” she said patiently. “He is your consort. You are queen and god. I think it is bad marriage for us.”

Khyrisse fought down the urge to snap at the girl. It’s not fair, I just told her I wanted her opinion. How was she to know this wasn’t what I meant? “I’m not a queen,” was the first thing that came out.

“You rule New Trade country,” Aithne dismissed the semantics. “You are god and powerful magic. You should marry queen’s son or king. So why you wanna marry your consort?”

“Because--” Khyrisse pinched the bridge of her nose. “Look. Aithne. My country. New Trade. Is a neutral country. That means I need to treat all the other countries the same. Right? So I shouldn’t have a political marriage. So I might as well marry for love.”

Aithne thought about that. “If you marry king, it will be bad for your country?”

“Yes,” said Khyrisse, and then, under her breath, “not to mention there’s no flarking way I’d be putting myself through this for a political alliance I could get any of a dozen other ways.”

Aithne, as intended, ignored the rapid aside. “If you marry consort, it will not embarrass our family? In my country, marry consort will look like suddenly you lose power.”

“It’s pretty normal to marry your lover out here,” Khyrisse assured her.

“Your other consorts will not hate him?”

Khyrisse blinked at the girl several times. “What other consorts?”

Aithne shrugged. “Schneider?”

“Augh!” Khyrisse pulled her hair. “You don’t even speak Dalen, and you already know about that?”

Aithne pulled back, frightened. “Sorry!” she cried.

“No, I’m not mad at you, Aithne...” The archmage pressed her temples. “I slept with Schneider twice! ...Just don’t even worry about that part, Aithne, it’s way too complicated to explain.”

Aithne nodded, looking very much like she wanted to run away, but she stood her ground. “Pretty normal here,” she said, “queen to marry a man is lower than her, or queen to consort a man is same?” Khyrisse licked her lip, working on parsing that. Aithne pressed on. “You will marry same man from consort. In my country, queen’s consort is lower than queen, but queen’s husband is not lower than her. Here it’s pretty normal to marry your consort. Queen will marry lower man easily here, or queen will find consort is not lower here?”

Khyrisse just stared at Aithne for a second, overwhelmed by the girl’s ability to isolate distinctions between the two cultures. It hadn’t even occurred to Khyrisse that those were the pertinent issues, and she was no dim bulb. “Consorts aren’t lower,” she said. “Consorts can be the same. Ebreth and I are equals. Same power.”

Aithne’s face blossomed into a relieved smile. “I understand!” she said, and bobbed a quick curtsey. “Thank you for explain me. Now I understand. Bye!” She escaped back to the group.

“Besides,” said Khyrisse, to no one, “I was married to a king once already. It sucked.”

***

“Hi Val!” Aithne waved her hand anxiously in the beautiful elven woman’s face as she sat on her bed packing her shoulder bag for the return trip to the Diari ruins. “I can ask you a question? I am very confused girl.”

Valende actually looked more relaxed and less sad this morning, although Aithne, no fool she, could tell she’d been crying. “What can I help you with?” she said softly.

“What is relationship between you and Jack?”

The elf didn’t respond for a few moments.

“You are married?” Aithne elaborated uneasily.

“No,” said Val. “No, we’re not married.”

“He is your consort?”

“No,” she said, more quietly.

“You love him?”

“Aithne,” said Val, “did Jack send you to talk to me?”

“No,” she said. “Jack ask me for a date. I don’t wanna make you mad. If a woman love a man, it is bad another woman to date with him? In my country, sex with another woman’s husband is big crime, but sex with another woman’s consort is pretty normal. Here, husband and consort don’t mean same thing from my country. So, it is okay to sex with more than one person here, or not okay?”

Valende looked away, her eyes filling. “It depends,” she said. “It depends on the people involved, and the relationship. Some people it will hurt, some people it won’t. It’s--hard to know which sometimes. I’m sorry. It’s not as clear as your country.”

Aithne nodded anxiously. “It depends on the people?” she said. “I think Khyrisse will be angry if I sex with Ebreth but she will not be angry if I sex with Schneider, though both man, men, are her consorts.”

“Were her consorts,” murmured Val. “Yes, dear, that’s probably a safe assumption.”

“You will be angry if I date with Jack,” she finished, “or not?”

“I’ve--got no claim on him, Aithne,” she said gently, something strange in her voice. “I won’t be angry. I won’t be hurt, either.”

