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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 12

These Dreams of You

Khyrisse hummed throatily to herself as she changed for bed, her enchanted music box wailing out soft blues. Marian was one of her most relaxing reminiscences, and it had been a hard day. She glanced at herself in the mirror. Blue eyes. Ebreth was right. "Oh my crazy baby," she sang, huskily. "Try to hold on tight. Oh my crazy baaaaaaaby, don't put out the light." Maybe Praxis could do something for Mad Sallie. Her poor father seemed equal parts devastated and overjoyed. Khyrisse sighed and got into bed. "And you know you ought to get yourself together, but you feel you're at the bottom of a well. And you've swallowed all the awful bloody secrets, you can't tell." She fell silent as the music paused between verses. It was after midnight. Would he be asleep now? The blues cried on, but Marian the torch singer was gone, and Khyrisse reached out and snapped the music box off. Her mother slept blissfully in the guest room; her father was crying softly in joy and sorrow. Khyrisse Starshadow was alone in her bedroom, and her sudden loneliness waged an internal battle against her reluctance to intrude on her lover's swallowed secrets tonight. The struggle was brief and no prisoners were taken. Khyrisse turned out the light.

Ebreth was lying curled on one side, facing away from her. The dreamscape was otherwise barren. "Ebreth?" Khyrisse said uneasily, her heartbeat quickening as she moved a little closer. He stirred a little at his name. He was wearing the silk robe Khyrisse had given him. "S'parde-vois? Are you--all right?"

"Khyrisse?" he said, a little groggily, lifting his head from the shapeless ground. "What are you doing h--Jack?" He rolled to his knees, his eyes focusing in a hurry. "Where's Jack?"

"It's okay," Khyrisse said quickly. "This is just a dream, Ebreth."

"It is?" He looked around the empty dreamscape.

"I... must have caught you before you entered REM."

"If I knew what that meant." He gave her a weird look. "You have wings."

"Oh," she said, fluttering them a little shyly. "I had these as a goddess... I always have them in dreams. I--I don't suppose you, would have noticed, before." She swallowed hard as she said it. "I'm sorry," she added, gesturing around vaguely. "I know we hadn't agreed to meet this way, but I, well... I missed you, Ebreth."

He cocked his head up at her, resting his hands on his upper legs. "You know," he said, after a moment, "it's been a long time since I've had a good dream." She laughed a little, self-consciously, and he extended one arm up to her with a grin. "Come here."

She did. He caught her effortlessly, and Khyrisse realized almost like remembering that she hadn't even tensed against the possibility of his letting her fall. He didn't kiss her right away, bowing his head into the hair spilling down her throat with his eyes half-closed like the smell of her was something wonderful he was savoring. "Oh, God, baby, I've been worried about you," he whispered.

"Shhhhh," said Khyrisse. "Let's not talk about that. Not now."

"You matter, that's all." He moved his chin over her shoulder at her fluttering wings. "How strong are those, anyway? Can I touch them? I won't tear them, will I?"

"No," she said softly, winding her arms around him. "No, they're pretty strong. You might get powder on your fingers."

"Can you feel them?" he wanted to know. "Would they hurt if they bent a little?"

"No, they're really pretty flexib--" Khyrisse's eyes fluttered involuntarily as he ran his fingers along the edges of her wings. "I--" She shook her head, and he laughed, low in his throat. "I'm--sorry, Ebreth, what--were you saying?"

"Nothing you haven't answered," he chuckled, and drew her against him. "Khyrisse," he said into her ear. She shuddered in his arms. "Did anyone make love to you, when you were a goddess?"

"I, no," she breathed, "not exactly."

"Then my theory holds," he whispered, sliding the gauzy gathers of her dress down her shoulders.

"Do I even want to know?"

"The gods. Must. Be. Crazy."

On the horizon of the blank dreamscape, the sun rose gold and red and orange.

An Unwelcome Ally

"Thank you for coming," said Pluvious Sturoster, as the three Rat Packers sat down around the conference table in the Mithril Dagger Inn.

