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'Does the moon look bigger to you tonight?'

The Book of Ataniel

Trial and Error Archives
Chapter 27

Flicker Does A Mitzvah

"Again?" said Flicker. "Are you two ever going to stop screaming and work this thing out?"

Schneider sighed. "I'd like nothing better than to repair that particular friendship, Flick, but short of a wish spell, it just ain't going to happen." He stirred his Mai Tai with the plastic umbrella, sadly. "Every time I try to bury the hatchet, it ends up sticking out of me. I get along better with him than I do with her now. And that's so funny I can't stop crying, know what I mean?"

"Well, you addressed the issue with him," Flicker pointed out. "Apologized, shook on it, left it behind. You and Khyrisse just keep ignoring it and so it keeps coming back and kicking you both in the ass."

"Me and her shouldn't have an issue!" Schneider looked despondently into his drink. "I didn't do anything to her. I mean, okay, I did give her the ramrod down in the Abyss, but she's gotta know that wasn't my fault." Flicker couldn't help wincing at Schneider's inexhaustible reservoir of tacky sexual euphemisms, but not being Threnody anymore, refrained from comment. "And I fought with her boyfriend, okay, but we knocked that off weeks ago and it's only been getting worse between Khyrisse and me."

"I think you need to talk about it with her," Flicker said.

"Oh, God, don't make me do that," Schneider groaned. "I don't even know what to talk to her about."

Flicker shrugged. "Start at the beginning. You told her her fiancé was subhuman and you hated him. Women take that personally. You made it up with him, but you never took it back with her. Maybe she thinks you still feel that way."

"I don't," he protested. "Flicker, if I still thought he was the slave lord dude inside, I'd be on the phone with Belle the assassin before I'd let him live in a house with a baby that might be mine. I don't think that anymore." Schneider sighed. "I know everyone thinks I'm crazy for doubting him in the first place."

"You're kidding, right?" Flicker peered curiously at his friend. "Luthien made Khyri promise to kill him, back in the beginning! She almost did it, too, but she changed her mind at the last minute."

"Well, how is that different from what I did?" Schneider said annoyedly.

"They confronted him and let him tell his side of the story," said Flicker. "You ambushed him while he was a catatonic wreck fresh out of Hell. Circumstances matter."

"All right, all right." Schneider sighed. "Maybe it wasn't the most Max-like thing I've ever done... but I didn't kill him. I can't believe everyone still hates my guts for threatening to kill someone! So I yelled at him. Geez, just hang me out for the crows over that one." He sat down at the bar again, dejected. "I apologized to Tor, I apologized to Skitch, I'd apologize to her if I knew what she wanted me to apologize for. I've been trying like crazy to be supportive about this baby. I just don't know how. Two men, one baby, what the Worcestershire are we supposed to do in a situation like this?"

"You're asking me?" said Flicker. "I'm not going to be much help. In Riklandir, the only possible way to resolve this would be a duel, and the man who came out alive would get to marry the woman." Flicker paused. "I'd recommend against suggesting that to Khyrisse."

"Thanks, I could figure that much out." Schneider sighed. "How ‘bout one of your other incarnations?"

"Lian might have moved both guys in with her in some kind of menage a trois thing," he offered.

"I was hoping maybe Janther?"

"I don't think there's an easy solution to this, Schneider," said Flicker. "But I'll tell you what I do know: this whole thing is going to be hell on everyone involved, not excepting the child, unless you and Khyrisse get away from each other's throats, and if you do, then whatever you do will probably work out all right. So what you need to do is mend the damage between the two of you. If you can do that, the rest will follow."

"If I could do that, I wouldn't be sitting here." Schneider took a despondent pull at his Mai Tai. "It's like--I was talking to Siobhan the other week. Great girl, by the way." Flicker inclined his head a little, smiling. "And she said I ought to be taking some responsibility for the kid whether it's mine or not. And it made so much sense the way she said it, I couldn't believe it hadn't occurred to me before."

"She's Alain's daughter," Flicker agreed.

"But I tried to tell Khyri that, and Paninaro--Fourth of July and Bastille Day all at once. And here I was--I feel like the guy with the donkey and the kid. If the kid walks I'm a child abuser, if I walk I'm spoiling him, if we both ride I'm cruel to animals, if I carry the donkey I'm a moron. I just feel so lost here, Flicker. I want to do the right thing, got no idea what it is. Somebody tells me one thing, I think gee, sounds like the right thing to do, I try it, she goes off like a roman candle. I try something else, makes it worse. She's so pissed off at me and I can't even figure out what I did wrong half the time."

"You want some advice," said Flicker, "from someone who's been a woman?"

"Lay it on me."

"Ask her."

"Ask her, ask her what?"

"What you did wrong," said Flicker. "Twenty bucks says she'll tell you. In great detail. Listen to her. Think about it. Say you're sorry, and don't do it again. It never failed to work on me."

