Worth the Candle, Ch 192: Cooldown

“I’m worried about you,” said Raven.

We were back at the Erstwhile Manor, where Amaryllis was planning out how the next day would go. The War Council had planned to hold session, but it was up for debate whether it actually would or not, given that one of their members had died in the course of a trial by combat. It was supposedly Phlox’s call, but we didn’t have a handle on whether she would want to push ahead and get things over with, or punt for as long as possible. There were pros and cons to each, and I really just couldn’t find it in myself to care. The fight with Onion hadn’t actually been that long, but it had been exhausting, and I was sure that as my skills went down to baseline, it would become even more so. I’d begged off to just decompress, and Raven had asked me if I wanted company, which I had, on the condition that it was a light and comfy company. That had lasted all of ten minutes.

“Why?” I asked. “And worried how?”

“You’re being a bit erratic,” said Raven. She folded her hands in her lap. “Part of it is being impulsive, the other part is disregard for other lives.”

“Hrm,”  I replied. “I’m going to try to not be angry or flippant about this, because I think that’s probably what you’re talking about, but the last week or so hasn’t really been all that great for me.” I took stock of what I was about to say, making an attempt to phrase it like I wasn’t an asshole. “Bethel forced herself on me,” I said. “That feeling of fear and powerlessness, of confusion … it kind of fucked with me. I’m not using that as an excuse, just trying to explain my mindset. It wasn’t long after we exiled her from the group that my mom showed up, which was its own thing, an unwelcome blast from the past —” I paused, waiting for her to tell me about some ancient civilization that had some kind of future cannon aimed at the present, because that was exactly the kind of thing that Raven would bring up when I used idioms. She just sat there, listening attentively. “Those dragons showed up to threaten us, and I found myself just having so much contempt for them. I mean, from what I heard, it was the same for you at the trial, with the court. That feeling that it was beneath you.”

“Heard from Amaryllis?” asked Raven.

“Yes,” I replied. I stretched out and ate from the plate of food I’d requested from the kitchen. It was mostly traditional Anglish fare, a bit bland for my tastes. “Confirmed with Grak, because while I trust Amaryllis to be impartial, I trust him more in this case. Contempt was exactly how he described it.”

“I have contempt for the Lost King’s Court,” Raven admitted. “Not that Uther would have ever wanted his stamp on something so vile. To follow the flower metaphor, it’s a garden filled with weeds. I’ve seen Anglecynn in hundreds of futures, you have to keep that in mind, so some of this is informed by other timelines, not by the present. They’re a low-grade tyranny, a dysfunctional family that will close ranks just enough to defend themselves from outside threats, beset with all the problems that any modern nation has, except with arrogance and a mistaken reverence of tradition layered on top of that.” She looked at me. “I shouldn’t have shown so much contempt before the council. And it doesn’t have that much bearing on what I’m trying to say to you.”

“You think that my contempt for the people who kidnapped me is misplaced,” I said. “Oh, and I hadn’t even gotten to that, the whole being kidnapped and tortured thing.”

“I think that contempt is what it is,” replied Raven. “It’s a valid reaction to seeing people doing what they’re doing. But when you have your sword to someone’s throat, it’s a bit different.”

“I killed about a dozen people in the past few days,” I said. “Maybe a bit less, maybe a bit more, I didn’t count that closely. In none of those circumstances did I realistically have the option to show mercy. And when I was able to show mercy, Pallida killed them all for me, as she should have. She called me out on it, actually.”

“I know,” replied Raven. “Pallida and I have been on speaking terms, more or less, since Mome Rath. A bit less than more. Do you think that Pallida was happy about slitting the throats of a bunch of defenseless guards?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess not. You think that I would have been?”

Raven lifted the cup of tea beside her and sipped at it. “I don’t think poorly of you. Like I said, I’m worried about you. But yes, I think that for some of them, you would have felt good about killing them. A warm glow at ending someone’s life, rather than any measure of guilt and pain over the necessity.”

“That’s how Uther would have played it?” I asked. “He laid his enemies to rest with all the pomp and circumstance that he could muster?”

“In a sense, yes,” replied Raven. “He was cold about it, sometimes, but I always had the sense that it took its toll. If he’d had his way, he wouldn’t ever have had to kill anyone. He would have been a poet, a playwright, a bard, rather than a warrior. And you … from what I know about you, you’re more a creator than Uther ever was, but there’s this anger in you, and you’re letting it free.”

“Yeah,” I said, slumping back. She was right about me. It was something that I had known about myself for a long time.