"The gratitude is ours," Amatsu bowed. "You have news of our friend Miss Dare?"

"Yes. Well, maybe." The spymaster frowned. "Apparently, after her, ah... break with the Rat Pack, Victoria was concerned about leaving the business in Rimbor City incomplete. To that end, I arranged a meeting for her with a wizard who would be able to undo the soul binding that started the whole business."

"So which of our enemies did you hand her over to?" sighed Rani.

"The Lich Lord, Shalak."

"You did what?" demanded Garal.

"Jeez, take a joke, people. Despite our previous, ah, misunderstanding during the Renquiste affair, Rani, P.E.A.N.U.T.B.U.T.T.E.R. is not in the habit of handing agents over to insane mages."

"Ah. So it was just a one-time thing," Rani nodded.

Pluvious rubbed the bridge of his nose. "Actually, I called in a favor with the Deathless mage Arturian. Any arrangement made, though, was Vickie's. She didn't tell me what she planned to offer him in return."

"So she might be with the most powerful mage in the world willingly," said Rani. "This is going to be some rescue."

"If she was there willingly, she would have tried to contact me by now," said Pluvious. "I let her work on her own lead, and in return, she updates me on what she's involved with."

"I guess someone can work with her," muttered Rani.

"Anyway," Pluvious continued, "P.E.A.N.U.T.B.U.T.T.E.R. has received a lead on her whereabouts, and there's someone I'd like to send with you when you leave."

"Oh, crap," sighed Rani. "It's the flippin' Price Girls, isn't it?"

Dave Thermador swaggered out of the shadows, tipping his whiskey bottle at the three adventurers. "Evening," he said, in his scratchy drawl.

"Oh, no!" shouted Garal. "Not you!"

"And I'm so glad to see you too Mr. Planeblazer. You stay out of my way, I'll stay out of yours, and we'll both get our jobs done."

"I guess it was inevitable," said Rani. "We had to bring along some guy Vickie hasn't done yet."

Amatsu was too reserved about such matters to correct Rani's misperceptions about Miss Dare and himself, but he was watching the soldier-of-fortune with an almost perceptible frown and wondering, despite himself, if this trip was going to be more interesting than he had hoped.

Sibling Rivalries

"It's too bad," Dee said wistfully. "I... feel like we could have been good friends, in some alternate universe or something."

Khyrisse frowned. Either this girl was some ruse of Ariath's, or she was the Ari Khyrisse had wanted to believe in all along and now was unable to. Either way, Khyrisse was angrier at the little assassin than she had been since she'd shown up on Khyrisse's doorstep pretending nothing was wrong. Khyrisse thought, and not for the first time, that Ariath had gotten off much too lightly when she'd abandoned the nightmare war against her. But they'd rescued Ebreth, and it had seemed so much more important to help him than to hurt her. And Khyrisse didn't even want to think about subjecting her unborn child to the evil magics tormenting her nemesis had entailed. "Good luck rescuing Mordecai," she said minimally. She hesitated, trying to decide whether to offer the girl sanctuary when she returned. You know what Ariath and Omeria are capable of doing to her, Khyri. ...But what if this is all a gambit to sneak Ariath into New Trade? Is it worth that risk?

"Oh, I'll be all right," Dee said, as if sensing Khyrisse's unwilling concern for her. "She won't kill me or anything. At least, I hope not." She gave the older mage a wobbly smile. "She's imprisoned me a couple of times, but she never really tries to hurt me. In... a way, I guess I'm all the family she's got."

"Dude," nodded Marty. "I totally understand. Cause I, like, couldn't kill Gabriella, you know?"

"Marty," said Vas, annoyedly, "you're the good one. Gabriella spent all day Tuesday trying to kill you, remember?"

"Oh." Marty cleared his throat, trying to think of something else reassuring to say.

