One of the first orders of business, once I got back, was following Bethel’s soul line. I’d been mildly derelict in not doing it earlier, as it was the traditional unlock for Loyalty 10, but I’d had too many plates spinning at once, and in my defense, I hadn’t thought that Bethel would get one, given that she (like Valencia) didn’t actually have a soul. Mostly, I just hadn’t been thinking about it, given the minor crisis and wildly expanded abilities that had overshadowed that particular aspect of Loyalty 10. I’d noticed the line in the Library, while I was in the middle of routine soul maintenance and inspection, but it was completely locked off to me.
When I followed it, I found myself standing in a white room. It wasn’t the featureless plain that I’d met the Dungeon Master on, but an actual room, with the edges where the walls met the floor clearly visible. My guess was that it was about ten by ten by ten, a perfect cube, with no visible doors or windows. The lighting wasn’t quite ambient. When I looked closely, I could see that it was just recessed, with strips of light to provide the illusion that there wasn’t a singular source.
Just as I finally found the seam where the door was, it swung open. Tiff was standing there in her ‘Kansas Swim’ t-shirt, staring at me. It didn’t take my brain long to catch on to the fact that she was not, in fact, my ex.
“What are you doing here?” she asked.
“Uh,” I said. “I followed a line in my soul.” I looked around the room, then beyond Bethel, into the hallway behind her. “Where am I?”
“This is my memory palace,” Bethel replied with a sniff. She looked me over, and my eyes drifted down to see what she was seeing. I wasn’t wearing what I was wearing in the real world. Instead, it was a t-shirt and jeans, with sneakers of the kind that they didn’t really have on Aerb. It was as close to being my Earth uniform as could be. It took me a moment to realize that I had lost muscle too, not so much that I was back to how I’d been on Earth, but still less than I had on Aerb. “You can’t come in.”
“I wasn’t asking to,” I replied. “I just wanted to see what your soul equivalent was. It’s useful to have a sense of someone else’s soul for diagnostic purposes. Though, actually, I probably shouldn’t peep yours too deeply anyway, because I think you’re immune to a variety of memetic threats, and my soul is off limits to others because of the particularly shitty one that Raven hit me with.” Similarly, I wasn’t going to look in Raven’s soul anytime soon.
“Hrm,” said Bethel. “I’ll have to talk with Raven about which of her books have those threats within them. I indiscriminately copied everything she had, though I didn’t look terribly closely at any of them. Is that usual, do you know, for sentient entads to have such an immunity?”
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I would think that if the so-called memes are acting on the stuff of the soul, then being without a soul would allow you something in the way of immunity, but — it’s the sort of thing that the Second Empire probably did research on.”
“Lovely chaps, those,” said Bethel with Tiff’s smile.
“I’ll be going,” I said. “I didn’t want to disturb you.” I paused for a moment. A palace with a memory palace. “I do have to note that whatever entad gave you this ability, it’s not on the list of entads you gave us.”
“No?” asked Bethel, staring at me. “I could have sworn I included them all.”
“I kind of assumed you had left some off and would either tell me when you were ready, or when you revealed them through necessity,” I said with a shrug. “I’m kind of a fan of people being allowed to keep a few secrets here and there.”
“So you’ve said, a few times,” replied Bethel. She was still looking at me. “Would you like to see this place?”
“Sure,” I said. “Just … hide anything you think might kill me?”
“I can’t actually do that, but I will steer you away from the things that are suspect,” said Bethel. She looked down the hallway and squinted slightly before turning back to me. “Come along.” She left the doorway and began walking, and I kept pace with her.
“It’s interesting that you’re her,” I said. “That you took Tiff’s form.”
“It’s not my choice,” said Bethel. Her tone was mild. “Here, and with the Dagger of Dreamspeech, I’m rather less amorphous. I believe it has something to do with the way the entads function. Perhaps I simply wore your girlfriend’s form for so long that it became a part of me.”
I thought on that for a moment. “These aren’t the clothes that I’m wearing in the real world,” I said. “They’re … I don’t know. The soul has a conception of the body, but my guess is that this,” I gestured to myself, “is maybe something else, my mind’s conception of myself? An intellectual view? So far as I’ve seen, the spirit doesn’t duplicate that aspect of the soul, but maybe it’s just not obvious. I’ll have to look at it. None of that really explains you, except that you probably have a pseudo-soul and pseudo-spirit for the purposes of interacting with entads.” I paused. “Tiff is my ex-girlfriend, by the way. Not girlfriend.”
“You broke up with her?” asked Bethel.
“I … no,” I said. “But I don’t think that either of us thought that we were a couple, so.”
“Certainly not after you fucked Maddie,” said Bethel. She stopped in front of a room. The walls of the hallway were large wood panels, and there were no doors to the rooms, only wooden archways. It reminded me of a boarding school, or at least how they were presented in television shows and movies. “This is the Boundless Pit, if you’d like to see it.”
Inside was a long tube of gray rock, which took up almost the entirety of the square room. I could see inside it, as though the section nearest to me had been removed, but there was no obvious discontinuity. It was a bit like clipping through the wall in a video game, in that I could see the far wall but not the near one. Bethel gestured with one hand, and the tube spun around, displaying different parts. Then, with another gesture, the tube shot down past us, lowering through the floor, with more of it coming down from the ceiling.
“You’re meant to view it from the inside,” said Bethel, stepping into it. I followed her, so that the tube surrounded us.
“What happens when it gets wider or narrower?” I asked.
“The view compensates to keep it as wide as the room,” said Bethel. “I didn’t build this place, incidentally. The memory palace was created from whole cloth the moment the entad was put into my closet. So far as I’ve been able to tell, it changes in response to new memories, and occasionally reorganizes itself, but nothing else.”
