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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 13

Reconstructing Sallie

Praxis' broad face was pale and drawn, and beads of sweat were standing out on his forehead. He'd told Khyrisse once that psychic surgery was the mentalist's equivalent of a resurrection spell. She didn't know if that meant it aged him a year, as the mystical energies of a resurrection did, but it certainly seemed to be exhausting him the way only the most complex of magics did.

Mad Sallie bore whatever he was doing patiently, humming to herself and doing cross-stitch. Khyrisse wasn't sure what the design was supposed to be coming out to be and she wasn't sure she wanted to know. "Is it working?" Derek asked for the thirteenth time, anxiously. Khyrisse and Karel had stopped hissing at him to be quiet, since it seemed the big psionicist wasn't having any trouble tuning his verbal pacing out. Khyrisse understood how he felt. She herself had gotten nothing done all day--and only partially because the Rat's mysterious absence had left her at an impasse in the mathematical research she hoped would save Jack. Is it working? the part of her brain that remembered being eight demanded, hopping up and down inside the veneer of her maturity. I want my mother back, darn it!

And then without warning she put down her sewing, a frown creeping over her confused haggard face. Khyrisse felt prickles up and down her back. "Who--are you?" Mad Sallie demanded tremulously.

"Name's Praxis, ma'am," the mentalist said tiredly. "I'm here to help you."

"What?" She shook her head, the same panicked-deer look in her eyes that she got while channeling dead people. "Help me with what? What am I doing here?" She jerked her head back and forth, looking almost ready to weep with confusion. "What are we doing here?" she beseeched Derek.

"It's okay," he comforted, taking her hands in his. "It's all right. You're going to be okay, Laelissa."

"Magically-induced schizophrenia," explained Praxis, rubbing his forehead. with weary fingers. "Sort of reminds me of the time I looked into the Doomrift, actually. Some kind of powerful artifact splintered her mind somehow. I think I've got most of it. I'll have to come back tomorrow to clear up the, er, dementia, and work on recovering the rest of her memory. Right now I'm out of PSP's."

Khyrisse exhaled heavily. She and Praxis had never been close, but in the way of old comrades-at-arms, he had made a quiet point of coming through for her on more than one occasion. She hoped he knew she'd do the same for him if he ever needed it. Saying so now would just make it sound like some sort of business transaction or something: you helped me, now I owe you a favor. Khyrisse didn't want to sound like Shilree. "Thank you," she said instead. "I really appreciate this."

"I want to go home," wailed Laelissa, more frightened by the sane comprehension of her own confusion than she had been by her total madness.

"Soon," soothed Derek. "Soon."

Don't You Lose Heart

The town square was lively in the falling evening. People moved in and out of restaurants and taverns, chatting quietly. The magical streetlamps cast pale shimmers on the fountain waters, a cool, white glow, not like the flickering warmth of Lianth's torches or the sharp sodium glare of Rimbor's lights. Flicker liked New Trade. He felt it had a lot in common with him somehow. "Khyri tell you about her upcoming nuptials yet?" Schneider asked.

"Yes," said Flicker. After several moments he added "I think it's a good idea. It's been twenty years; it's time for her to move on."

"Yeah," said Schneider. "I'm glad she's happy."

Flicker was perceptive enough to catch something in his tone, but not enough to identify it. "Are you worried Tor's taking her for a ride?" he said. Flicker had had reservations himself, but the guy's reformation seemed genuine enough.

"Not really," Schneider said. "How many evil people have you seen act that twitterpated?" Flicker had to admit he couldn't think of a counterexample offhand. "I think he's probably for real, and Paninaro knows I don't want Khyri to miss out on a chance at the big L. I'm glad to see her tying the knot before the rugrat's born, too. It's just..." His voice trailed off, and he moved his hand vaguely.

"Jealous?" suggested Flicker.

The jester shook his head. "It's been a long time since I felt that way about her," he said frankly. "Some guys just get all the luck, you know? Here comes Adolf Hitler back from the dead, says ‘Sorry bout that' and does a little soft-shoe, and wedding bells are ringing. Meanwhile your ordinary Joe tries to spare the feelings of the girl he loves by keeping the wrong thing to himself and she's gone forever. There ain't no justice."

