Worth the Candle, Ch 103: Contract

I sat there, staring at Finch, trying to figure out my options. Killing him was certainly an option, but I didn’t actually know what he wanted, and it almost seemed like we were on the same side.

“Carrots,” I said. “What kind are you offering?” I was implicitly admitting that most of what he’d said was true, but I felt that was about the point we’d come to.

“Protection from the consequences of your many crimes is what we’ll start with,” he said. “For Amaryllis, we’re offering her support in reclaiming a place in Anglecynn. Nothing on the books.” I glanced at the wax recording. “Sometimes these recordings have problems,” he said with a shrug.

“You’ll forgive me for having a shaky understanding of the empire, but I wouldn’t have thought that directly interfering with the monarchical structure of one of your member nations would be allowed,” I said.

“You’re looking out for her,” said Finch with a nod. “Loyal servant? Or lover?”

“Casual acquaintances,” I replied.

Finch chuckled. “Whoever you are, there would be a place for you. Head of security, possibly, or something more. That would be up to her, but it would be a better life than running and hiding, giving fake names to everyone you meet, and sleeping with one eye open.”

“I’m pretty sure that if I was head of security for a princess returning to a kingdom that gave its best shot at killing her, I would end up sleeping with both eyes open,’ I said.

“Fair point,” said Finch with a shrug. “I think it’s pretty clear I don’t know you, however much I’ve been following the recent twists and turns in your career with interest. I’m fairly sure you weren’t a known associate of the princess before her fall from grace, if you’ll pardon the pun.”

“I wasn’t,” I said. I had no idea who I was before then, and wasn’t really keen to find out. “You and I are almost on equal ground, because I don’t really understand what Uniquities is.” Amaryllis had drawn out an org chart of the Empire of Common Cause, and while Imperial Affairs was clear enough, she hadn’t said too much about the Uniquities, aside from calling it a bloated mess.

“The Empire of Common Cause was founded in order to get everyone on the same page, as much as that was possible,” said Finch. “The goal was fixing long-standing structural problems between the various governments of the world, or at least those that would play ball. It was, by design, a slow-moving juggernaut of an organization, hard to change, with a tendency to gum up at the slightest provocation. Years down the road, some people began to think that was idiotic, because there were problems between the nations of the world that cropped up out of nowhere and needed to be responded to as quickly as humanly possible, without regard for borders. Unique situations. Uniquities.”

And now they’re taking part in a battle for ‘the heart of Anglecynn’ and trying to steal a tuung princess from us, presumably in order to do the same thing we wanted to do. “So let me guess,” I said. “Uniquities gets set up for crisis response, with a lot of latitude in how they respond, because some of the things they’d be going up against would come completely out of left field. New exclusions, monsters from the dark, entads fucking things up … that sort of thing. Uniquities is a hammer meant for only a small number of nails, but it’s one of very, very few hammers available to the empire, so it starts getting used for everything. Rapid response means minimal oversight, or maybe just oversight that doesn’t happen until years or decades down the line, which means that your division is free to expand as quickly as your budget allows.”

“So you are familiar with Uniquities,” said Finch with a small smile.

I was, because I had built it, or something close enough that I thought the whole division was probably cribbed from my notes. I’d used something very similar in my Patchwork Republic campaign, though it hadn’t been called Uniquities, it had been called the Department for Response to Extreme Conditions. This was shortened to just ‘Conditions’, which led to Reimer calling their agents ‘conditioner men’.

“And now you’ve expanded into interfering with the governmental processes of member nations,” I said.

“Not officially,” said Finch, with a small smile. “Unofficially … there are very few mechanisms within imperial law that allow the empire to protect itself as an institution.”

“Another nail you find your hammer coming down on,” I said. Jesus fucking Christ the lack of oversight must be staggering. The closest parallel on Earth would be what, J. Edgar Hoover’s time at the FBI? And that came crashing down, didn’t it? “And the tuung?” I asked.

“A separate issue,” said Finch. “We’d like to know where she is, naturally, but also what you were planning with her.”

She’s the next door down from the hotel room you’re planning to raid. I wondered how they had missed that. Grak had rented that room using his fake name, so maybe that was it. When I tried to think about things from Finch’s perspective, maybe Grak didn’t even come into the picture until he boarded the Down and Out, since he hadn’t been there for the fight in Boastre Vino. And if you found one suite, why go searching for another? We’d only gotten two because we wanted the tuung separate from us, and only had Grak check in at the second one out of basic operational security. There were still sure to be ways to connect the dots, but given how fast things were moving (still hard not to think of it as two months), maybe that would come later … meaning a limited window of opportunity to negotiate, if it wasn’t too late already.

“I don’t know what you think happened, but I didn’t kidnap her,” I said. “She negotiated for her own extraction.”

Finch eyed me. “Negotiated with the princess of Anglecynn?”

“No,” I said. I could already feel myself cringing in anticipation of saying it. “We call ourselves the Council of Arches.”

Finch stared at me.

“I’m not the one who chose the name,” I said.

“The name isn’t — you’re telling me that you belong to a major international organization that I’ve never heard of?” His eyes were slightly wide. He was incredulous, but not completely disbelieving.

