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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 2

The Date That Will Live In Infamy

Jack had paid for the date. It made Aithne feel uncomfortable, as if it was obvious she wasn't a wealthy enough girl to afford a consort. Jack said that if the man didn't pay it made him seem stingy, though, and Aithne didn't want to make Jack seem stingy, so she went along with it. She wasn't entirely sure if she was being liberated or subjugated. It was easy to ignore, though. Aithne had had some wine on the date, and it was making her a little silly. "Thank you for chicken," she said, giggling and leaning into him a little as they walked back to the Rat Trap. "Nobody ever give me a chicken before."

"Oh, you're, uh, welcome," said Jack. "I'm glad you like it. You were looking at it really funny at first, and I thought maybe you were going to bite its head off or something..."

Aithne laughed delightedly. She had no idea why that was funny, but it was. Aithne had had a few boyfriends back in Celtia. It was nice not to be lonely. Aithne jumped up onto the low wall edging the sidewalk, still holding Jack's hand. She liked the click the new heeled shoes Khyrisse bought for her made on the stone. "Come walk on a wall with me, Jack."

He scrambled up after her. Jack had very good balance, she noticed. "I like a moon," she said, pointing up at the new one shining palely in the sky. "Sky is much prettier now than in my Celtia."

"I--never really thought about it that way before," Jack said, following after her. "You, uh, probably shouldn't tell Khyrisse that, though... that moon is, uh, a bad moon. It almost killed everyone."

"Oh," said Aithne, looking at it. "It is very pretty, though."

"Uh," said Jack, eloquently.

Aithne hopped over a capstone, Jack's hand still in hers. "I like it here," she continued. "Maybe it is a good time to be alive. Sometimes I feel sad, but I think I should be a happy girl with all I have now. ...I have a chicken!" She giggled uncontrollably, pulling Jack along with her. "And I have new friends. I think I am okay."

"I think you are too," smiled Jack. "I'm really impressed by how well you're adapting, Aithne... you've only been here a week, and you've already connected with people better than I ever could."

"You are stupid man, Jack the Paris," she said indulgently, and kicked pebbles off the wall and into the goldfish pond with the toe of her shoe, plink-plink-plink. "Khyrisse is head of all the Ratpack. You are the heart." Jack blushed a little in the darkness. Aithne had never known a man who blushed so much before. It was kind of endearing. "You are only one everybody like."

"Likes," corrected Jack. "I, uh, don't think I'd say that..."

"No, but it is true anyway," said Aithne, swinging her free arm. "I am always right," she added, "about people. Always trust a witch about people." She gave him a quick grin, and he smiled back. Aithne was realizing that she and Jack got along much better when they weren't trying to talk about their own relationship. "Night is very pretty," she said. "Maybe we can go walk in the park?"

"Uh," said Jack, "okay."

"Uh," said Aithne, "I am little bit cold, Jack."

Jack put his arm around her.

Some things work anywhere, Aithne mused, walking with Jack along the wall, silhouetted against the silver disk of the new moon.

Illusions

"So, wait," said Ebreth, "Tucson's soul is disconnected?"

"That's what Rani says." Khyrisse shrugged helplessly. "She's been over it three times and can't find any planar bindings at all anymore."

"Maybe... Thermador?"

"I suppose it's not technically impossible," Khyrisse conceded. "So what's still on our plate? Jack and Schneider have soul problems, Jack's math is degrading, and Amatsu needs a body. Am I missing anything?"

"How about a good night's sleep?"

"Sleep?" said Khyrisse, with a slightly mocking smile at her own expense. "Now that I'm finally back in New Trade? It'll take me two hours to stop multitasking long enough to sit still, I think...!"

"I can't believe you were even going to try founding this place alone. You'd be dead in a week without someone reminding you to eat and sleep sometimes." He came around to her and took the pen out of her hand. "It'll all wait till morning. You don't need to watch everything at once anymore, remember?" She puffed her bangs out of her face and gave Ebreth a guilty look, and he laughed and closed his arms around what was left of her waist. "So how about turning off your spell and coming to bed?"