"I think there is," said Flicker thoughtfully, "you just have to wait a while for it, sometimes."

"She was the one, Flick."

Flicker paused a bit. "You know," he said, "elven tradition has it that there's one special person out there for everyone. That you're destined to be together and without each other you wither and die inside."

"I know the feeling."

"But I think it's a crock," continued Flicker. Schneider blinked a few times. "The world is so large, and so full of worthwhile people. Why shouldn't there be hundreds, even thousands of people we could find love with, if the circumstances were right? The world is so full of possibilities. It hurts when one shuts, but it's never the only one. Nothing is ever your last chance. Khyrisse is forty years old and she's getting married. Don't give up on yourself. There are so many possibilities out there."

Foreshadowing: The Price of Power

Praxis sat in his hotel room in New Trade, idly dangling the amulet from its pewter chain. The chain and setting were totally unremarkable. The stone looked like little more than a piece of rose quartz.

How looks could be deceiving.

"Still contemplating that device, I see," Xiang said, pulling up a chair.

"Yes." Praxis frowned. "You know, Xiang, I've encountered a lot of very powerful beings, and almost all of them were evil. And the few who did try to use their power for justice, like Magnate and Arturian, did so cautiously at best." Which, he decided as soon as he'd said it, was a little unfair to Magnate. "It's as if power really does corrupt, and evil really is a more prevalent force in the world."

"A debatable point," countered Xiang. "With Honor as a guide, one can remain immune to the temptations of power. In any case, what has this to do with the Mind Gem?"

"The Septum Potentis are powered by the elemental force of Good. From what I know of their history, they appear when and where needed, then vanish once their work is done, to be reclaimed by a new hero. I don't understand why this one has stayed with me."

"Perhaps stopping the Evil Moon permanently destroyed the stone's power, so great a task it was?"

"They've been rendered inoperative before, even destroyed. They've always come back."

Xiang shrugged. "Then it would depend on whether all things happen for a purpose, or simply occur."

"Simply occur," Praxis said.

"Purpose," Xiang countered.

Extended discourse followed. When it was done, Praxis still had the Mind Gem, but no certain answers. Inez had by then long since fallen asleep.

Degrees of Trust

"So in other words," said Rani, stretching back on her cot in the room she, Garal, and Amatsu had rented in the Mithril Dagger, "Pigsy is a good-natured, well-meaning person who keeps getting dragged into trouble by the recklessness and ineffable charm of his buddy Monkey."

"That is correct," said Amatsu, straight. Garal frowned and said "What are you trying to say, Rani?"

"He'll just fit in real well, that's all."

"I am more concerned about Mr. Thermador."

"I don't trust him," said Garal.

"Well, that makes three," said Rani, "but do we need to trust him?"

"I don't even trust that he's not listening in on us right now," huffed the planeblazer.

Rani stuck her hand into the wall and her lavender eyes unfocused. "No Thermador," she said.

"He'd sell us all to a demon lord if it benefited him."

"He does know how to find Vickie, though."

"So he says."

"So Sturoster says."

"Do you trust him?"

"Hell no, but the chance of Thermador pulling the wool over his eyes is roughly equivalent to the chance of me killing the Tarrasque with a garden hoe."

"Unfortunately," said Amatsu, "I fear that Mr. Thermador intends to appropriate something belonging to the wu-jen Arturian. I am concerned he may incite the wrath of the sorcerer against us."

"Who's us, kemosabe?" The detective grinned. "I'm counting on it. If Therm takes off with some dangerous powerful artifact, and we take off with Vickie, which of us do you think he's likely to chase?" She shrugged. "He's the only lead we've got. In this business you don't throw those away just because they're ill-shaven and make me look like a people person. If he wants to rip off a Deathless mage, that's his problem. It could even take some heat off our little rescue mission." She drummed her fingers on the side of her cot. "If she's in bed with Arturian when we get there, guys, I am so off this case."

"If this were a simple lover's tryst, I do not think Mr. Sturoster would be so concerned."

"I'm just telling you." Rani rolled over. "If it is, I'm out of here."