There was sometimes this sense among hunters that you were supposed to care about the deer, or feel reverence and gratitude when you took their lives. When I’d killed my first deer, I’d felt kind of disgusted because of all the blood and guts, but holy hell, I didn’t feel an ounce of appreciation for the deer itself. For a while, I felt like I must have been a sociopath or something, because I’d gone on the internet and read about what the red flags for sociopathy were, but eventually I just decided that maybe I was a bit more vicious than other people, kept in check by threats from authority and some amount of moral reasoning, rather than moral feeling. Except that as I grew older, I realized that I did actually have empathy for others. Thinking that you’re a sociopath is just something that fourteen-year-old edgelords did, and I considered myself lucky to have learned that by seventeen.

“I wanted to kill Zinnia,” I said. “I was angry with her. I didn’t actually know her, but everything that I had learned about her painted her as this horrible cunt who the world would be better off without. It was like … like a fly buzzing around, doing nothing but irritating me, but worse than that, because she did worse than that. And I’m sure that some perfect person would try to capture the fly and release it into the wild so that it could live its own life without irritating them anymore. But for me, I don’t feel bad about smooshing a fly, I don’t give a little speech about how I deeply regret killing it, I just … I want to kill it, and then I don’t kill it, because I’ve been taught not to, and convinced not to.” I sighed. “So when Pallida comes along and murders Zinnia, I’m put out, but I’m not that put out.”

“And Onion?” asked Raven.

“I mean, if you want to talk about horrible cunts,” I began, smiling at her and seeing her not smile back. My face fell, and I decided to take this seriously. “Back when I was suicidal, people tried to help me, and I just pushed past them, telling them that I was fine, that it was fine, not to worry, let’s just get on with things. I think I’d be demonstrating a real lack of intelligence not to learn from that. So I’m trying here, with you, to listen, to accept help. I can see that your heart is at least in the right place. But … Onion? In the last few days I have heard so many stories about Onion, and absolutely none of them make him look good in the slightest. Supposedly, when he was in the business of killing people in ‘self-defense’, there was this strategy he employed a few times of seducing someone’s wife, daughter, or significant other, and then in this really patriarchal display, use that as a way to bait some dude into fighting him. And by seduce … it’s really not clear that consent was involved.” I stared at Raven. “I’m saying that it’s entirely possible that Onion raped some young woman so that he could bait her father into a fight.”

“Unsubstantiated stories from his political enemies,” said Raven. “Not that I think they’re untrue stories, necessarily, but it’s easy to make a person hateable if you’re allowed to say whatever you like about them, if no one actually knows the truth but those involved. There are many, many stories about Onion, but he was one of those men whose stories multiply and grow.”

“Even if you discount the rumors,” I said. “What’s redeemable about Onion, in your view?”

“You’re asking why you should have felt anything other than glee at ending his life?” asked Raven.

“See, you put it like that, you make me sound like a psychopath,” I said. “But sure.”

“Then I don’t know,” said Raven. “But there were people who liked Onion. Did you see Phlox?” I shook my head. “She was in shock for a bit when he was killed, but then she started crying, and they had to help her out of the arena.”

“Sounds like theater to me,” I said.

“That’s what Amaryllis said too,” replied Raven with a frown. “I find it more likely that Onion wasn’t universally hated by everyone in the family. There are people like that, I don’t doubt, but he seems — seemed — well-regarded by the Host. Many people consider him to have fought his personal demons through a lifetime of effort, and won. You knew he had a wife, two sons, and a number of grandchildren?”

“I did,” I replied. “There are a lot of shitty parents out there.”

“And that might be true for Onion,” said Raven. “Or it might not be.”

“You don’t think it was wrong for me to kill him, do you?” I asked. “This is about my attitude toward killing these terrible people, rather than the actual object level outcomes?”

“It is,” replied Raven. “That’s what I’m worried about, the attitude.”

“But so long as I kill the people that proper moral reasoning dictates I kill, and don’t kill anyone else, then why does it matter?” I asked. “I spared Zinnia. I spared the guards, or at least the ones that I could. I knew that it would feel good to just murder them, but I didn’t do that, because I also knew that it was … maybe not even wrong, because there were legitimate rational arguments in favor of killing them.”

“Your attitude matters,” said Raven. “Even if I agree that you did everything right over the last three days —”

“Do you?” I asked.

Raven paused, pursing her lips, and took a drink of tea. “Perfectly right? No, of course not, but … From the incomplete picture that I have of everything you went through, it would be unfair of me to second guess you. But I do think that you jumped to altering Zinnia’s soul far before it was necessary, and in the end, you gained almost nothing from it. And you did that because you felt nothing but contempt for her, because it made you happy to warp her, to hurt her. That’s what I worry about, anyway.”

“Yeah,” I said.

