Worth the Candle, Ch 120: Deceptions

“No,” said Arthur. “I’m saying it’s a numbers game, and only once you know the numbers can you play the game.”

I slid into the booth next to Tiff with my food. Ruttles’ had a burger bar, full of fixin’s, and whenever we ate there, I always spent a lot of time making sure that I had created the right sort of burger. Usually I went with my parents, but this was a rare night out. After dinner, we were going to stand in line for a midnight showing of Captain America: Civil War at the local theater. It was a tradition that wasn’t really necessary, but which we did anyway, mostly for the sake of it. It was Arthur, myself, Tiff, and Tom, with others joining us later on.

“What are we talking about?” I asked.

“Women in refrigerators,” said Tiff.

“Explain?” asked Tom as he took his seat. Like myself, Tom took care in adding things to his burger. He was good people. “Are we just talking about how many women can fit in the average refrigerator? Because I would say two, if you took the shelves out.”

“It would be more, if you were talking about the average refrigerator,” I said. “Pretty much every food service place has a walk-in, so the average refrigerator is considerably bigger than a home fridge.”

“Not at all what we were talking about,” said Tiff. “So, back in what I want to say was the 90s, there was an issue of Green Lantern where Green Lantern comes home to find his girlfriend has been killed and then stuffed into the refrigerator for him to find by some villain.”

“Gross,” said Tom. “Can we not, while I’m eating?”

“That’s not really the point,” said Arthur as he dipped one of his fries in a mayo/ketchup mix. “It was just the thing that they named the trope after. The trope is basically this concept that you can evoke emotion in the reader by killing off a loved one, sidekick, mentor, etc. as a cheap trick, which you see show up a lot. But the real thing we’re talking about is Tiff’s contention that it’s mostly women. And that is a numbers game.”

“Is this going to be the Bechdel test all over again?” I asked.

“Probably,” said Tiff with a frown.

“I’m not sure what numbers have to do with it,” said Tom. “Whatever ‘it’ is.”

“So, the original version of this was just a survey of comic books,” said Arthur. “It was feminists who liked comic books pointing out all the times that it happened, which they put into a long list, and anytime you see someone make a long list like that, you need to be suspicious, because the point of a long list is usually just to say, ‘hey, look how long this list is’, as though that means anything.”

“So you’re arguing that it doesn’t?” asked Tiff.

“I call it the Problem of Long Lists,” said Arthur. “It’s a variant on the gish gallop. And anyway, I’m not arguing against the general complaint, just the rhetorical technique. Generally speaking, yes, I would agree that it’s much more likely to happen to women than to men, but I think it’s a numbers game, and the root of the issue is that most protagonists are male.”

“So this is exactly like the Bechdel test,” I said. “Do we really need to rehash it?” I was halfway done with my burger. Arthur had barely started on his, despite getting to the table first. It always took him forever to eat, mostly because he liked talking instead of eating.

“I think I missed that one,” said Tom.

“You were making a new character,” said Tiff.

“Yeah, don’t die so much,” I said with a smile.

“The Bechdel Test is basically a thing for movies where you say, ‘hey, are there two women talking to each other in this movie, but not about a man?’” said Arthur. “And you make a Long List of movies that fail it. But that, too, comes back to the fact that most protagonists are male.”

“Is that better?” asked Tiff.

“Might be,” I said. “Like, if the argument about women in refrigerators is about the portrayal of women being bad, then no, it’s not better, because identifying the root issue doesn’t actually change the portrayal. But if you’re trying to change the result, then you need to know where the result comes from. If it’s some alternate cause, then that should really be the thing that you’re trying to mess with.”

“I think you guys are too smart for me,” said Tom, looking between the three of us.

“You get it though, right?” I asked him. “Like, if you had a bunch of rats in your basement, and kept hiring an exterminator to come in, and eventually someone said, ‘hey, you’d get less rats if you walled up that hole and stopped leaving all that food around’, that would be a lot more helpful than just ‘hey, better kill those rats’.”

“Ah,” said Tom. “Got it. But can we not talk about rats when I’m eating?”

“Does Tom have a weak stomach?” asked Tiff.

“Famously weak,” I said with a sigh.

Infamously weak,” said Arthur.

“I don’t have a weak stomach, I just lose my appetite,” said Tom, looking down at his burger. “Quick, change the subject.”

Arthur leapt at that. “Stories are fundamentally simple,” he said. “You’ve got your protagonist, your antagonist, your mentor, your sidekicks, and your love interest, just as basic building blocks. All those things need to be used economically for the purposes of storytelling, which means that there’s a clear delineation between those characters, and a lot of the parts get reused. With me so far?”

“Yes,” said Tom, around a bite of his burger.

“This is just the Bechdel thing again,” said Tiff. “Don’t repeat it for my benefit.”

“It’s a good rant,” said Arthur. “This helps refine it.”

“Fine,” said Tiff with a wave of her hand.

“So, in terms of gender,” Arthur continued. “Let’s say that you start with a male protagonist as the first gender you decide on. If we’re talking comic books, there are a lot of reasons for that, some of them economic, some social, but whatever, that’s the default. Right?” I nodded, which was all he needed to keep going. “Well, in terms of market, it again makes the most sense to go heteronormative, which means that the love interest is locked in as female.”

“Seems like you might be arguing that the real problem is actually capitalist control of artistic industries, rather than male protagonists,” I said.

“I haven’t actually agreed that there is a problem,” said Arthur. “And that’s not ground I’m willing to cede at this time.”