***

It was late, and Garal was tossing fitfully. Amatsu was meditating on his cot, keeping watch, and Rani was trying to fall asleep. Rani hated hotel rooms. Too many people, too many impressions. She'd brought her own blanket so she wouldn't have to touch the bed, but the air was still noisy with life. It was almost enough to make you want to go evil and surround yourself with undead minions. Almost. Not quite.

Rani sighed and put her arm over her eyes. Just then Garal moaned from the bed next to hers and muttered in an uncharacteristically forceful voice "Khyrisse, I didn't tell you you could get up yet."

The halfling sat up with a start, turning crimson as he realized he had spoken aloud.

White noise machine, Rani thought. I have got to find myself a good white noise machine.

Cloak and Dagger

Vastarin stalked the Tobrinese countryside, his thinning hair whipping around him in still-dramatic fashion. His strikeforce had camped a bit outside of the capital city, just to be on the safe side, but Vas was too agitated to sleep. Not that he wasn't convinced Dee's story was true. Vas had never seen a story so true; most of his own life story wouldn't withstand such rigorous truth evaluation. And she clearly wasn't Ariath, regardless, or his vendetta would know it. It was rather the opposite reason that kept him strenuously avoiding Dee. Vastarin hadn't been in love with Ariath, of course, but he had been fond of her, quite fond, and that made him more susceptible to her sister's uncomfortably similar charms than Vas liked. He'd tried to distract himself by flirting with Aithne, but she didn't seem to grasp the concept behind flirting very well. So he'd gone for a little walk in the moonlight. It was relieving a little of his tension, but not most of it.

"Evening," said a quiet voice from the shadows. Vas turned on it with a frown, his hand flitting to the pommel of his rapier. "Peace," added the stranger, a bit of amusement in his voice, and raised his hands in a nonthreatening way. "I mean you no harm."

Vas studied the cloaked figure for a long moment. "You're a vampire."

The man laughed. "Young man," he said, "I'm the vampire. Call me Cloak; all the mortals do."

"What do you want with me?" Vas demanded, moving his fingers behind his back in the somatic that would send his distress call back to camp.

"I wouldn't do that," Cloak said mildly, but didn't actually move to stop him. "I doubt your sister would look... favorably... on the deal I'm about to propose."

Vas frowned. "What deal?"

"You hate Bloodscar," said the vampire lord. "I hate Bloodscar. It seems an opportune collaboration."

"I thought you were cooperating with Bloodscar," said Vas, squinting.

"Not through any will of my own. That damnable Beliath possessed my acting viceroy and took my place. My attempts to reassert control have been met with aggression on the Duke's part and..." Cloak paused. "...unusual resistance on my people's part, for which I also blame Omeria. Oh, trust me, I hate her."

"Well," said Vas. Cloak was right; Valende, dedicated undead-slayer that she was, would sooner impale herself on her own sword than make a deal with the vampire king. Vas had a somewhat more open mind than his sister, though. There was no reason they couldn't work together. If the vampire was telling the truth, that was, which Vas was in no way assured of. "What did you have in mind?"

"Well, killing the Duke would doubtless cause civil war among my kind the likes of which I'd rather not see just now," said Cloak. "But she recently broke a loyal lieutenant of mine, and I'd like to return the favor. It's really of no consequence to me which one."

"Hmm," said Vas. He paused. Inviting the vampire into the group was an impossibility. He might be able to disguise his nature from the rest of the group, but not from Valende. Besides, he might betray them all. Still... was it an opportunity he could afford to pass up? "I... might have an idea," he said slowly.



"Call me Cloak," said the undead overlord.

"Pleased to meetcha, Cloak." The Mistral picked his crystal teeth. "Flyboy says you got a deal for me."

S&M Fantasies Make A Pretty Original Dark Secret, Actually

"Khyrisse..." Garal muttered. The content and tone of what followed caused Amatsu to stare at his friend for a few moments through the darkness. A man can hardly be blamed for what comes to him in the arms of sleep, he told himself. Repeatedly. Then he went back to his meditation, focusing on the mantras with determination.

***

Dave Thermador strolled back into the Mithril Dagger early in the Hour of the Wolf, just between the darkest time of night and the dawn. Important things always seemed to happen during that infamous hour.