“In a manner of speaking,” I said. “Look, I need to get back to my,” wife “To Amaryllis. If you’re not going to arrest me, then we can talk after she’s had the baby. Most likely, you’re going to have to talk to her, not me.”

“She wasn’t pregnant when she took the fall,” said Finch. “Do you mind explaining to me what happened?”

“It’s complicated,” I said. I stood up from my chair. “It’s also personal.”

“Where do we stand?” asked Finch, not moving. “What response is your princess going to give?”

“If you wanted to give us a sweetheart deal, this wasn’t the way to do it,” I said. “Ambushing us in the hospital while we’re trying to get through the premature end of a long pregnancy –”

“Not that long, given she wasn’t pregnant in Boastre Vino,” said Finch. “And you do understand that your Council of Arches is responsible for more than a hundred deaths in the last month, that I know of, right? Including a major international incident less than twenty-four hours ago, and a different major international incident twenty-four hours before that? This is as nice as I’m willing to play, which is pretty fucking nice, all things considered.” He looked at the record, which was still spinning, carefully lifted the needle up, then grabbed the record and snapped it in half.

“Fickle things,” I said. “Always breaking.”

Finch nodded. “I’ll let you know the results of our raid in Headwater, once I get word. I have permission from the hospital staff to create a number of wards around Amaryllis’ room, to make sure that she can’t escape.” I politely failed to mention that we had two warders on the team, plus the teleportation key we had stashed in Fenn’s glove, which I was pretty sure he didn’t know anything about. “We’re going to have the exits covered. You could make a run for it, especially if you’ve got the firepower I think you do, but she’s not going anywhere.”

“We can’t stay in this hospital too long,” I said. “I’m warning you now.”

“Why?” asked Finch. He didn’t look pleased.

“Time-sensitive business elsewhere,” I said. “I can’t say more, not until I trust you, which I don’t. You had better pray that things turned out okay in Headwater.” I left without another word.

When I came back into the hospital room, there were a lot more people moving around than there had been before. Grak had come in, and he was beside Amaryllis, holding her hand and talking to her in a low voice. Fenn was off to one side, holding the staff with one hand and biting a nail with the other. I was pretty sure that she wasn’t going to have many nails left when this was all said and done. Bethel stood close to the staff, watching impassively. I went to them first.

“What’s the word?” I asked.

“Random medical terms being thrown around,” said Fenn. “The fuck does effacement even mean?”

“Thinning of the cervix,” I said.

“Well, she’s kind of pissed about it,” said Fenn. “Not the effacement, the whole thing.”

Amaryllis locked eyes with me and limply waved a hand, calling me over.

“Have fun,” said Fenn. “I might need a stiff drink.”

I came over to Amaryllis. The doctor was by her legs, which were propped up, but her hospital gown was down. A short green-skinned nurse pulled up a chair for me to sit in, and with a start, I realized that she was crantek, which was probably not coincidence.

“Status?” she asked. She was sweating slightly, enough that her hair was damp. “And bones.”

I started burning through my bones immediately, and she relaxed immediately.

“What are you doing?!” asked the doctor, standing up from where he was sitting. “Healing magic at this stage –”

“Not healing, mental fortitude,” said Amaryllis. “Helps. We’re not idiots.”

The doctor backed away slightly, frowning at her. “Bone magic?” he asked, looking at me.

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. He was probably wondering where the bones were.

Confusion crossed his face, then he returned to his seat and entered a whispered conversation with one of the two nurses.

“Status,” Amaryllis repeated. She sounded very tired. As I watched she looked like she was shifting her hips, trying to get comfortable. I saw that there were a lot of pillows beneath her, which must have been from previous attempts at getting her in a position that was a little easier.

“He knows almost everything,” I said. We’d set up a numbering scheme, with our copious time in the chamber, but I was struggling to remember while I fed her WIS and carefully kept track of which bones I was burning. “Um, two, five, six, nine, ten,” I said. The list currently went to twelve, starting with my peculiar game power and ending with Bethel, but we were pretty sure that it was going to get longer. “Apparently an operation is underway to grab eight, and I don’t know how that’s going to work for them or for her.”

“I hope she fucking kills them all,” said Amaryllis, seething in momentary pain.

“Breathe,” said Grak. “Try your best to stay calm.” He glared at me like it was my fault somehow, even though I was the one burning through my own bones in order to help her keep her cool. I increased the rate slightly.

“Fuckers,” said Amaryllis, sounding slightly defeated. She lolled her head to the side and looked me in the eyes. “They want something.”

“Partnership,” I said. I glanced over at the doctor and the nurses. My attention returned to Amaryllis as she grunted. Her eyes were closed, and she held out her hand, which I took.

“What kind?” she asked, after the moment had passed.

“They want to back you in your return to Anglecynn,” I said.

Amaryllis looked at me with slightly glazed eyes. “More,” she said. It took me a moment to realize that she meant bone magic, and I increased the rate of burn again. I was going to need to go into my soul soon. She regained some sharpness to her expression. “Uniquities?”

“You said they were bloated,” I replied. “More bloated than you thought, maybe.”

“The black budget,” said Amaryllis. She sighed slightly as she shifted. “For infohazards.”