Vastarin sighed and snapped the Trade Carriage into existence, offering a gallant hand in to Val, Aithne, and then Dee. Dee gave him a coy little smile as she accepted it, which he started to return with an automatic kiss to her fingertips before remembering and pulling away stiffly to retire to the driver's board, leaving Marty to shut the door for the perplexed-looking blonde. Khyrisse winced, empathizing. Am I glad I'm not going on this one, she sighed to herself, as the strike force took off for Tobrinel.

The Unfathomable Ways Of Women

Ebreth put down his coffee and leaned back on the hind legs of his chair to look out the window at the men milling on the sidewalks. "Where are all the women, anyway? Brett's like the only one here."

"Oh, they'll find their way in," smiled Perry. "Today's just the heats to determine tracks, after all, and there's not much to watch. By morning the stands at every checkpoint will be packed."

"I mean, why aren't any of them running?" Ebreth swung his chair back to the ground and took a forkful of egg. "Not like there aren't any female warriors on Ataniel."

"Oh, or athletes," Perry readily agreed. "But the Running attracts a... well, a different crowd." The bugbear cleared his throat a little. "Most of the sporting women I've talked to consider it rather, well, primitive, don't you know. Brutal, even."

"Then why do they want to watch it?"

Perry shrugged.

"Where is Brett, anyway?" Jack asked.

"Oh, there was someone she wanted to meet this morning." Perry waved it off with one hairy hand. "She'll be back in time for the heats, I'm sure. Would you two like to join us as a team? Four or five can run together, and we hadn't anything else lined up yet."

Ebreth was pretty sure Perry was offering out of loyalty to Jack. If the Feats last night had been any indication, Jack and Ebreth were not the best possible allies available on the island. They weren't without tricks up their sleeves, though, and Perry probably knew that too. "Sure," he said.

"Kind of like old times," grinned Jack.

"Indeed." Perry clinked his coffee into the mathematician's.

May You Live in Interesting Times

"Thermador brought us a map of three of Arturian's safehouses," Pluvious exposited. "I have no idea which, if any, she might be at. P.E.A.N.U.T.B.U.T.T.E.R. pays quite well for outsourcing, so keep a tab on your expenses and we'll account when you've found out what's up."

"We're not doing this for the money," said Garal. "Vickie's our friend."

Pluvious nodded. "I appreciate that, Garal. She's my friend too, but I know she can be hard to get along with. I'm glad she's found people who care about her."

Rani sighed. "Can we get past the mush and on to finding her?"

"Amen," Thermador agreed. Rani glared at him.

"There's one other person who might be able to help." Pluvious coughed. "I know you have your own rules about who you work with, but this, uh, gentleman has a special link to one of Vickie's... accoutrements."

"This is where he hands us over to the Lich Lord," said Rani.

Pluvious pulled aside the red curtain and gestured into the bar. A hugely fat man with the head of a pig stood up and waddled over to the conference room. "Rat Pack, this is..." Pluvious tried not to wince. "...Pigsy."

Amatsu frowned at Pluvious. The spymaster wasn't telling the whole story. Fortunately, Amatsu already knew what he needed to. "Welcome, honorable Pig," he said, bowing.

"Pigsy, these are Garal, Rani, Amatsu, and Thermador," introduced Pluvious. "They'll help you with the matter you came to us for."

"You're looking for Vickie too?" asked Garal, surprised.

"Oh, my, yes!" Pigsy said enthusiastically. "Can I have some of those chips?" Without waiting for an answer, he scooped up a handful and started eating.

Pluvious laid the map out on the table. "So where did you say you got this?" Garal asked Thermador.

"I didn't," Dave said.

"The first safehouse," began Pluvious, "is the Obelisk of Ice, here in the Bifrost Zone. The second..."

Things had suddenly become exponentially more complicated. While the trio of Rat Packers seemed at first thought an unusual grouping, it did not seem so to Amatsu Mikaboshi. He and Garal had become good friends in the past year, and worked together smoothly. And while Rani's Rimbor-bred etiquette was... rather different from that of Shanghai, he had full confidence in the detective's fidelity and her efficiency.

