We sat at a small table in the back of the Impish Inn, each with our own glass of something called kefir, a thin, alcoholic yogurt that I occasionally took sips of to try acquiring the taste, a process that wasn’t moving along terribly well. That was okay though, because the Impish Inn was my first real fantasy tavern, and I was trying not to miss anything. There were supposedly around 200 “mortal species” on Aerb, but humans dominated Barren Jewel, and they were in the majority worldwide. That meant that I was still seeing new ones all the time, some of which I recognized and some I didn’t, plus the Animalia, which were the anthropomorphic animals. Their forms, like Quills, usually had the bare minimum done in order to get them upright – they were all pretty damned far from human.
The Impish Inn (probably called that for the alliteration, since as far as I could tell it didn’t have rooms for rent at all) had an actual, honest-to-god imp sitting in a cage near the front of the bar. It was a pathetic creature, with a body that came to a point at every opportunity, from his ears, to his nose, to his joints. He reached out with his little hands through the bars and pleaded with people for food or drink, and though I saw a few people indulge it, it never stopped its begging. Fenn had explained to me that creatures came up from the hells from time to time, but that it apparently “wasn’t a real problem worth thinking about”. Apparently not, if someone could keep one of those things as an attraction in a run-down tavern and not have people get up in arms about it.
People mostly stuck to their kind, I noticed. There was a table of hobbits, all of them sitting on booster seats and clustered close together as they shared miniscule drinks. Three bald women with blue hands, vitrics, shared drinks and spoke in low voices, leaning in toward one another to be heard over the din. A pair of large creatures with green-striped snouts sat in specially reinforced seats – after watching them for a moment I concluded that they were on a date, assuming that body language translated properly.
“Not all places are so accommodating as this one,” said Fenn as she watched my gaze. “It’s one of the reasons that people typically gather in ghettos. Special diets, special seats, special washrooms, special everything, it all gets to be a bit much, so most places will simply build for their most common customer, the human, and that’s that. Works for me, but I imagine it’s a bit of a pain if your tail keeps getting in the way everywhere you go. Of course, Barren Jewel is also somewhat unique, because it’s more a place where people end up, rather than a place people go. So far as I understand it, the variety here has been slowly whittled down as the years have worn on.”
I nodded at that. Fenn herself was in robes, which were pulled up like a hijab to frame her face and hide her ears. It wasn’t that I minded her ears, but I thought she looked prettier dressed that way; it drew all the attention to her facial features, her dark green eyes, the way she pursed her lips when she was scanning the crowds, and the constellations of freckles. Obviously I didn’t say any of that.
We were at the Impish Inn to covertly gather information, which we had started on by talking to the bartender and telling him to send people our way. The story we were going with was that we were from out of town and looking to go into business with Aumann, but needed to know more about him and his dealings. The bartender knew who Aumann was and not much more than that, but he’d smiled when Fenn had given him a generous tip and we’d heard him making inquiries on our behalf, not mentioning us by name. As yet, he hadn’t sent anyone over to us.
(This plan was not without its risks; the other plan that Fenn had put forth was that she would skulk outside the building, wait for someone to leave, tail them, and then strike up a conversation with them which would eventually lead back around to Aumann. I hadn’t liked that plan, mostly because it meant her going off on her own for indeterminate periods of time, and she’d relented without a fight. We still held the element of surprise, and Aumann was the only one who had seen our faces at Caer Laga, so I thought meeting people in a tavern was more or less safe.)
“So,” said Fenn, “While we wait, tell me an Earth story. I’ve never heard one before.”
I looked around us. No one was really close enough to listen in. “I’ve told you lots of stories from Earth,” I said. “Besides, you don’t believe that Earth is a real place.”
“You’ve told me about games that you and your friends played,” said Fenn. “And you’ve gone on and on about the rules for these games, and the settings, and conceits, and whatever else. But if Earth is a real place, or at least a fully-realized fiction, then it should have its own stories, shouldn’t it? Tell me one of those. A story of your people.”