“We should talk about this after,” I said. “You need to concentrate on labor.”

“I might be dead later,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s extremely unlikely that you’re going to die,” said the doctor. I aspired to someday be as cool under pressure as he was. He was barely batting an eye at the weird shit. “And I agree that strength and will would best be conserved.”

Amaryllis nodded at that, and let out another small cry of pain.

It took a while.

I’d expected as much, because I had done a fair amount of my own reading, but I hadn’t expected to feel so exhausted by it. My role was, apparently, to sit beside Amaryllis and use bone magic on her so that she could endure the mental aspects of giving birth a little bit easier. Most of what was exhausting was just the emotional component of the thing, seeing Amaryllis in pain, watching her struggle and not really being able to do anything for her. It reminded me too much of sitting in the hospital with Arthur, hoping that he would start doing better, and not being able to meaningfully affect the outcome.

There were very few ways that this could go wrong for Amaryllis, but I was worried that we’d get a second curve ball. Even if Amaryllis was fine, the real question was whether Solace would be okay; Fenn brought Bethel over from time to time in order to show what was going on internally, partly just to reassure Amaryllis.

I was worried about complications.

That was how Arthur had died. I mean, he had gotten in a car accident, sure, and then been in a coma, which wasn’t great for you, but how he’d actually died was that he’d had some swelling in the brain (cerebral edema) and they’d done a relatively routine procedure to try to relieve the pressure (something called a ventriculostomy). Arthur’s dad was always the one to explain things to us, usually by e-mail, or in person when we came to visit. He adopted this sad, clinical tone that I sort of found comforting. The tone said, ‘yes, this is scary, but they’re professionals, and they know what they’re doing, they weighed the costs and benefits, but this is what they decided on’. We got an e-mail when he went in for the surgery, and nothing afterward. He’d wanted to tell us in person. There were complications, he said, and all that preparation and education had come to nothing.

That’s what I was thinking about, as I sat next to her. I was waiting for the moment the nurse would point something out, and the doctor would calmly deal with it, explaining things as he went, not showing any panic as things got scarier and riskier, and then they would be doing chest compressions or something, and eventually it would be made clear to me that she had died.

I was ready to step in. I had blood to give her, and if the worst happened, I could replace her soul’s image of her body with the backup I had in storage, the one from before she’d been pregnant (or at least, detectably pregnant, since it had been taken just after the ritual had completed). That was about all I could do though, which left me feeling powerless. There was a skill called Medicine, which I didn’t have, but Amaryllis had been vehement in arguing that the ability to respec — if I even could — was incredibly valuable, and the skill slots were even more valuable. I itched to do it anyway, worried that there were signs I wasn’t catching, or that it would take too much to unlock and be useless even after I had it.

The nurse started telling Amaryllis to push. Each one was accompanied by straining on her part, trembling knees and clenched teeth. She was sweating now, sometimes taking a few moments to drink water offered to her by Grak, but mostly not talking.

“I just want it to be done,” she said at one point, sounding utterly defeated.

The doctor stayed between her legs, using his hands to make sure that everything was going well. He gave the command that she should push, and she seemed to hate him for it, even as she dutifully pushed.

“You’re doing well,” said the doctor. “The head is almost out.”

I wasn’t sure how much time was passing, but the birth seemed to go on forever, and also somehow take absolutely no time at all.

The doctor asked for my help, and gave me instructions, telling me to hold Amaryllis’ leg, pushing it to help give a better angle for her hips. I had a view that I hadn’t particularly wanted, and watched the doctor use his hands to touch the green skin of Solace’s head, pushing away flesh and helping things along.

Once her head was past, Solace came out easily, slipping free with a gush of yellow and red fluid. Nonnatus clipped the umbilical cord with something like a clothespin, cut it, then handed her over to the crantek nurse, then returned to looking after Amaryllis, who was laid back on the bed looking like an exhausted but victorious warrior. I heard the doctor say placenta, which I had completely forgotten about, but —

“Come on,” I heard the nurse say. “Give me a squawk.”

I got up from where I was and went over to them. Solace was small, tinier than I had expected, preterm and not even a full baby. She looked so small and fragile, and the nurse was moving with fast hands, using a rubber bulb in the baby’s mouth to suck up fluids and bits of human viscera.

“Come on, little one,” said the nurse. Her voice was calm but urgent. “I know you can do it, say something for me, just a little cry.”

I stepped forward. “I need to try something,” I said. It was going to have to be the full body swap, taking the entirety of a body and placing it into Solace’s soul to overwrite the body that was there, so I could heal her into that form. We’d tested enough to confirm that it was limited by available biomatter, but there were ways around that, and —

“It’s okay,” said the nurse, placing a hand on my chest as she continued to look Solace over. “Sometimes they don’t make a noise. She’s fine.”

“She’s … what?” I asked.

“Lungs are working,” said the nurse. I watched as Solace wiggled in the little crib. The nurse used the bulb again, sucking up more from inside Solace’s mouth. “She’s not making noise, but sometimes they don’t. It’ll come, in time.”