With a gesture, the upward scrolling came to a stop, just as the lip of the Boundless Pit was shown to us. It wasn’t as I’d known it, with the city of Headwater displaying the view of the mile-wide pit. It was mostly lichen-covered rocks and green fields, and everything wet from the waterfall. Bethel twisted her hand, and the view focused in on the house, on her, as it must have been just after construction had been completed.
“Moving me wouldn’t have been difficult,” said Bethel as she gazed at the image. “Uther had the right entads. I think he knew that I was unruly though. Give a house legs, and watch it scuttle away from you.” She turned to look at me. “That’s the word that I imagine him using, ‘scuttle’. Dehumanizing, don’t you think that would be his style?”
“You’re not human,” I said. I hoped pointing that out wasn’t offensive.
“No,” said Bethel, turning back. “No, I’m not. Yet sometimes I like to be seen as one. It makes things a bit easier, when dealing with mortals. If I don’t present as a person, in a person’s form, how are they to read emotion and meaning?”
“I always thought you could, in a house,” I said. “When I would go over to a friend’s house, there was always a story there, partly the story of the family who lived there, but also the story of the house itself, like whether it was happy or anxious. It’s anthropomorphizing, I guess, but it was still something that I thought about.”
Loyalty increased: Bethel lvl 13!
Whatever thoughts were going through her head, she said nothing.
“There are some ways that you’re not a home to us,” I said. “I’ve kind of been wondering about that. Privacy violations are one, but that’s pretty well-trod at this point. It’s more that you move things around, I guess, and make things unfamiliar. There are rooms that we’ve seen once and then never again, and you keep redesigning interiors. One time I came back to my room after lunch and I thought I’d wound up in the wrong place.”
“Yes?” asked Bethel. She looked over at me. “And?”
“At first I thought that it was just you doing what you wanted,” I said. “Then my alternate explanation was that you were trying lots of things because you were trying to give us what we wanted. But I was thinking back to watching Amaryllis cook in the kitchen, and the way that she had to keep looking for things, and I decided that it was more likely that you were just making things uncomfortable on purpose, so we wouldn’t ever get properly settled.”
“And why would I do that?” asked Bethel, narrowing her eyes.
“I don’t know,” I said. But I have guesses. Pushing people away even when you want them close to you wouldn’t exactly be novel for someone in this group. Fenn did it, I’ve done it, and Grak made a point of it. “Maybe you could tell me?”
“Let me show you more of the palace,” said Bethel. She stepped through the border of the Boundless Pit, leaving it behind, and I followed after, to the next room.
This one had what looked like dioramas, all on plinths at regular intervals, each of Bethel. When I looked closely, I could see them cut away to show people inside, moving figures of exquisite detail. It was the same view that Bethel had used to show me Narcissus, the first person she’d killed, as he’d tried to make it to her closet.
“These are some of the people I’ve killed,” said Bethel. “They’re divided by groups. If you look at the plinths, you can see the dates.”
(It probably went without saying that this wasn’t, at all, the way the actual memory palace technique worked.)
“Gruesome,” I said. In the diorama nearest me, a man clutched his throat and fell to his knees as his companions tried to stanch the flow of blood.
“I spent a long time doing this,” said Bethel. “In terms of lives taken, it’s nothing compared to what I did to the tuung, whether that was under orders or not, but this was more personal, with greater intensity and intent. Anyone can fire a cannonball into a populated city, but this … it was my grand work.”
“You do have a cruel streak,” I said. There had to be a few dozen of the dioramas. I was sure that I would start to get queasy if I looked at them more closely, or if their stories were played out in full, especially with dialogue, the kind that would let me get to know the people. Based on what she’d said in the past, some of these tortures went on for days if not weeks. “Did it get boring?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” nodded Bethel. “Especially in the beginning, when I was less skilled. I would break them too fast, or reveal myself too quickly, and then they would drop to their knees, praying to me.” She shook her head. “I didn’t want that. I just wanted them to feel pain and terror. The prayer was a manifestation of the terror, certainly, but it was an appeal to me, not something animal.”
“You liked seeing people be animals,” I said.
“Yes,” said Bethel. “Not because I hated them, though I often did, but because I liked the feeling of seeing them lose control of themselves.”
I looked down at one of the dioramas, which showed, in cut-away view, a man limping down a hallway, trailing blood. “And you liked the feeling of control you had over them,” I said.
“You make it sound so vulgar,” said Bethel with a sigh.
“Vulgar?” I asked.
“So base,” said Bethel. “So … explicable.”
“Ah,” I replied. “Right. A psychiatrist might say that you went so long without control, a slave to your masters, that when you finally got free, you felt the compulsion to exercise control.”
“Would you say that?” Bethel asked, narrowing her eyebrows.
“It’s hard to say why anyone does anything,” I said. “Sometimes I look back on the things that I’ve done and I think, ‘that was just my brain fucking with me’. I mean, yes, I think everything is explicable, there’s no real ‘mystery’ to people, in the theological sense of the word. But still, sometimes it’s just absolutely opaque.” This was a point where the term ‘black box’ would have been useful, but I didn’t feel like explaining it. I shrugged. “Seems like the sort of conversation I should be having with the locus, actually. She values that opacity, that lack of understanding.”
“And you think I feel no need to be mysterious?” asked Bethel, looking at me with an arched eyebrow.
Only in the sense that mystery means you’re in control. “Do you?” I asked.
“It can be nice,” replied Bethel. She looked to one of the doors, and there was something in the curve of her neck that hit my nostalgia just right. It made her look, just for a moment, like she was truly Tiff. “Come,” she said, turning back to me. “One more room.”
