Solace went around to us one by one, tapping her bird-skull wooden staff upon our heads. The tap produced dense mist, which fell down like a sheet to cover the body, and when it cleared, there was a bird standing there instead. I watched that happen to Grak and then Amaryllis, as Solace moved around the circle. Their bird forms looked almost identical, with her being a bit more sprightly and him a bit thicker. The color of the feathers was a dark black, with white on the belly and the lower half of the head.
“What kind of bird is that, if you know, or if that question isn’t indelicate to your, um, profession?” I asked, as Fenn was tapped on the head and shrouded in mist (or possibly, odorless smoke, if it had physical substance at all).
Solace gave a little laugh. “We’re not so fragile that we can’t withstand a little scrutiny,” she said. “They’re swallows.”
Yeah, thought so. African or European? “With an airspeed velocity of roughly twenty-five miles an hour?” It was a random fact stored away in my brain from long-ago discussions around the D&D table.
“I don’t really know,” said Solace with a raised eyebrow. “We don’t put much emphasis on measurements, and that aside, how fast or slow an animal goes — even one of the mortal species in animal form — is not something that can be reduced down to a simple number. People do it, but it’s pointless and, anyway, doesn’t ever truly match what we see in the world, where there are a million things that might affect a swallow’s flight.”
“Surely not actually a million,” I said, before stopping. “I really would make a bad druid, because now I’m trying to think about all the various factors that could influence swallow flight.” I was also thinking about relative levels of error and confidence intervals, but that was probably not something that the druid wanted to hear about.
Solace nodded happily, then tapped me on the head without another word. Mist poured down in front of my eyes, and when it cleared, I was a swallow, with no obvious transition between the two states, not even in terms of proprioception. Had my arms become wings? I lifted them, and it was as natural as if I’d been born into them, not like I had thrust my hands down into a bird suit and was controlling the wings from a distance. I ran forward a little bit on clawed feet, then flapped up into the air.
It took us two hours to get to within striking distance of the athenaeum as we followed the railroad tracks. It was visible almost from the first moment I took off though, as a beige smudge on the top of a singular purple mountain, one which sat a bit off from the rest of the range, at the end of a peninsula. Beyond that was ocean, wide and vast. That rock formation was something I didn’t think you’d ever see in nature, almost aggressively so. As we got closer I saw a city nestled at the mountain base among the trees there, and just barely, the thin line of lights that shone from the cable car lines.
We landed together in a copse of trees beside the main road into Boastre Vino, which ran parallel to the train tracks. There were barely any farms around the place, nor any visible industry, just woodland; it made me wonder at how much of Aerb was simply unspoilt. Twenty billion people across two billion square miles meant that at its peak (which it was now well below) Aerb only had the population density of Earth in the 1930s. Modern day Aerb had a fourth of that, and I wasn’t sure how much of that decline was recent, but it seemed like enough that maybe nature would have started the reclamation process.
Solace changed back first, then tapped each of us with her staff, returning us to our natural forms one by one.
“We should be a few minutes’ walk from the city,” said Amaryllis, once she had a mouth instead of a beak. “Juniper, you still want to do this the legitimate way?”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m dream-skewered, so I have a reason to go to the athenaeum, which means that they should let me in and hopefully answer my questions, right? That seems faster and safer than trying to be duplicitous. I won’t be institutionalized or murdered or something?”
Amaryllis shook her head. “From everything I’ve read, the dream-skewered aren’t really confined, because this is the place that’s most like home for them, with an Earthian diet and others that believe they’re from the same place. There’s not a life for them, outside the athenaeum walls. That freedom also gives the researchers a better rapport with their subjects. You should be safe. We’ll ask around before we do it though.”
I let out a breath, trying to drain myself of nervous energy. “And do you think that you’ll all be allowed up with me?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. She looked down at her shirt and smiled at ‘Princess!’ staring up at her. “Clearly I already have the perfect disguise. We’ll spend the rest of today in the city, gathering information, making sure that it’s safe and trying to figure out a cover story, if we need one. I wouldn’t want you going up there alone.”
“You think they’ll let us up armed and armored?” asked Fenn. “Especially the one they think is brain-damaged?”