"Threnody was a little bit saner than Khyri, though."

"Lian wasn't."

"Hmm." Schneider thought about it, and sighed. "What the hell. Things could hardly get much worse."

"That's the spirit," Flicker smiled.

***

"Well," he said, "it's been a year now, that you and Schneider have been fighting."

"It's been more like eight months, realtime."

"Feels like about three years," said Flicker. "Anyway, it's long enough."

Khyrisse sighed. "I don't want to be fighting with him," she said. "But he just can't leave well enough alone, Flicker. I have given in to him on so much already that it's driving me to distraction, it's hurting my husband, it's making me mother yell at me for being a doormat... and he won't stop pushing for more! I gave him a yard and he keeps trying for a mile. Well, he's not getting the mile, and I'm damn well thinking about taking the yard back!" Flicker didn't say anything, just stood listening, and Khyrisse buried her fingers in her hair. "The idea that he has rights to a baby that he's done absolutely nothing to deserve has me in flaming homicidal mode, frankly. He's done more to destroy my and Ebreth's family bonds than anyone on the planet, including Ariath. He's also done more than anyone to make this pregnancy stressful."

"Okay," said Flicker, "would you rather let him have it for that, or change it?"

Khyrisse made a long, aggravated sigh. As usual, Flicker had managed to undercut her by slicing right through her rant to the heart of the matter. It was a trait that both impressed her and made her feel irritatingly extraneous. "I don't know," she said honestly, folding her shaking arms in front of herself. "I feel like I'm being treated like chattel, and I fireballed the last person who attempted that stunt--in spite of being madly in love with him, which I've never been with Skneeder. If this is how he treats his friends, I'd rather be his enemy. I wouldn't have to flarking worry about hurting his feelings, then."

"Maybe you shouldn't," Flicker said. "Maybe you should stop trying not to hurt his feelings and just tell him what you think. You're going around suppressing all this anger at him. All it does is confuse him. He oversteps and all hell breaks loose. He doesn't know why, because you never tell him what's really underlying it." Flicker paused. "Well, maybe it's time for you to tell him," he said.

***

"I have no idea!" Schneider spread his hands helplessly. "It was, Siobhan MacLir asked me why I felt like I had to stick around to be the father if the paternity test smacked me, not if it didn't. It made so much sense the way she said it--and I thought maybe that was why you kept getting so PO'd with me every time I'd talk about being around here if I was dad, you know? I'm just, I'm trying not to be a big asshole here, Khyri. I'm trying to take responsibility, just wanted to tell you I was here for you. Isn't that usually a good thing?"

Khyrisse pinched the bridge of her nose. "Schneider," she said, "Siobhan is adopted. Her father died before she was born, and she was raised by another man. Of course it makes sense when she says it. If this child is Ebreth's she will already have a father. She won't need you to step up as a father-figure, and it's really fucking insulting to me and my family to say so!"

"I'm sorry," Schneider said humbly. "I'm just trying to help, Khyri, honest. You read so much into everything I say or do--I'm not trying to be a dick here. I'm just trying to do right by this kid. I want to do that more than, geez, more than anything else in my life right now. I'm trying so hard."

Khyrisse sighed. "Fine," she said. "You want to do right by my baby? Then stop making demands of me. Every time I see you anymore you want something else. I'm on my last nerve with you and your flarking paternity suit. Are you trying to sabotage my marriage?"

"No!" Schneider protested. "No, I'm glad you two are getting hitched, Khyrisse. I think it's better for the baby no matter who Dad is. I just never said so because you have a NOW meeting on my ass whenever I try saying anything like that!" Khyrisse made a spluttering sound somewhere between amusement and irritation. "Look, I know this has really gotta suck for your, uh..." Schneider remembered in the nick of time that Khyrisse didn't find phrases like ‘tickle pickle' all that amusing. "...for Tor," he said, "honest, I do, but Khyri, you gotta understand, it's no picnic for me, either. There may not be too much worse than people figuring you for a cuckold, okay, but I'm gonna let you in on another little guy secret: "home-breaker" ain't that great, and "home-breaker wannabe who's too much of a loser even to come out of it with the girl," which is what people are saying about me, is pretty darn low on the male scale."

Khyrisse groaned, and bonked her head on her desk. "Criminalizing gossip in New Trade just keeps sounding better and better," she said into the blotter. "What's a little free speech among friends?"

"Don't get Cynystran on us, or anything." Schneider cleared his throat. "Look, obviously you're rooting for your own, uh, fiancé to be the father here. And while I'm hesitant to guess what anyone, let alone Tor, is thinking or feeling--well, my Y-chromosome tells me he's probably not feeling real great about the possibility of you having somebody else's baby." Schneider rubbed the back of his neck. "And I feel--I admit it, Khyri, I feel kinda bad about it. Because I'd like to be a dad, but now I feel guilty for hoping for it, like it'd be getting something I've wanted so bad at the price of someone else's unhappiness. And I feel shitty about that... but how can I stop wanting it? You couldn't if you were me... could you?"