The next room was roughly the same size, though it contained far more inside it. Rather than the plinths that the diorama houses sat on, everything was arranged in a semicircle, sitting on platforms that touched each other and rotated slowly, sometimes coming forward and other times going away. On each was an object of some kind, and it didn’t take me long to recognize them as entads. There were a lot of them. There had been thirty-four on the manifest that Bethel had given us, but this room included more, some that were simply inside Bethel at the moment, and others that I knew for a fact were outside. Some I didn’t recognize at all. Each of the platforms had a colored band around the edge in muted colors, and there was some kind of scheme.
“Interesting catalog,” I said.
“Not a catalog,” replied Bethel. She was particularly brusque, even for her. “These are me.”
“Is it how you see yourself?” I asked. I was somewhat surprised. “As parts?”
“It’s how you see yourself, isn’t it?” asked Bethel. “I often hear you say that there’s a part of you that wants something, or a part of you that thinks.”
“Ah,” I said. “But for me it’s more of a mess. It’s more like two views on the same subject, competing values or models of reality.”
“For me too,” said Bethel. “Sometimes I can tell where those values and impulses come from.” She looked at the array of items. “That’s the difference, it seems.”
“And that’s what you’re hoping to gain with a ‘marriage’ to the Eternal Golden Braid?” I asked. The quotes around marriage were clear enough from my voice.
“It is,” said Bethel. “He’ll help me become more.”
“Will he be the last?” I asked.
“No,” replied Bethel. She laughed. “No, likely not. I am well aware you have your reservations.”
“I don’t want to harp too much,” I said. It smacked of personality modification, to say nothing of the fact that Ropey would cease to exist as an entity. I really did believe in the right to self-terminate though, and if he was doing it out of a sense of love, if they both were, well … it was hard to argue against their alien desires.
“Come,” said Bethel. “There’s one last room I’ve decided I’ll show you.”
I followed behind her as I left the room of entads, taking one last glance back. The biggest of them were shrunk down to size, so they would fit on the platforms, which was how I had almost failed to notice that Kuum Doona, the house, was there too, seeming small among all the others.
The last room was an auditorium, filled with people. We were on the stage, looking out on the people.
“What is this?” I asked.
“They’re all the people I killed,” said Bethel. “The vast majority of them deserved it, in case you were wondering. I don’t just mean because they came inside me, looking for loot. No, the sort of person who decides on that as a good career move is rarely the most morally upstanding.” She looked out over the faces. “And the tuung, of course. Fuck the tuung.”
I followed her gaze. “Ah,” I said. I thought I understood this. “That one entad you had? The one that let you see the spirit — er, the essence, I guess, of the people you killed?”
“Seer’s Sword,” replied Bethel.
“And my guess is that it’s more powerful than you let on?” I asked. “Can you talk to these people?”
“I couldn’t,” said Bethel. “They were just apparitions, vaguely visible both here and in the real world. However, your friend Mary has an amulet that allows her to speak with her dearly departed great-grandfather, and with the two abilities working with each other, I can have something resembling conversation.”
“Oh,” I said. “That’s … kind of horrifying?”
“Is it?” asked Bethel, looking over at me. “I thought you might think it was.”
“If I could talk to all of the people that I killed, I probably wouldn’t,” I said. “Fallatehr, maybe, if I hadn’t scraped the Essentialism out of his soul.” I did wish that I could talk to Fenn though. Here, at least, was proof that something remained of people after they died, hells aside. “Do you?”
“Do I what?” asked Bethel.
“Do you talk to any of them?” I asked. I looked out at the sea of faces, all sitting there passively, and at least not directly conscious, so far as I could see. There were a lot of tuung in their ranks, though most were toward the back, for no clear reason. It was hard to grapple with the size of the theater, not because it was big, but because it wasn’t really a place, it was a visualization.
“I interrogate them,” said Bethel. “I’ve been trying to find something useful, tucked away inside their brains, something that could be used to find Uther, or something that could help you grow more powerful. They’re not real people, if that’s what concerns you, only shadows.”
I wasn’t sure that was philosophically sound reasoning, but I let it slide.
“Thank you for showing me all this,” I said. “I think it’s helped me understand you a bit better.”
Bethel shrugged. “I will say that I’m curious what boon I’ll get in another ten levels.”
I was curious too, but that seemed like a long way off. The wedding was the next day, and I was pretty sure we were going to have an argument. There wasn’t really any sense in putting it off, but as the game had reminded me a few times, I sometimes had a cowardly streak.
“I just don’t understand why the wedding has to be so soon,” I said. “I understand that you’re in love, but what you’re talking about is a process that we have no way to reverse. It’s as permanent as can be.”
“That is entirely the point,” said Bethel. “I’m not taking it lightly. When he’s inside of me, I have access to almost all of him, do you understand that? He’s a part of me already.”
“Then … why do you need to merge?” I asked.
“Because it’s not the same for him,” replied Bethel.
She was standing next to me in her wedding dress, nine feet tall, which was as tall as she could get without running into the limits of her illusion. The wedding dress itself was a flight of fancy, the kind that made me think that she would get along with the locus, if they ever talked. It was mostly knotted lace, in honor of Ropey, with a ridiculously high collar and a train that swept out behind her, again at the limits of how large she could make an illusion. She had a veil too, but she wasn’t wearing it.
“I can see much of his memories,” said Bethel. “I can taste the flavor of his emotion. I can come close to reading his mind. I have a part of him, so long as he’s in me, but not the whole, and he has nothing in exchange.”
“I’m not arguing this to be difficult,” I said. “I’m not even arguing it out of utility. I just think that effectively removing a coherent entity from the world is maybe something that we should consider for longer.”
“He won’t be removed, he’ll be merged,” said Bethel. “I’ve taken in sentient entads in the past, I know the process well. I’m hoping that it goes more smoothly this time, with the additions I’ve made and the practice I’ve had.”
“Okay,” I said. “Can I talk to him first?”
“Certainly,” said Bethel. “Though you must know you won’t convince him, if that’s what you mean to do, and you must also know that neither of us need your permission. I am more powerful than you.”