The Dagger was actually fairly busy for the middle of the night. There was a group of newbie adventurers gathering at one of the corner tables. No doubt their minds are filled with dreams of fame and fortune, thought Thermador. Too bad it's a load of shit, but they'll find that out on their own.

He sat at the bar, well in sight of everyone. Most people in Thermador's business kept to the shadows, but Dave had found that being mysterious actually made people more inquisitive about your business. Kevin had a mug of yitrill on the bar for him almost as soon as he sat down. The Mithril Dagger was the only place on Ataniel Prime that made a decent cup of yitrill. Thermador's body was starting to reject the plane again, but he didn't want to contaminate the bittersweet taste of the yitrill with his stabilizing formula. He let himself savor a few mouthfuls of his drink until the nausea got overpowering and he could actually feel the pull of home, and then he threw back a slug of spiked whiskey as a chaser. That put an end to both the dimensional pull and the nostalgia. Home, he reminded himself, was not an option yet. Many miles to go. A job to do.

Thermador sat at the Mithril Dagger, watching as dawn wandered over the horizon.

Interlude: Emptiness

Cal Holbrooke poured milk over his cornflakes. "Church of Tal opening on Elm street," he said.

"Suits me fine," said Grace Averdale. "Nuns roaming the street's good for the crime rate."



"Thinking of joining," said Cal.

"Nothing in the books against it," she said. "I'd know."

"What do you think, huh, Grace?"

"I think I didn't believe in the gods before," she said, a bitter edge pushing through her voice, "and I certainly don't now."

"Right, so you're telling me there weren't any gods, but now that they've all died you're even more atheist. There's sense there."

"Don't be an ass, Cal." Grace poured her coffee sidewise into her travel mug. "I believe they existed. I don't believe they gave a shit about us." She shrugged into her police jacket. "And so I don't give a shit about them," she said. "Excuse me. I have some real people to attend to."

"Sometimes there's reasons and we just don't understand them, Grace."

"Sometimes there's people and that's what they need to believe to keep on going," said Grace. "Go on and join the Church of Tal. You'll get me in there in a coffin, not before." The screen door banged behind her.

Similar Features, With Longer Hair

Garal was still tossing and turning early the next morning. His face was pale and sweaty and he didn't look like he'd slept at all. Rani tried to engage him in conversation about the eyebrow dimension. What happens if the guy takes a shower? she wanted to know. Or singes his eyebrows trying to light the stove or something? Garal mumbled something incomprehensible in return, not looking at her or at Amatsu. Rani guessed he must still be upset about last night, though certainly neither she nor the ever-discreet Amatsu had said a word about it. She sighed inwardly and asked him if he wanted to go for a little walk around New Lianth in the early morning, just the two of them. It'll be a while before Pigsy wakes up, she pointed out. She was a little surprised when he accepted.

***

"I'm telling you, there's nothing wrong with it." Rani kicked a pebble down the street. "You should really let me put you in contact with a couple of people I know in the BDSM circles in Rimbor. It'd make you feel less weird. I can't tell you what a relief it was to finally meet some other lesbians."

"It's not... never mind." He looked utterly terrified and started to back away.

"No, no, come back," she said quickly, catching him by the shoulder before she quite knew what she was doing. She was getting some weird deja vu back to her teenage years, trying to come to grips with her own sexuality. "Come on and sit down. It's not what?"

She pushed him down into a nearby park bench. He let her. "It's not just S&M," he half-whispered. "I have very horrible thoughts. Doing things to other people against their will. Stuff people like Nox do."

He tensed, like he was expecting Rani to end the conversation. Instead she shook her head. "Those are just fantasies, Garal," she said. "You don't do those things in real life, do you? You never hurt a girl you were with or anything. Of course not. Dreams are free." She shrugged. "I fantasize about straight women sometimes. I wouldn't go bother them in real life, but it doesn't hurt anything imagining."

"But what if I can't stop myself?" he said, anguished. "I've known a lot of people, and the difference between the decent ones and the evil ones is very small. What if I'm really one of the evil ones?"