I tried to put myself back in my shoes, to look over what my exact mental state had been while I was in the process of doing it. I remembered noting the vaguely troublesome sexual imagery of holding a woman down and forcing myself on her. And I remembered thinking that she deserved to get the pain stick a few times, just to even things out, that she should have felt as much suffering as I could inflict on her, just for a bit, because fuck her for what she’d done. I had wanted the visceral satisfaction of crushing the life from her. And instead I had gone with snark and pretending like it was wholly and entirely necessary to soulfuck her, which it only sort of was. It had gotten our stuff out of her handbag, and let us know that no one was immediately coming, but that was about it. She just hadn’t known that much. It was easy to say that in hindsight, but maybe it would have been easy to say in foresight too.

“I didn’t actually care that much about Onion,” I said. “I mean, he was a shitbag, and he was behind the idiotic kidnapping shit — alright, it was a little bit personal, I guess. But the fight with him, it was more about taking out all my frustrations. I made jokes. I rubbed it in. It feels so good to do that. To hurt a person that I’m completely justified in hurting, completely allowed to hurt, and then add onto that with words … I think for him, his taunts had purpose. He said something to that effect while we were fighting. A taunt is a tool in the arsenal that you’d be foolish not to use, I think that was his opinion. But for me, it was trash-talking, it was about making myself feel good, sometimes preemptively, sometimes after the fact.” I sighed. “But here’s where I’m asking, was that actually wrong?”

“It was wrong, wrong in the sense that in that arena, people were watching,” said Raven. “They’ll come away with certain opinions of you.”

“So if I’d felt the same way and then done a better job of masking it?” I asked. “That would be fine?”

“It would be better,” replied Raven. “It would show some measure of introspection and ability to resist your base impulses. You think that other people don’t take joy in snappy one-liners? There’s a reason that they show up so much in plays and books. It’s just that doing that is a sign that something, somewhere, has gone wrong for you. And knowing you, you planned those lines out.”

“I wrote down a bunch of them, yeah,” I replied, frowning.

“Do you think that it’s hilarious that Phlox cried because you cut an onion?” asked Raven. She was completely deadpan.

“Assuming that it’s legitimate grief and not some act, then no, it’s — it’s funny in a dark humor way, and I usually don’t laugh at dark humor, even if I find it funny,” I replied. “And it’s not that I’m just feeling shame, it’s that when you frame it that way, it kills my high.”

“It’s probably good for you to do whatever it takes to kill that high,” said Raven.

“Sure,” I replied. “Even if it makes me miserable? Even if it’s a way of coping with all the bad shit, all the stress, all the killing that I’m probably going to have to do one way or another?”

“I don’t know,” said Raven. “I don’t think it’s particularly healthy, from a mental standpoint, to be using humor and trash talk to cope. But you know yourself far, far better than I know you. We’re still practically strangers, though I’m glad we’re talking more.”

“I am too,” I replied. “Even if it’s a downer.” I was thinking about Onion’s kids, who were probably, what, in their forties? Thirties? It was hard to imagine Onion smiling with his grandkids. Heck, it was hard to imagine what Onion’s wife must have been like, or that he’d been a loving husband, or even just one that wasn’t abusive.

“I used to be more fun,” said Raven. “I’m not even talking about the decades I spent slacking off, though I was a little too fun then. I used to have this exuberance, and it just got filed away over time with the weight of responsibility and the endless grind of having things to do.”

“Huh,” I replied. “When you say too fun, you mean … ?”

“Irresponsible,” replied Raven. “I indulged myself without regard for the consequences.”

“I was looking for specifics,” I replied. “Not some generalities about regrettable behavior.”

Raven sighed. “Because of prurient interest?” she asked.

“I think if you speak with regret about the things you did, people will assume the worst,” I replied. “And I don’t want to assume the worst about you. So give me a day in the life of you at your most regrettable.”

Raven paused. “It went in cycles,” she said. “It wasn’t a non-stop string of things I would later regret. I would get drunk — this takes an enormous amount of alcohol for an ell, and lasts for a very long time — and sometimes take harder drugs, smoke boscleaf, rub on terrablend, never anything that would risk me being permanently damaged, but not a great way to spend a month. Sometimes I told people things that I shouldn’t have, leaking out secrets in the hopes that someone or something would stop me. Nothing that would kill anyone, but there are secrets that keep themselves, and like a fool, I would go talk about them at bars while drinking my three hundredth glass of wine, sometimes getting up on a table and shouting them, when I was out of it enough for that to seem reasonable.” She paused. “I had hollow, meaningless sex. Like the drugs, I enjoyed it in the moment, but when it was done, I felt disgusted with myself. Sometimes more than others.” She let out a breath she’d been holding. “There, does that satisfy you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “Not so bad, all things considered.” The part of me that still saw her as Maddie, the part that still thought of her as seventeen or younger, was a little uncomfortable about hearing her talking about sex, but this was a stupid thing to feel, on several levels, and I had asked, so I did my best to recalibrate. I wanted to know how many people she’d slept with, but I also didn’t want to know, and fuck if it was any of my business. She wasn’t Maddie, and even if she had been, it wouldn’t have been anything for me to worry about. “Hey, at least you didn’t kill anyone.”

