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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 22

Foreshadowing: Slade

"Welcome to the Dead College," said the sinister-looking illithid with the steel-and-crystal arm.

"The Dead College?" said Slade. "I had heard--rumors--I didn't think they were true." He turned the impassive black helmet of his Doomlands armor back and forth, taking in the underground complex. "There are--more here than I would have expected."

"It's been a boom year." The mindflayer grinned a chilling grin. "Shadow changed more than your choice of attire, Slade. Between the souls newly returned from Hell and the convenient willingness of everyone to believe any missing person was killed in the Madness, our ranks have swelled threefold."

"And you want me?" said Slade. "I am no Omeria Gothspadin, Lord Beliath."

"The Dead College has a place for powerful and promising alike," said Beliath, waving it off with a tentacle. "You have built much in these two years, Slade, and I would be pleased to call you one of ours."

"I am--not like the others."

"I know," Beliath acknowledged. "You turned to the dark side. By right you should be Maeve's. But this year you had your chance at turning back and you didn't take it. You put that armor on, Slade. That's all I need. And I got to you before Maeve did. Are you with me?"

"I'm with you," Slade said after a beat.

"Good man," said Beliath. "There is a woman, one of Jay's, meddling in our business."

"And you want her dead?"

"No," said Beliath. "Under no circumstances allow her to be killed. I want her imprisoned for... two months." He paused. "That should be long enough."

"I believe I have the facilities for that, Lord Beliath."

"I don't pick people for ill-suited tasks." Beliath turned away from the villain in the imposing black bodyarmor. "Let us know if you run into trouble."

He Said Sidhe Said

Aithne hadn't thought her week could get much worse.

Then Jack and Vas had fought over her. Aithne realized belatedly that the queen's brother might have wanted her to keep their encounter to herself. Jack, too, was from a powerful family, and now Aithne had caused strife between them. She thought seriously about committing suicide, but didn't even know how one would go about doing something like that. Some witches were adept with poisons, but Aithne hadn't really had the chance to study such things. She'd heard of some women who hung themselves with scarves, but the logistics of this wasn't really presenting itself to Aithne, and she couldn't very well practice with Jack standing right there. He was trying to be supportive. Aithne wished she were home.

"Aithne?" Valende said then, gently but firmly, putting her head into the young witch's apartment. Aithne bowed her head fearfully. "Khyrisse would like to see us in her office," said Val.

Aithne slipped a scarf into the pocket of her coat, just in case.


"Milady," said Vas, pained, "you don't really think I would force myself on the girl... do you?"

"No, Vas," Khyrisse sighed, "but I hardly think Jack would make something like this up in a jilted rage, either." She sat down in her office chair, heavily. "I don't know what happened," she said. "It's certainly possible that you might have said something in the course of your incessant flirting that she took as a command, Vas... or maybe she's pursuing some bizarre scheme to make Jack jealous. Grendel, for all we know Bloodscar is trying to sow discord to pay us back for the Ariath thing." Khyrisse sighed. "I don't know what happened," she said. "But I'm going to find out."


"Did you have sex with Vas, Aithne?" Valende asked quietly, in the ancient Gaelic that meant she was using her magical powers over language.

"Yes," said Aithne.

The elven priestess frowned. "I'm sorry, Aithne, I can't hear you."

"Yes ma'am," Aithne said in a slightly more audible whisper, swallowing. Vas was trying to make eye contact with her, but Aithne didn't dare look at him. "Of course, ma'am."

Val looked at Khyrisse, and back. "Why, Aithne?"

"He wanted me to, ma'am."

"What made you think that?"