Khyrisse didn't answer. She had a really dark look on her face, but she wasn't screaming at him, so Schneider waited a few more uneasy moments to see if she was going to say anything and then went on. "But look, if I am dad, I really want to get along with your boytoy anyway, Khyri. Because he's still gonna have to be a darn important person in the kid's life whether he's the father or not, I know that... and, well, a--" Schneider tried not to shiver. "--a defacto stepdad who resented a child is not what anyone wants." Khyrisse had stiffened even further, her nails clamped into the heel of her own hand, but she still didn't say anything. "So," Schneider stammered, hoping he hadn't said anything inadvertantly awful again somewhere in the course of his attempt at extending an olive branch, "so I'd like for us to try and get along better, you know, all of us, for the sake of the baby. I'm not trying to mess up your marriage or anything, honest. I'm just trying to do the best I can."

"All right," said Khyrisse, shortly. "You back off with this paternity suit a little, I'll stop assuming you're trying to order me around, and we'll all make renewed attempts to get along a little better. Okay?"

"Yes," said Schneider, and swallowed. "No."

Khyrisse frowned with her eyes. "No?"

"No. Because I still don't know what I did wrong." Khyrisse's brow furrowed further. "See," said Schneider, longing for the days when that look on the sorceress' face had made him feel camaraderie rather than fear, "see, Flicker said I should ask you, ask you what I really did, to make our relationship suck this much. ‘Cause whatever it is, I want to take it out back and shoot it." Schneider shuffled his feet. "I can't express how much I hate the fact that we're fighting all the time, that every time I open my mouth around you I end up feeling like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest. It shouldn't be like that. We should be buddies again. You should be telling me about the swell political moves you put on some unscrupulous bozos. I should be telling you about my plans to make New Trade a touring stop for Ataniel's hottest bands. We should be debating precisely what creature crawled up the ass of that ambassador from Sturtevant and died--my vote is a cave bear, by the way."

"Aurumvorax," Khyrisse murmured.

"Am I making sense here?"

"You really want to know?" Khyrisse pressed her forehead. "Why did you lie to me?"

"Uh..." said Schneider. "Huh?"

"Why did you lie to me?" She looked him directly in the face. "Why did you tell me you trusted my judgment about Ebreth three days before going behind my back to threaten to kill him? Do you have that little respect for me, or were you deliberately trying to put me at false ease so I wouldn't protect him against you?"

"N-n-neither," stammered Schneider. "I swear, I just, I changed my mind, Khyri."

"After you slept with me?" Khyrisse asked, her voice colder than Schneider had ever heard it.

"No!" Schneider's voice sounded desperate even to him. "God, that wasn't--I mean, okay, maybe it reminded me how much I cared about you, a little, maybe it made me a little more concerned about you. But honestly, more than anything else it was watching Kit and Skitch in the doggone lower planes. I didn't buy this guy's good act, but I was willing to take your word on it at first. But the more time I had to think about it, fret and remember the bad old days, think about what was at risk..." Schneider shook his head. "So I, I changed my mind, but then when I ended up holding a knife on the guy I just, I changed my mind again." He cleared his throat. "Look, I'm definitely sorry about that whole mess now, but I hope, I mean, I just hope it's understandable why "Ebreth Tor = not evil" was a tough sell back then. It wasn't the most well-adjusted thing I've ever done, okay, but it wasn't because I didn't respect you or anything. It's only because I respected you so much that I tried to take your word for it in the first place. Honest-to-crows."

Khyrisse made a long, ragged sigh. "So when you told me you believed me, you really meant it, but by the time you went in there with the knife, you'd changed your mind and really were planning to kill him?"

"Cross my heart and hope to be pelted with rotten eggs."

"Then you didn't lie to me," she said, "and you weren't intentionally tormenting somebody just to take credit for not killing him... but you were willing to murder someone in his sleep without even bothering to check his story first." Khyrisse paused. "I'm trying to decide if this is better or worse."

"I thought about it," he said, sadly. "But I didn't do it."

"Schneider, look," said Khyrisse. "I appreciate your honesty here, and I want to trust you again. But I need you to promise, I need you to swear to me, and if I find out you're lying no one is ever going to find your body, do you understand me? If you think someone needs murdering. Anyone who's even an acquaintance of mine. Check with Flicker first. Okay? Your judgment is NOT working right now, and you just told me you genuinely intended to kill someone for no reason at all. You didn't even know he had any connection with Ebreth Tor the slave lord. All you knew is he had the same name, you asked me if it was the same guy, and I said no. You had NO EVIDENCE and you were willing to kill someone without even checking. Can you understand why this makes me just a teensy bit nervous about you being anywhere near my daughter?"