“Oh,” said Raven. “I killed a few people. I spent about a decade as a very lazy vigilante.”

“You … were a superhero?” I asked.

“As I understand them, yes,” replied Raven. “I had a secret identity and everything. I was trying to recapture some of the magic that I’d had with Uther, but I never really put in the effort, it was all,” she waved her hand. “Regretful. Embarrassing.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I need to wrap my head around this, what was your superhero name? What crimes did you stop? Like … did you get recognized?”

Raven sighed. “At least this shows you can take some joy in things other than killing. During the day, I sat around my apartment, reading through the latest trashy novel or listening to music on my wax player. I was rich enough to live off the interest, and the Second Empire didn’t touch my money because of who I was. Then when night came, I would put on my cloak, a magical mask, and all my other gear, and go out looking for trouble. I called myself Night Light.”

“Holy shit, that’s amazing,” I said. “And you just … killed people?”

“Never by intent, no,” replied Raven, looking a bit pained. “But in the heat of battle, it was hard to work within the constraint of merely maiming people, especially when so many of my best entads and magics were lethal.”

“Well, that doesn’t sound good,” I said. I was thinking of the tuung that I’d thrown off the train, what felt like a lifetime ago.

Raven shrugged. “Killing only happened in exceptional circumstances. Six times over ten years. I don’t really want to go into it.”

“No, I suppose not,” I replied. She didn’t seem happy. She rarely seemed happy anyway, but in this particular case, she’d taken a turn for the morose. “Magics?” I asked. “As in … library magic?”

“Oh, sometimes,” replied Raven. “It extends outside the Infinite Library, though mostly you’d use it for finding the right book, and it’s not too much better than a card catalog. Sometimes a sufficient collection of files will create the right circumstances to use it. But no, I had two magics under my belt, both now excluded.” I waited, and she continued. “Dibbling and groove casting. They had a nice synergy. Both gone now, all that training made utterly useless.”

“I don’t even know what groove casting is,” I said. Dibbling was similar to warding, though much more short term, much faster, without the metamagic aspects, and some secondary abilities that wards couldn’t replicate, all drawing on rather abstract concepts of ground and earth. None of this had been in her biographies, which I had read before we’d met her.

“It was a form of energy shaping, building up personal magical constructs through repeat castings, a good school of magic if you’re an Ell, but otherwise a bit niche,” said Raven. “I would work the grooves while I was reading.” I resisted making the obvious joke. “Unfortunately, I chose dibbling over warding and groove casting over runes. The synergy was good. You could dibble for energy and divert that energy into the grooves, there were many possibilities.”

“Huh,” I replied. “I do wonder what it was like after the collapse of the First Empire, when there was so much magic still around, so many exclusions yet to happen. All that stuff in motion though, not just a world like before the First Empire, when the magics were mostly separated, a time when it was just all … together. Even with what we have now … it’s so much sheer stuff that I would never have included it all in a single campaign.”

“It was a mess,” said Raven. “But we can talk about it later. I wanted to go see how Amaryllis was doing with her trial prep.”

“Sure,” I replied. “But she’s standing outside the door.”

“She is?” asked Raven.

“Yup,” I replied. “I’ve been keeping us on mute. Nothing that I care about her hearing, but it seemed polite. She’s waiting for us to finish up, I think.” I tapped my head. “Multithreading.”

“And she probably wants to talk to you, not me,” said Raven. “Okay. Good luck.” She took her cup of tea with her.

Raven stopped once she was just outside the door, and had a brief conversation with Amaryllis, which Amaryllis muted. I had better vibration magic than her, but didn’t try to figure out anything sneaky, because I didn’t begrudge them a private moment. I hoped the topic of conversation was whether or not I needed another dressing down, and that the answer was no.

“How goes it?” I asked Amaryllis as she came in and sat down next to me.

“Very uncertain,” Amaryllis replied. She was still wearing the dress she’d been in at the arena, a very pink thing that seemed a bit too girly for her, at least so far as I could gauge such things. She still looked fantastic in it. “Are you ready to come help?”

“I don’t think I did very well in court yesterday,” I said. “And Raven’s given me some stuff to think about.”