Aithne's eyes stung with tears. She knew what Val meant by that. Vas was denying he'd made a pass. Jack was angry, and they were trying to avoid a rift between the elven and human halves of the house by claiming Aithne had seduced him. It was the sensible thing to do from the family point of view, but from Aithne's it was so unfair she wanted to weep. There was no way out of it now, though. She could accept the blame and be punished for an affair she had wanted no part in, or deny it, cause a family feud, and be punished anyway. All else being equal, Aithne guessed she'd rather be known as a slut than an insubordinate. "Nothing," she said. Val and Khyrisse both frowned. "I'm sorry," she said woefully. "I didn't think it would cause such trouble..."

"Aithne," Vas interrupted, "did you want to, or not?"

Aithne swallowed hard. "Yes," she said, lifting her chin dutifully.

There was a moment's pause. "Aithne," said Valende, "you are lying."

Aithne gave it up and burst into tears. "I am sorry!" she cried in Dalen, flinging herself at her matriarch's feet in desperate supplication. She had no idea what the other two wanted her to say anymore, and Khyrisse had been merciful to her once before, after the lost chicken incident. It seemed her only chance now. "I didn't know he wanted me keep quiet about it! If he told me that, I never would said to Jack. I will go with either one you tell me and never complain anymore! Please not send me away!"

There was a shocked silence. Aithne tried not to tremble in terror. "Okay," Khyrisse finally said, "Aithne, listen. I'm the matriarch, and this is my city. Right?" Aithne bobbed her head abjectly. "Right, well I say you don't have to sleep with anyone. Not Vas, not Jack, and not anyone else, either. I'm not giving you to anyone. Do you understand?"

Aithne swallowed. "I think so," she returned to Gaelic, not daring to look at the younger siblings she suspected the sorceress queen had just overruled, "but in light of my earlier error, I think I must make certain. I may stay on with you?"

"I can't imagine why you still want to, Aithne," sighed Khyrisse, "but yes, of course."

"May I still see Jack?" she said humbly, peeking up at her from the floor. "Or would you prefer me to maintain celibacy?"

Khyrisse pinched the bridge of her nose. Aithne hadn't figured out yet if that gesture was annoyance or amusement. "It's your choice, Aithne. I don't care. You can see anyone you want, but you don't have to see anyone you don't want. Do I look like a madam?"

The last word didn't translate, but Aithne knew the right answer from the tone of her voice. "Of course not, my lady," she said. "Thank you. I regret any trouble I have caused for you and your family and I will do anything I can to make amends."

"You haven't caused any trouble, Aithne," Vas said from somewhere behind her in an oddly throttled voice. "The fault is mine."

Jumping At Shadows

Octavian leapt lightly from the roof of the police station to the roof of the Woodrow apartment complex, slipping his cloaked form into the shadows of the chimney stacks.

"I don't hear it now," said one of the policemen's voices behind him, somewhere between confused, annoyed, and frightened.

"You're jumping at shadows, Riley," snorted the second cop.

The door to the RCPD fire escape banged shut, and Octavian allowed himself a grim smile at the complacence of the corrupt fools he fought against. Back in the days he ruled these streets, an irritant like Octavian would have been wiped out in a matter of weeks. But the leeches feeding off his city now were lazy and fat, and they gave up chases before they had begun. Octavian could disappear into the night any time he wanted to, because every miscreant in town was either too careless or too afraid to follow him too far into its depths.

That was what Octavian was thinking, looking out across the Rimbor City skyline in the darkness, when a second figure stepped out of the shadows beside him.

"Ever dance with the devil in the pale moonlight?" she said.

Octavian whirled on her, the slender blade flicking from the end of his sword-cane to within half an inch of her nose. She didn't flinch.

"I've come to join you," said Rani. "Take me on."

I'm Just A Boy Who Can't Say No

"I think I have a problem, Valende," he said into his hands.

"Vas, you didn't know," she said softly. "I know you better than anyone else on Ataniel, and I promise: you would never have done this if there was a doubt in your mind that it was what she wanted."