I paused and thought about that for a moment, then launched into one of the stories I thought I was most likely to get correct, as well as having the least background that would need explaining. Fenn listened for awhile as we watched the people, sipping on her kefir, but when I got to a certain point she started paying more attention, furrowing her brow and frowning in concentration.
“And then,” I continued, “Standing over the pit, with his hand cut off, Luke Skywalker says, ‘You killed my father!’, and the Dark Lord Vader replies, ‘No, I am your father’.”
“Can I stop you there, for a moment?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said. “We’re like, two-thirds through, sorry, I should have picked something shorter.” Really, I could have stopped at the end of A New Hope, but I was having fun, and for the first time she’d seemed interested in ‘Earth stuff’.
“You haven’t read any books on Aerb?” she asked.
“Just a few paragraphs out of one,” I said. “I’d like to change that.”
“And I would guess that Amaryllis hasn’t been telling you any stories from Aerb?” asked Fenn.
“I’d like to know where you’re going with this,” I said.
“Your story,” said Fenn. “It’s cribbing from The Star War. Not just in terms of the plot, but it’s got some of the names too, and the lines, at least all the famous ones, are taken straight from the play.”
I sat back in my chair. “Huh,” I said. I drank more of my kefir and grimaced at the taste, which was slow to acquire. “Okay, so there are a few explanations for that.”
“Number one,” said Fenn. “Incomplete skewer, changed your remembering of the play into a story from the place you only think you’re from.”
“Or,” I said. “It could be an easter egg placed by the developers, something that I would notice, chuckle at, and then look by.”
“If the world entire was made for you,” said Fenn. “You understand why I’m not willing to credit that utterly narcissistic fantasy, right?”
“I do,” I said. “Wait, there are other dream-skewered, it’s a, a medical condition here, right? The story could have just come from one of them.” That didn’t seem entirely out of the question, and it could give a plausible explanation to the mechanism by which the easter egg had been hidden, so that it wasn’t just developers being cheeky and breaking the world to add in modern day references … but they hadn’t been all that concerned about that in any other way before now.
“One problem with that,” said Fenn. “The play’s author is famous, and he predates you by hundreds of years. He wrote a large number of plays, as it happens.”
“So?” I asked. “That’s all consistent with the dream-skewer hypothesis.”
“He wasn’t just a playwright,” said Fenn. “He was a ruler, a king. They called him the Warrior Poet, before his heritage was uncovered, and then they called him the Poet King.” She was watching me. I got the sense that I was being tested, but I didn’t know the question, let alone the answer. “Of course, that was before he left on some great quest and never returned. Now, he’s usually called the Lost King. The man who wrote The Star War, The Redemption of Shawkshank, and The Ozian Wizard, among dozens if not hundreds of others? That man was Uther Penndraig, great-great-great-whatever-grandfather to,” she stopped and looked around, “To the nobility of Anglecynn.”
“Holy shit,” I said with wide eyes. “He was dream-skewered.”
“What? No!” said Fenn. “How is that the conclusion that you come to? I’m telling you that the man couldn’t have just been some nut from another world, no offense, –”
“Taken,” I said. “Just for my sake, pretend that Earth is a real place, even if there’s no way to prove that.”
“Fine, I’ll do that, as a favor to you,” said Fenn.
“No,” I said. “You’ll do it because I’ve been very kind in trying not to suggest that Aerb is artifice, and we don’t want to both be pissed off about it.”
“Grumble grumble,” said Fenn, waving her hand. “Anyway. Uther Penndraig was the best swordsman who ever lived. He founded the First Empire. If you were ever to meet one of his spawn they’d be dripping in magic items, and that would be just a fraction of what he gathered in his lifetime. He founded two of the Athenaeums and was a master of eight different kinds of magic. Being dream-skewered might explain him being a poet, playwright, singer, and painter, but he was far, far more than that. Also, if our friend Mary ever asks, pretend that I don’t think he’s that great. Seems like the kind of thing that would really get her goat.”