Schneider made a tired sound, holding his hand up to his forehead in an attempt to still the buzz of voices inside. "I've been... a little nervous about that too," he admitted, his own voice so tight it cracked a little. Schneider cleared his throat. "After what, what happened in the Madness, I mean," he said. "I wonder, sometimes... whether it might not be best for you and junior if I just went away and never come back."

Khyrisse's tight posture deflated, and she put her head the rest of the way into her hands. "That's not what I mean," she said, muffled. "That's not what I want. Schneider... Bane did that to you. It's not your fault." She shook her head. "But you have to understand why it scares me."

"I do."

"And why I'm afraid," she said, "that you might completely disregard anything I told you, where this child is concerned. You ignored what I told you I'd learned about Ebreth--didn't even bother investigating to see if I might have gotten it right. If you thought your uninformed assumptions were more important than anything my blond little head could have figured out when a man's life was at stake, how can I possibly expect you to pay attention to anything I said about naptime?"

Schneider sighed. "I'm sorry," he said again. "I don't know what else to say, Khyri. It was a mistake, and I caught myself before I made it. What else is there to say? You're the mom, of course I'll do what you want. And I don't think you're dumb. Remember back in the old Tour days? When I was leaving those white roses for everyone? Who was the only one to figure that out?"

"I cast invisibility and patrolled the halls, Schneider. It wasn't the greatest intellectual feat of our time."

"It was more than Luthien or Max could come up with, and they're not exactly dimbulbs."

Khyrisse sighed again, longer, and more expressively. "Okay," she said, her voice a little softer. "What about me? What have I been screwing up?"

"Well, uh." Schneider looked down. "Well, you could have been a little more supportive during that whole Rimbor City hoo-hah. I mean, I'm sorry about raking Skitch over, can't say that enough--but geez Louise, I'd just been tortured by the bad guys. What's it take to get a little sympathy, you know?"

Khyrisse flinched. "I'm sorry," she said defensively. "You didn't look like you wanted to talk about it, Schneider! You were trying to pretend it wasn't any big deal... I didn't want to bring it up if you didn't want to talk about it. I didn't want to make it worse..."

See? crowed Duke Faraker. She did notice. She did care.

She's just a moron, Tila agreed affectionately.

Rhynwa smacked her in the back of the head. She's just guessing as best she can. If you don't tell people what you need, how are they ever going to know? We're not mind-readers.

Sing the song, suggested Marty Hu. This post is getting really ungodly long.

Schneider cleared his throat again and got to one knee. "Then here's the very sorry song," he sang in a goofy tenor. "Won't you help and sing along?"

Khyrisse sighed and put her hand over her face. "Skneeder," she said, "you don't have to sing."

"I blew it," sang Schneider. "He's sorry!" sang his ventriloquism spell in chorus.

"Schneider..." said Khyrisse.

"I knew it! (So sorry!) I'm very very sorry that I stole your precious flaggg!"

Khyrisse looked at him through the fingers of her hand, a smile quirking at the corners of her mouth. There were tired lines on her face, but her eyes were soft for the first time in what felt like a very long time. "Just don't do it anymore," she said, softly. "You scurvy scalawag."

***

"... she said the Talians have this story," Flicker read from the note while looking for a vase. "It goes something like, the world only continues to exist because of 36 righteous men. Now, when I heard this, my first thought was: why 36??? Did they need four full teams for the righteous dude softball league? But anyway, what I should have told her was that I'm really lucky because one of those guys is a friend of mine."

"How sweet," said Kayla, smiling.

The Pull Of Prophecies

"I take it these are the Crystal Pipes?" said Crandall, looking curiously at the strange hexagonal columns of translucent rock jutting out of the black earth like some unearthly forest.

"A good guess," Dexy LaRue said dryly, running his hand along one of them.

"Many worlds... come together... here," said Araiji, a bead of sweat running down her cheek like a tear.

Kit tapped one queryingly with her fingernail. It made a resonant sound, and she pulled her hand back and stuck it behind her like she'd been caught stealing. "These," said Dexy, "are the ancient instruments with which the Invisible Empire shaped the world as we know it today. By playing these pipes, planes can be connected to the fabric of the universe... or disconnected." Dexy produced a strange-looking hammer, concave on both sides, from his belt pouch. "I can use my sense for the sebetekh to trace their journey through the planes. Once I have pinpointed their position I will relay the harmonic for the plane they are heading to next. Kit should be able to use the Planar Spectacles to identify the pipe that matches." Kit perked up at the news of her impending usefulness. "I will tell you when they have entered the plane we intend to trap them in, and then one of you must detach it by striking the pipe with this Gavel of Ages."

"I'll do it," Crandall volunteered.