"That's not what I mean." Vas didn't look up. His voice was rather raw. "This was the... most egregious... example, to be sure, because I so drastically misunderstood the young lady's advances... but I can't say no, Valende. I tried after what happened between us in the Madness, and again after the debacle with Ariath. It falls by the wayside the minute somebody I'm fond of makes an amorous move. I don't want to stop caring about other people, and I don't think I'd want to stop being complimentary or vivacious with the people I care about even if I could, but..." His dark head shook slowly side to side, his fingers still clasped in his hair. "But I don't think I could say no to anyone who responded to it," he said huskily. "Regardless of circumstance. When I was helping Khyrisse with her dancing, Valende, the day after Skitch ran away?" Val's eyes widened a bit, and he shook his head quickly. "Nothing happened, of course; we merely flirted a bit, just as usual... but it did occur to me that had she turned to me I would not have refused her, even though I knew she would have regretted it. I had to resort to treating Dee rather rudely to keep her from turning to me, for I doubt if I could even have said no to her, despite all that conspired between Ariath and myself. I... do believe that if you turned to me, sister, I would not turn you away. I think I have a problem."

"Vas," she whispered, after a beat. "You--had a pasirel. It's not uncommon for the survivors of broken pair-bonds to be, needy. Your natural promiscuity may have been keeping this from coming to our attention after Aerdrie's death... but perhaps your heart is less healthy than I'd thought." She put her hand remorsefully on her brother's head. "And here I'd been thinking your unstressful trysts meant you'd recovered so well. Oh, Vas."

"Is there anything that might be done about this?"

Valende sighed. "You could take a vow of celibacy for nine years. That's the traditional suggestion."

"If I could hold to such a vow, sister," Vastarin said tartly, "I would hardly need to, would I?" Val winced. "I've declared my celibacy twice now, with great sincerity and dedication, and neither time has it lasted past the next lady to offer her favors. Believe me, my first reaction to this Aithne disaster was to swear off women still more fervently, but I'm not as stupid as some seem to think, and I know full well it would come to the same end."

"I could cast a spell that would effectively enforce the vow," she said softly.

"Across the board? That would be little better, sister mine." He looked up and met her eyes directly. "It isn't so healthy to be unable to say yes, either, if I may turn the tables for a moment."

Val flushed unevenly. "It was an overly hasty yes that was the cause of my problems, if you'll recall! We are not as different as you like to style us, flutterhead."

"I wasn't talking about sex," said Vas. "You've been rejecting emotional intimacy for months now. And unless I miss my mark badly, Valende, I am not the only member of our lineage to feel the first stirrings of pasirel." Val looked like she was going to slug him, but then she just slumped down in her chair. "You've not been yourself since Jack, sister, and not since his death, either--since the day he left for the Remnant."

"What of it?" she whispered, defeated. "I told him I was too damaged for a relationship like that when we started. More fool I for trying it anyway, when I knew the least hint of abandonment would send me into a tailspin."

"Valende," said Vastarin, seriously, "perhaps seeking refuge in liaisons of the flesh is not the healthiest of solutions on my part, but surely building a wall between yourself and the world is not the healthiest on yours. I may be your little brother, but I'm not that young."

"Sometimes," said Val, not entirely to Vas, "I feel as if... there were two different Valendes inside me, one begging to connect, to care, to be needed... and one wanting only to withdraw, to leave the world and everyone in it to fend for themselves."

"And yet," said Vas, "you didn't flee with Liratyn, Valende."

"Could I leave my only brother to face the Madness alone?" she retorted.

"My point." Vastarin held his hand out to her. "Take my hand, Val. Please. Don't throw your emotional strength and beauty overboard. Take my hand. Let me have accomplished one worthwhile thing in this long and strange saga of ours."

She looked up at him ruefully through the loose wisps of her dark hair, and then she put her hand softly in his. "Perhaps," she said, with a wobbly smile, "we might be able to take what we need from each other, after all?"

"Form of," said Vas, pulling her to him gracefully, "someone with an ounce or two of self-control."