“I’m well aware,” I replied, holding up a hand.
It took some time for Ropey to come over to me. When he did, Bethel disappeared without another word.
“Hey,” I said. He was coiled in front of me, with one end raised up and wavering slightly, which I thought was his way of showing intent. “I just wanted to … I don’t know. Not change your mind, but understand.”
Ropey began spelling out letters, moving swiftly. He was extremely fast and left pauses so small that it was hard to tell where one letter stopped and another started.
“I know,” I said. At least, I thought I did. “But you won’t be.”
I thought about that some, and tried to find a way where it would be a sensible viewpoint to me. To merge with another person like that, to lose all personal identity in order to make a stronger joint identity … I could only barely see the edges of it, not the reality, which seemed clear enough, but the logic that would dictate that reality to be better than oblivion. It was a suicide, in my eyes, but not an attempt to escape pain and depression.
“You think that you’ll be more, together?” I asked.
W-E — W-I-L-L
I clenched my teeth for a moment. I wanted to object, but it wasn’t like I had that solid of a thesis of what personal identity meant. I knew objecting wouldn’t do much good either, and I thought I already had as much of a sense of what they were doing and why as I was going to get. They wanted to be a new person together, more than the sum of their parts. I’d made species that did that, mostly to keep culture weird, so it wasn’t exactly a foreign concept to me. I just didn’t particularly like it.
I did feel a bit better about it though, hearing it come from his ‘mouth’.
“Okay,” I said. “I guess I get it, and … I wish you luck.”
I — H-A-V-E — B-E-E-N — H-A-P-P-Y — B-E-I-N-G — Y-O-U-R — R-O-P-E —— Y-O-U — W-E-R-E — A — B-E-T-T-E-R — H-A-N-D-L-E-R — T-H-A-N — M-A-N-Y — I — H-A-V-E — H-A-D —— W-H-E-N — I — A-M — A — H-O-U-S-E — A-N-D — R-O-P-E — I — H-O-P-E — T-H-A-T — Y-O-U — W-I-L-L — T-R-E-A-T — M-E — A-S — W-E-L-L —— I — W-I-L-L — D-O — M-Y — B-E-S-T — T-O — B-E — E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G — T-H-A-T — Y-O-U — N-E-E-D — M-E —T -O — B-E —A-N-D—N-O-T—L-E-T—M-Y—J-U-D-G-M-E-N-T—B-E—C-L-O-U-D-E-D—B-Y—T-H-E—P-E-C-U-L-I-A-R-I-T-I-E-S—A-L-L—L-I-V-I-N-G—B-E-I-N-G-S—C-O-N-T-A-I-N—W-I-T-H-I-N—T-H-E-M
It was almost as much as Ropey had ever said to me. I wasn’t entirely sure that I had even caught all of it, but the single letter spelling was still slow, and I caught enough that I wasn’t missing anything.
“Alright,” I said. “I guess we’re doing this.”
As I walked into the chapel, I had to wonder why they were having a ‘wedding’ at all. It was a tradition of the mortal species, not one that sentient entads should necessarily follow, or want to follow. I also didn’t know whether it was Bethel’s idea or Ropey’s. The purpose of it might have been the same as for humans though: I could understand how you might want to pledge yourself in front of your friends and peers and make a public declaration of what you were doing and the commitment that you were making. Maybe the point was to have us as witnesses. If they’d just gone and ‘merged’ together, I could definitely see some of us getting upset about it. At least with a run-up to it, we weren’t wholly caught off-guard, and in some sense, by attending the wedding, we were complicit.
The chapel was as big as an aircraft hangar, arching up higher than a moderately-sized skyscraper, with windows that let in light from the Isle of Poran. Marble flagstones covered the entire area, enough that it would have taken a dedicated quarry to have filled this place, if it had been made using human hands and mundane methods. It might have looked empty, but the lines of the architecture were angled to draw attention to one particular focal point, which was an altar surrounded by chairs.
We had a small handful of guests. Jorge was Valencia’s date, and Figaro Finch had come too, meaning we had both of the representatives from Uniquities. Aside from them, Esuen and her mate, Souno, were sitting together, with a mister tank shared between the two of them. The first of the tuung had been born and were in the process of being educated, in a different wing of Bethel, which meant that the first crop of Miununian citizens were in the process of being raised via trips through the time chamber and as many teachers as Amaryllis could vet and train. There were going to be growing pains there, I was sure, and probably of the sort that would require more of Amaryllis’ attention.
Those four guests were it though; they were, at least to some extent, in the know. It seemed painfully small to me, by the standards of the weddings I was used to. If we’d been more willing to violate OPSEC, we could have added on another half dozen people, some of whom would have to teleport in at great expense, but even then, many of those would be acquaintances rather than actual friends. I didn’t think that Bethel cared one way or another, but it made our existence seem a little lonely to me.
(In the village down the hill there would have been a few hundred people who would have been very eager to get inside the Big House, no matter what the reason was. The fact that the house was magical was nearly impossible to disguise when Bethel insisted on making externally visible modifications every few days, but the nature of that magic was up in the air, and no one had enough information to say that Bethel, sitting member of the Council of Arches and Advisor on Home Affairs, was actually an entad, let alone one of the fabled meta-entads.)
I took my seat next to Grak and Solace. Everyone was wearing their best, though ‘best’ was subjective, and I didn’t think that Solace’s hand-stitched dress of flower petals would have been recognized as formal wear where I was from, as much as it suited her. I was wearing one of my three bespoke suits that I’d bought before my first proper date with Fenn; it was the first time I’d actually had a reason to wear one. I waited patiently, not feeling the need to make conversation, as pleasant orchestral music played around us. Bethel was standing at the altar with her hands clasped and the veil covering her face. When the music swelled, Bethel turned to face the chapel’s entrance, and everyone went silent.