She pursed her lips and looked thoughtfully across at the sunrise. "I think the difference is usually that the decent ones pay attention to the difference," she said. "If you're worrying about it in the first place, you're probably doing okay. I mean, I'm Rimbor City PI, you know? I've met rapist thugs before. You don't remind me of them."

"Thanks," said Garal, like he didn't really believe it at all.

She shook her head. "Anyway, look, I know other people who have fantasies like that too, and they're decent normal people. They aren't mean or bad, that's just how they get off. So there's no reason you can't have thoughts like that and be a decent normal guy too."

Garal didn't think she understood the full magnitude of what he'd been dreaming about, or how these impulses and his fears of them pervaded his daily life. Right now, though, he was just grateful for the support. "Thank you," he said. "Let's go back to the Dagger. Amatsu-san is probably worried."

Someone To Turn To

Khyrisse lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.

It was seven o'clock already, and she really should be getting up and getting to work. Plenty still to do. But though it sure as Grendel didn't feel like it, the crises of the hour were past. The sphere of wild magic was safely stored. Mad Sallie was recovering her sanity. And the infuriating presence of Ariath was hampering her judgment no longer.

And now, in the clear light of day, Khyrisse was having second thoughts like nobody's business.

Have I just sent Val and Vas to their deaths? she thought, pressing at her temples. If Bloodscar kills them there, I won't be able to retaliate, and they have to know that. Worse... if they capture them, they'll have me over a barrel. I'll have to agree to anything they ask for or sacrifice my friends over it. She groaned. Is that what ‘Dee' was after all along? Part of her wanted to call Valende and tell her for gods' sake come home before it was too late. But if the strike force was successfully undercover, then contacting them magically would broadcast their position like a homing beacon. Aithne was using her strange witch-magic to shield the group from detection, and it had held up to Khyrisse's scrying, so hopefully it would hold up to Omeria's. Khyrisse couldn't risk destroying the one advantage they might have. Nothing to do but wait, she supposed. Wait, and trust that the others could handle the outcome.

The other part of this, Khyrisse admitted to herself with a rueful sigh, is that I really wish Valende were here to talk to right now. Khyrisse got up and tied her big white bathrobe around herself with a jerk. The first wave of pain was four days old now, and it was starting to subside in favor of a second--less full of hate, more full of anguish, no less violent but more unbearable to keep to herself. Ebreth and Jack were gone; Val and Vas were gone; Luthien and Max weren't in town either. And her parents were dealing with too much stuff of their own. Khyrisse so desperately wished she had someone she trusted to turn to right now.

Then the bedroom door crashed open, and Khyrisse's reflexes kept her from unloading her emergency disintegrate in the direction of the intrusion by no more than a hair's breadth.

"Morning, chickie-babe," said the ass. "Damn, looks like you're decent."

"ASINUS!" she hollered. Once her shouting had successfully burned off the moment's tension, she ran across and threw her arms around his neck. "What are you doing here?"

"Come to see you, of course." said the donkey, grinning at her around his cigar. "You look like hell, chickie. What the flark have you got in your hair, wood glue?"

"Egg whites," she mumbled. "You sure know how to butter a girl up, Asinus."

"And wait'll you see what I can do with whipped cream," he leered.

Khyrisse's stoneskins were too austerely white for her blush to show through at all, but she figured Asinus probably knew it was there by now anyway. "I'm glad to see you," she admitted.

"How glad?" Asinus wanted to know.

"Not that glad."

"Flarkin' figures," the donkey sighed. "You wanna grab some breakfast or something?"

Double Agent

"Where is my Mistral?" frowned Aithne, shaking her gem crossly.

"Oh, Corellon!" Valende's hand flew over her mouth. "It's escaped?"

"He left last night to go sabotage Ariath," Vas said quickly. "Just as we'd agreed."

"He shoulda checked me first. He is a bad demon." Aithne sighed in a disconcertingly Khyrisse-like way. "Well, now how we will break into a prison? The Mistral can trick a guard's mind, but he is not here."

"It has mind-control?" Val just kept liking this less and less. "Aithne, how do you know it won't mind-control you?"

"I am the matriarch of him," Aithne said reassuringly. "He will obey me."

"You don't know that, Aithne! What if he isn't loyal?"

"He is loyal," she said. "The witch queens made him."