"Shape of," sighed Valende, wearily but with a pixyish grin at her own expense, "someone with the courage to love again."

What Evil Lurks

There was a long moment of silence on top of the Woodrow building, and then a click as Octavian's blade retracted into his cane. "To join me," he said. "Very well then." The cowled crimefighter produced a slip of paper from his belt and proffered it to Rani with a half-flourish of his cape. "This is the name of one of my... associates, in the city below," he said. "Contact him. He will find you a place in the movement."

Octavian turned to go. "Hey," said Rani, louder. The vigilante looked back at her with a frown. "I didn't stake out the fucking roof to exchange rolodexes," she said. "If I wanted one of your associates I would have gone to one of your associates. I came to talk to you."

"My associates being so easily found, of course," Octavian said drily.

"Easier than you," Rani said. "I could have found them." She paused. "I'm here to join you," she said. "Not your underground network of minions. I wouldn't be much use as a minion."

"Rani, isn't it?" said Octavian, with a sigh. "I intend no offense, Rani, but you wouldn't be much use as an apprentice vigilante, either, if that's what you're asking. It takes a... special kind of man... for this job."

"Someone like Lucas St. Augustine, you mean?"

It was a gamble. Rani was hoping it would raise his estimation of her enough that he would take her seriously, but not enough that he would feel he had to kill her. It did neither, though. "Ebreth Tor told you that," Octavian said dismissively.

"When he told me about Jonathon Demme?" The vigilante stiffened visibly and his head swivelled towards her, his piercing eyes locking into hers. "Bartender at the Yellowjacket," she said. She had his attention now, anyway. "Retired priest of Scala. A nice guy; everyone seemed to think well of him. Disappeared during the Madness. Nobody knows what happened to him. They try not to think about it. In fact he was attacked by three younger men who apparently mistook him, in their Banish frenzy, for a spy from a rival gang. They beat him and left him for dead. His blood trailed off into the gutter in a spiralling ribbon of red." Rani didn't look away. "Yes, that must have been when Ebreth Tor told me about Lucas St. Augustine. Now I remember."

Octavian seized her by the shirt front, pulled her around, and lifted her bodily. "Where did you learn this?"

"You can learn a lot from the night," said Rani, "if you know how to listen. Tor didn't tell me anything, Octavian. I found it myself. You need a successor. Demme was in his fifties. You're at the top of your game now but you won't be forever. This city is still going to be here. Octavian should be too. I'm young enough to be your daughter. Take me on."

Rani squared her shoulders and waited.

The Worryingest Man in the West

"Jack?" Ebreth pushed the door to his friend's apartment open tentatively. The mathematician was sitting glumly at his desk and fiddling with the wheels of his new encoding device, his mind evidently miles away. "Everything okay?"

"No," said Jack.

"How is she?"

"I don't know. Khyrisse says she thinks things are worked out. I'm afraid to go anywhere near her now." Jack put his forehead down on the Enigma. "I screwed up everything. Again."

"You didn't screw up anything, Jack," Ebreth said. "Hell, if you hadn't done anything, it probably would have kept on happening."

"I should have handled it privately. I should have talked to Khyrisse about it first and gotten her--" Jack cycled his hand vaguely.

"Gotten her permission to hit Vas?"

"No." Jack sighed. "Gotten her to handle things discreetly. Maybe at your house, instead of Khyrisse's office."

Ebreth squinted. "That matters?"

"It would to me. Calling her on the carpet in the New Trade Oval Office is just... she's humiliated enough." Jack hung his head. "I feel like I sort of came blowing in rashly and stirred a lot of stuff up without thinking the consequences through well enough... and now I've got Aithne feeling awful, and I dragged all this stuff up in front of Val, and I put Khyrisse in a bad situation..."

"You haven't wussed out and gotten all guilty about punching Vas yet," Ebreth pointed out.