Khyrisse blinked. "The... stoneskin?" she said. "I already did."

"I know," murmured Ebreth. Khyrisse had never known anyone who could tell the difference just by touch before, and it secretly impressed the heck out of her. "I mean the illusion."

"What illusion?"

"The goddess one." More of the confused stare. "The one you wear when you miss being a goddess," he elaborated.

"Ebreth," she said, "what are you talking about?"

"Do you not do it intentionally?" It was Ebreth's turn to look confused. "When you start thinking about those days enough, your appearance changes."

Khyrisse put her hand over her mouth. "It--does?" she said faintly.

"Yes," said Ebreth. "Did you know your eyes change color when you're reminiscing about your old Trade citizens?" She shook her head mutely. "They go brown when you're thinking about Chisaye, and green when you're thinking about what's-her-name the bard."

"Briet," Khyrisse murmured distantly. "I--didn't know that." She concentrated a second. "Is it gone?" Ebreth nodded, and she exhaled. "Then it's just a cantrip. A lot of elven wizards cast cantrips without thinking about it... I'd just never caught myself doing it before. ...Ebreth?"

"Hmmm?"

"What--what did it look like? The goddess one."

"Just a little fancy," he shrugged. "Radiant, like. Your hair's longer, and blonder. You're a little more graceful."

"And you wanted me to turn it off?"

"I like it," said Ebreth. "It looks good." He touched the violet silk of her nightdress. "I like this too. Doesn't mean I don't want you to take it off."

Khyrisse laughed. "I guess that's fair," she said softly.

Runaway

"Skitch has a girrrrrrrrrrlfriend," Thalia singsonged softly.

"I do not! Lorrini's just a, a good friend!"

"Surrrrrrrre she is."

"Knock it off!" Skitch kicked the runaway princess in the ankle, crimson.

Thalia made a merry tinkle of laughter and tugged teasingly at his tunic. Skitch was a little surprised by Thalia. He would have thought a princess, especially one as sheltered and mannerly as Thalia was, would be less tolerant of rassling around with commoners. She said she had a brother his age back in Talaria. Maybe she was homesick. "You're not going to wear that to see a girl, are you?"

"What?" Skitch grabbed at his shoulder. "Why not? What's wrong with it?"

"Oh, nothing." Thalia's eyes twinkled wickedly. "It's probably the effect you were trying for. Forget I said anything."

"Knock it off!" wailed Skitch, batting her hand away. "I look fine--don't I?"

Thalia's expression changed suddenly, and she gave an urgent tug at Skitch's arm. He followed her into her hotel, looking at her curiously. "Marcus," she said softly to the concierge, "do you see those men coming down the street? I do not want to talk to them. In fact, it would be best if they don't even know I'm in the city."

"Understood, milady. The Regency prides itself on its discretion. Consider it taken care of."

Skitch pulled at her sleeve as the concierge went to have a quiet word with the doorman. "What was that all about?"

"My father's guard," Thalia said quietly, slipping her cowl up over her head with a furtive look over her shoulder as she started up the stairs for her room.

Skitch followed her. "Are they going to attack you? Do you want me to go find Khyrisse?"

Thalia looked shocked. "Oh no. No, they wouldn't hurt me. My father just wants me to go home and get married, and... and I don't want to. We still love each other. I just have to follow my dreams."

Skitch nodded gravely. "Well, you can stay here as long as you want to."

She surprised him again with a big hug. "Thank you, Skitch," she said softly.

On The Beat

"Your radiance brings shame to the morning, milady," Vas said half-seriously, giving Khyrisse an ornate bow and, as he straightened, an approving once-over.