“I still value your input,” said Amaryllis. “Even if your political instincts are complete dogshit. Even if you’re a bit murder-happy at the moment.”

“Please, please don’t tell me that killing Onion wasn’t a win for us,” I replied. “I don’t think I could take it.” When I got back to the staging area, there had been a look in her eyes, and while she’d said all the right words about how I had done well, how she was relieved, there was something that rang false about it.

“It’s a win,” said Amaryllis. “It’s so much of a win that there’s barely even a point in continuing on with this trial. The quest text said it, and it wasn’t a clue I needed: they know which way the wind is blowing. Rosemallow got more than a few calls. The news coverage is nothing but beaming, and not just because Rosemallow controls a lot of the news. There are certainly a lot of people who are very angry about the outcome, but Juniper, a lot of people are thinking that it would be suicidal to stand against you. Once everything with the trial is concluded, after we’ve slithered our way out of military service, we have an opportunity for real change. Rosemallow is talking about the next steps, and it looks like there’s going to be a Second Grand Reconciliation after all.”

“Does Rosemallow like me now?” I asked.

“She’s pretending to,” said Amaryllis. “You could be a little less casual around her.”

“Well, if it’s good, then why is everyone so intent on being a bummer?” I asked. “Aside from Pallida, who genuinely seemed happy for me.”

“I don’t know about the others, but I wasn’t prepared for what that fight would look like,” said Amaryllis. “Not just how fast it was moving, but all the absurd, impossible things that went on. And I was just sitting there, helpless, not able to do anything but watch.”

“I heard you got into it with the referee?” I asked.

“I did,” said Amaryllis. “I argued that the meta-entad was a violation of the rules. It was outside magic. Obviously that didn’t go our way.”

“And you did something with the flickerblade at the critical moment,” I said, though that was more of a guess.

“Grak did,” said Amaryllis. “He was watching the match through his temporal plate, the only one really able to keep up with what was happening, and then only barely. He made the ward around the flickerblade, something special, I didn’t get the details. Oh, he says the probability blade is unrecoverable. Sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “We’re coming into a truckload of entads soon, right?”

“We are,” said Amaryllis. She paused, then moved toward me and took a piece of food from my plate. “Juniper, we might legitimately be in the endgame.”

“You’re thinking that I’m right about going after Fel Seed?” I asked.

“I am,” replied Amaryllis. “I don’t know how much higher you can actually go. This escalation —”

“I still need to fight a dragon,” I said. “And there are at least thirteen opponents that I can name pretty easily.”

“So you don’t want to be at the end?” asked Amaryllis.

“I do,” I replied. “But I did almost die today, and I was kind of cheating. I need to grind up Grak’s loyalty, the doe’s loyalty, your loyalty. And … any run at Fel Seed would require Bethel one way or another, not to mention Valencia.”

“You’re sobering up,” said Amaryllis.

“Maybe,” I said. “I’m still so fucking angry with your family though. And unless Phlox strokes out and Hyacinth kills herself, they’re still going to be there, plus however many other people were actually involved. If the new world order we’re dealing with is fighting them tooth and nail over public policy, them trying to subvert us, or kill us … you’re thinking long term for Anglecynn and Miunun, on the scale of years. Dealing with these same horrible people for years, in all their permutations? Yeah, it really makes me want to take all of our resources and pour them into going after Arthur, whether that’s through Fel Seed or not.”

“Sorry my family is terrible,” said Amaryllis. She gave me a soft smile. “But they’re your family too now.”

“Am I taking your name, by the way?” I asked.

“Did you want to?” asked Amaryllis.

“Not really, no,” I replied. “I just thought it might be politically helpful or something. Shows that I’m a team player, maybe.”

“I’ll be taking your name,” said Amaryllis. “It’s Not Done, but we can do things that are Not Done now, and the more of them we do, the more people will expect and understand that the rules are different for us. We’re going to have a wedding, naturally, something more than jumping a broom.”

I had no idea what ‘jumping a broom’ meant, except from context, but wasn’t really in the mood for a lesson on Aerb idioms. “I guess that will be fine,” I said. “You think that the rest of the trial is going to be a breeze? And we’re out of the woods, so to speak?”

“I would never say that out loud,” replied Amaryllis. “But I think that we’re set up well for the long term, with only a few threads left to be closed. And once they are, it’s possible we’ll have a little bit of downtime. If I do get declared innocent of desertion, I’ll have my funds and entads out of trust, which will give us some power. Military service … it should be easy enough to dodge, I hope. Obviously I’m angling for the long term, plans that will take years to implement, but if you decide on Fel Seed … we’ll find a way. And it might be the right course of action.”