“So what you’re saying,” I said, rubbing my chin, “Is that Uther Penndraig was the lever that moved the world?”
Fenn sighed. “Ugh. Point in your favor.” She took a swig of her kefir and winced as it went down.
I was thinking about Arthur. I hadn’t told Fenn or Amaryllis about him. When Amaryllis had first told me about Uther, I was sure that my reaction had been noticeable, but she had never asked me about it, instead electing for us to go to sleep. Had that fallen through the cracks, because that was the night I had neglected my watch to go train? Had she misjudged my reaction? Or … or more likely, more in keeping with how she moved through the world, had she made the connection herself and thought it best to leave that card unplayed?
(It maybe says something about how I thought of Amaryllis that I could picture us getting in a fight, and just as I was about to storm away angry or call it quits between us, she would blurt out that her great-great-whatever-grandfather had been a man like me. And she probably knew more about Uther than anyone else I was likely to meet, which meant that she could rebind herself to me, or use her ancestor as a way to bring context to what she had done, if it was necessary, or maybe just throw me off my balance. That imagining of Amaryllis was awfully uncharitable, but she’d left me to die twice now, and when I pictured her, it was with helmet on, armed and armored, ready to murder without remorse, if she deemed it was necessary.)
But my mind kept going to Arthur. If he had landed in this world, like I had, what would he have done? He’d have sunk into a role, like he always did at the table. He usually played a knight or a fighter, but on occasion he dipped into being a bard. D&D had always been about the worlds for me, the inner workings of the places and people, but for Arthur it had been about the stories. It would be just like him to borrow from the Western cultural canon and leave his mark on this place, to sing the songs he’d heard on the radio growing up, and while no, Katy Perry’s California Gurls would probably not resonate with anyone on Aerb, there were others that would, especially once he was a king and he had a whole court following his every whim. And what would Arthur have named himself in this new world? Why, he would have picked the name of his favorite character, Uther Penndraig.
The dizzying sense of hope was returning to me. That quest, The Lost King, Found? raced to the very top of my priorities. I would need to dig into books, to read up on his life to see what he had been like, to confirm my suspicion that he wasn’t just a king, not just dream-skewered, but a player in this game, that he was Arthur, who I had last seen in a coma, both eyes blackened, with medical wrap over him and cuts on his face. Arthur, who had been my best friend, Arthur, who died too young.
“Whatcha thinkin’ about?” asked Fenn.
“I need a library,” I croaked out. “Or a bookstore.”
“Because of Uther Penndraig?” asked Fenn.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“I already gave you a point, you don’t have to gloat over it — but we can discuss that later, because we’ve got company,” said Fenn, switching gears smoothly. She waved a hand at a pretty young woman with two small horns on her head. I was fairly sure that she was what D&D would call a tiefling, someone who was at least partially demonblooded. The way she looked at the caged imp with pity made that all the more likely. She was wearing white robes, which were somewhat stained at the hem, and walked to us hesitantly.
“Quinten says that you’re … inquiring? Into Aumann, that is,” she said. She remained standing beside our table.
“That’s us,” said Fenn, “Don’t you worry, we’re just doing our due diligence before we try to arrange a meeting with him,” she said smoothly. “We won’t ask you anything that would risk your job, and you’d be free to leave if you felt that we were crossing a line best left uncrossed.” She pulled a note from her robes and laid it on the table, one marked as worth five thousand tcher. “Obviously we would compensate you for your time, and you’d be free to tell your employer after the fact, if you so choose, though we’d prefer a little more time to gather information before we make our pitch.”
She wavered for a second, looked me over, then took the note and sat down, folding it away. “What would you like to know?” she asked. “I’m only a maid, I don’t know how much I can help you.”
“I’m Emily,” said Fenn, “And this is Sam.”
(I had to talk Fenn out of clever anagrams, puns, or coded messages, opting instead for boring, human names that no one would look twice at. She had eventually agreed that giving away anything would be stupid. The cleverest pseudonym was the one that said absolutely nothing about the true identity behind it, not even to reveal that there was a pseudonym.)