“But you are gonna want him for consort later?” she pressed. “I don’t wanna fight with you. You are here first.”

“Aithne,” said Val, “I have a friendship with Jack in desperate need of repair before I even think about anything more than that. Go on a date. Make him happy.”

***

“What’s up, Aithne?” Mina gave her an encouraging smile, trying to hide her lingering unease with the other young magic-user. She seemed to be acclimatizing to the Rat Pack pretty well, but some of her reactions to things still left Mina worried. Of course, it could just be the prejudice against witches that had been somewhat ingrained during the Madness. As such, Mina was trying to be careful to be as openminded to Aithne as she could. It wouldn’t be fair otherwise.

“I need your advice,” said Aithne. “Your cousin ask me for a date.”

“Jack?” Mina boggled. “He did? Are... you going to say yes?”

“I don’t know,” she confessed. “I like Jack. He is nice man. He is only one to help me sometimes when I am lonely in this place. But I need you to explain me please, what do you think he want? Because I don’t understand date here.” She fiddled with a piece of her dark chestnut hair, awkwardly. “And maybe you know if he love Val? I don’t wanna be a bad woman between them.”

“What does Jack want?” Mina repeated, still trying to parse that her cousin had actually asked someone out on a date. “You mean other than to have things go wrong so he can mope about them?”

“Jack like to mope?” said Aithne. “What is mope?”

“That was a joke, Aithne... I’m just poking fun. Jeez, Jack really asked you out?”

“Why I would say you what is not true?” said Aithne.

“Wow. Well, I think what Jack really wants is to find someone who really cares about him. He doesn’t think he deserves it, and so to him, someone caring about him is the most wonderful thing in the world. Someone who thinks about him when no one else is. Someone he can constantly be surprised by, who he never tires of learning about.”

“He just asked date, Mina,” Aithne mentioned.

“Um. Right.” Mina smiled and bit her lip. “Well, I think that if he asked you out, you should go. If he and Val have stuff to work out--which I really couldn’t see why, considering Val dated an entirely different Jack--then they’ll work it out. But you aren’t part of that, and should just go on establishing your own relationship.”

Aithne frowned while listening, probably trying to figure out what weird grammatical structure the “different Jack” was, but nodded as Mina finished. “Thank you. I will think about what you say now.”

“You go, girl,” said Mina.

***

“Jack?” He looked like he was going to run away. Aithne wondered, briefly, whether women were supposed to physically chase men in this culture. She couldn’t believe she was even trying to negotiate a romantic relationship in a society she knew this little about with a thousand-word vocabulary. Aithne was just constantly biting off more than she could chew. “Please don’t run away,” she said, “I am not very fast runner.” He blinked a couple times parsing that, and she pounced on the few seconds it bought her to say “I want to go on a date with you, but I don’t know how to do a date here and Mina don’t, doesn’t, understand my question so you have to show me please.”

“I,” said Jack, very awkwardly, “haven’t, uh, really been on, a lot of dates, really.”

“Okay,” said Aithne, “but what you mean by ‘date,’ Jack? We are gonna have sex on the date?” Jack turned scarlet. “Or what you are asking me for?”

“A dignified escape?” mumbled Jack.

“Because I just get here,” she said, her brow crinkling a little. “I can not know. And I don’t wanna hurt anybody. Val say it’s okay to date you--” Jack staggered a little, as if she had punched him in the stomach. She looked at him with anxious consternation. “You are okay? I say something bad?”

“You... asked... Val?”

“Mina tell me ask questions is good,” she said, uneasily.

Jack covered his face with his hands. “Maybe three months is a little long,” he muffled. “Maybe I could just will myself into nonexistence right here and now.”

Aithne didn’t understand that at all. Oh, this is not going well. She wrung one of her hands unhappily in the other, feeling lonelier and more inept than she had in a long time. Well, there’s nothing to lose, I guess. “Um,” she started, because that was how Jack and Mina generally preceded complicated statements, “I am sorry I am difficult. This place is strange to me, so I make mistakes easily. But I will like to be someone who really cares about you and someone who thinks about you when no one else is.” She peeked hopefully out at him through the stray wisps of her hair, hoping Mina’s words were better than her own. “So I will like to go on a date with you if you will tell me how to do. Is that okay? I am a confused girl, please be patient with me.”