“Yeah,” I said. I let out a breath and ate a bit more. Amaryllis made no move to leave, nor to fill the silence. I was thinking about Fel Seed, and everything that I knew about him, and how bad of an idea it probably was to go there, whether Uther was there or not, whether that was the path to godhood. “So you’re not worried about me?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Not more than usual. You’ve been handling your emotions better than you normally do, no offense. The marriage was impulsive, and the trial by combat was impulsive, but I can’t say that your instincts were entirely wrong, and even if you really viscerally wanted to murder Onion in particular, you went about it by training and working through plans. Maybe I’m biased because I’m your wife, but I think some of the concerns from the others are overblown.”

“And who among our shadowy cabal is arrayed against me?” I asked.

“Grak is concerned,” said Amaryllis. “As I understand it, he’s drawing some parallels to his own actions in the aftermath of his dwarfhold perishing. In his defense, you did mention murdering many, many members of the Court in cold blood.”

“Sure,” I said. “I’ll talk to him.”

“Solace thinks that you’re too wrapped up in yourself,” said Amaryllis. “But the travel isn’t all that good for the locus, and practically a whole day without sunlight wasn’t either, it’s understandable that she’s on edge.”

“I’ll talk to her too,” I replied, though I was looking forward to that conversation a lot less. Grak was a friend, if a perpetually dour and self-doubting one, but Solace was … well, like how I imagined a co-worker being, but a better frame of reference was probably someone I’d gotten stuck on a group project with.

“Pallida wishes that you were more like me,” said Amaryllis. “More ruthless, more pragmatic, more in control of your emotions. But I don’t think she’s worried, because she sees Uther as being considerably worse. From what I understand, there’s a disagreement between her and Raven over whether Uther was cold-bloodedly manipulating the narrative as he saw it, or whether he was simply insane, or some combination of those.”

“Huh,” I said.

“And of course Gemma is extremely disappointed in you,” said Amaryllis.

I let that one sit for a bit. “Please tell me that’s a joke.”

“It’s a joke,” said Amaryllis. “Sorry, I thought you would find it funny.”

“I’ve said like three sentences to her,” I replied. “I legitimately thought that she might hate me for some reason. Like the fact that she was on board with killing me when she thought that I was the next Uther, which, uh, is kind of the party line now?”

“No, you’ll like her,” said Amaryllis. “If and when you get to know her, anyway. Don’t feel pressured. She wants to help, not to be your friend.”

“Okay,” I said, relaxing slightly.

“Sorry,” said Amaryllis. “Do you want me to go get Grak?” she asked.

“I mostly want to sit here and not think,” I said. “But sure, maybe Grak and I can sit here and not think together. Actually, I’ll go into the bottle, if we have it in sunlight?” It felt later than it was. The sun was still out.

“Solace would appreciate that,” replied Amaryllis. “We’re going to need to talk about the marriage soon though, because there will be some interviews, not just the official ones, but a few for the radio and newspapers as well. Pre-scripted, pre-recorded, softballs, and through outlets that we control, but I’d still like some prep.”

“I bet you would kill for the time chamber right now,” I said. I gave a faint smile that faded quickly.

“Not worth the costs, not at the moment,” said Amaryllis. There was a hardness in her eyes, more so than normal. “I hate to pile social obligations on top of you, but after everything that’s happened, it would probably be nice for you to send Valencia a letter, if you have time.”

“Sure,” I replied. I sighed and sank into my chair a bit. “Thanks for everything, by the way.”

“Of course,” replied Amaryllis.

“Sorry I blew up at you and said we should kill your whole family,” I said.

“It’s not a problem, Juniper,” replied Amaryllis. “I would hope that if I got heated, or lost my cool, you would try your best to be patient and understanding with me. We’re partners.”

“I hope I can live up to your rosy picture of me,” I said, feeling a bit sad, because I knew that didn’t sound like me.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “I wasn’t registering a prediction. I was saying what I hoped, not what I thought would actually happen.”

“Ouch,” I replied. “But fair.” I gripped the armrests, then pushed myself to my feet. “Alright. Bottle time.”

“Before you go, can I do anything for you?” she asked. “I know you’re coming down off the high of victory and having so much raw power, and I doubt that Raven was gentle about calling you out, but I don’t want you to crater.”

“No, no risk of that,” I replied. “All I need is time, and so long as the only things that I get pressure on are relatively low stakes, I should be fine. Going a week without a kidnapping, torture, et cetera would probably do wonders for me. I’m not going to say that we’re out of the woods, because I don’t want to tempt fate, but I’m hopeful that we have some downtime soon.”

“Soon,” agreed Amaryllis. “But not that much of it. Perisev gave us a deadline, and there have been fairly consistent reports of a gold dragon circling Caledwich, so Tommul has his eye on us.” She hesitated. “I’m just trying to set expectations for how much of a rest we’ll have.”