"Trillarillia created him?" Val cried.

"Trillarillia didn't created," Aithne said. "Diaidh created."

"Uh," Dee piped up, apologetically. "I, uh, hate to interrupt this or anything, but about the, uh, prison..." Val turned on the little mage with a frown. "Well, I, uh, know a little about it, seeing as how I've been imprisoned in Tobrinel for nine months, that's all."

"Do you know where Mordecai's being held?" Vas wanted to know.

"No," she admitted. "But he's a scientist, and they still want his help... The only place that's both maximum-security and easily accessible to the underground laboratory is the dungeon under the palace."

"Dude," said Marty, "I could have told you that."

Val sighed. "How are we supposed to get into the dungeon under the palace without raising an alarm, Dee?"

"We'd need the right passcard," Dee said, and grinned a very Ariath-like grin. "And it just so happens I know where the passcards are stored."

Year of the Pig

"Mr. Thermador said he'd be good enough to meet us at the Mithril Dagger after breakfast," Pigsy said between mouthfuls. "I do hope I didn't disturb his sleep last night. I've been told that I snore a bit on occasion," he confided. "Are you all right, Amatsu? You've barely touched your breakfast."

Amatsu was, in point of fact, far from all right. Garal had looked wretched when he left for a stroll with Rani. He trusted her good intentions, but she could be quite gruff at times, and the halfling was usually so shy. Still, at least she seemed to be doing something to help Garal--while he himself remained silent. He felt like he was letting someone down in a way he hadn't since Cori Yashida's death.

And here, sitting not five feet away from him, was Pig, the stories of whose exploits alongside Monkey had thrilled him as a child. Pig's colossally amiable temperament had proven to be not mere legend--he even seemed fond of Dave Thermador. But how could he talk about such a matter with such a mythic being?

Was this what Lord Praxis felt like, when he first met Janther Moria? Amatsu quickly reached a decision. "I am facing a bit of a dilemma, honorable Pig. Garal is a most close friend of mine--"

"He is a swell little guy," Pigsy agreed.

"Indeed. I recently--inadvertently, I swear--overheard him in... potentially embarrassing words about his personal life." Pigsy's brow furrowed in non-comprehension. "His dealings with others," Amatsu elaborated. A shrug. "Relationships." Pigsy scratched his head. "His sex life."

"Oh! Right, so ka. Understood."

"Yes. He... I trust this can be kept in strict confidence?" Pigsy nodded with a fair amount of gravitas. "Garal seems to be having thoughts, desires that, I would presume, he considers dishonorable." And about a betrothed woman, Amatsu thought. But it was well known, at least in Shikintu, that such passions often arose unbidden, and nothing could be done about that. "I wish to let him know that I certainly do not think any lesser of him. I find it inconceivable that he would ever act dishonorably, and... if he wished to discuss..."

"You want to let him know you're there if he wants somebody to lean on," Pigsy offered.

"Yes, precisely. But I don't want to embarrass him if he doesn't wish to discuss such a private matter."

"You don't want to be a buttinsky."

"I suppose not," the ninja answered, forced to guess at the meaning of the last word.

"Well, Monkey always said he was the smarter one of us, and he was right, but I think I know what you should do. See, you know a private little tidbit about him, and he knows you know, and you know he knows you know. So since everybody knows everything already, why not just forget about it and tell him ‘Hey, you're a great buddy'? That's what you really want to say, right? That's all he needs to hear."

For a moment, Amatsu sat in wonder, unsure of how things could possibly have seemed complicated a few minutes ago. "Thank you, Pigsy."

"Glad to help. Hey, are you gonna finish those waffles?"



They met Rani and Garal outside the Mithril Dagger. "Morning boys," Rani said. "Wait right here, I'll go fetch stubble lad."

When she went inside, Amatsu turned to the halfling. "Garal? I... don't know if I have said so explicitly enough in the past, but this one is fortunate and honored to have your friendship."

"You know," Pigsy said sunnily and without provocation, "I bet everything is going to go just peachily on this adventure!"

"Hey! Indiana Jones!" Rani's voice could be heard from inside the Dagger. "Get the lead out of your alkie butt. We ain't getting any younger, you know."