Khyrisse smiled. She was a little embarrassed that it pleased her as much as it did, but she was wearing pregnancy well, and she knew it. There were many reasons Khyrisse had hated being an alabaster bug, back with the Sewer Tour, but one of them was that it hit a little close to home. Her features had always been sharper than she was pleased with, her figure not quite womanly enough. The first-trimester softening of her face and body, combined with the attention she'd been paying to her appearance for the first time in literally decades, was actually starting to make her think maybe people weren't really on crack after all when they said she was beautiful. She was a little self-conscious about the tummy, but it didn't show that much yet, and she was dealing. "Thank you," she said.

There was a light rap on the open door, and both elves looked up as Grace Averdale leaned her head into the office. "Oh, come in, Chief," said Khyrisse, pushing the file cabinet open with her foot and leaning over it for some receipts. "Please forgive the mess--I'm still catching up."

"I assumed you would be." Grace dropped a blue-and-white folder on the desk. "Police report for last week."

"Oh, Grendel," muttered Khyrisse, reaching for it. "What happened?"

"Nothing unexpected for a town this size," she shrugged. "You're almost half as large as Wyndar, now. You're going to get crime. There's nothing that requires your attention."

Khyrisse flipped through the pages. "How... long did it take you to prepare this, Chief?"

"Ten minutes. There's a magic copy machine at Salier's Print Shop."

"You keep records like this every week?"

"You know what they say about the Javinese," she deadpanned. Grace Averdale had a broad face with creases around her bright brown eyes, not of age, or weariness, but of well-worn ease, like a pair of boots perfectly broken in. "I don't normally want to waste your time with a full report, but I thought since you'd been gone all week, you'd like to see what you missed."

"Thank you," said Khyrisse, realizing with a start that she really would. "Is there anything I should know immediately?"



"If there was, I already would have told you." Chief Averdale touched the rim of her blue police cap. "If you need anything, I'll either be at the station or someone there will know where to find me."

"Grace," said Khyrisse, as the police officer turned to go. She glanced back over her shoulder. "Thank you," said Khyrisse. "For keeping things in order while I was gone."

"That's my job," she smiled, and walked down the hall of the Federal Building at an unhurried, deliberate pace.

Life In A Northern Town

"Thank you," said Ebreth.

"Come again," said the shop girl, quietly.

He closed the screen door of the co-op behind him as he stepped into the street. There were some kids shooting marbles on one of the sun-warmed flagstones. They didn't move, and he went around them. The market square was lively with people, but most of them lingered, here or there, looking through the window at some pastries or an imported sweater, pausing to chat with a neighbor in the afternoon sun. They weren't direct and they weren't subtle. They weren't simple and they weren't manic. They were in progress. They knew where they were going; they just liked to meander as they went.

And they watched Ebreth, not with hostility, but not with any attempt to pretend they weren't watching, either. Some cities minded their own business, some made everything their business; New Trade did neither. New Trade watched, and said nothing. It was disconcerting for Ebreth, who was used to people like Khyrisse, or like Schneider, actually: people who confronted you, either violently or not. That or people like, say, Kingfisher, who never asked about you in the first place. The New Trade townsfolk all knew exactly who Ebreth Tor had been by their third day living here, and they watched him, in ones and twos, and wondered who he was now. But they didn't ask, and they didn't make a space for him to tell them, and so he was rather at a loss for what to do with them. Spoke softly, mostly. Stayed out of the political limelight, lending the city his considerable administrative experience indirectly and behind the scenes. Ebreth didn't want to scare anyone off. He kept his profile rather intentionally innocuous, almost gentle, the understated coil of his power defanged by his natural charm. In time, he guessed, they would learn to trust him.

For now, he could feel their eyes on him, and he kept his head up and walked among them quietly.

And the people of New Trade watched as he passed and waited, with bewildered patience, for Ebreth Tor to become one of them.

Vendetta: Forgotten But Not Gone

"I don't know," sighed Valende. "Basic scries keep coming up with Jack, of course, and I know psionics wouldn't work. Ebreth and Jack think it's wishful thinking. But if there's any chance there might be something left of him..." She looked up at him suddenly. "Vas... what's wrong with your hair?"