I thought that we were maybe waiting for Ropey to come slithering in, but to my surprise, I saw a man walking toward us. He wasn’t anyone that I’d met before, but as he kept walking, I realized that he was meant to be Ropey. He wore a suit, but was wrapped in ropes with knotwork making a pattern across his chest. His hair was the same color as the rope, and his eyes matched that as well, an unnatural color for a human. But as he came closer, I realized that he couldn’t have been human at all, because he was nearly nine feet tall, the same as Bethel has made herself.
I looked back and forth between the two of them, not really understanding how it had been done. Bethel couldn’t project an illusion greater than a ten foot cube, but they were definitely more than ten feet apart from each other. I wouldn’t have been terribly surprised to see her develop a new ability, or pull together a few different abilities in order to produce some effect, but as I looked more closely at Bethel, I realized the trick. She wasn’t projecting an illusion for herself, she had made a ‘real’ dress that was sitting on some kind of frame. It moved, from time to time, but that she could have done with telekinesis. The veil hid her face for a reason. I felt a little bit guilty for piercing the illusion and tried to just pretend I hadn’t made my saving throw.
When humanform Ropey went to stand beside Bethel, I caught the split-second transition, as the dress, scaffold, gloves, and veil were whisked away (the Sable’s ability, I thought), and replaced with an illusion. Bethel and Ropey, or at least the illusion of them, could both fit within the bounding box of her illusory power.
“This isn’t who we are,” said Bethel. They were both turned to face the ‘crowd’, if you can call twelve people a crowd. “It’s artifice, but the point of art is to illuminate, to speak in metaphor so the meaning is clear.” Bethel gestured down to herself. “I am not of the mortal species, and I have no flesh. I’m not a woman.” She turned to Ropey. “But I hope that in its way, this might help you understand the love we feel for one another, and the commitment that we’re undertaking today.”
I glanced at Amaryllis. She was wearing a pink and white dress, which was the girliest thing I’d ever seen her wear. She was wearing makeup, either more than what she put on for business meetings, or maybe just different. Her red hair, too, was long and elaborately styled. I think it was the first time that I’d seen Amaryllis putting real effort into her appearance, unless I counted when she dressed like the Aerbian equivalent of a businesswoman. And yes, she did look pretty, but it was a different sort of pretty. I was used to her being more functional, which was pretty in its own way, one that I prefered (though obviously what I thought was pretty was probably the last thing on her mind). She turned back to look at me, and gave me a faint smile before returning her attention to the proceedings.
“I don’t speak much,” said Ropey. There was a twinkle in his eyes, like he was smiling without using his mouth. “I’ve always felt better when I was in action, and it’s been rare that I have anything to add when the people around me are talking. Part of that is because it’s difficult for me to communicate, but another part is that I simply don’t feel the need. In my time I’ve known a few other entads, ones who could express themselves, and it’s common among our kind to want little but to be put to use.” He turned to Bethel. “In Bethel, I’ve found someone who understands me. The companionship is something that I’ve felt before, though never so keenly. More than that, Bethel and I have much to offer each other. She’s had a difficult life, one that I hope to brighten.” He gave her hand a squeeze.
It was all theater, intended for us. Ropey wasn’t actually squeezing Bethel’s hand, that was an illusion that Bethel was producing. He wasn’t speaking, that was illusion too, as was the twinkle in his eye and the warmth in his voice. Perhaps it mapped to some thought or gesture on his part, as a rope, wherever he was, or perhaps not, but the display of it was entirely deliberate. I tried my best not to focus on that. When presented with an act of art like this, it seemed best to suspend disbelief and try to understand what was meant to be conveyed.
“I did have a difficult life,” said Bethel. “I was born half-formed, like a child, in some ways, if not others. I had masters rather than parents, and not a one of them was a proper custodian. I was turned to war, and then, once I was alone, I decided on violence. Part of me, a lesser part, was a sword, suited to torture and killing. I murdered thousands in distant, impersonal ways, with cannonfire and lightning strikes. I killed hundreds in more personal ways, taking my time with it.” She took a steadying breath. “I wasn’t in a good place. If I’m being honest, I’m still not.” She looked over at Ropey and smiled at him, a smile that he returned with an acknowledging nod. “We’ve found love in each other. It’s an unconventional love, I’ll give it that, but it’s a true love. He helps to calm me when I grow angry, to give me patience when I’m racing too far ahead. Without him here to speak with, I’m not sure that I would ever have made it to the Isle of Poran. I wouldn’t be the house I am today. He’s helped me, in ways that might be frightening for all of you to contemplate, if you knew the full extent.”
Good old Bethel. Wouldn’t be a marriage without a veiled reference to grevious violence against the guests.
“Together, we’ll be better,” said Ropey. “Together, we’ll be the best that we can be.”
That was apparently the entirety of what they had to say, because they stood together, facing each other, and kissed. It was a slow, languorous kiss, with Ropey wrapping Bethel in his arms, and there was a brief hint of body horror as they melted into each other, lips pressing into lips and skin merging with skin. It all faded away in a wash of light though, so bright I had to close my eyes. When I opened them, a single figure was standing at the altar, androgynous in physical form, with a wedding dress that had rope wrapped around it.
Loyalty increased: Bethel lvl 17!
“It’s done,” she said. Her voice was deeper than it had been, more smooth and calm.
Solace stood up from her chair and began enthusiastically clapping, and though there was a bit more reservation (or confusion) from everyone else, we all followed suit. Bethel had been smiling at us, but at the applause, she began beaming.
“Now,” she said, “Refreshments and music. We celebrate!” She clapped her hands twice, a booming sound that seemed to come from everywhere at once, and the chapel began to change, with tables rising up around us to make a clear space in the center, and garlands of flowers strung from rapidly rising pillars. On one of the tables, food began to appear, all of our favorites from Earth and Aerb.