“Well, uh,” said Jack, “what I was kind of looking for was, um, us going out for dinner, you know, the two of us... and like, talking, getting to know each other? People go on a date to see if they’re interested in someone, in developing the relationship to something more.”

“More like sex or more like marriage?”

“Uh. Well, those are, um, some possibilities. But it kind of takes longer than just one date. Here, you, uh, only do those things if you’re in love with someone.”

Aithne thought about that. “So Vickie must love many people.”

“Okay, I only do those things if I’m in love with someone.”

“And are you?” asked Aithne.

“Damned if I know,” Jack muttered, thinking elsewhere momentarily. “But I know I’d like to, uh, date you and see where it goes.”

“So you do not know how to date, either,” nodded Aithne, finally understanding.

“Nope.” Jack shrugged and smiled weakly.

Aithne wondered how children ever got conceived in this strange future time.

Devil’s Analysis

Kingfisher was looking carefully at Jack’s notes, frowning. When she looked up it was at Ebreth. “You fell apart before that combat,” she said directly. “Why?”

Ebreth rubbed his neck. “I, ah, I’m kind of fucked up in the head,” he mumbled. “I have these flashbacks sometimes. I’m sorry.”

The warrior woman was unfazed. “What triggers them? Are there measures we can take to prevent them?”

“Not really,” sighed Ebreth. “It’s, more or less random, for your purposes.”

Kingfisher frowned down at the notes. “Then you are exceedingly competent most of the time,” she said, “but occasionally completely useless, and we can’t predict which?”

Ebreth looked down. “Well,” he said, “that’s about the long and the short of it, yes.”

“You have a cube of force?” Kingfisher turned her interrogation to Khyrisse.

The archmage’s arms were folded tightly. “Yes,” she contributed, minimally.

“Give it to Skitch.” Kingfisher jerked her head at Khyrisse’s apprentice. “He can stick with Ebreth in combat. If things go well, Ebreth should be more than able to protect him from the elahjh, and if they go badly, Skitch can activate the forcefield around the two of them and we won’t have to waste one of your combat rounds looking after him again.”

Khyrisse blinked in astonishment at the sheer sensibleness of that. “I don’t need to be protected,” whined Skitch.

“If you want to throw missiles at the enemy without their interfering, you do. I recommend that Marty Hu and I--” she interrupted her clipped analysis to give the paladin her version of an adoring smile--”concentrate on providing a similar front line for our mages. They can obviously identify spellcasting, and they went for Khyrisse and Aithne first off last time. If the mages stick close together and the elahjh continue to use these hexagonal attack patterns, Marty and I should be able to interpose ourselves and keep them from reaching you. If each of our mages had been able to cast a useful spell each round we would have been victorious.” Kingfisher turned the page. “Jack, am I correct that the creatures were unable to sense you at all?”

“Uh, well, yes,” mumbled Jack, shuffling his feet.

“He doesn’t have a brain,” Rani elaborated helpfully.

“Good,” said Kingfisher. “Khyrisse, give him one of your damage wands. They’ll have no way of retaliating.” She looked at Jack’s notes one more time and then handed them back to him. “That is all I noticed. My other suggestion was to adopt a more fluid front line to accomodate the movements of Vickie Dare, but that is no longer an issue. I recommend that everyone look over Jack’s notes to familiarize themselves with the monsters’ attack patterns, and that Orlen spend his first action mentally scanning for any additional enemies and identifying them to us if there are any. We can’t afford to be taken unawares if foes with different capabilities are going to join the equation.”

“I noticed that the elahjh have an unusually high resistance to non-physical magic,” Mina contributed. “We’re probably better off sticking with attack spells and spells that augment the fighters... maybe we could even cast some of those before we go.”

“Mistake,” said Kingfisher. “If the monsters give us the run-around until the spells run out, we’ll have lost them completely.”

Mina nodded thoughtfully. “Valende and Aithne should probably concentrate on healing the people the elahjh hit,” she said. “They do so much damage at a time, keeping them from decimating our ranks is probably more effective than adding to the attack would be.”

“An excellent point,” said Kingfisher. “You have a tactical mind.” She said it like a great compliment.

“Aithne should help hurt people when we fight,” Jack explained for his date-to-be.

“I can,” she nodded.

“Then vivat Grendel,” said the avatar-in-training, with grim relish. “And to victory.”

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