"You'd think I would, wouldn't you?" Jack looked at his swollen thumb. "No, I don't feel bad about that at all, oddly enough. I just wish I'd thought through my, uh, exit plan ahead of time, that's all."

"Welcome to the world of impulsive action," sighed Ebreth. "I told you there was a downside."

"I just can't believe I turned the whole thing into such a scandal," moaned Jack. "She was upset enough, and I went and made everything worse... and then Val got dragged into it. I should have waited till she wasn't there. I didn't think about that till it was too late."

"I don't think it bothered her that much, Jack," Ebreth said. "I get the feeling she's kind of used to people pasting her brother when he does jackass things."

"It's not that," said Jack, "it's rubbing the whole relationship in her face."

Ebreth suspected she didn't mind that as much as Jack did, either, but he wasn't about to say so. "You stuck up for a friend," he said. "I'm sure you would have done as much for Mina. You didn't say anything about a relationship to Val." Ebreth paused. "You didn't say anything about a relationship to me. Do you have a relationship?"

"Well," Jack said miserably, "I certainly don't now."

"Look," said Ebreth, "you better go talk to her first thing in the morning. Because if she thinks you have a relationship, then she's going to think you're avoiding her because you're mad at her, and that will upset her."

"I hate this," groaned Jack.

Becoming Octavian

The vigilante was silent for a long moment in the moonlight. "You... want to be my successor," he said.

"Yeah," said Rani. "Yeah, I want to be your successor. I've gotten so far off track I don't recognize myself in the fucking mirror anymore. I can solve every crime in this city and I can't do a damn thing to stop any of them. I spend my downtime farting around with a bunch of improbably good-looking heroes who don't need my help anyway. I'm not doing anything with my life." She paused. "Teach me to be Octavian."

"Octavian is a presence capable of striking fear into the hearts of bullies, thugs, and hardened hitmen," he said. "It is not a task most are up to."

She didn't need the Gift to pick up on the implication. "Okay, so Edyric the Archer I'm not," she said impatiently. "You're not so butch yourself, frankly, and you do all right."

"I have a four THAC0," said Octavian. "Do you?"

Rani paused a long moment. "No," she said, "but I can read these city streets, I know what evil lurks in the hearts of men, and I'm very good at melting into the night. Look, I don't see a lot of other applicants up here. Do you want me or not?"

Octavian appraised her with a cold and glittering eye. "You do not look like me," he stated.

"Yeah, well," said Rani, "luckily you ain't that tall and I ain't that stacked. Give me a cape and a cowl and I'll do the rest. I can control my physical appearance, you know. The only reason I haven't been cruising around town as a non-descript human male since I was eight is my own fucking stubbornness."

"Our enemies may be fools, Rani," Octavian sighed, "but hardly that foolish. Do you really think John Tucson has no mages in his employ? Your disguise wouldn't last a week."

"Hello!" Rani waggled the fingers of her left hand at him. "Not magic over here!" He did blink. "I didn't say I could disguise my physical appearance, I said I could control it. Get me a mind blank shield like yours and trust me, it'd take a Psilord to figure out who the hell I am."

"You've... given this a lot of thought, haven't you."

"No, I'm up here on the skyscape for my health." She hooked her thumbs through her belt loops and looked right back at him. "I may not kick ass the way you do, Jonathon, but I have the pulse of this city like no one else alive and I can be in the right place at the right time with all the right information, and that scares cowards more than getting their ass kicked does. I can become you, Octavian. Teach me how to."

He was quiet for a full minute. "You will need to pick up enough of the ass-kicking to at least feign the persona I have built," he said, "or your appearances will only weaken mine."

"Boyfriend," said Rani, "I am all over that like you wouldn't believe."

"And," said Octavian, frowning, "you will need to keep your mien consistent with mine if you expect not to be seen through instantly."

"I expected no less," said Rani. "An exact mimicry of voice or face is, of course, outside the realm of my Gift, but I am more than capable of applying my observational skills to the basic task, and as you well know, the frightened imaginations of criminals will fill in the gaps themselves."