Dexy handed him the hammer. "Strike true," he said, "it has taken me fourteen years to secure this Gavel, and each can be used but once."

"This is too easy," Araiji said slowly.

"Sometimes things are harder than we expect," Ralchar shrugged. "Why shouldn't they sometimes be easier? Besides, it hasn't been that easy. I took more damage getting here than I have in years."

"No," said Araiji, "it's too easy. The prophecy... the final defeat of the sebetekh will require a true gambler to redeem the first. We have taken no true gambles. We have not yet fulfilled the prophecy."

"We don't know which plane we're going to have to separate," Kit pointed out. "Maybe it's Heaven, or something, and if we separate it none of us can go to Heaven anymore."

"There's always time for more psychodrama," Ralchar agreed.

"I... do not like this," Araiji murmured, drawing her shawl around herself. "Many prophecies come... together, here."

"We cannot concern ourselves with fulfilling prophecies," said Dexy, taking off his eyepatch. In the socket where his eye should have been was a glowing jewel. "Prophecies find a way to fulfill themselves. We will do what we must, and then we will learn the truth of the prophecy's meaning. That has always been the way of the world. It... always will be." A shadow passed over the gambler's face and was gone, and then he took the gem from his eye socket. "I will find the sebetekh," he said, closing his other eye. "Strike at my command."

More Than This

Coyri Illiesiri's baby was colicky and didn't sleep more than two hours at a time.

Her daughter was a runaway and a thief. Her son was down at the docks speaking kiljhac with the children of the local barbarians. Her husband was out wasting his talents on the kiljhac for free while his family lived on charity in a cheap apartment. Her god was dead, her beloved country apparently gone mad.

But today, none of this mattered.

She rolled the loose, yellow-white powder between her fingers until it was almost the consistency of dust, inhaled it with a single fluid motion. Coyri Illiesiri felt her nerves tingle with the rightness of it.

This affected her.

Indeed, she could scarcely think of anything more.

Starting Over

Sajhar was looking at Carson strangely over the chessboard. He wondered if he still smelled like booze. It had been a two-day bender and another two of hangover, but he'd changed his clothes and shaved and he didn't think he was still in a state to be warranting this kind of scrutiny. The Diarian merchant put his spidery fingers lightly on the head of one of his pawns. "So," he said, in the slight accent Carson suspected he could have gotten rid of long ago had he chosen to, "if I move this pawn in the way, you won't be able to take my bishop. Is that correct?"

"Yeah," said Carson. "You're getting the hang of this."

"Bishop," said Sajhar, "a religious leader in the Church of Tal, isn't that right?" He moved the piece, but didn't take his hand off it. "Do you think such a one would object to our sacrificing pawns in his name?"

"Not if he's a chess player," said Carson. "It's part of the game."

"Is it worth it," Sajhar said thoughtfully, toying with the pawn, "destroying the soldiers to win the war?"

"What are you accusing me of?" Carson barked, standing up from the table in poorly suppressed panic.

"I? Nothing. Nothing at all." The Diarian picked the chesspiece from the board and turned it in his hand, contemplatively. "It is only that--well, perhaps you are aware that my people call the unpleasantry you know as the ‘Madness' the Shattering? It's not entirely figurative. The goddess Pysyri survived the destruction of the gods by forming a psionic gestalt of all the people of Diaria, hiding herself within it, and then dissolving it, fragmenting herself. In a very real way, I and all my kind carry a living shard of our great goddess inside myself. Of course, the national gestalt she formed became a weapon, as did everything else in the time of Shadow. In another very real way, I and all my kind were part of a genocidal assault on the outlanders within our borders. I do not believe there were any survivors. That the victims were kiljhac, and that most of them had been occupying Cynystran soldiers, did not make participation in this kind of massacre easier for most of us." He put the index finger of his other hand on the crown of his queen, lightly. "So you see, we Diarians know what it is to sacrifice small pieces for the larger one. We can't help recognizing the look on a man's face when he has, for we've seen it on each of our own." Carson sat down, his hand shaking. "Would you like some advice, from a friend?"

"Hit me," mumbled Carson, trying to keep his voice steady.

"We had another goddess," said Sajhar, "called Mirujai. Lady of Wax, in your language, though that's neither here nor there. Sparing you the several thousand years of interesting but largely irrelevant backstory, Mirujai was the goddess of mistakes. When you made one, you could write it down, in small, small letters, on a long strip of paper, every last detail; and then you would hold the end to the flame of a white candle, and Mirujai would consume it, letter by letter. The... mistake... would not be gone, of course, not even forgiven. But it would be a mistake... and it would be cinders. One mistake doesn't have to engender others. That was the lesson of Mirujai. There is still time to change the road you're on." Sajhar put his pawn back where it had started, reached across the board, and moved his knight.