“Vanity,” she said, doing a good job of ignoring how I looked at her.
“Trifles Tower,” said Fenn. “That’s his?”
Vanity nodded. When Fenn let the silence stretch, Vanity spoke, “He renamed it, it used to be the Clocksmen Tower, until about ten years ago when Aumann took hold of it.”
“Has he been a gold mage long then?” asked Fenn.
“No,” said Vanity. “Twelve years, or thereabouts.” More silence, which again compelled her to continue. “Before that, there were three gold mages in Barren Jewel, always fighting one another, sometimes being replaced. Aumann came in and took over their vaults, one by one. But that was before my time.”
“Any idea how he managed it?” asked Fenn.
“His friends say that he was more cunning and his enemies say that he was more treacherous,” shrugged Vanity. “I know that none of those victories were through direct combat. He seems to take some pride in that.”
Fenn winced. Right, because that means he’s probably smarter than previously thought, and at the very least, someone who studied how to defeat a gold mage. “I’m slightly hazy on ‘the call of the gold’, but it’s my understanding that there is, in some sense, a constant need for accumulation. Do you know how Aumann is handling that need?”
“I think he gets it shipped in,” said Vanity. “But I’m not entirely sure. There’s some talk of it among the staff.” She shifted in her seat. “There is worry that he can’t keep it up forever.”
“And you said that he has enemies?” asked Fenn. “People that might complicate a business arrangement?” I probably wouldn’t have thought to include that last bit.
“The Risen Bile,” said Vanity, spitting to the side. “Others, that are lesser, business rivals, politicians — I believe the mayor is none too fond. Enemy might be putting it too harshly.”
Fenn frowned at that. “And what do you know of his business holdings?” she asked. “Just in general, we’ll get the full overview from the man himself, I’m sure.”
“He has his thumbs in many pies,” said Vanity. “Two of the cheese factories are his, I know. He won the bid on the bathhouse, so that will be his too, soon. He’s got a fair number of people, a warder of some talent among them, and he himself makes use of his power, helping out when there’s need for muscle.” She looked between the two of us. “But none of that you wouldn’t know from talking to anyone else who works for him.” And in fact, most of that we’d already known.
“The Risen Bile,” said Fenn. “It was my understanding that they were all dead.”
“Mostly dead,” shrugged Vanity.
“So there’s some cleanup still going on,” said Fenn. “And why are moral crusaders so against him? He wouldn’t have acquired the bathhouse until after that attack, right?”
“He tore into them,” said Vanity. “He offered his services to the city guard, free of charge, and made short work of them whenever another group were found.”
Fenn tapped her fingers against the table, frowning. “One last question then, I think. Have there been others, possibly like us? Newcomers from out of town, here trying to make a deal or otherwise bring themselves into his sphere of influence?”
Vanity looked between the two of us. She touched her horns, one then the other in quick succession, then tapped her chest where her heart was. “Twenty thousand tcher,” she said in a low voice. Fenn calmly pulled the money from her pocket and discreetly slipped it across to Vanity, who furtively stuck it in her robes. “He left in his helicopters, five days ago,” she said, leaning forward, voice low. “When he came back, there was a woman with him. Red hair, very pretty. I didn’t see her myself. Whoever she was, the tower started buzzing with activity and hasn’t stopped. People are being moved around, some of them going on trips.” She stood up from her chair. “That’s all I know.”
“Thank you,” said Fenn with a nod. “I think it goes without saying that this conversation won’t come up in the course of our business dealings with your employer, and as you said, it could conceivably have come from anyone in the tower.”
Vanity nodded and then left, hurrying out the door.
“So,” said Fenn. “I’m tempted to call that a whole lot of nothing.”
“She’s alive,” I said. “That’s not nothing.”
“Was alive, five days ago,” replied Fenn. “And we’d figured that she would be anyway. Though ‘activity’ could indicate that Aumann is going after the buried treasure, and our mutual friend probably gave him the maps, which … I guess we can count in our favor, if we really need a win that badly.”