Octavian frowned at her, tapping his knuckle on his cowled nose. "Do I really sound that pompous?" he finally said, cracking a rather Augustinian smile.

"Yes," said Rani.

"I am going to regret this, aren't I?"

"Probably," said Rani, "but you're also going to ensure your legacy, and you're also, I might add, going to come into a source of information that is devastatingly difficult to guard against."

"You may use your own diction between us," said Octavian, frowning.

"Right," said Rani. "So am I in or what?"

"Be in the sewer beneath the old arena at midnight," said Octavian. "We will begin your--training--there."


"Trust Vas," said Khyrisse aggravatedly, brushing her hair out on the bed. "Not that he meant anything by it, of course..."

"Does he ever?"

Khyrisse sighed. "He really is upset about it," she said.

"Is he upset because he screwed up other people's lovelives," Ebreth wanted to know, "or because Aithne thought he was too skanky to sleep with of her own volition?"

"Both, I think." Khyrisse flopped back against the headboard. "He's very sorry she did anything she didn't want to. He wants to make it up to her. I said I thought it was best if he just left her alone for awhile." The baby was stirring inside her; it was the strangest feeling, somewhere between a growling stomach and a cat on her lap. Khyrisse almost, but not quite, missed Melissa. "She's moving," she said, putting Ebreth's hand to her stomach as he got into bed. "Can you feel it?"

He concentrated a moment. "No," he said. "Just you breathing." Ebreth paused, his hand on her belly. "Khyrisse?"


"Could--we pretend it was me?" He looked away. "Just between the two of us... just here? You don't have to say it where Schneider might hear you. But in my own bedroom, in my own bed, can I at least be the only man of this house?"

"You are the only--" She shook her head, and took his hand in both of hers. "Ebreth," she said, "listen, you have to understand this. I don't say you're the father, it's not because I'm worried about hurting Schneider's feelings. It's because I don't want to resent my own daughter." Khyrisse bit her lip. "And I don't want to jinx it," she admitted, in a smaller voice.

"You don't have to say I'm the father," said Ebreth. "Could you just not say I'm not? Could I have one place I don't have to have my guard up, Khyrisse, one place I know you're not going to deny me?"

She closed her eyes and trembled. I never want to deny you, part of her mind wailed. Khyrisse pushed it aside; there was nothing she could do about that now. "I will never mention Schneider in this bedroom again," she said.

Penguin Dreams


Bane hung large and pale in the thin Doomlands air. Against its broad face, a slender, menacing silhouette: the spire of the floating palace of Shalak.

Babe knew this place well. He had fled from here months ago, before the undead overlord had wrenched his fortress back into phase with Ataniel. The escape had been harrowing. His search for help had been slow. Arturian the Sorcerer was the only one the penguin leader had been able to think of who might be able to stand toe to toe with the lich lord, and he had declined to get involved. Babe had been disappointed, but couldn't truly blame the human. He had thought of gathering together the heroes of the Mithril Dagger, but was unable to communicate with the first one he found. Babe had ended up with a book called "The Significance of Significants." He left it by the side of the road, and changed his plans.

And now he and four other small, seemingly inconsequential animals were advancing, quietly but steadily, on the stronghold of the most powerful undead thing ever to exist on Ataniel. Thus far, at least, the strategy had worked. No evil minions had attacked yet. Shalak the Terrible had not shown up to return Babe to servitude. Whether the low profile of the Pets would continue to keep them beneath the lich lord's radar in his fortress itself, Babe didn't know; but he had to try, and he had to keep believing they had a chance.

For four hundred years, the penguins of Ataniel had been enslaved, forced to wander the land as the spies and messengers of the captive Shalak.

One way or the other, that was going to change tomorrow.

Babe the penguin swore it would be so.