“I don’t suppose that Rosemallow knows of a regular, non-stupidly-powerful time chamber that we could use?” I asked.

“She does,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve talked to her about it, and she sometimes uses it in conjunction with the entad she showed us. It’s small and cramped though, little more than a capsule hotel. There are larger ones that we might rent, but they’re expensive, and typically small. We can though, if you’d like. Pallida made some interesting bets.”

“Interesting how?” I asked. “She was supposed to put money on me winning.”

“You can talk to her about her negligence,” said Amaryllis. “But I will guarantee that she knows bookmakers better than you do. I know one of the bets was that you would win after getting an arm or leg cut off. Another was a bet that the match would last longer than ten minutes. I also think she bet you would win without a sword. Many of her bets were losing bets, but they were at such high margins that she had to threaten a few of the bookmakers in order to collect.”

“So you’re saying that we’re richer than we already were, which was quite rich,” I said.

“I know it doesn’t really matter, I just thought it might help to hear,” said Amaryllis. “And I wanted to point out that if your mental wellbeing is on the line, then to the extent that problem can be solved by throwing money at it, we can definitely do that. Obviously with the cat out of the bag, we’ll be offering protection to those who want or need it as well.”

My mind went to my parents and the alternate versions of my friends. “Good,” I replied. “I’m going to, at the least, write a letter to … fuck, Craig, Maddie, my mom, my dad, Tiff … not looking forward to all that.”

“I can write them,” said Amaryllis. “I know that you sometimes find the social aspects draining.”

“You don’t need to do that,” I replied. “I mean, you are better at it, and I really, really don’t want to do it, but I feel like it’s something that I should do as a responsible person.”

“We can work on it together,” said Amaryllis. “One of the things that I agree with Pallida on is that you often do things because you think that you have to, rather than because they make sense to do. Working together will be a compromise, so you can have some of the load taken off while still fulfilling your sense of obligation.”

“Sure,” I replied, twisting my mouth into a small frown. “You’re not overworked?”

“Only in the sense that there’s more work to do than there are Amaryllises to do it,” replied Amaryllis. “I really should get going though, and I think some time in the bottle is in order. You did well in the arena today, spite aside. I wanted you to know that.”


Grak had come into the bottle earlier and removed his armor. After a moment’s thought, I switched Alvion’s Vambrace over and then stowed it in a small bag at my hip, as close to unarmed and unarmored as I normally got, kidnapping and frantic last-ditch efforts aside.

The bottle was on a table in the terrace of the Erstwhile Manor, warded to the gills and in direct sunlight. It felt late, given all the plotting and planning we’d done, the run-up to the fight, and the fight itself, but it was only around dinner time, and the light was still coming in strong.

Grak was with the locus, patting its flank and speaking softly into its ear, but Solace was nowhere to be seen. He was wearing one of his almost painfully mundane outfits, khakis and a salmon-colored buttoned-down shirt. It was about as far away from his traditional dwarven outfits as you could have gotten, agkrioglian to its core, and a bit more stylish than he normally wore. I decided to take that as a good sign.

“How are you doing?” I asked him, speaking Groglir. I figured that it didn’t matter to the doe.

“I did something novel at the arena,” Grak replied.

“Oh yeah?” I asked.

Grak nodded. “I made a split ward, only half of an entad’s function altered.”

“It might have saved my life,” I replied with a nod. “Are there any tricks that it will lead to?”

“Many,” replied Grak. “I’ll have to speak with Mary about it. There are surely some cursed entads we could use safely and others we could use without their associated costs.”

“What, seriously?” I asked. “We can just … I don’t know, use the clonal kit without paying it back?”

“I don’t know,” replied Grak. “It’s possible. I have never heard of anyone doing what I have done. I don’t know if it’s possible for others.” He ran his hand over the doe’s soft fur. “We conceptualize magic as being two dimensional, with blocks being given over to different magics. The entad block is large, but each entad is noted as essentially a point, however wide the spectrum is. But that’s not true.”

He was always so much more eloquent when he spoke in Groglir. Whenever we switched over to Anglish, it felt like listening to him through a straw that only allowed a small part of his personality.

“I appreciate it,” I said.

“I had been working on a way to kill Bethel,” said Grak. Groglir had lots of words for killing, and the one that Grak had chosen was rinhelonidiki, a complex word that was typically used for death-through-alteration, almost (but not quite) exclusively by the hands of a soul mage.

“You were looking for a weapon to use against her,” I said.