“So what’s the plan?” I asked. “I’d still like to go to a bookstore, now that the city has settled and we have the funds for it. We can create the gems for gem magic, the only gate left should be an understanding of how to activate them, which I’m hoping that I can get from a book.” Plus, I really wanted a detailed biography of Uther Penndraig.
“We’re not just going to talk to one person and then leave,” said Fenn. “Sam, you and I are going to be staked out here all night. We’re going to use the information we just gained to pry our fingers into other cracks. We can change our story now, say something like, ‘We know that Trifles Tower has had many people coming and going of late and we would like where and why before we go to your master with a proposition.’”
“Too obvious,” I replied. “Even I could see through that.”
“You haven’t even heard my proposition,” Fenn smiled, “I was going to offer a vast reduction in travel costs.”
I narrowed my eyes at her. “How, exactly?”
“I can get around the restriction on the teleportation keys,” she said. “It’s supposed to hold five, no more, but I can move dozens on a single ticket.” She mimed putting on a glove.
“Huh,” I said. “Would that actually work?”
“Well I have no idea, but it sounds like it would, doesn’t it?” asked Fenn. “We obviously can’t actually meet with Aumann, and obviously he might know about the glove, but it’s plausible to other parties, which means that it works as a story. Hopefully they just accept the money and don’t pry too deep.”
I frowned. “Wait, is that kind of thing done often?” I asked. “That glove can’t be the only magic item that uses extradimensional space.”
“What kind of life do you think I lived, Joon?” asked Fenn. “I’ve traveled by key four times in my life, you were there for one of them. It’s expensive. No, after my father was killed, I did some wandering, but I spent most of my time traveling back and forth across the Risen Lands, finding things to loot and then selling them in civilization.”
“Huh,” I said. “I guess I just assumed …”
“What, that I had been back and forth across the empire, seeing its sights?” she asked. She shook her head. “I wish that were true, for my own sake, because it might mean a better life led. Now, I was trained by the elves, who hated me but wholly believe in the value of doing a good job, and I have met my fair share of dangerous people, but no, this whole experience is quite novel. Mostly in a good way, though I could do with a few less threats to my life.”
“You and me both,” I said. I touched my chest briefly. I wasn’t feeling too bad, but I was sitting down, and worried that I might get dizzy when I stood up. It was, I was fairly sure, a symptom of blood loss, rather than fucking up my chakra or whatever it was I had done to my skeletal system. “Do you mind handling this alone for a bit?”
“And where would you be going, my young companion?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow. “Little boy’s room?”
“Bookstore,” I said. “No sense in both of us sitting here all night. We’re on more of a time limit than we were this morning.”
“You’ve tired of my companionship already?” asked Fenn with a smile, but it wasn’t a very funny joke, and there was an edge of sadness there so faint that I might have been imagining it.
“You’re my best friend in the world,” I said, which was the truth. “I’ll be back before you know I’m gone.”
Fenn reached into her robe and withdrew a few thousand tcher, which she passed to me. “I’m not going to be your mother hen like our Mary would, but … tread carefully out there. You won’t have me to back you up.”
“I won’t get into any fights that I can’t handle by myself,” I smiled, then left before she could object. She’d have prefered I stayed, clearly, but spending our entire night waiting around for people to come in so we could have brief, coded conversations with them … that didn’t exactly sound like my idea of a good time, especially not if we were going to be drinking kefir, which I was pretty sure was made from Barren milk.
I wandered, trying to keep track of landmarks. The streets in Barren Jewel were haphazard, same as they’d been in Silmar City, following organic, branching paths instead of a nice, American grid. That marked this city as predating automobiles, or maybe just meant that its original construction predated urban planning. There were almost no cars in Barren Jewel, though I had seen a small, three-wheeled, motorized vehicle I recalled as having a ridiculous name. Tuk-tuk, maybe? There were animals as well, rideable birds and once a lizard, though those were rare too, and from what I had seen, more of a status symbol than practical transport.