Carson just blinked at it a few times. It was a move two levels more sophisticated than he would have expected from the neophyte player, one that was actually going to cause the master gamer a few problems later in the game if the Diarian was able to follow up on it. Carson ratcheted his level of play up a few notches internally. "It seems I've been underestimating you, Sajhar."

"We haven't survived six thousand years merely by being irritating snobs who can't spell, you do realize."

"Got some paper on you?"

"As a matter of fact, I do. Got a candle?"

"In the back. With the storm supplies."

"I'll be waiting," he said, indicating the board with a graceful wave of his six-fingered hand.

"Thank you, Sajhar."

The foreign merchant gave him his thin smile. "What are friends for?" he said, without a trace of irony.

Carpe Diem

"Uh," said Jack, "maybe you should, um, sit down."

Aithne did. She'd been in Jack's apartment before, but today he seemed nervous about it. Either he was preparing to ask her to be his consort, Aithne guessed, or he was going to tell her his secret! The young witch was full of anticipation either way. She had many good qualities, but patience was not among them, and this whole thing seemed to be taking a terribly long time. "Uh," she prompted, "I am sitting down now, Jack."

He cleared his throat. "Well," he said, "do you remember how I, uh, told you that I'm a, uh, math equation?" Aithne nodded. "Good, well, there's, uh... another part to that that I haven't been, uh, telling you... and I really, um, should have."

"Is about Val?" Aithne said after a moment, uneasily.

"Val?" Jack looked momentarily confused. "Oh... I guess that is, uh, related, in a way... Val had a, uh, relationship with another subset of my equation... a, uh, different version of me. It didn't, uh, end well."

"Subset," Aithne repeated happily, finally understanding. It hadn't been Jack Mina had been talking about, but a previous incarnation of his Idea. That was why Jack and Val were awkward around each other, but also why they didn't try to resolve the relationship. "Thank you, now I am understand!"

"Uh," said Jack, "but that wasn't, uh, what I wanted to talk to you about, Aithne."

"Oh?" Aithne brushed a little wisp of her hair behind her ear, smiling encouragingly just in case he was trying to put a move on her.

"Uh," he repeated, looking a little disconcerted. "Uh, no, what I wanted to say was... well, you know how spells have, uh, durations?" Aithne tried to think if she'd heard that word before. "That after a certain time, they run out?"

"Run out?"

"They end, Aithne. Even if the, uh, mage is really good?"

"Spells end," nodded Aithne. "The Goddess is forever."

"Uh," said Jack, "right. Well, it's the, uh, same way for me. My math is going to, uh, end. On September 12th, to be, uh, precise."

"Your--idea will end September 12th?" Aithne was stunned. That was not what she'd been expecting. "I think that is a very short time, Jack!"

"I know," Jack said, and sighed. "I'm sorry I didn't tell you sooner, Aithne... I didn't want to dwell on it..."

"Can we change?"

"Khyrisse is trying. That's what she wanted to talk to me about, yesterday... she has some leads, but nothing that looks too, uh, promising. My equation is finite." He shrugged helplessly. "It's just the way I was made."

"Just the way you were made," Aithne repeated numbly. "I will talk Khyrisse and try help too, Jack... but she is much bigger magic than me. If she cannot change, probably I cannot change. It is a natural way of things. I just thought... well, I thought have a longer time together before it will happen."

"Me too," said Jack, with a sigh.

"September 12th," Aithne repeated, putting one small hand to the side of her face. "That is two month. Jack, already I have known you for two month. Our friendship is half gone now?"

"I'm sorry," Jack said humbly.

She bit her lip and got up to sit on the same sofa as him. "I will miss you when you are gone," she said.

"Uh," said Jack, scooting back from her several inches in a way that would be comic if it weren't Aithne involved. "But I didn't, uh, tell you this to put any, uh, pressure on you, or anything... and I don't think this is a good time to be getting any more, uh, involved with--"

Aithne frowned. This game was hard enough in her first language and in a culture she understood. "Jack," she interrupted, fed up with it, "you like me, or not?"

Jack turned dark red. "W-w-well," he stammered, "I mean, yes, I, uh, like you, Aithne, but I, uh..."

"I am sorry be direct," she said, "but I am not good enough at your language for talking like queen's daughter. I confuse you and I confuse Vas. Maybe I should talk like a simple girl. I like you for two month but nothing happen. Now only two month are left. If I don't say something different they will be gone too and I will be alone with a lost chance like sad Val!" Jack flinched a little, cast his eyes down pensively for a moment, and then, slowly, looked back at her. "If there is only two month," she said, "I want use them, Jack."

"Uh," said Jack, eloquently.

"You like me?" she said, suddenly a bit timid at her own boldness. "If you no like, that is okay too, but if you like... I like you very much, I think."

"No," Jack said faintly, "I do... I, I like you a lot, Aithne."

"I am glad know that," she said softly, and this time he didn't move away from her as she sat next to him and touched her lips to his.