I felt my racing heart begin to slow. When I looked at Solace, I couldn’t get over how small she was, her tiny fingers and toes, her wrinkly skin, her scrunched up face. Her eyes were closed, but sometimes opened for brief moments, squinting at the light. The nurse was wiping her off with a clean cloth, then swaddled her, wrapping her up and lifting her from the crib.

The nurse brought Solace over to Amaryllis, and Amaryllis cradled her close to her skin.

I sat on a bench with Fenn outside the hospital room, some time later, after I’d had a chance to wash up. Finch was nowhere to be seen, but there were two men down the hall who definitely didn’t look like they had any business being in a hospital, and Bethel had informed me that wards had been put up around the room, though it was, in her opinion, journeyman work, an opinion that Grak shared.

“I’m glad she has a chance to rest,” said Fenn. She hadn’t said much since the birth. I’d caught her staring off into space a few times.

“We’ll be back to it soon,” I said. “Not much time for rest and relaxation.”

“Yeah,” said Fenn. She was looking at her feet. “Any idea when it will be safe to heal her?”

“I could do it now, if we really wanted to,” I said. “The doctor said a day, maybe more, but if we do, it will take her longer to get back to normal. I took a look at,” I lowered my voice, “her soul, and I think the reason for the rule might be that her body is doing stuff and her soul is lagging behind. Reset the body to the soul’s idea of the body, and you’re basically resetting progress. The suggestion was concentrated spot healing for, um, bits of her that are torn or ruptured, but leave everything else as it is.”

“Humans are so gross,” said Fenn. She gave the floor a little kick. “You know what she said to me?”

“When?” I asked.

“Just after the birth,” said Fenn. “I avoided the worst of it, but I just wanted to give her a ‘hey, good job, glad you’re not dead’.” She cleared her throat. “She said that she wasn’t looking forward to doing that again.”

“Huh,” I said.

“It was a little bit of a joke, but a little bit not,” said Fenn. “It just struck me as … I don’t know, Mary being this unstoppable machine of a woman. Less than an hour after all that and she’s thinking to herself about the next time.” Fenn sighed. “You still want kids?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “Doing all that for real someday … not that it wasn’t real, it was, but I’m already sick with anxiety, and Solace isn’t even my child. But someday … not when we’ve got so much shit going on, not when we keep having to put our lives on the line, but someday, yeah.” Unless it has to be like Uther did it, distant from his own children.

“I’d give you a baby, if you really wanted one,” said Fenn. She wasn’t looking at me.

“Fenn,” I said.

“Just sayin’,” said Fenn.

“Fenn,” I said again. “We’re really not at the point where we need to have this discussion, at all.”

“Yeah, I know,” said Fenn. She leaned forward and gripped the edge of the bench. “I’m just saying, if it ever did come to that, where you thought a baby with me would make you more happy than not, I’d lay off the herbs and we’d see what came of it.” She shrugged. “It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, for obvious reasons, and that’s my decision. I wouldn’t do it on my own, but if it were you … I wouldn’t be averse.” She let out a sigh that had a hitch in it, like she was a step away from tears. She hadn’t been looking at me, but now she looked away, down the hallway.

“We can talk about it, if you want,” I said.

“Valencia,” said Fenn.

As the name left her mouth, a black-haired girl came around the corner. I hadn’t seen her in two months; in the interim, my image of her had reset back to her as she was when we’d first met her, white hair and a white shift. She was incognito though, wearing different clothes than she’d been in when we left her in the hotel room, and except that she was more attractive than average, I’d have been very hard-pressed to say that she was anything but a normal human girl.

She gave us a small little wave, like we hadn’t been wondering whether she was dead or alive.

Three people followed behind her, and one them was Finch. The human with them was on the tall side, with curly black hair; I noticed with a slight bit of dismay that he was holding Valencia’s copy of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone with his finger stuck between the pages. The woman with them was a vitric in a long dress, bald (as her kind were) and with a serious expression. Her hands were a blue that faded in color going up her arm, which the dress accentuated with blues of its own.

“Hi,” said Valencia, looking between the two of us.

Fenn came forward and wrapped her in a hug. “I missed you, little hooman.”

Valencia returned the hug, closing her eyes and smiling softly. “Did you?” she asked. “I didn’t even think you liked me.”

“Mary talked you up,” said Fenn. She pulled back from the hug, which Valencia broke reluctantly.

She immediately went for a hug from me, which I returned. It was a bit awkward; I had known her for about a week and a half, with two months of interruption. Amaryllis had talked her up to me, too, partly so we could set some ground rules about how we would treat her, and partly to help untangle some of Amaryllis’ complicated feelings on the subject of having a non-anima in the party, which we weren’t really successful at.

“I’m glad you’re safe,” I said. I looked at Finch over my shoulder with a raised eyebrow. That things had, apparently, not gone disastrously wrong in Headwater was a surprise, and that she had been brought to see us without pre-conditions was an even bigger one.

“They shot at me,” said Valencia. “And there was a still mage.” She buried her head in my shoulder. “It was scary.”

I pulled back from her, and again saw that same reluctance she’d shown with Fenn at breaking the hug. “They shot at you?” I asked, looking at Finch.

“She shot first,” said Finch, folding his arms across his chest.