“We’ll see,” said Amaryllis. “I would suggest armed but not armored. Half of our weapons can be hidden away in one form or another. They might check us, but I doubt it, and in the worst case scenario, we’ll have to put some of it away in a secure vault.”
“A very secure vault,” said Grak with a nod.
“We have Sable to store things in,” said Fenn.
“I don’t want to pin everything on that glove,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a single point of failure.”
“I won’t leave my cloak, for obvious reasons,” said Solace.
“Which in the worst case means we might be splitting the party,” I said with a grimace. “Which didn’t work out well for me last time.”
“And what happened last time?” asked Solace.
“I’ll tell you about it over dinner tonight,” said Amaryllis. “We should do some reconnaissance and make camp at a hotel anyway. Besides, we skipped lunch today.” I grimaced at that reminder; I still wasn’t hungry, though I was feeling a little light-headed.
We strode forward, until we came to the familiar walls that every city so far, save for Cranberry Bay, had up around their borders. Here they were a bit taller and more finely made, tailored as though meant to impress anyone on the approach, even if they were facing the woods. The main entrance was some distance away, just barely visible, but I had seen it from the air and it looked like there was a checkpoint that we really didn’t want to go through, not if it meant trying to explain ourselves. Grak got out his monocle and looked the wall over for a bit before letting us know that it was unwarded.
Solace stepped up to the wall. “Over or through?” she asked.
“How –” I began. Amaryllis gave me a brief shake of the head. “We should see what’s on the other side first,” I said. “Once we’ve slipped in we should be able to achieve relative anonymity, it’s the breach that carries risks.” It might have been better to do it as swallows, but the inability to communicate with each other was a complicating factor.
Solace nodded and pursed her lips for a whistle, then held out her staff horizontally. A few seconds later, a variety of birds landed on the staff, and she tweeted at each of them in turn, causing them to fly off. It didn’t take long for them to return, though I waited impatiently all the same. Solace listened to each of the birds in turn, smiling gently at them, and when they had given their report, they flew off, one by one.
“Directly through this wall is an access alley with an entrance out onto the city streets,” said Solace. “There is no one there at the moment, though that may change.”
“The birds said all that?” I asked.
“Oh, I have no idea what they said,” replied Solace. She laughed at my expression. “It’s been some time since I’ve traveled with other druids, and even longer since I’ve shared the company of those outside the grove. I’ve missed it.”
“Keep your questions to yourself,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t want to sound mean Joon, or like I’m trying to tell you what to do, but this druid is an asset, and second-guessing every little piece of magic you see goes directly against our interests. Okay?”
“Yeah,” I said. “I get it, it’s just,” I bit my lip, “It will take some adjusting to, that’s all.”
Solace stepped toward the wall, licked a finger, and ran it down in a straight line from the top of her reach down to the packed earth. The solid stone grumbled slightly and then parted way for her, and she stepped forward without seeming to think about this at all. I followed after, with my Anyblade gripped in my hand as a dagger. I had Ropey in the bag slung on my side, freshly killed fairies in my bandolier, and bones at the ready in a second bandolier in case I needed them.
It was fortunate that there was no one in the alley, and that we made it into the city proper without anyone the wiser, but there was a part of me that kept thinking about how close I was to leveling and how likely it was that a proper fight would get me there. I wasn’t about to antagonize the city guard just to get that fight, but I still itched for it, just a little bit, if it would push me over the edge and into the next level.
We did draw a few stares as we moved through the streets, which I thought was mostly due to Solace’s cloak, or perhaps the five of us moving together. I was glad that we weren’t wearing armor, because almost no one else was either, and those that were definitely drew the attention of everyone they passed.
“You know, I could put your cloak in my glove,” said Fenn. “That would probably save us some eyeballs.”
“Probably,” said Solace. “But no thank you.”
After stopping to ask for directions twice, we came to a tall hotel, where Fenn rented three rooms for us, handing over what looked like a thick stack of cash to the woman at the front desk.
“Alright,” she said as she returned to us. “Our business trip has begun in earnest. I have two of the rooms for two nights, which I think should be all the time we need here, and one of the rooms for three solid weeks, so we can have a secure place if we need to. Mary, you and Solace have some things to discuss tonight, so you’re together, Grak, you snore, so you’re on your own, and Joon and I have twin beds together.”