Please

"He wanted paternity rights anyway?" Ebreth said, anger brimming under his voice.

"It wasn't like that," Khyrisse fibbed, because it hadn't ended like that. "I told him no, of course, and he accepted that right away. It was the best talk we've had in years, Ebreth. He said he understood and what I said would go. It's over; we don't have to fight over it anymore. I just didn't, didn't want to keep it from you."

Ebreth made a long, frustrated sound. "The damnable thing," he said, "is I don't know which would be worse. Giving him half-rights no matter what, or waiting four months and going double-or-nothing. The first is the safer route, but it gives me no chance at a normal family life at all. The second's a gamble and if I lose it I'm fucking screwed." He shook his head. "There's no way out of this, is there?"

Khyrisse winced her eyes shut. "I don't think so," she said, painfully. "The mistake's already been made." She paused. "If it means anything," she said, "I'd much rather go double-or-nothing, myself."

"You have less to lose," he said quietly.

"Maybe," she said.

"Maybe I don't see why this should be reciprocal," said Ebreth, looking out the window. "That's what Schneider wants. 50/50, straight down the middle. Well, that's an easy deal for him to make, because it's my family he's divvying up. When I'd meet a caravel and split its goods with it 50/50, they didn't call that standing up for my fair share. They called it piracy." He folded his arms. "As far as I'm concerned, you're my wife and your children are my family. If Schneider had some kind of backdoor affair with you, that doesn't mean he deserves anything but a bullet in the back of the head. Now I'm willing to waive that in light of the extenuating circumstances here, but why does this give him rights?"

Khyrisse sighed wearily. "S'parde-vois, do we have to go through this again? It's not his fault any more than... than mine... and if it's his baby, then he has to have a chance to play some kind of role in her life. What else could we do?"

"I thought getting married might make him back off," he said, away from her. "It hasn't. He's going around town telling everyone who'll listen that the reason he moved here is it might be his kid and then he'd have to be around to be the father. Who the fuck comes into somebody else's marriage and says "Hey, actually, folks, me and her had this affair a while back, so I want paternity rights transferred to me"? I think that's grounds for justifiable homicide in most countries. Why does everyone think this is acceptable?" Ebreth put his head in his hand. "Now I'm going to be your husband and he's going to be wandering around telling everyone he meets that he has as much place here as I do. I can't take this anymore, Khyrisse. Something. Has. To give."

"He doesn't have as much place here as you do!" cried Khyrisse, trying not to think of her mother and her ominous warnings. "No one ever said he did, Ebreth, not him, not me..."

"Khyrisse," he said plainly, his chest rising and falling, without turning around. "This is crushing me. Please. Do something."

Khyrisse closed her eyes tightly and bit her lip, trembling. "Like what?" she whispered. Ebreth didn't answer. "Ebreth," she said, "if this means so much to you, why are you telling me now? I've already told Schneider this was okay. If it isn't, why the flark couldn't you have said something about this earlier?"

Ebreth didn't look at her. "Because," he said, very quietly, "I didn't think I was worth any more than this then."

There was a silence so overwhelming Khyrisse could swear she could hear her own heart beating. She reached out a shaking hand and touched his shoulder very lightly, almost like she was unsure he was really there. He didn't move. "I'll fix this," she whispered.

When Merchants Make Wisdom Checks

"It's--about the baby." Khyrisse sat down with a sigh. "Schneider, look. This isn't going to work the way we're trying to make it work. This is my child, and the final say is mine. And our custody understanding isn't acceptable."

Schneider tensed, trying to zero out the clamor of voices in his head, trying to figure out how much he could argue without destroying the fragile peace between them.

Khyrisse put her hands together on the table. "You have her Sundays."

"Khyri, look, I know you're--" he started, his voice a little raw, and then stopped and blinked at her. "Did--did you just say you were going to share custody with me?"

"If she's yours."

Schneider sagged in his chair. "Well, hell's bells, Butterfly, that's what I wanted all al--"

"On." She raised her hand. "One condition. We are giving you Sunday visitations. I am this child's mother. My parents are her grandparents, and my husband is her father. If you undermine that, if you interfere with our family life, the visitations end. I'm giving her his name, and decisions we make in our house are final. Take a position as a family friend and keep it, Schneider, present a united front with us in public starting now, and you can help raise her without me glaring over your shoulder. That's what you really wanted, isn't it?"

Schneider looked at her. "So I give up the word, ‘father', and I get a daughter one day a week?"

"Yes," said Khyrisse. "If she's yours."

"Gee, let me think about that for all of, uh, 3.5 seconds. Shit yeah, Khyri. The, uh, hubby-to-be, he's cool with this?"

"He will be." Khyrisse's mouth twitched in a rueful little grin. "If you can keep your mouth shut about it till I have a chance to tell him about it myself. I may not have a very high wisdom, but I do eventually catch a clue, if you hit me with it often enough."