“That was lovely,” said Solace as the music came on. “I do so enjoy a wedding. This is the first I’ve attended in near a hundred years.” She turned to look at me. “Don’t tell the bride I said so, but it was a bit on the conventional side, for my tastes.” She laughed at the incredulous look I gave her, then took Grak by the hand to dance on the dance floor.
Amaryllis wandered over to me. It was my first time seeing her in heels, and it threw me off a bit. I’d gotten too much taller with the increases in PHY; with heels on, our height difference was about what it had been when we first met.
“Well, that’s done with,” said Amaryllis. “I suppose the actual consummation was done in a separate room somewhere.”
“That’s pretty common on Earth,” I said. “Not consummation, though, yeah, that too, but separate services. There’s a civil service and a religious one, done in different places.”
“It was quite restrained, for her,” said Amaryllis. “I think I might have liked it.”
She looked over to where people were dancing to the music. There were four couples, Esuen and Souno, Bethel and Ropey (split once more), Valencia and Jorge, and Solace with Grak. The music was sedate, in 3/4 time, suitable for a waltz. That was unearned musical knowledge coming into my head, courtesy of the Symbiosis with Amaryllis.
“Care to dance?” I asked.
“Do you know how?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.
“I have half your skill,” I replied. There was a Dancing skill, which so far as I knew was worthless for anything besides actual dancing. It probably gave a set bonus with some other skills, or some amazing perks at high levels, but without knowing what actual utility it had, it wasn’t a serious consideration.
“OPSEC,” said Amaryllis, but she took my hand anyhow. “You know, it’s harder to lead than to follow.”
“I’ll manage, I hope,” I replied.
My hands found the frame easily enough, one hand on her back, the other holding hers. I straightened my spine and squared my shoulders. When she was ready, I began to move, stepping in time to the beat, making a little square with my feet. I was just testing that I actually did know how to dance. Once the preliminaries were out of the way, I began to glide us across the dance floor that Bethel had made for us, throwing in spins and twirls that saw Amaryllis moving beneath me, or going away for a moment at the edge of my reach only to fall back into frame as she returned.
Dancing wasn’t really how I had imagined it. For one thing, I had a surprising amount of control. Being the lead meant that I was using my frame to guide Amaryllis, and she moved more because my positioning gave her no other option than because she recognized the moves. I had always thought that both partners memorized what they were doing, but apparently being ‘lead’ meant that I could literally lead her, confident that she could follow along from the way that I moved my body. The frame had to be steady for her, and she had to hold a frame of her own, but she moved where I wanted her to, under my control.
“Are you just really good at dancing?” I asked as I brought her in close for a more sedate, more stationary waltz.
“It’s taught at Quills and Blood,” replied Amaryllis. “Part of blood magic is timing your magic to the pulse of your heart, and music and dance both help with it. I wouldn’t call myself good, but I’m a fair bit past competent,” <and I’ve gotten better as part of Twinned Souls, I believe. Numerically, it would be in the thirties.>
“Ah,” I said. I smiled at her. <OPSEC.>
<Yes, OPSEC,> she replied. <Too many people here for my liking, with too many secrets floating in the air.>
<Perhaps we shouldn’t disturb the bride and groom?> I asked.
<I’d rather the two of you talk in relative confidence,> replied Bethel. I caught her eye from the other end of the dance floor, where she was twirling about with … well, herself. <Just don’t be dull about it. We can save the world tomorrow, today we celebrate.>
“I think I like dancing,” I said, moving away from the shop talk. “It’s pleasant.” <Do you have any other hidden talents?>
<You’ve seen my character sheet,> replied Amaryllis as she spun beneath me. She was smiling, not a wide smile, but a content one. I didn’t know whether that was just for show, but I thought it probably was.
<Not everything is on the character sheet,> I said. <Hells, dungeon mastering isn’t there, and before I came to Aerb, I probably would have said that was my only skill.>
<There’s very little you don’t know about me, Juniper,> replied Amaryllis as we danced. There was something about the way that she thought my name that sent a thrill through me.
<Tell me about your first crush,> I said. <If you had one.>
<Tell me yours first,> said Amaryllis. I had slowed us down some, so I could focus more on what she was thinking to me, still in time with the music, but more sedate. I didn’t know how long this song was going to go, but it wasn’t one that I recognized, and my guess was that we would stop when Bethel wanted us to stop.
<Hermione Granger,> I replied. <From the movies, not the books, mostly because I didn’t read the books until later.>
<A fictional girl?> asked Amaryllis. I was hoping for faint amusement, but when I saw her face it was skeptical. <That seems impersonal.>
<It’s deeply personal,> I replied, trying not to be affronted. <But if you want my first non-fictitious crush, it was a girl in second or third grade, Karen Dowler. She moved away in fourth grade, but I was over her by then. She’d been replaced by Pippi Longstocking, who was the strongest girl in the world.>
We danced on for a bit.
<Also fictional?> Amaryllis finally asked.
<Yes,> I replied. <It’s a book series. Why, is there some ancient magic I just stepped in again? Because I would hate to break up this wedding reception.>
<No,> replied Amaryllis. <I was just thinking. It’s interesting.>
<You were going to tell me about yours,> I replied. <Also, if you read the books, keep in mind that I was nine or ten.>
We danced in silence some more. The song had shifted, but kept to 3/4 time, so we kept on waltzing to it. Finch had taken Grak’s place and was dancing with Solace, and Pallida had taken Heshnel onto the dance floor (though I caught her looking at me with Amaryllis).
<Still thinking?> I asked.
<My crush,> said Amaryllis. <Her name was an anagram. Lena Kordrew.>
<What’s that an anagram for?> I asked after a moment’s thought.
<Karen Dowler,> replied Amaryllis.