"My hair?"

She put her hand to her brother's head and came away with a thin clump of hair. "Vas, your hair is starting to fall out! You... you didn't declare vendetta or something, did you?"

"Uhhhhh..." said the archer.

"Vas!" She pulled her own hair. "Over what? Why didn't you tell me?"

"Over Ariath," sighed Vastarin. "Khyrisse and I swore them together, and we kind of kept them our little secret."

"Khyrisse declared vendetta!" cried Val. "Vas, she's pregnant!"

"She fulfilled hers," Vas quickly assured her. "She swore to rescue Ebreth, and we did. But mine--Valende, if I go after Ariath now, I will do irreparable damage to Khyrisse and her city. I am in her employ, and Ariath is a political figure now." He looked at her pleadingly. "Can't we put it off a bit longer?"

Val held her head. "Vas, you flutterhead, you've already put it off for nearly a year. You're going to start showing serious side effects of this soon. How could somebody as chaotic as you commit yourself to a vendetta when you knew you might change your mind about it?"

He shuffled his feet. "I didn't want to let myself change my mind about it," he mumbled.

"Vendetta doesn't recognize extenuating circumstances, Vas," his sister reproached. "Next time, find me and just swear it to me."

"Valende, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time." He shook his head. "But I'm not going to endanger the success of New Trade over a decision I made nearly a year ago."

"Oh, Vas," she sighed. "What am I going to do with you?"

"Help me perform a ritual to release me from the vendetta?" he said hopefully.

"Without Liratyn?" She shook her dark head. "I'll try," she said. "I'll see if I can think of a valid atonement quest for you in Liratyn's absence, and you should try to see if you can find a loophole in exactly what you swore to do. I can't believe you let it go this long."

"I kept getting distracted by other things," he said mournfully.

"That's my brother," sighed Valende, grinning despite herself.

Lunch Break

"We got two more building petitions last week," Lora Paris told Khyrisse. "A rug dealer from Cynystra and another hotel."

Khyrisse got a little kick out of it each time another business wanted to open shop in New Trade, but the saturated lodging industry was starting to worry her. "Don't we have eleven hotels already?"

"If you count the Rat Trap. And there's the condominium on the west side, too." Lora shrugged, clearly not much concerned. "There's a large body of merchants who come here just to trade goods at the emporium, and a lot of the local people have been coming to town to sell furs and shop."

"Enough to fill twelve hotels and a condo?"

"Not really." Lora shrugged again. "I think some of them are banking on increased Carriage traffic as the idea catches on more, and want to get in at the ground floor. I don't think it's spread thin enough to worry about. The competition benefits travelers."

"Well, let's keep an eye on it. I don't want to drive the existing inns out of business." Khyrisse looked up in surprise as Ebreth poked his head into Lora's office. "Ebreth? Where's M--Sallie?"

"Rauvin Paris is in town," said Ebreth, nodding to Lora. "He thought he'd have a look at her."

That was probably a good idea, actually. "Maybe Tarrin can check her out when he comes to dinner tonight, too," Khyrisse thought out loud. "I should really contact Praxis as soon as I get the chance. If psychic surgery would help her, he's our man." She shook her head. "What's up?"

"Wondering if the two of you wanted to join me for lunch."

Khyrisse looked to Lora, who smiled and shook her head. "I've already eaten," she said. "You go on, I'll finish up here. Congratulations, by the way," she added to Ebreth, a twinkle in her eyes. "I hear you've made the catch of New Trade."

"Don't I know it," Ebreth said seriously.

***

"Hey, I got something for you. Look at this." Ebreth took a bundle wrapped in tissue paper out of his bag, and opened it to reveal a silver-grey wrap of some light and shimmering material. "They call it a ring shawl, because it's so fine you can pass the whole thing through a ring. It's made out of the hair from some Kyoko-Ryan antelope or something."