The vitric held out her hand. “Alcida Divona,” she said. “Head of Uniquities. It’s a pleasure to meet your acquaintance.”

I shook her hand, looking her over, wary of the lightning I knew her body contained. “Alcida. You were one of Uther’s Knights.”

She gave me a faint, confused smile. “No,” she said. “I was named after her. She was my grandmother.”

“Oh,” I said. So far as I knew, Raven was the only one of the Knights from a species with a long enough lifespan to still be alive, and she’d been missing for centuries. Vitrics were long-lived though, and it wouldn’t have surprised me in the slightest to see one of Uther’s Knights thrust back onto the field of play.

“Jorge Mascar,” said the tall guy. He transferred his book to his other hand, then shook mine. “I’m the one who recovered Valencia.”

“You don’t get kudos for that,” I said. “She was doing fine on her own.”

“He’s nice,” said Valencia, in a chiding tone. I wondered whether or not she was channeling a devil, and how much these people knew about her. They had to have checked her over with a warder, right? Just as a matter of basic not-being-fucking-idiots?

“It’s going to be some time until Amaryllis is ready to talk,” I said.

“We understand,” replied Alcida. “And we apologize for any … unpleasantness.” She studiously didn’t look at Finch when she said that.

“It’s understandable,” I said. “We’re not happy about it, but we understand. And again, Amaryllis is going to be the one you want to talk to, and she’s going to need time, since she just gave birth a few hours ago.”

“Gave birth to a purebred crantek girl, somehow,” said Finch.

“Show respect,” said Alcida. “You’re here by dint of your hard work, but there are ways of doing things when making first contact.” She was staring at me. “We’re going to need to know more about the Council of Arches. From what we can tell, our goals are somewhat aligned. We had planned on recruiting Amaryllis Penndraig, before she was ousted.”

“I do appreciate you coming all this way, presumably at great expense,” I said. “But again, I’m not willing to make discussions without her, and she’s going to need a lot of time before she’s ready to talk shop.”

Amaryllis stepped out of the hospital room, dressed in her immobility plate with the helmet off. She had a sword on one hip and her void pistol on the other. In her hand, she held the dollhouse staff, with the rope around it in elaborate knots. I suspected chicanery and magic, though I wasn’t sure what kind. When Fenn and I had gone out to get some air and time to ourselves, Amaryllis had looked worn out; she’d been asleep, or on the edge of it, with Solace suckling at her breast. Now she looked like she’d spent the last week training for a marathon and was standing at the starting line, ready to run.

“Lady Penndraig,” said Alcida with a small bow. “I am Alcida Divona, head of –”

“I know who you are,” said Amaryllis. “I wrote a brief to the Lost King’s Court and a few other allied polities advising thorough investigation into the handling of finances under your regime. Had I known that Uniquities was engaged in attempts to influence the governing of member nations of the Empire of Common Cause … you understand that many of us would consider that proof that the imperial experiment was a failure, and people would use it as grounds for moving to dissolve the empire, or at the very least, pull out from it with whatever pains that might cause?”

“Would you?” asked Alcida.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “If the empire goes, whatever replaces it will be worse. We’ve seen two interimperiums, and both have been marked by horrors big and small.”

“Then you understand the importance of keeping the empire as a cohesive whole,” said Alcida with a nod. “I read your letter, as you might have guessed I would. I was impressed by your intellect and vigor, more so when I learned that you were a girl of sixteen. And you were right, of course, about how Uniquities looks from the outside, how it’s meant to look.”

Amaryllis gave a faint, vulpine smile. “It does make a bit more sense now. You’re not an incompetent, or an embezzler, just running rogue. And now you’re coming to me to make a deal.”

“Not just with you,” said Alcida. “With the entire Council of Arches.”

Amaryllis stared at her, then raised an eyebrow in my direction. I shrugged.

“You very much appear to be in the same business as we are,” said Alcida. “We have an incomplete picture of what it is you do and have done, but it appears you have need of resources we have on offer, and at least a small amount of overlap in interests. It’s my understanding that you hijacked the Down and Out because you needed a way down in a hurry. If you’d been working with us, you could have borrowed any one of a half dozen methods without the need for an international incident.” She gestured toward Valencia, a curious sort of hand movement that kept her palm pointed toward her. I was pretty sure that was a vitric thing; if you could shoot lightning from your fingers, pointing might be considered rude, even if you weren’t intending to blast someone with it. “If a non-anima –”

“Sorry,” said Jorge, who had stayed silent up to this point. “The term we’re going with is anti-infernal.” Alcida gave him a very calm look that was still somehow withering. In contrast, I saw a very small smile from Valencia.

“If someone like Valencia had been identified in the wild, she would almost certainly have been brought to us, if there were even the slightest pretense that her existence was intraimperial,” said Alcida.

“And Imperial Affairs would simply say that she has the capacity to cross borders, and is therefore intraimperial, under their jurisdiction,” said Amaryllis with a roll of her eyes.

“More likely we’d argue that her ability to reach down into the hells makes her, by definition, imperial business rather than national business,” said Alcida. “And more likely than that, we would hide her away and do our best not to have to answer messy questions about how or why we were allowed to take charge. I very much understand that doesn’t win us points in your favor, however pragmatic it might be.”