“Fine by me,” said Amaryllis, without so much as batting an eye. Studious indifference to Fenn and I sharing a room, or actual indifference? I had no idea, and it irked me that I didn’t know. Maybe I wanted her to have at least some reaction. “In the meantime, we should split up.” She stopped and looked around our small group huddled together in the hotel lobby. “Sorry, we’re still a democracy.”
“Sure are,” said Fenn. “I have some things to sell and things to buy, and I’ll be the one to keep an eye on Juniper, because gods forbid he gets discovered as a mental incompetent in these parts. At least, that’s my vote.”
“What could you possibly have to buy and sell?” asked Amaryllis.
“I was hoping to find a buyer for unicorn meat,” said Fenn. “We spent a fair bit of time butchering that thing. I’ll hold back a bottle of blood for us, but we’ve got a few from when we drained the thing, and they don’t go bad fast enough to be worthless.” She looked to Solace. “We killed a unicorn, it was no big deal.”
Solace nodded, which I gathered was not the reaction Fenn had hoped for. “So you have an alicorn?”
“I guess we can sell that too, if we have you,” said Fenn. She smiled at Grak. “Looks like you’ll get your wish there.” Right, because he gets a third of the loot.
“I would appreciate it,” said Grak. “I’ll go under the mountain and speak with the dwarves there. There’s a sizeable city beneath the mountain, Lalon Dohore. It’s been some time since I’ve been with my kind and I can ask them about affairs at the athenaeum.”
“I would prefer to walk the city, if we are going to wait,” said Solace. “I believe I can be worth more on my own, without questions.” Asked of her, or by her?
“Then I’ll try to figure out admittance procedures for the dream-skewered,” said Amaryllis. “Fenn, once you’ve sold the unicorn parts, can you do that too? We don’t know quite what we’re here for, not in the long-term, and it might be something that wouldn’t be disclosed along official channels.”
“Beat the information out of some scholars, got it,” said Fenn.
“And if Larkspur has a way to track us?” I asked. “If we split up and then he finds us, somehow?”
“Then we have a very serious problem,” said Amaryllis. “Unless you think you can beat him, run away. Not to here. Instead, find someone you can pay to run a note to the hotel. Sound good?”
We split up then, and I said a small prayer to the Dungeon Master, hoping that we would reunite without incident.
Fenn and I walked together, making our way through the typical Aerbian jumble of streets that refused to meet at the same angle twice. This place was smaller than Cranberry Bay by a fairly large margin, but it still had more than enough in the way of sights and sounds. Fenn stopped at a stall, which was selling what looked to my eyes like a tentacle with all the suckers removed, placed on a stick, and then roasted with some kind of dark sauce. She got four of them, and handed me three.
“Eat,” she said. “You’re going to be weak if you don’t eat, and if you’re weak, I might die, so I don’t care how much you don’t want food, eat to save my life.”
I ate. The taste wasn’t bad, but I was pretty sure that nothing would have excited my taste buds. “I’m glad we have some time alone,” I said. “There was something that I wanted to talk to you about.”
“Eat,” Fenn repeated. She watched as I took another bite. “And what was it my little hooman had on his mind?”
“I need to know what I said to you when I was out of it,” I said.
“Hmmm,” said Fenn. “Grak and I swore a very serious vow of silence on the subject, and he’s made a joke, thus redeeming himself in my eyes, so I’ve decided not to betray him after all.” She paused. “Maybe that will be our thing, me deciding not to betray him after all, over and over again? We’re up to several times already, and I’ve only known him a week.”
“Fenn, I’m serious,” I said. I tried to eat quickly, so I wouldn’t have to think about it sliding down my throat. Was the loss of appetite getting worse? I’d increased END, but I’d also increased muscle mass, which meant that I would theoretically need more calories, and I was starting to worry that long-term damage was inevitable. “Your Loyalty went from 10 to 16.”
“Oh?” asked Fenn. “I thought it might have gone up.”
“And … why would you have thought that?” I asked.
“Well, I’m more loyal to you now,” said Fenn with a beaming smile. She leaned in close for a whisper, with bright, playful eyes. “It’s because of the things you said.”
“That’s not fair,” I replied. “Really not fair. You were worried about your loyalty, about being a puppet. This is something that we should talk about.”