Dave Thermador was another matter. Lacking the benefits of a clan, a ronin had to be good at his work, or else soon dead. Thermador was not dead. But while they honored their contracts, usually, the ronin were not known for their honor.

And then there was "Pigsy." At least, he mused, he knew more about Thermador and the porcine one than they knew about him. He hoped. Still, neither of the new arrivals was what really troubled him.

It was a hardcore article of faith among the ninja that there was no such thing as invulnerability. Even the most powerful of men could be killed, or stolen from, or, more to the point, have a hostage liberated from them. But while no one was impervious, some were impervious enough that the ninja could reasonably expect to be dragged down with his target.

Arturian. Most powerful wu-jen in the world. This was very bad indeed.

"...the third," continued Pluvious, "is... Thermador, what the hell is this?"

"The Microverse of Nataal. It's a subsize kingdom that exists on the third hair of the left eyebrow of a man named Walter Valavoodra who lives in Yashree."

"Where the fuck do you get this stuff?" Pluvious asked, shaking his head.

"Well, it could have been worse," Thermador maintained. "At least it's not Arturian's blasted tower. Now that place gives me the creeps."

Kind of Like Old Times

Perry walked out of the caf�, leaving Jack and his friend to finish breakfast on their own. Brett was off doing Brettly things. Their heat wouldn't start till three. That left him with a few hours at odds. Perry was thinking maybe he might go in for a bit of a swim. Get the muscles loosened up.

"Perry!" called a woman's voice. He turned his head to locate its owner, and found her waving from the sidewalk, a simply made-up blonde in a graceful blouse, wide-waisted skirt, and riding boots.

"Gabriella!" he said. "Well, this is a reunion of old friends! Are you in the Running?"

"Me?" The sorceress laughed. "You have got to be kidding me, Perry. This whole thing is one big walking Y-chromosome with a death wish."

Perry frowned a little, hurt. "No one made you come to Strive," he said.

"A couple hundred big, dumb men beating each other up and risking their lives as a spectator sport. In various stages of undress. I'm there." She flashed him a grin. "Reunion of old friends, huh? Who else is in town? I'd guess Crandall, but since I, uh, kacked him..."

Perry frowned again. He'd been leaving that topic out of their conversation, for politeness' sake. It seemed very bad form for her to bring it back up. "Jack," he said. It wasn't like she wouldn't find out.

"Jack!" she said. An almost soft expression flitted across her face. Gabriella wasn't beautiful, but she was almost beautiful, and Perry had seen more men fall under that spell than the more straightforward charm of beauty. Almost beautiful, almost kind, almost redeemable, almost sane. Her grey eyes were a haunted mist of promise and regret. Perry had nearly gotten lost in them himself. Fortunately Brett had intervened just about then. "I haven't seen Jack in years..." she mused, almost to herself.

"Well," said Perry, "you didn't exactly part on the best of terms, after all."

"There is that." She smoothed her skirt, smiling to herself. "You only hurt the ones you love," she said over her shoulder, half a rueful shrug in her voice, winked at Perry, and was lost in the crowd of men.

Rani and the Monkeypillows

"So it's the freezing citadel, the dwarf tunnel, or the eyebrow," summarized Rani.

"My stars, they all sound like fun!" Pigsy continued to browse on chips.

"Or Arturian's tower," said Garal with unusual belligerence, looking directly at Thermador.

"She's not there," said the soldier-of-fortune.

"If we believe you."

"I'd keep her in the eyebrow," Rani mused. "It's the place any sane rescue party would put off till last."

"It is best not to try to second-guess Arturian like that," Pluvious said, with a tone in his voice that suggested he knew what he was talking about.

Rani sighed. "Well, it probably doesn't matter anyway. If they weren't about equally hard to get into, Arturian wouldn't have them. And even if Dare's not in one, we should be able to find enough clues to locate her. I can get impressions off anything he's touched since he captured her."

"I agree with Aura Girl," sneered Thermador.

"Just slit my wrists right now, why don't you."

"The idea has merit," Amatsu said carefully. "Lacking better information, perhaps we would be best served by simply choosing one and proceeding. Which one might be easiest for you to lead us to, Garal?"