***

"You..." Ebreth said slowly. "You did what?"

"He's safe, Ebreth," she sighed. "He's not going to hurt her. This was more important. One day a week we can have just to the two of us. I wouldn't mind that anyway." She gave him a wobbly smile. "And the rest of the week he defers to us as a family. The farce ends here."

"He's going to do that?"

"It was the price," she said. "He'll keep to it, or he'd lose what he wants. Trust a merchant." She touched his arm. "And I'm not letting this tear you up any more. He doesn't want me, Ebreth, not really. He doesn't want our family, he doesn't want any of the things he's been taking away from you. All he wants is to let this baby love him. He's been willing to destroy our lives to try and get it, he'll be willing to help us put them back together if we give it to him. And a baby... a baby has a lot of love to give." Khyrisse leaned tiredly against the living room wall, holding herself by the arms. "All along, that's been all he wanted, and you--you've just wanted a family that wouldn't deny it belonged to you. I could have spared you almost all of this if I had half the brains the gods gave Marty. Sometimes I can't believe I qualify to cast 9th-level spells, you know?" She shivered. "But I'm learning. I'm trying to learn. Ebreth, I'm trying so hard to learn."

He took her slowly in his arms. "I think," he said softly, "you're doing a lot better than either of us has the sense to realize, sometimes."

Accentuate the Positive

Kit was scanning the mass of crystal pipes carefully, her golden spectacles balanced precariously on her nose, trying to isolate the column that mapped to the third plane of the Steam Lords. Dexy LaRue was half in a trance, the glowing gem in his hand locked on to the travel of the sebetekh.

Behind them, the only one not watching them, Crandall slowly popped open the death ray from his wrist plate.

The beam of necrotic energy dissipated silently into the mass of crystals. Araiji sensed it, somehow, turned her messy head back and forth with a frown in her arched eyebrows looking for it, but it was already gone. Crandall had seen what he needed to.

The Gavel of Ages rang out fierce and musical on the crystal column that had resonated with the darkfire of his undead weapon..

"No!" screamed Dexy, his poker face lost to the four winds. "It's too soon!"

***

"Something wrong, Garry?"

The planeblazer shook his head to clear it of its sudden, wrenching disorientation. "Just... a disturbance in the force," he said.

"Well, I'm sure it's nothing bad," Vickie said, patting him optimistically on the shoulder.

***

"Get out of our crypt, you ugly old bag," hissed the leader of the Javinese vampires, his eyes burning with a cornered violence.

"Gee," said Tamsyn, "should my feelings be hurt?" One of the lesser vampires lunged at her from behind, and she tossed a silver dagger over her shoulder and into its eye without looking at it.

Then, without any warning whatsoever, all four of the vampires dissolved into cinders just as if the light of day had struck them.

This wasn't that uncommon an ending to a vampire hunt, but usually Tamsyn had to do something to make it happen.

She looked around. No sunlight. No unexpected consecration of the tomb. No rival slayer trying to upstage her, tyro adventurers butting in, zealous priests of Morvon trying to get a few turnings under their belts. Tamsyn was alone in the empty crypt.

"What the hell," she muttered to no one, looking around.

***

Luthien fell into his lab table with a harsh gasp, his body arching with a strange energy.

"Luthien?" said Rhynwa, coming across to him.

***

"No!" cried Shalak, in a terrible, hollow voice, as he felt the power that had sustained him in undeath more than three throusand years begin suddenly, improbably, to fade.

How could this be? the lich lord thought dizzily, running for the Hall of Warning at an entirely undignifed pace. No one has been here. None of my traps triggered. None of my wards alerted me. Have the Thieves already been here? I saw no one. I heard no one!

He burst into the room. The tourmaline was in full glow. The planar map was moving.

"No!" screamed Shalak, as the lich-energy unwound from his deathless body. He sent his strongest spell of planar binding, a spell even Arturian couldn't have commanded, spinning through the mesosphere in one last, frantic attempt to hold his destiny together.

It did not work.

Shalak the Terrible watched in unbelieving despair as the Negative Material Plane severed and was lost to Ataniel.

***

"Yes!" whooped Crandall, mortality surging in his veins once again. It was a giddy feeling, a wonderful feeling. He grabbed Araiji, spun her around exuberantly, and dipped her for a kiss.

"Put me down, please," said the gypsy, bemused.

Dexy slumped to the wet earth. "Stop celebrating, you fools," he whispered. "That was the wrong plane. You detached the wrong plane. We've lost. The Cheated are returning."

"Oops," lied Crandall.

"We'll just find another way to stop them," Ralchar comforted.

"For a good thief, there's always another way," Kit agreed. "My master used to tell me that."

"They're returning." Dexy closed his eyes. "They're returning, and we'll have to meet them here."

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