“It’s pragmatic only until the point it blows up in your face,” said Amaryllis.

Fenn came up beside me. “Blah, blah, blah, politics,” she whispered.

“We need to have a private meeting,” said Amaryllis. “You have us warded, you can wait outside.”

“They have a warder,” said Finch. “There were wards on the hotel room.”

“Then you’ll have to trust us,” said Amaryllis. “If we don’t want to deal, we’ll tell you before we leave.” She went back into the hospital room without another word, and after I gave a glance back at the people from Uniquities, I followed her.

Grak had changed clothes too, and was back into his armor, with his axe at his hip. He was cradling a swaddled Solace in his good arm. He stood up from his stool when we entered, and gave Valencia a small wave when he saw her. On coming in, Valencia wrapped Amaryllis in a hug and gave her a kiss on the cheek.

“More hugs when you’re not in armor, okay?” asked Valencia.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “I was very worried about you. You were able to convince them?”

“I was,” nodded Valencia. “Jorge is really wonderful. He got really excited when they brought the infernoscope in, and after that it was very pleasant. I insisted that he come along.”

“Are you doing okay?” I asked Amaryllis. “You seem … really well, actually.”

“Time chamber,” said Bethel, materializing next to her. “I partially reconstructed it inside this room.”

I looked over at Solace. On closer inspection, she did look bigger than before, a little more filled out and proportionate, with fewer wrinkles. “How long?” I asked.

“Not long,” said Amaryllis. “Two weeks.”

“On bed rest,” said Grak. “I was in with her.”

“Okay,” I said. I pinched the bridge of my nose. “I wish you’d talked with me first.”

“It was a very confined space,” said Amaryllis. “Even with just Grak it was –”

“She did not enjoy bed rest,” said Grak, folding his arms across his chest.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “Can you ward us, please?”

Grak snorted, but uncrossed his hands and got out his wand.

“How is Solace?” I asked. “Have you tried –”

“One moment,” said Amaryllis, holding up a finger. She waited until Grak was finished. We were five people, one illusion of a person, and a baby in not really all that big of a space. “I hereby call to order the first meeting of the Council of Arches.”

“Oh man, did shit just get real?” asked Fenn. She grinned at me.

“I was going to ask if Bethel had tried talking to Solace through thoughtspeak,” I said.

“She’ll need to be awake for it,” said Bethel. “Newborns spend most of their time sleeping.”

“She’s awake now,” said Grak, looking down at the baby he held in his arm. “Or as awake as she gets.”

“Then I suppose now is as good a time as any,” said Bethel. The staff Fenn was holding split at the bottom, making three little legs. A branch jutted out from the wood, growing swiftly through the air toward Grak. He held out the baby slightly, and the branch touched down gently on her head. Bethel frowned somewhat. “It’s fragmentary, with poor syntax, but there are words,” she said. “Much more than I’ve typically been able to get from babies.”

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Physically, she’s progressing roughly as fast as I’d expected, meaning slightly faster than human. Spiritually, she’s becoming more cohesive every day, including in ways that don’t seem to be predicated on what she’s taking in from being in the world. I’ve been watching her skills, especially. Things are coming back, a bit piecemeal, but they are.”

“They grow up so fast,” said Fenn.

“It’s been what, five days since we visited the locus?” I asked, ignoring Fenn.

“We would be on the sixth,” said Grak.

“With Bethel mobile, or at least relatively so, I think we should move into the bottle,” said Amaryllis. “Even if Solace can’t perform druidic magic, being close to the locus might help her, or at least might help the locus. It gives Bethel plenty of room to be as large as she wants to be, which might make the time chamber a little less onerous.”

“I would prefer you use it as little as possible,” said Bethel.

“Noted,” said Amaryllis.

“You wanted to be a home for us, not a tool to be used,” I said. “We’ll respect that.”

“All that is in the relative short-term,” said Amaryllis. “In the long-term, we apparently need to deal with Uniquities. The plan of establishing our own nation by getting someone powerful to back the creation of a splinter tuung polity probably won’t work if we’re in opposition to them, even if they’re operating outside their official remit, and we can skip a few steps forward in the master plan if we can get them to agree to the important parts. We can’t allow them to take ownership of the project, for a variety of reasons, but I don’t see a reason we can’t be allies and partners, even if I don’t particularly like Uniquities. I should be able to get them to see the light on that particular matter, given that we both benefit from being insulated from the other’s malfeasance.”

“We’re planning malfeasance?” asked Grak.

“We’ll be accused of malfeasance no matter what we do,” said Amaryllis.

“The Lost King’s Court is a pit of vipers,” said Bethel. “I don’t think I would mind defending you from them.”

“We have the teleportation key,” I said. “I won’t claim to be an expert on imperial law, but I’m pretty sure that we’re not supposed to be holding onto it, if we’re planning to go legitimate.”

“Also we broke that soul mage out of prison, does anyone remember that?” asked Fenn.

“I do,” said Valencia.