Castles Made Of Sand

"It's... been lonely around here," Khyrisse admitted. "I sent Val and Vas off to Tobrinel, to see if they can put a wrench in Ariath-that-bitch's plans."

"What about Tor?"

"He's... away." Khyrisse looked out the window, the tired lines showing on her face. "It's been... difficult lately, Asinus."

Asinus' ears perked up despite himself. "I'm--sorry to hear that," he half-lied. He didn't want the beautiful sorceress to be having trouble with her flarking lovelife, he admonished himself internally. He wanted her to be happy. Which she didn't look right now. "How long have you been, uh, separated?"

"Me and Ebreth? Eight days." She managed a shaky laugh. "I miss him already, can you believe it?"

"Sure," Asinus said sympathetically, trying to decide whether to do the selfless thing and counsel her on fixing the relationship up or take his own try at the rebound. "Anything I can do to help?" he settled on.

"I doubt it." She sighed. "But I'm glad you're here. I--think maybe I've really needed someone to talk to."

Asinus' donkey heart fluttered. "Really?"

"Really." She sighed again. "Asinus... Skitch ran away."

"Yeah, the Word told me." He'd seemed like such a together kid, too.

"He, he stole the most dangerous weapon I own, and he--took it to Diaria." She wrapped her arms miserably around herself. "I got it back before it could cause any damage, of course..."

"Except to you, huh?"

"Something like that," she said in a small voice.

"Hey, chickie, kids are like that." He nudged her supportively with his nose. "They don't mean nothing by it. Not that I'd know from experience or anything... but I did get to hear Lora and Lavin angst on and on about their kids' flarkin' adolescent rebellions. It'll sort itself out. Everyone's kids do something like that."

She surprised him further by hugging his woolly neck tightly. "Thank you, Asinus," she whispered. They sat there together, for a moment. "I shouldn't bring you down like this," she finally said.

"What are friends for, huh, chickie-baby?"

"Oh!" said Khyrisse. "That reminds me... on a happier note." She gave him a mischievous smile. "I've been meaning to ask you--would you be an honor attendant in our wedding?"

Asinus stood perfectly still, saying nothing, for about 45 seconds. "As my perfectly constructed little fantasy world goes sliding down the flarkin' toilet," he muttered to himself. "I deserved that."

"What?" said Khyrisse.

"Did I ever tell you about the time Mattais Icewind gifted me with the ability to make dramatic asides without anyone around me hearing them?"

"Uh..." said Khyrisse, confused. "No..."

"The Word neglected to pass on this little bit of information, that's all. So you're getting married, huh? Well, you know, I'd rather be the star attraction at your bachelorette party, if that position's still open..."

Khyrisse looked a little relieved at the return to his regularly scheduled lewdness. "‘Fraid not, Asinus."

"You'll change your mind when you see me in my tux." Asinus snorted and pawed the carpet. "Honor attendant, indeed. I'm so sure Tor wants me in his flarkin' wedding party."

"Why wouldn't he?" Khyrisse looked confused. "Do you think Ebreth doesn't like you, Asinus? You've been a wonderful friend to us both." Which was probably, Asinus realized, true. Damn it all. "The one he's less than, uh, thrilled about is Vas... but I couldn't very well ask Valende and not her brother." Khyrisse made a sorry little laugh. "But trust me, Asinus, we'd both be honored to have you there... as our friend, and as the head of my family."

Khyrisse gave him an impish grin. She was trying to cheer him up; she didn't call the Parises her family except to please them. Right now, though, it just made Asinus feel even more miserable. He kept his head up, though. "Well, count me in, then," he said. "And let me know if the bachelorette position frees up."

"You're the first one I'd call, Asinus," she laughed, and pulled his ear playfully.

Thanks a flarkin' hell of a lot. "Congratulations," he said, and licked her cheek. "I gotta go take care of some business now. With Lora. Family business. You know."

She was looking at him oddly. "Are you okay, Asinus?"

"I'm fine," lied Asinus, and trotted off to find a corner to curl up and die in.

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Female Native American names * Chippewa culture * Grand Traverse band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians * Lummi nation

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Language of the day: Anishinabe