I found an old, worn bookshop called Another Chapter, with a warren of books and a shopkeeper at the front with a cash box nestled beside him and his attention on a worn paperback. The books showed only faint organization, but what they lacked in order, they made up for in volume, with narrow aisles so that there could be more books. I was halfway down one of them, reading titles, when the shopkeeper realized that someone had gone past him. He called down the aisle to me.
“Can I help you?” he asked. I saw his thumb was stuck in his book.
“I have a list,” I said. “It starts with a biography on Uther Penndraig.”
An hour later, I had fourteen books piled high in my arms:
- From Farmer to Founder – A biography of Uther Penndraig, written a few decades after he had become the Lost King, though the copy I was getting had the language updated to be “more modern”. (Fun fact, apparently Aerb had linguistic drift, which was confusing given that people were clearly speaking English.)
- The Complete Works of Uther Penndraig – A book that collected everything that Uther had written in his life, including poetry and songs. It was about a thousand pages thick, and a quick look at the index showed that there were numerous adaptations of Earth works, as well as a few original pieces, mostly related to military, magic, or politics.
- The Dream that Skewers – You can probably guess the subject of that one. Reading the first page was enough for me to get a sense of the book as Gladwell-style popular science, but it was the only book on the subject.
- Portrait of the Many Hells – A book with black and white illustrations taken from infernoscopes, though most of the book was actually consumed with text descriptions.
- Seven books from The Commoner’s Guide series, which Yasin, the shopkeeper, told me were more about demystifying magic than actually teaching magic, which was by and large only done at the athenaeums.
- The Book of Blood – A guide to the varied races of Aerb, their relationships between one another, and then the bulk of the book, which covered interbreeding, an apparently quite complex issue. (Sadly, it had nothing to do with blood magic.)
- The Exclusionary Principle, Seventh Edition – Partly a catalog of the exclusion zones, including a map splayed across the inside of the front cover, and partly a (quite old) treatise on what exclusion was.
- Fingers of the Celestial Hand – This was described to me as being five dossiers on the gods, and I checked through it to make sure that it contained relatively little in the way of biography. It was more about the five gods as forces within the world, which I was much more interested in.
None of these were immediately useful, save perhaps for The Commoner’s Guide books, of which Warding Magic and Revision Magic seemed germane.
“Quite eclectic,” said Yasin. “No fiction in there, save for Penndraig’s works?” He clucked his tongue. “I can understand the need to study, but surely some escape from the real world would be welcome, so long as you’re in my shop?”
I laughed at that. “I have to imagine that this is already a bigger sale than you normally get,” I said.
“True, true,” smiled Yasin. “But it’s not just about the sale, it’s for your own fulfillment.” He reached over to his stool and picked the paperback up off it, adding it to my pile. “Free, for you.”
I looked down at the title, The Prince and the Handmaid. “You were still working on it,” I said.
“I know how it ends,” said Yasin with a smile.
While I counted out what I owed him, he packaged my books, wrapping them first in paper and then some clever knotwork. When I went to grab it, I saw a little card for Another Chapter sitting on top of the bundle, with a note from Yasin saying that he had been happy to help me.
I was feeling pretty pleased with myself as I walked down the streets back to the Impish Inn. I had completed a task, by myself, without getting into trouble or taking direction from anyone. I knew enough about the world to not raise any red flags during a trip to the store. It was a small victory, but a pleasant one. I kept expecting a complication of some sort, an altercation in an alley that I would have to stop or risk another level of Cowardice, or someone recognizing me, or a thief trying to steal my books, but my paranoia was not rewarded.
When I went back into the Impish Inn, Fenn was deep in conversation with a dwarf, who was jabbing the table with a finger. I approached them slowly, not wanting to interrupt, and Fenn gave a subtle shake of her head to warn me off when she spotted me. I was more than fine with that; I unpacked the books and pulled out the biography of Uther Penndraig, which I began to read.