“No,” replied Grak. “A weapon would be an annihilation ward. That would be simple enough. This technique was for base alteration of who she was.” He looked rather grim about it. “If it’s necessary, I can do it.”

“Alright,” I said. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that.

“You would need to lure her into the ward,” Grak continued. “And then I would need to anchor it to her. From there the work would begin. To bring her back to a level of usefulness would take days, perhaps weeks of trial and error, altering her.”

“That’s nothing that we need to worry about just yet,” I replied.

“I worry about exclusion,” said Grak. He wasn’t looking at me, instead keeping his attention focused on the doe.

“For that?” I asked.

“I’m pushing the edges of what’s possible with warding,” said Grak. He had a faraway look in his eyes. “I can see some of the possibilities. There are ways to wedge things open. But if warding is excluded, millions will die, and I will become nothing.”

“I am against millions of people dying,” I said with a nod. “But if you lose warding, whether through exclusion or not, you’re still a member of this party. You’re still our friend. It doesn’t get you out of doing your best to live a good life. If you wanted to leave the team, I would understand — I’d understand even if there weren’t an exclusion — but you’re not defined by your worth as a warder. Not to me, and if that’s how you view yourself, you shouldn’t.”

Grak took a moment to look at me. I hoped that I hadn’t said something wrong, that it was okay to tell him that we would survive without him. It was hard to read his expressions.

“Thank you,” he finally said.

Loyalty Increased: Grak lvl 20!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Warded (Grak)!

“Huh,” I said. “Loyalty up.”

“Was that why you said it?” asked Grak, furrowing his brow.

“No,” I replied. “How shitty of a person would I have to be to tell a friend that they were only worthwhile because of the valuable service they were providing?” I frowned at the message. “I do want to talk more about that, but you didn’t get Symbiosis. Would you rather I read it, or wait until we’re done talking?”

“You can read it,” said Grak.

“We do value you,” I said. “And you are our friend. I know that the last few days have been, frankly, insane,” I dipped into Anglish for ‘frankly’, as there didn’t seem to be a suitable replacement in Groglir, “but we should have some downtime coming up, and that means that we can talk about things that don’t have any relationship to the fate of the world or the machinations of its god.”

“Read the virtue,” said Grak.

“We’ll play some Ranks, eat some meals together, have a movie night — alright, alright, I’ll read it,” I said. He had been giving me a look, like I was doing a bit that he didn’t appreciate, which wasn’t what I’d been going for.

Warded: Grak is slowly coming to an understanding of di era and da nad place within the world. Grak can create wards around da nad own body which follow the contours of da nad skin as easily as if it were a cube of equal volume, and anchor them to di era as easily as da can anchor to Aerb. If warding is ever excluded, Grak’s ability to make wards will not be affected. Grak no longer needs a wand to make wards.

“It’s powerful,” said Grak, after I finished reading it to him. “It’s not Symbiosis.”

“Yeah,” I replied. “I’m not sure which I would have preferred, from a strict utility standpoint, but it does mean that you’ll be one of the safest people on the hex. Ward up against everything, then … I don’t know, are you invincible? I mean no, obviously not, but pretty damned close.”

“I will need to think about it,” said Grak. He lifted his hand from the doe, which he’d been rubbing, and looked at the tips of his fingers. “With annihilation wards I could kill with a touch.”

“Maybe,” I said. “Blood and bone … but you would need to be able to extend the wards a fair bit beyond your skin, and —”

“I wasn’t speculating,” said Grak.

I pulsed vibration magic to give me my crude warder’s sight and saw Grak wreathed in wards. The one around his hand extended three inches from his fingertips. It was almost definitely enough to kill someone with.

“Yikes,” I said. Grak had done his fair share of killing, but he wasn’t a killer, not like Amaryllis was, and certainly not like Pallida.

“I had been wondering what being a multimage would be like,” said Grak. He flexed his hand. “This is good too.”

“So long as you’re not disappointed,” I replied. I didn’t mention the obvious suspect timing, especially since it didn’t really matter, and I didn’t know whether it had been fudged for or against me, if it had been fudged at all. Maybe it wasn’t the timing at all, but rather the way that the passive seemed to respond to Grak’s direct wish, though the virtue outright stating that a warding exclusion was on the table was troubling.

We spent the rest of the day with the locus, testing out the limits of Grak’s new powers, and generally trying to keep up a good mood. I kept going back to what Raven had said about Onion, and whether it was possible that he wasn’t uniformly bad, which didn’t at all make me regret killing him, but did make some of the jokes I’d made feel a little sour. After two hours or so, the light started to fade, and Solace finally came back from tending to her flowers to join us. I slept in the bottle, in the old nook that I’d used to share with Fenn, and in the morning, we went to the trial.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 192: Cooldown

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