"Well," said Garal, rubbing his upper lip thoughtfully, "there's currently an aetheric storm around the Bifrost Zone. And the Earth's Forge is inherently dangerous for travelers. But the Microverse of Nataal shouldn't be hard to get to, as long as we have the right travel papers."

"Travel papers?" Thermador looked with impatience at his counterpart.

"You didn't know? It makes all the difference," Garal said, a bit of uncharacteristic smugness in his voice. "I know someone in Tobrinel who can make the arrangements."

Five Thieves

"Can I help you, mon petit signor?" smiled the Tobrinese barkeep.

"Oh," said Kit, "I'm just here for the adventure, really."

"Kind of short for a vampire hunter, aren't you?" said a tattooed man at the bar.

"I'm the greatest thief on Ataniel," Kit scoffed, sitting down on the barstool next to him and swinging her legs. "I've got better things to do than chase dumb old vampires around."

"Do tell," murmured a dark-complected Diarian woman, fixing the pre-teen with her swirling eyes. "Can you tell us what that might be, little one, or is it a secret?"

"I don't have a quest yet," Kit admitted. "A lot of plots just seemed to be going down in Tobrinel right now, so it seemed like the place to be."

"We're on a quest," offered a friendly-looking blond man. "You could come with us if you wanted." The one who hadn't said anything yet, a tall, thin man with an eyepatch, made a half-perceptible frown in his direction. "Hey, the kid just fortuitously showed up in the bar," the blond guy pointed out. "Okay, it's not the Mithril Dagger, but still, that's got to be fate."

"It is," the woman concurred. She had a funny accent, different than other Diarians Kit had known. "Welcome to our ranks, Stealer. I am Araiji Vaseriae. This is Ralchar--" The blond man's smile widened a bit, and he tipped a nonexistent hat. "--Crandall--" The tattooed guy nodded. "--and Dexy LaRue."

Kit gaped at the one-eyed man. "The Dexy LaRue? Wow! Are you guys the new Midnight Runners, then? What kind of quest are you on?"

"It will preserve Ataniel as you know it," said the legendary gambler.

"Then count me in!" Kit banged her small fist happily on the bar. "Root beers all round!"

No Regrets, Coyote

"Well," he said. "It's going well. I think." He paused. "I hope."

"Jay," sighed Brett, "don't you have enough people to play the mysterious puppeteer for? You really don't need it with me anymore."

Coyote Jay was quiet a moment. "This is my last chance, Brett," he said. "I lost too many in the Madness. If Tor doesn't come through, Corbin's going to have to have me tilled."

"Tt," said Brett, waving her hand airily. "Tell him to till Trillarillia. It's her fault."

"The Yellow King doesn't care about fault, he cares about results. And Beliath's been producing and I haven't."

"I'm sure it's just the luck of the draw, dear."

"Obviously you've never met Beliath," muttered Jay.

"Well, don't fret, Coyote." Brett patted his hand comfortingly. "I'm sure he'll come around. If I could, anyone can."

"He's got the potential," sighed Coyote Jay. "But so did Alverado. I've got no more mistakes left to make, Brett."

"And you want me to talk to him."

"I need all the help I can get."

Brett leaned across and kissed the almost-human visage lightly, an old sorrow fluttering in her eyes. "Anything for you, darling."

Interlude: Yom Hashoah

Davali Nightfall was suffocating, slowly, on the good intentions of her neighbors.

The massacre itself had been one thing. Davali couldn't blame the people of Dascold for that; she herself had pushed a bookshelf over onto her friend Lydia for no reason she could fathom, so she didn't believe the people she had lived among all her life had chosen to slaughter the elven minority in the city, or that, barring another Shadowwitch, they would turn on her again. Davali Nightfall would have liked to forget about it, to pick up the broken pieces of her life and go on.