<Ah,> I replied after a pause. <I was assuming that it was a ‘c’, not a ‘k’. Just the DM fucking with us?>
<With me, yes,> replied Amaryllis. <You were a real person. I was made for you. My entire life is just one big cosmic joke.> She didn’t sound particularly bitter, though maybe that was Bethel modulating the thoughtspeech.
<I wish it weren’t so,> I said. The smile she’d been keeping on her face had fallen, leaving it carefully blank. <Can you tell me about her anyway?>
<I suppose,> said Amaryllis. Our waltzing had some of the life taken out of it. I didn’t want to do the more complicated moves if she was upset. <Most of the Lost King’s Court don’t go to school until we attend an athenaeum. We have dedicated tutors instead, and a carefully selected cohort of commoner friends we grow up with who are meant to become trusted staff. Lena was one of them. After my mother died, my aunt had rather different ideas about who my friends should be. I never saw Lena again.>
The music began to die down, and our waltz drew to a close. I dropped my frame, and Amaryllis’ hand seemed to linger in my own.
“Get some refreshments with me?” asked Amaryllis with a glance over at the table. “I see that Bethel has laid out a full spread. I have a fondness for whipped eggs.”
We walked over to the table together. Amaryllis moved flawlessly in heels, which was pretty much a given.
“Do you want to find her?” I asked. “Lena? Or any of the others that were part of your retinue?”
“Most of them are dead or in jail,” replied Amaryllis. “Of those that aren’t, they’ve likely been pulled into the services of my manifold cousins, and certainly couldn’t be trusted to be loyal to me, not with the level of operations we’re working on. I would like to see my aunt Rosemallow so we can have a pointed discussion about how she prematurely cut her losses where I was concerned, but that can wait until it’s common knowledge that I’m here. The intelligence services are a little bit slower than I thought they would be, or perhaps they don’t leak as much as I thought.”
Bethel came up from behind us, in her androgynous hybrid form. “I do so hope that we have intruders someday,” she said with a wistful sigh. “A ten person combined-arms strike force would be just lovely. Per the law, you’re allowed to do whatever you’d like to someone who tries to invade your home.” She beamed at Amaryllis. “I appreciated that you thought of me when you were drafting the legal framework.”
“I see marriage hasn’t blunted you,” I said with a smile.
“Oh, a bit,” replied Bethel. There was a twinkle in her eyes. “The imagined thrill of violently dismembering an Anglecynn death squad is a bit less, now. He wasn’t some naive waif who had never known violence. He’d killed his own share of people, strangled or hanged, sometimes held in place so someone else could do it. The marriage is, so far, everything that I imagined.”
“Even though you can’t talk with him?” asked Amaryllis.
Bethel nodded. “He’s a part of me. When I speak with myself, I am speaking with him. Every word that I say is laced with him.”
“And … what should we call you?” I asked.
“Still Bethel,” she replied. She gestured to her face. “I doubt that I’ll keep this form for longer than a day. I still like looking like a woman, I think.” She looked to me and held out a hand. “Care to dance?”
I danced with Bethel for a bit, a foxtrot instead of a waltz. I was mildly surprised when the world pushed out away from us, so that everyone around us seemed to be a half mile away. It was one of her space-warping powers, one that wasn’t really that useful because you needed the target or targets to be isolated.
“Privacy?” I asked. “We could have used thoughtspeak.”
“This is far more intimate, don’t you think?” asked Bethel. We were still doing the foxtrot. I wondered where the force was coming from, since it felt like more than five pounds where our frames met.
“Very intimate,” I nodded as we danced. We hadn’t been lacking for room before, but now we had as much space as we could want, so I stepped it up a bit. “Was there something you wanted to talk about?”
“I see and hear everything,” said Bethel. “More than that, I’m privy to the internals of all you mortals, the beating of your hearts, the sweat on your skin, things that you haven’t directly chosen to share with anyone.”
“If I’m going to be principled about it, then the fact that we don’t have Val talking about everything she intuits with a devil’s insights probably means that we also shouldn’t have you revealing things that are presumably confidential,” I said.
“Yes, yes, very principled,” replied Bethel with a smile as she twirled away from me and then back in. The frame was a bit awkward, given our height difference. Her hand was low, mine was high, and the hand I had placed on her back was really more on her lower back. “Of course, if I were to say something, you couldn’t stop me.”
“True,” I said. “I suppose I’ll just have to hope that you respect my wishes.”
Bethel laughed. “Yes, of course. But even with the principled stance, you might be happy to know what I know?”
“Depends,” I said. “But you’d be skirting a line. I don’t want things to be difficult because I know things that I shouldn’t.”
“Very well,” said Bethel with a nod.
I waited for a moment. “That’s it?” I asked.
“Do you want my secrets or not?” she asked.
“No,” I replied. “I’m just used to you not listening to what I have to say.”
“I’m a married woman now,” said Bethel with a laugh. “You have my better half to thank.”
The room snapped back down to normal size, and we finished our dance as the music came to an end. We got some looks, naturally, but then Bethel split back into her double form, and another dance started up again. Pallida slipped her hand into mine and I started in on another waltz without even thinking about it, though with her, there was considerably less conversation to be had.
It was a few hours later that Jorge found me sitting at one of the tables. I’d done more than my fair share of dancing, partly because I enjoyed using the skill, and partly because our gender ratios were skewed enough that I was in demand. I had been taking a break, drinking water to rehydrate and snacking on a plate of food I’d gotten for myself. I didn’t know how long this was all meant to last, because there was no set schedule, but I was willing to see it through for as long as Bethel wanted to go. I’d chosen to take a table for myself mostly so that I could have a break from so much people time.
“Hello Juniper,” said Jorge as he grasped the back of a chair. “Do you mind?”
“Not at all,” I said, though that wasn’t really the truth. “Having a good time?” I asked.