“It was a joke,” said Fenn. “A joke that hopefully never leaves this room, because I have to imagine we’d get in some shit for that. Plus three sevenths of us are soul mages, which there are ways of detecting, and which is pretty fucking illegal last time I checked.”

“We can deal with some of that,” said Amaryllis. She looked to me. “It didn’t seem like they had Esuen, did it?”

“No,” I said. “Meaning that she might still be where we left her, though I don’t know how long that’s going to remain the case. We don’t have her, which puts us in a less favorable position.”

“I warded their room,” said Grak. “They might be able to hide.” He held out a hand and gave it an uncertain wiggle. “A warder would see through the deception in an instant.”

“I shot their warder,” said Valencia. That got our attention. “She was going to look at me,” said Valencia. “I shot her monocle, not her face.”

“They may have another on hand,” said Grak. “Or they will find one.”

“So we should move fast,” said Amaryllis. “I would hope that Esuen would have some small amount of loyalty to us, given that we rescued her, but I know that in her situation loyalty wouldn’t be my primary concern. Valencia, we’re going to need to do a full debrief on you at some point, so we can know what they know, and what, exactly, happened.”

“Okay,” said Valencia. “Now?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. She hesitated. “Maybe. We could all go into the time chamber and hash it out in there, but I’m not certain how much that would help if they’re already giving us time to talk amongst ourselves. Can you give me the short version of what they know?”

“They know that I’m non-anima,” said Valencia. “Jorge calls me an anti-infernal.” She smiled at that. “They saw the books I had in the hotel room, but I’m not sure they made the connection to Earth. I didn’t offer any explanation, because I was still hoping that you were all alive, and I didn’t want to say anything that you didn’t want me to say.”

“You did very, very well,” said Amaryllis.

“I wasn’t sure,” said Valencia. “The whole time, up until I saw Joon, I wasn’t sure that I had done the right thing. I kept thinking that maybe I should have killed everyone.”

“Wow,” said Fenn. “That’s kind of how things went for us, to be honest. But that was months ago.”

“So we’re going to make some kind of deal with Uniquities?” I asked. “They think that we’re some kind of clandestine organization.”

“Aren’t we?” asked Fenn. “Granted, I can’t speak for how it was in the three days before I joined, so maybe those were different days, but my tenure in the Council of Arches has been marked by hiding out and giving false names. I’d kind of like to stop doing that, if it’s all the same to you.”

“I would too,” said Amaryllis. “But the moment we can stop watching our backs, we’re going to start having to watch our fronts.”

“And we’ll probably still have to watch our backs,” I said.

“Yes, that too,” said Amaryllis. “Anyway, the first order of business of the inaugural meeting of the Council of Arches is what we’re going to do about Solace and the locus. I propose that we move into the bottle and spend some time there until we’re able to get the locus back into a stable state.”

“We’re still no closer to extracting it,” said Grak.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Bethel with a slow nod.

“All in favor?” asked Amaryllis.

There was a pleasing round of ayes.

“The second order of business is what we’re going to do with Uniquities,” said Amaryllis. “I spent eight months working on plans for exploiting the knowledge we extracted from the backpack, and I still think that’s best accomplished through using the tuung and trying, best we can, to not be beholden to anyone.”

“Anyone except the tuung,” said Valencia.

“That’s — yes,” said Amaryllis. “But my hope is that we can help shape their new culture, given that they’ll be leaving the old one behind. Esuen was already partly educated within the athenaeum of a very imperial city, that helps enormously.”

“Well, I don’t care too much,” said Fenn. “I’d like to throw my hat in the ring for court jester though.”

“The court jester’s job is about speaking truth to power,” said Amaryllis, face set in a serious frown. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that you would be good for the job, you would just make jokes.”

“I will appoint myself court jester,” said Bethel.

“Yeah, but you have to also be funny, right?” asked Fenn.

“Congratulations, you’ve side tracked us,” said Amaryllis. She sighed. “I’d like to take lead on negotiations with Uniquities, since I know them best, and I’ve been planning for something approximating this meeting. I’m also the one they’re most interested in, primarily because they have no clue what they’ve stumbled upon. So this is a vote to move forward with that, with the ideal end goal being a tiny government of our own in some far-flung corner of the world, through which we can become fabulously wealthy and improve the lives of everyone on Aerb. All in favor?”

The response to this was less enthusiastic. I said aye, and Fenn did too, though pretty weakly. Amaryllis was obviously in favor too. But that left Grak, Val, and Bethel.

“Grak?” asked Amaryllis.

“A thousand pounds of gold as penance,” he said. “Per our agreement, it was one pound of gold every two weeks. I’m finding that to be too slow, even with the time in the chamber. I made a promise. I still intend to keep it.”

“Oh, are we talking about extracting value from the party?” asked Fenn. “Deal me in.”

“At current market prices, minus the amount you’re owed from our stores, the remainder of what you need amounts to roughly ten million obols,” said Amaryllis. “There are a few ways that we might get in a position to be able to pay that out to you, but it was always going to take years.”

“I know,” said Grak. Solace made a squawk, the first sound I’d heard from her, and Grak moved over to Amaryllis, handing the baby over. Amaryllis smiled at the baby and began rocking her, then returned to look at Grak, her face stony.