But nobody wanted to let her. More than a year after she had brutally lost her entire family, Davali found that she hated her countrymen for everything but the murders. She hated the inept memorials of people who didn't understand what they were memorializing. She hated the grocer who undercharged her and the children who pretended she wasn't there and the man who had tried to apologize to her at the theater, and she hated her friend Lydia for pretending they hadn't fought and all her other friends for their incessant outpourings of sympathy. On Memorial Day she had happened across an elven man downtown, the only other survivor she'd met in months, and the two of them had sat for hours talking about soccer and Davali had felt like she was breathing for the first time all year. His name was Kalas. Two days later he had moved to Margonal, leaving her a note to say that he couldn't stand it anymore.

Davali couldn't either, but she stayed.

She stayed, and she strangled, quietly.


"Jack, darling," said Brett, touching the mathematician's arm, "could you do me a favour and see if you can't find Perry? I've looked everywhere."

"Sure," Jack nodded, heading for the door.

Brett watched him go. "Dear Jack. You're not serious when you say he's having woman problems?"

"It's not a problem, exactly," said Ebreth Tor. "Just a little--complicated. There's two women, they're both about half in love with him for different reasons, and he's having some trouble making up his mind."

"Dear Jack," she repeated fondly. "Well, don't you worry, pet, I won't be complicating the mix. I've... given up that sort of relationship."

"So had one of Jack's women," said Ebreth. "She wasn't very good at it, I guess." He paused. "What about Perry?"

"Perry..." Brett sighed, the glimmer of that sorrow showing through her eyes again. "It's a long story, but I had to backslide a small bit to save his soul, a few years back. We keep together still from fondness, mostly, and a certain kindred spirit... but I'll let him go as soon as a woman worthy of him comes his way, and he knows it. There's no pretense between us. I've had enough of pretense." She was quiet a moment, and then her eyes met Ebreth's. "I didn't, treat men very well, when I was younger," she said.

Ebreth raised an eyebrow, and looked into his mug of ale. "Better than I treated women, probably."

"I doubt that," Brett murmured. She looked at him contemplatively. "Is that what you're turning from, then?" she said directly.

"Partially," he said. "Not mainly. Who are you?"

"Someone who's survived the Hotel," she said. "I think I might like it if you were one of those too, Tor. You seem a good sort."

"The Hotel?" he said.

"You'll know it when you see it," she said. "It won't be the same for you as it was for me, so there's no use trying to tell you about it. What I could do, I think, is tell you my own stor--"

"What you plan will not be countenanced!" interrupted a strange, reverberating voice.

Ebreth and Brett both turned to squint at the elementalist who had suddenly appeared in the caf�. "What the--"

A huge jet of particularly cold water knocked Ebreth ass-backward off his chair. He went for his sword, spluttering. Brett, who'd caught some of the crossfire, shook her wrists like a wet cat. "Kerouac?" she said incredulously. "What are you doing?"

"Janus is protecting Tor's marriage," the masked hero explained. "If the mage babe doesn't marry him, he won't make it out of the Hotel." He counted off on his fingers. "So Janus stopped aliens from abducting her for two years, and he stopped Diari things from killing her, and he stopped the evil wedding guy from ruining the wedding... uh... where was Janus again?"

"Why you hosed us down in the middle of a Strive caf�?" suggested Ebreth, only slightly pacified by the news that the deranged elf was trying to save his marriage.

"Oh, yes. And Janus stopped Tor from having an affair with Brett." Kerouac's face was not visible, but his posture clearly connoted a glare in the woman's direction. "Brett should know better."

"We weren't having an affair!" the two yelled in unison.

"You weren't?"

"No!" yelled Brett. "I was trying to help him with the Hotel, you moron!"

"Oh." Janus' shoulders shrank sheepishly. "Uh, carry on, then. Up, up, and away!"

There was a loud crash. The elementalist had apparently forgotten he was inside a roofed building.

"Get out of my caf�!" the proprietor screamed at all of them.

One If By Land, Two If By Sea

The Pets had just confronted their first intraparty conflict, in the form of a stream winding northward through the Land of the Little Folk to the western coast of the continent.