“I’m less worried now,” said Fenn with a shrug. “Because of the things you said.”
“Okay, but,” I frowned. “I still think it’s not fair, because it’s like our relationship progressed without me even being aware of my half of it, and given how much time and effort it took to get you up to 10, –”
“Effort?” asked Fenn. “Well, you sure know how to make a half-elf feel special. I didn’t know that my friendship was so arduous.” But she was smiling as she said it, and I would have smiled too, but it felt like I had been thrown off a boat and didn’t know which way to shore.
“Fenn, you have to at least give me part of it,” I said. I felt my chest constricting. “I’m really worried that, I don’t know, that I eroded away a part of this person that I really care about. It’s not funny to me.”
Fenn watched me for a moment. “That is the nicest thing that anyone has ever said to me,” said Fenn. “Well, aside from some of the things that you said to me when you were high on unicorn blood.”
“So that was it?” I asked. “I said some nice things?”
“And some not-all-that-nice things,” said Fenn. “Oh, those I can tell you, I don’t think Grak would mind so much.” I waited and ate at the last of my tentacle sticks. “You told me that you didn’t like my ears.”
I winced. “I think I can explain that,” I said. “I mean, it’s not that I don’t find them aesthetically pleasing on you, it’s that, ah, more that I find them neutral now, maybe? I did like them when we first met. I mean, mostly because, I don’t know, they were distinctive. They have a nice curve. I mostly don’t notice them anymore, but when I do it’s just, they’re there … you know?”
“And if you had the choice between me having normal human ears and me having elf ears, you would first ask me what I wanted to have, and then you would pick that, or if I really, truly, had no preference whatsoever, then you would maybe be slightly more comfortable with me having human ears, not because you dislike the elf ears, but because you don’t like them, which is a very important and meaningful distinction, but you actually aren’t all that into ears anyway so it’s not worth talking about.” Fenn smiled at me. “Was that your train of thought, more or less?”
“I already said all that?” I asked with a grimace.
“That’s the short version,” said Fenn with a nod.
“I’m sorry, it’s not something that I would ever bring up if I weren’t, again, not in my right mind,” I said. And yet her loyalty jumped six points anyway.
“You say six points difference?” asked Fenn. “I think that was worth a point, maybe two.”
“Huh?” I asked. “That was worth positive points?”
“Well, I would explain it to you, but I don’t want to bring the mood down,” said Fenn.
“I know this is all fun and games to you,” I said. “But I actually am worried that part of your personality got overwritten on accident.”
“Ho hum,” said Fenn. “Fine, but it’s long, and I’ll wait until after we’ve sold the unicorn meat, because we are here.” She gestured to the large market building in front of us, where the smell of meat and blood was coming from. I could see pallets laid out with a variety of meats on ice and large fans blowing cool air around.
I found it somewhat difficult to care about the meat market. Half of the stuff there came in refrigerated, via containerized teleportation, where it was then sold off in a pseudo-auction system. The variety of colors was astonishing to me, with a great many meats having un-meatlike colors: rich browns, vibrant greens, and a variety of eel, laid out in strips, that was electric blue. Most of the meat that came into the city was in the form of simple, cheaply farmed animals, and that kind of thing wasn’t sold by auction, because it was brought in by the ton every day. The meat market was full of all of the weird animals from around Aerb that some mortal species or another considered a delicacy, which were worth the price of teleporting in. Hence our interest.
Fenn talked to a few sellers, who each seemed ready to brush her off until she held out her hand and made a giant refrigerator appear from thin air, filled with ice and unicorn parts (this was quite a surprise to me as well, as I had assumed that the meat had been sitting by itself in extradimensional storage, degrading until it was close to worthless). The unicorn meat was, as it turned out, a delicacy, one prized by the elves, a fact that Fenn seemed to have known well ahead of time.
“We still want the bones,” I said once she was about to agree to a transaction. “It might be possible to extract unicorn magic from them.”
“I want them too,” said a burly man with rocky growths on his face. “You want the bones, I can do the butchering for you, but labor comes out of your pocket, and the price is worse.”