“Always,” said Jorge. “There’s little in life that I love more than a wedding.”
“That’s — weird,” I said. “Sorry, that’s not tactful, it’s just … where I come from, weddings are more, ah, things that you sit through.”
“Oh?” asked Jorge, raising an eyebrow. “Not expressions of partnership or love?”
“They are,” I said. “I guess. I don’t know, most of the ones that I went to were family friends or distant relatives, not actually anyone that I knew very well.”
“Ah,” said Jorge. “Perhaps I felt the same, when I was your age.” I didn’t like being talked down to like that, and I think he saw that on my face. “I’m not making some argument that I’m wiser just because I’m older,” he clarified. “I just had a particular mindset because of the time and place I was in, when I was seventeen.”
“I’m eighteen,” I said. Immediately after I said it, I realized how petty it was.
“Sorry,” said Jorge. He was silent for a bit. “I came over here trying to be friendly, and I’m worried that I’ve made a mess of it.”
“No,” I said. “It’s fine.” I tried to think of how Amaryllis would salvage this. “What changed your mind?” I asked. “When did you start liking weddings?”
“I started rising up the ranks in Uniquities,” said Jorge. “Valencia probably told you that I didn’t go to an athenaeum?”
Probably, I thought to myself. “Yeah,” I replied.
“Well, I’ve always been a bit of a people person,” said Jorge. “Since that’s where my skills were, that’s what I got tasked with. I met with a lot of people, asking questions, in part, but sometimes just establishing a relationship so that I would have contacts for later. Sometimes, though less often than I would have liked, I would get to help someone in the course of my job. I got my first wedding invitation the year after I made first responder, and it was like a whole new world had opened up. Across the Empire, people are more similar than they are different, at least in the cities, but weddings, or wedding-like celebrations, are one of those cultural touchstones that haven’t really been worn away into uniformity. Even when it’s mixed-species, it’s a reflection of all the different places that we come from, and for all that, there’s a strain of commonality. I just like seeing how everyone reflects on partnership in their own way.”
I could sort of see that. I imagined my Loyalty to Jorge going up by a point. “There are species that don’t pair bond,” I said. “But I suppose there are few that don’t have partnerships, or that don’t celebrate those partnerships?” It felt like a bit of a prickly question, given that I did empathize with what he was saying, but I really did wonder how the vast differentiation among the mortal species fit within that worldview.
“It’s not universal, certainly,” said Jorge. “Nothing could ever be so simple as that. I’ve done a fair amount of reading on the subject — I’m a reader — and interestingly, it’s not the ones that you would expect. The rhannu don’t have sexual reproduction, instead, they have mitosis, so you would think that they would never have something like pair-bonding.” I knew all about the rhannu, having created them one afternoon in study hall, but didn’t interject. “Well, as it turns out, pairing is incredibly common, usually between two rhannu of a pronounced age difference, and they have a ceremony much like a wedding, though it’s really more like adoption than anything romantic, if you wanted to put it into human terms.”
“And the ‘true’ exceptions?” I asked.
“Oh, there are even some among the humans,” said Jorge. He smiled at me. “There are cultures, toward the fringe of the traditional human lands, where they barely acknowledge partnerships at all. Children are raised by the villages and rarely know or care who their father is, and any romance is assumed to be fleeting and personal. No marriages there, nor anything that comes close.” He shrugged. “Sorry if I’m taking up too much of the conversation.”
“No, it’s fine,” I said. “I do like comparative anthropology, it’s just that marriages have never really been my area of interest. Holidays either, I suppose because … well, because they’re rare.” Rare in my tabletop games, because setting things during a festival or holiday needed planning, unless I was going to retroactively create the calendar for a session.
“Holidays are only rare if you’re looking at the level of the individual culture,” said Jorge. “I know you’re,” he paused and looked around. “I know you’re dream-skewered, but if you lived in one of the big cities of the Empire, you’d see that we never really stop having holidays. There’s always something going on somewhere, whether it’s celebrated by half the human population across the city or a cluster of households from some wave of immigration.”
“Everyone here knows that I’m dream-skewered,” I said. Uniquities had been none too pleased by what had happened at Speculation and Scrutiny, and my status as earthling had come out in the debriefing that Amaryllis had given to Figaro Finch.
“Ah,” replied Jorge. “I didn’t want to presume. Can I ask what it’s like? Earth?”
“Boring,” I said. “Everything on Aerb is an exaggerated version of my home.” Literally. “Earth has one species, humans, and a few hundred cultures, though some of them have kind of fine-grained distinctions between them. Here, it’s just so expanded, not just physically bigger, but so much more, even if a lot of the fundamentals remain the same, and the underlying patterns are largely familiar.” I paused. “I can imagine what it would be like to want to go back, but for me, Aerb is everything that I dreamed of.” I worried that skirted too close to the truth, but Jorge only nodded along.
“There’s a certain look that tourists get,” he said. “Or maybe not a look, but a way of seeing the world. They come from somewhere else, and wherever they’re going has become strange and new, so everything has to be looked at and experienced. I’ve always tried to think and live like a tourist, even when I’m in familiar places. There’s a lot to see and love, and always a risk that we’ll let it all fade back into the background.”
I looked at him for a moment. “I can see why she likes you,” I said.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” he replied with a smile. “I know that you and Amaryllis have some reservations about our relationship.” He faltered a bit. “I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t have my own reservations, especially with how quickly she keeps trying to push things. When I went into that hotel, I’d thought that I would be talking to the tuung handmaid, not to –” he looked out on the dance floor and met Valencia’s eyes, “– her.”
There were things that I wanted to say, but I held my tongue. Valencia didn’t need someone giving her boyfriend a stern warning, nor did she need me injecting my own opinions into her relationship.
“I’m happy she found someone who can see her for what she is,” I said.