West was clearly the direction to go, of course. The Kharek Mountains were very high, and only the Duck could fly. If they were going to cross into the Doomlands, the craggy land by the Bay of Folaithe was their best chance to do it. The question was the stream. Babe, the party leader, thought time was of the essence and the group's legs very short, and wanted to take to the water. Melissa absolutely refused.

The whole situation was making Seeker of Places very anxious--he had seen what the lack of cooperation could do to a group in Rimbor City. But though he understood Babe's feeling of urgency, the Rat hated the water. He didn't like being wet and cold. He didn't like the way it made his fur smell. And he wasn't a very good swimmer. He would have drowned in that Rimbor cave if Skitch and then Ebreth hadn't helped him. Just thinking about trusting the current all the way to the Deepsea made his whiskers quiver.

The Duck, of course, was already paddling around in the stream, quacking obliviously. Seeker privately thought the bird was too stupid to be of any conceivable use on a quest, but he originally thought that of Marty Hu, too, so he was trying not to be too judgmental.

This left the deciding vote up to Peep.

The smallest of the party members looked at the rushing water, looked up at Babe, back at the water, and back up at the penguin. "Peep!" she said, in a very little voice, and hopped bravely towards the stream.

I knew I should have stayed home and worked up those corollaries for Jack, the Rat was thinking.

Melissa made a long, doleful meow, covering her petite head with both front paws. Babe paused a moment and then grabbed a fallen branch in his beak, dragging it towards the water. The Rat understood what he was doing. Maybe he, Melissa, and Peep could stay dry while the waterfowl guided the branch downstream. Ataniel was such a nice place, after all, and the Rat really didn't want it destroyed.

He jumped to the branch as soon as Babe and the duck had it stabilized in the water, chittering softly at Melissa. She slunk nearer to the coast, her ears back, and then quite suddenly sprang for the branch. It rocked a little with her weight, but Babe held it steady, and it did not overturn and deposit either mammal in the water. Seeker of Places looked at Melissa, clinging miserably to the wood, and felt a twinge of guilt for his unkind worry that Khyrisse's cat had been going to put up more of a hissy fit than that. "Peep!" cried the little yellow chick, hopping to one of the delicate twigs projecting from the floating branch. "Peep!"

The Rat looked resolutely downriver as Babe released their impromptu raft and it began to move, at first slowly, then faster.

To Have And Have Not

"I've found monogamy a nicer solution than celibacy," said Ebreth, walking down the boardwalk with Brett. "Myself." His wet clothes felt very cold in the northern wind.

"Then that probably isn't what you need from us," Brett said. "It would be a bit too precious for your story to be that near my own, anyway." She was quiet a moment, looking off across the ocean. "But no one gets to be one of Jay's unless there's something it's not enough just to live with, Tor. For me it was men. It was give them up or ruin them. I chose loneliness over cruelty. If there had been a middle ground I would have just been in a twelve-step, darling."

"Jay," said Ebreth, frowning. "Who the hell is he?"

"It doesn't matter." Brett waved her hand. "What matters is this, Tor. There's something you need to reject from yourself to be what you want to. I don't know what it is and I can't tell you how to do it, but you are going to have to if you mean to make your redemption last, and it will be at cost to you. Stand firm and do it anyway. That's the only advice I can give you." She looked up as Perry, waving broadly, strode across the boardwalk. "Perry, love, where's Jack? I sent him out after you."

"I haven't seen him." Perry shook his head. "But you'll never guess who I did see, Brett. Gabriella!"

"Gabriella?" Ebreth couldn't place the expression he saw skim over Brett's face. "Here? In Strive? After what happened with Crandall, I didn't think--" Brett shook her head. "Does Jack know?"

"I don't think so--"

"Good. Let's keep it that way."

"Beg pardon?"

"The Running is not for distracted men, darling." She gave Perry an indolent peck on the cheek. "If Gabriella catches up with us, he'll deal with her in his own way. Worrying about it in advance would just paralyze him. You know how Jack can get."

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