She didn't even ask how much it had cost. Khyrisse liked to shop herself, but she at least liked the bargaining phase. Ebreth just seemed to enjoy identifying and buying the highest-quality item in any given store; the price aspect bored him. All the local merchants must be really glad to see him coming. Khyrisse sighed, touching the magnificently wispy material. It only complicated matters that he had such genuinely good taste. He rarely came home with anything she felt moved to get rid of. At least, she reasoned, they were supporting the New Trade economy. "It's beautiful," she admitted. "Thank you."

"Hey, it's your money." He shook it out, grinning, and wrapped it around her shoulders, pulling her against him with it. "How'd the debriefing go?"

"Well," said Khyrisse. "It's going well. Our population's up to five thousand now, and we've got eighty-four business establishments, plus the Emporium. Is that where you found this?"

"No, it was in that Shikinti imports place. Jack's trying to teach me chess, and I was looking for a good set. Didn't find one I liked." He paused, looking down at her in his arms for a moment. "I like that," he admitted.

"The shawl?"

"The engagement. I like Lora knowing you belong to me."

"Lora already knew that."

"I like everyone else knowing it."

Khyrisse exhaled ruefully and leaned her head on him. "I like it too," she said in a small voice.

"The Terra Cotta?"

"Sounds good to me."

Deal With A Scorpion

Carson walked down the old familiar streets. It was a beautiful, sunny day. He couldn't believe he was about to attempt something so goddamned stupid.

There was a time, not very long ago, that he would have pulled up the stakes without hesitation and been out of Lianth post haste. No sense fighting a battle one would lose, he'd always said. Easier to get out and start again elsewhere. So how come I'm not seeing that extremely evident truth now?

Carson Delaney raised his hand and knocked on the safehouse door.

A sinister-looking man--impressively able to look sinister even at three foot four--swung it open, taking in the visage of the retired huckster before him with a certain disbelief. It faded quickly to his usual jaded sneer. "Come to pay the insurance bill, Delaney?"

Carson shook his head. "There's no way I could come up with that kind of money," he admitted.

"Pity. I know you're a resourceful chap, Delaney. I just hope it doesn't take another unfortunate accident to charge up your creative batteries." The halfling moved to shut the door.

"No, wait!" Stump waited. "Look, there's something you don't understand. My business partners, they'd never scarf up the fruits of their labors to pay protection money."

"Being whacked over the head with one's mortality has a way of convincing men."

"Not in New Lianth." Carson brought to bear all the skills of lying he had practiced over the years to make it sound like he really believed this. "I'm telling you, you're running your business there the wrong way. There's one reason the city of New Lianth exists at all: Randall Thrayn." For the first time, Stump seemed to be listening to him. It was Carson's secret weapon. Most people were afraid of Randall, of what he might get others to do. Time to turn those lingering doubts against Stump. "It's his way of thinking that's made people what they are. Lianth was a wreck after the Madness. The only reason it's a city again is because Randall started selling his self-empowerment elixir. You and I may know it's bullshit, but the rest of them honest-to-Rochester believe their hard-earned wages are as sacred as their lives. Trust me on this. The protection racket is the wrong way to part the fools there from their money."

"Do tell."

"Really. We've got plenty of market for drugs, or prostitution. Hell, there aren't any bible thumpers out there or anything. You pays your money, you get something in return. I'd, uh, lay off the slave trade though. That still rubs a lot of people raw." That was for you, Schneider. The best I can do. I hope you're resting in peace. "And in case you hadn't noticed, Stump, this city has no cops, no government! It may as well have ‘Fungible' tattooed on its forehead! You need a center for laundering or moving hot goods? Who's to know? I mean, geez. Adapt to the economic times."

Stump paused. "I'll discuss it with the boss." Now, he closed the door. Carson finally breathed.

What Happens As Soon As You Establish A Team Headquarters

"Hello?" Ebreth ducked his head into the Rat Trap kitchen. It was a mess, as usual, but no one was in there either. "It doesn't look like anyone's here."