Getting Lucky

"And then she said I got things right all the time because I was lucky!" Vickie rolled her eyes, flexed one knee to her chest in a morning stretch, and hopped out of bed. "Can you believe that?"

Amatsu sort of suspected Rani was right on that count, actually, but he was much too tactful to say so, particularly to a beautiful woman getting dressed in his apartment. "Luck, skill, and hard work complement each other," he said instead.

"That what your fortune cookie said last night, Matsie?" Vickie laughed. "Anyway, I've been thinking about it and I think what I really ought to do is spend more time with her. Y'know, like, teaming up more?"

Amatsu squinted at that apparent non sequitur. "Why... do you think that?"

"Well," said Vickie, "partly to prove to her I really do know my stuff, but mostly, I was thinking maybe if she hung around me a little more she'd see that Ataniel could be a happy, fun place without depressing evil consequences for everything after all, ya know?"

Amatsu paused a long pause. "When one is distressed over the basic inequity of the world," he said carefully, "demonstrating that certain heroes can use their talents to escape ill consequence may not necessarily serve to improve one's frame of mind."

"D'you think?" Vickie shook her hair out.

"I think that Rani has her own issues with the world," said Amatsu. "You should not take them as a slight against you."

"It's not that," said Vickie, "not really. She just seems so sad and pissed-off all the time, and I feel like if I could just kind of bring her into my bubble a little, ya know, show her how easy things could be if she'd relax and take ´┐Żem as they come... some of it might rub off on her."

"That does not work for everyone," Amatsu understated.

Vickie frowned. "Matsie, you aren't saying you think I've got some kind of supernatural luck thing going that other people don't have, are you?"

Amatsu looked at her in the morning light for what felt like a long time. He was remembering something from the epic of the Monkey King's journey to the underworld. If he should ever come to understand his way is charmed, said the Serpent Princess, he would lose it forever. It is his innocence that protects him from the retribution of the fates, Young Chan.

"No," Amatsu lied. "No, I do not."

"Well," said Vickie, "then I ought to give her a hand, then."

"She may not want such a... hand."

"She'll feel better once she's gotten it," Vickie said cheerfully, and leaned across the bed to give Amatsu a quick kiss on the cheek.

The Other Sharebrain Vents

"Vas," sighed Val, "won't you either forgive the girl or forget about her? Your sulking around town like this is just this side of insufferable."

"You're a fine one to talk," sniffed Vas. "You're no more forgiving of the redoubtable Miss Dare than I, Valende, and for no better reason."

"No, but I've written her off as someone worth taking any interest in, brother, and you continue harrumphing about like a jilted moose at the mere mention of her return to town. It's undignified."

"You expect me to ignore what she said about me?!?"

"That Garal is better-endowed than you?" Valende sighed. "What if it is true, Vas? Does it matter? Do you really imagine anyone thinks the less of you?"

"Vickie apparently does."

"Vickie has the attention span of a butter churn," said Val. "Either accept that she meant no harm, and go on, or accept that she's not worth taking seriously, and go on. We do as much for you." Vas looked really insulted, and his sister sighed. "The comparison is only between your chaotic natures, flutterhead. You should know I think far more highly of you than that. But it is bootless to expect either of you to have any sort of discretion."

"Oh, hang discretion," Vas said impatiently. "This isn't about discretion! You don't really think I'm upset merely because Garal's equipment is more impressively sized than mine, do you, Valende?"

"Um..." Val twirled a piece of dark hair around her finger, trying not to laugh at her poor brother. "...Yes?"

"No!" protested Vas. "She reduced me to a measurement, Valende! I've been objectified!"

Val coughed to cover her giggles. "I don't hear Garal complaining."

"That's Garal's business," Vas said tartly. "My attentive affections, my decades of experience, and all Vickie cares to comment on is the size of my package? I feel demeaned, Val!"

"Oh, Vas," sighed Val, wiping her tears of mirth guiltily from her bright green eyes. "What am I going to do with you?"

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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

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