“Name your price,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll decide as a group. And remember that we’re your friends.”

“I made a promise,” said Grak.

“Name your price then,” said Amaryllis. “Tell us what you need to take from us so that you would consider this whole endeavor worth your time. Tell us what we have to pay you so that you don’t walk away and get yourself killed going after another gold mage. Jesus Christ, Grak.”

“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” said Fenn. I gave her a look. “Inside joke,” she said with a shrug.

Grak frowned at Amaryllis. “I do care for you,” he said. He looked around the small room. “All of you. Some more than others.” That was characteristic dwarven bluntness right there. “I will not be subsumed by this group.” That was also a characteristically Grak way of saying things. He seemed allergic to the word ‘but’, so instead, he’d just give two statements of fact, one of which undercut the other.

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. “It’s going to cause us no end of problems with capital, because we’d be idiots to plan on paying anything out in the beginning, but I’ll personally guarantee you ten million obols within two years time, and if I don’t have it, we’ll go kill a fucking dragon and take its hoard or something, okay?”

Grak stared at her, then nodded.

I saw Valencia’s expression change, going from nervous to calm in an instant. I didn’t fully understand the subtext of what Amaryllis and Grak were talking about, but I could ask Valencia later, if Amaryllis didn’t explain it. I at least knew that it wasn’t actually about money, it was about honor, or something else, either particular to dwarven culture, or particular to Grak. Martyrdom, maybe. It felt like a weird time for it to come out, but he’d spent three months in the time chamber with Amaryllis, then had his role as midwife undercut by the professionals.

“Just to be clear, we’re going to take a vote before we go off to slay a dragon, right?” asked Fenn.

“That was a hypothetical,” said Amaryllis.

“I vote aye on the plan for nationhood,” said Grak. “I would like to see a full accounting of where we stand, as far as finances go.”

“We’ll table that, for now,” said Amaryllis. She looked at Bethel. “You have an objection to the prospect of building our own nation?”

“I have no particular interest in it,” said Bethel. “Nor in adventuring in general. Consider my silence abstention.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. She turned to Valencia. “I would understand if you didn’t want to be in the spotlight. No one would force you to take an active role.” She looked at the rest of us. “No one has to take any role if they don’t want to, but we’re going to be a nation of thousands, and the circle of trust is very, very small.”

“No, sorry,” said Valencia. “It’s not that, it’s just things seem to be moving very fast, and I feel like I’ve missed a lot, so it’s all confusing.” She hesitated, then pointed to Bethel. “Who is this?”

We had a nice moment of silence at that.

“Valencia, this is Bethel, the house formerly known as Kuum Doona,” I said. “She’s the staff with a dollhouse on top, the woman you see there is just a projection. Bethel, this is Valencia, we’ve, ah, mentioned her unique situation.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you,” said Valencia. She looked from Bethel-the-illusion to Bethel-the-staff. “Which one should I look at?”

“The illusion,” said Bethel. “I produce it for the sake of convenience, so others can imagine me as though I am one of them.”

“I dye my hair,” said Valencia with a nod.

“But you don’t object to Mary’s plan?” I asked.

Valencia hesitated. “I don’t know,” she said. “My first thought was that I would do whatever you said to do, because I trust you.” She frowned, narrowing her eyes at a point off in the distance. “Then I thought that maybe I should be my own person a bit more. I don’t know what the real Valencia actually wants.”

“That’s fair,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll try to help you.”

“We all will,” I said.

“Then I vote aye,” said Valencia. “Can we not vote on things so much though?” I remembered the last formal vote we’d taken as a group, two months ago, and how stressful she’d found that.

“I just want to make sure we’re all on the same page,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t doubt we’ll have other things that occupy our time, but we have a real opportunity to do good, and to further our collective interests at the same time.”

“I have a lot of quests to get to,” I said. “Things that it’s likely only I can do. And I want to find Uther, as you all know.”

“I do too,” said Bethel. I winced at that. I was pretty sure we weren’t on the same page about what we were going to do when we found him.

“And we can,” said Amaryllis. “I might stay back, until I have things running so they can handle my absence. With the time chamber –” She stopped and looked at Bethel. “If I’m allowed to use it, then it should take considerably less time to hammer through the kinks.”

“That’s a mangled metaphor,” said Fenn.

“You rubbed off on me,” said Amaryllis. “Okay, it appears that we’re all relatively on the same page, I think our first meeting can be adjourned.”

“Next time we should have chairs,” said Grak.

“Earth management tactic,” said Amaryllis. “It’s called a ‘stand-up’, intentionally meant to shorten meetings because people don’t like to stand that long.”

“It didn’t bother me too much,” said Bethel with a smile.

We broke off into groups after that. Amaryllis took off the chestplate of her immobility plate so that Solace could feed, Fenn went to have a talk of some sort with Bethel, and Valencia was excited to tell me about her time alone, which had apparently involved a fair bit of precision gunfire. Grak sat on his own, in a chair in the corner. I wanted to go ask him what was up, but I was feeling drained, and Valencia was describing an encounter at a tavern with considerable enthusiasm. It was easier to listen to her than to think about Grak, so I took the easy path.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 103: Contract

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