"Schneider messaged me to come here not two minutes ago," said Khyrisse, trying to hide her annoyance. "It's probably a flarking surprise party."

The door to the basement banged open then. Rani was standing in its frame. "Hey, Torshadow," she said. "Get down here. You want to see this."

***

Jack, Aithne, Val, Orlen, Schneider, and Thalia were gathered intently around a faint greenish glow to one side of the Rat Trap basement. It smelled stale, like no one had really spent any time down here since it was excavated. "Well?" said Khyrisse.

"I--have no idea," said Val. Jack and Schneider moved aside a bit to let Khyrisse see. There was a gem about the size of a fist pulsing on the dirt floor, and for a moment Khyrisse had the strange idea that it was the Mind Gem, in search of another hero to wield it. This gem was greenish-white, though, and less lucid than the Item of Power Praxis had used to turn back Bane. Khyrisse's butterfly mask of true seeing flared to life around her eyes. "It's definitely artifact-level," she said. "How did it get here?"

"That's the question, isn't it?" said Rani. "Orlen found it about an hour ago. None of us have been in the basement in months, so God knows how long it's been down here."

"Mina or someone might have put it here for safekeeping," Jack offered.

"Or one of our enemies might have put it here to explode and destroy us all," agreed Rani.

"Rani's psychometric powers might be able to tell us more about it," said Valende, "but I wanted you to make sure it wasn't a gem of soul trapping before she tried to touch it, Khyrisse. I'm getting--uncomfortable vibes from it."

"No," Khyrisse said, looking carefully down at it, "no, it's certainly not necromantic."

"Then it should be all right," said Val, and picked it up gingerly. She made a most un-Val-like scream and dropped it like she had picked up a hot coal. The gem rolled a few facets and stopped. "Val?" said Jack, moving to her side with concern. "I'm okay," said the priestess tightly, squeezing her hand to her chest with her other hand. "It's an artifact of evil, Khyrisse. It burned me when I tried to touch it. It must be designed to prevent good people from handling it."

"All right, that does it," said Khyrisse. "This comes out of the basement."

"I'll get it." Ebreth scooped up the artifact and dropped it in the same motion, his hand jerking violently. He stared after the irregularly rolling gem with an indescribable expression, holding his hand. "Oh, yes," said Rani, impatiently, "let's all touch the evil artifact now. Pass it on around. Burned hands can be our new thing."

"I--" said Ebreth.

"I will take out of the basement," Aithne told Khyrisse, with an obedient bob of her dark head, and took the gem.

There was a moment of silence as everyone looked at Aithne.

"This is powerful magic," commented the young midwife, looking curiously at the jewel in its own dim light, and carried it up the stairs as her matriarch had commanded.

"It's only warded against good people," Val said, after a beat. "Maybe she's just neutral."

"Maybe it's not really about alignment at all," said Ebreth. "Maybe only witches can touch it."

"Maybe we're all in really deep shit here," said Rani.

A Lonely Impulse Of Delight

Otter wasn't precisely sure how many days had passed.

No sunlight reached this deep. Day and night were meaningless on the ocean floor, the cycles of the moons and their tides as inconsequential as surface storms. Occasionally a strange creature, or two, or a whole school of them, would pass through her limited field of vision; in the farther distance, bioluminescent outlines would occasionally pass. Callie brought her meals periodically. And time, in the amorphous, immeasurable way of the depths, went by.

Otter was no closer to understanding anything she hadn't at her moment of arrival, either. Where she was; who or what the Fallen Ones were, or what they wanted with her; even the nature of her prison. Worse, she had somehow stopped understanding things she had understood before she had come here. Otter felt terribly alien here. The soft cold ocean that had once seemed like an extension of her own skin now felt somehow mysterious, and Otter didn't like it. She didn't like questions; she liked answers. And so she was wondering, and not for the first time, why she had banked towards an inconsequential shimmer of light among the reefs. Not hunger, not greed, not territorial defense. It had been something almost like desire. She had been remembering the pointless, yearning shanties of the human sailors, and she had found herself moving.