A new round of negotiations began, and I mostly didn’t pay attention. We were going to get more than a hundred thousand obols out of this, which was far better than I had thought, and I worried that I was going to screw things up if I let some expression come over my face. The money was pretty worthless given our current situation, because we already had millions that we couldn’t really do that much with. The thought of just being able to buy whatever we wanted was a little bit astonishing.
“Alright,” said Fenn, shaking the hand of the fleshmonger. She turned to me. “Now we just have to wait for the butchery.”
“You were saying something about killing the mood,” I said.
“I was just a tiny bit hoping that you would have forgotten,” she said with a sigh. “When is that Larkspur going to show up anyway?”
“FENN,” I said. “My god, it’s like pulling teeth.”
Fenn winced. “Okay, okay. So.” She looked around for a bit. “So I was mostly solitary, following the official end of my childhood, but I did have, oh, let’s say five proper boyfriends in my time as a young woman, which extends to this very moment. Males, for whom I was more than a fling. Two were ‘any port in the storm’ types, who found my hybrid nature off-putting but not so much that they were willing to give me a pass, and those relationships both ended because whatever I was getting from them, it wasn’t worth the occasional abuse I got in return, or the way I was hidden from their friends and family, or … yeah.”
“Ah,” I said. I licked my lips and tried to think of something sympathetic to say, but nothing came to mind. “And the other three?”
“Elf lovers,” said Fenn with a shrug. She was looking at the ground, not at me. “All different about it. One was a collector, the kind of guy who wanted to experience a ‘woman of every flavor’, and I didn’t learn that about him until after he left town. I had liked him, and I’d been tricked by his pleasant words into thinking what we briefly had was something other than just a mark in a column. Another man was always stroking my ears, touching them until they were sensitive and painful, and … just pushing me toward this idea he had of me, rather than letting me be myself. He had this obsession with elves, or at least idealized elves, like my mother did, and it churned my stomach after a time. And the third — did you read The Book of Blood?”
“You told me not to,” I said.
“Well, that guy is the reason why,” said Fenn. “He seemed normal enough, at least by my standards, or the standards I had then, and it was going well, but when it came time for us to have sex, after I had undressed, he was there between my legs, staring, poking, and prodding. Like I was just this thing to him. I can’t even describe how revolting I felt. Maybe he thought he was … I don’t know.” She paused and took a breath. “I ended things with him then, but not before seeing his personal copy of the book sitting on the shelf, with a little bookmark sticking out of it.” She looked up at me. “I know you have a bunch of crazy ideas about what that book might say about half-elves. You explained your theories to me.”
“And … you found that endearing?” I asked.
Fenn gave me a small laugh, and I could see that her eyes were slightly watery. “A little bit? Maybe?” Her voice was slightly shaky. “You were very sweet about it.”
“Do you need a hug?” I asked. Fenn nodded and moved toward me, and I wrapped my arms around her. It wasn’t exactly what I would call romantic, there in the cold meat market with the smell of meat and blood in the air, and the hum of commerce, but it was still nice.
“I’m not crying,” she murmured into my shoulder.
“Either way is okay,” I said. “I’m sorry those guys were shitty to you.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn. She breathed out a little bit and gave me a small kiss on the shoulder. “It’s like pit fighting.”
“We don’t have pit fighting on Earth,” I said.
“Earth sounds so lame,” murmured Fenn. “Well, you see these pit fighters, and they’re beating the crap out of each other, and one of them loses, but they both go on to fight again later, right? And you can take losses as a pit fighter, that’s just fine, because you can heal up and fight again. But sometimes you’ll see a guy in the pit protecting his right side too much, even though he hasn’t taken a hit there yet, and the reason is usually that he got hit hard enough one time that he’s been worried about another hit like that ever since. Or maybe it wasn’t just the one time, but a bunch of losses in a row, all piled up, and he’s healed from them, but he’s got this thing in his mind where he thinks it’s this eventuality that it’s going to happen again, like no matter the fight he’s going to get this strong hit coming at him from the same place it’s come from before.” She pulled back from me, first to look in my eyes, then to go stand a bit further away. “Thank you for the hug.”
“Anytime,” I said with a smile.
So of course she moved back and wrapped her arms around me, and I wrapped my arms around her. “You are so shit at negotiation,” said Fenn. “It’s actually kind of sad.”