Otter was coming to realize that she did not understand herself as well as she had once thought, and she hated herself for it.

He Must Decide, He Must Decide, Even Though I Made Him Up He Must Decide

Jack and Val watched as Khyrisse and the others headed up to see what Aithne was doing with the strange artifact. "Peep," said the chick, pecking at the hole where the gem had come from.

"I, uh... I'd better go bring the chick upstairs," Jack said nervously.

"You--know what you're doing, right, Jack?"

"No," Jack smiled weakly and shrugged. He leaned over to pick up the chick. "Uh, Val," he said.



A skeletal hand, fossilized by centuries of burial, was partially evident where the wall had collapsed.

Jack brushed away a bit of the stone and the bone seemed to continue deeper into the earth.

"You know, if I was going to leave the two of us in a dark basement somewhere," said Val, "this would not be the one I'd choose."

***

"Oh, these are old, all right," said Rani, sliding her fingers along the ulna of the partially-lithified skeleton. "Does Khyrisse have a museum yet?"

"Maybe we shouldn't put him in a museum," Jack said. "What if he, uh, came from a culture where that would be sacrilegious or something?"

"His spirit would probably haunt the town, or he'd shut people in his mummy tomb, or something," said Rani, closing her eyes. "Her mummy tomb," she corrected. "This was a woman. At least three thousand years old. I'm--not going to get a lot off of her." Her face strained a little. "Very strong magic. These bones shouldn't be preserved as well as they are. She's not undead--there's nothing animate to her. But there was. I think this may be an ancient undead being who fulfilled whatever she had to fulfill and returned to death."

***

Aithne turned the greenish-white gem in the sunlight, smiling as its facets kicked cats-eyes across the wall. "This is Celtic magic!" she told Khyrisse. "I can use." Aithne felt so suddenly useful; the witch-magics were something that even her much more powerful matriarch wouldn't be able to control.

"But what does it do, Aithne?" said Khyrisse.

Aithne looked at it introspectively. "I don't know," she admitted. "But, I am sure I can learn."

"Oh, Grendel," muttered Khyrisse. "Don't try to use that until you know what it does, okay? I don't want you accidentally summoning a plague of demons or something."

"I will be very careful," promised Aithne, holding the gem up to the light. Her eyes crossed a bit. "I only need to examine the Goddess here. I don't need to activate."

"How did it get here?" Thalia wanted to know.

"I don't know," said the young witch, looking through the translucent body of the gem at the other girl. "Maybe it was looking for me."

***

Jack and Val finally came up the stairs from the basement, herded by a pensive-looking Rani. Jack was not very good at hiding his feelings, and Ebreth was excellent at reading them; the upshot was that the mathematician was in one heck of a conflicted mood. Valende, luckily, went over to confer with Khyrisse and Aithne about the gem, and Rani was paying about as much attention to Jack as she ever did, which meant she made a half-hearted attempt not to step on his feet as she pushed past him to talk to Orlen about something, so Ebreth figured this was close enough to privacy. "Hey," he said, quietly, flicking his eyes to Aithne and back. "How'd it go last night?"

"Oh," sighed Jack, "good, I guess... She, uh, liked the chick."

Ebreth looked at Val and Aithne again, and looked back at Jack, questioningly.

"You know that vacation we've been talking about?" sighed Jack. "I think now would be a really, really good time."

"Give me twenty-four hours," grinned Ebreth. "You think Montas?"

"I think anywhere but Athens," said Jack. "Are you all right? That looks pretty bad."

Ebreth uncurled his fingers a little. It did look bad, a lot worse than it felt; he couldn't tell if that was because it was a messy but minor burn or because his pain sensors were so out of whack. "I think it's all right," he said. "I'll have Val take a look at it. It... burned me." He looked at his palm a little incredulously, then shook his head, curled his fingers back shut, and slapped his other hand on his pants. "I can be ready by tomorrow," he said. "You just let me know."

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