I waved a hand. “Fine, fine. Still seems like if you’re going to claim market forces for a lot of this stuff, then the problem is market forces. But continue with your rant.”

“Okay,” said Arthur. “So the protagonist is male, and the love interest is female, but the plot doesn’t revolve around them, because plots are conflict and conflict isn’t about that relationship unless it’s a romance, which, for the sake of argument, this isn’t.”

“‘This’ being a comic book?” asked Tiff.

“Or a movie based on a comic book,” said Arthur. “Apropos, given what we’re going to see tonight, don’t you think? At any rate, if you’re going to have the love interest be a part of the plot, rather than just being there to serve some part of the demographic, then they’re probably going to interact with the antagonist at some point, and there are a lot more interesting things that you can do with a male/female dynamic than you can with a female/female dynamic –”

“Wait, hold on, foul,” said Tiff.

“In the context of what it says about the primary male/male dynamic that defines the central conflict,” Arthur corrected. “The antag/protag relationship is usually one of mirroring, antagonists are built to highlight their differences, at least when they’re actual characters rather than just a CGI gray space alien who wants to take over the world. Point is, you muddle the main thrust of the movie by having both a female love interest and a female antagonist, right? Because then they share gender, and it looks like you’re saying something about gender.”

“Again, foul,” said Tiff. “Gender is not really that important.”

“Well, then I won the argument,” said Arthur with a smile.

“Bah,” said Tiff.

“I mean, right?” asked Arthur. “You can either say that gender is an important thing that audiences will pay attention to, in which case a female antagonist is Saying Something, or you can say that it’s not at all important, in which case who frickin’ cares whether there’s a gender imbalance in fiction?”

“Wait,” said Tom, snapping his fingers. “Oh, I know this one, wait, no one say it, I’ve got it. Ah, it’s … false dichotomy?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Score!” said Tom with a pump of his fist. “Okay, that’s as much as I can contribute tonight.”

“And our debate champ was disparaging Long Lists as being bad rhetoric,” said Tiff, shaking her head. “Tsk tsk.”

“You can’t just claim false dichotomy,” said Arthur, looking a bit annoyed. “You have to actually show why it’s false.”

“The whole argument is about stories and their impacts in aggregate, ” said Tiff. “Set aside your pet theories on causes for a second, if ninety percent of protagonists are male, and ninety percent of love interests are female, and writers kill off love interests half the time, then that’s — I don’t know, some math, but you’d run into it a lot of the time, and most of what a girl sees growing up is women having horrible things happen to them as a way of motivating the main character or increasing the stakes. Which sucks.”

Arthur shrugged. “Okay?” he asked. “I never said that it didn’t suck.”

“But,” I said, looking at Tiff. “There are sort of different levels of sucking. Like, if someone does something that’s bad in the aggregate for their own self-motivated reasons, that’s less bad than if someone does something that’s bad all on its own. Take that original Green Lantern run, right? Most people wouldn’t argue that it was on its own bad, it’s just that when you universalize what happened to all or most other media.”

“Are you all huge Green Lantern fans?” asked Tom.

“I saw the movie,” I said. “Plus I’ve read a lot of wiki pages. That’s about it. So, sure, maybe it was bad on its own, that was just an example.”

“Can we talk about the market forces thing for a bit?” asked Arthur. “Because I think that bears some digging into, especially if we’re digging into moral statements.”

“Moral statements!” said Fenn as she slipped into the booth next to me. “My favorite!”

“You’re late,” said Tiff. “Arthur, you’re not allowed to repeat the rant.”

“Which one was it?” asked Fenn. “I have them memorized. Unless it was a new one?”

“Bechdel test,” I replied.

“Weak,” said Fenn.

“Well, I’m working on refining it,” said Arthur, folding his hands across his chest. “And I think the idea of morality in response to market forces is more interesting anyway. Like, say that you decide there need to be more female protagonists in comic books, and you take it on yourself to write one, and someone else takes it on themselves to publish it.”

“Hold up,” said Tiff. “You’re begging the question.”

“What does that even mean?” asked Fenn.

“No one actually knows,” said Tom. “It’s the Calvinball of objections. It means whatever you want it to mean at the moment you say it.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. “But I don’t know enough about rhetoric to dispute it.”

“Can we back up?” asked Fenn. “I’m lost.”

From the booth behind Arthur and Tom a man turned around, pushing them slightly to the side so he could let his arms rest on the top of the booth. He was in his thirties, with a slightly crooked nose and a full beard. He looked familiar, but I couldn’t place him. The text on his shirt, partially obscured by the booth, said ‘No More Mr. Dice Guy’.

“Uther was just explaining narrative again,” said the man. “You merge down characters until everyone carries as much weight as they can. Male protagonist means female love interest, and that takes up the quota of both serious interpersonal drama and romance in one fell swoop, which means if there’s another character, they’re plucky comic relief or a mentor figure, and there are good reasons for both of those to have the same gender as the main character.”

“Which are?” asked Tiff. She was taking the interruption in stride. Looking around the table, it seemed like I was the only one who felt uneasy.

“People like to see romance,” said the man. “Plucky comic relief can read as flirty, so that’s a no go. And for mentor, the mentor usually represents the main character as they’d like to be, or as they might be, so gender matching is preferred to strengthen the mirror, and obviously you also don’t want it to read as a creepy romantic thing, especially with a bigger age gap. But anyway, that doesn’t get to the heart of it, does it? Because the question isn’t about what gender balance looks like in a story optimized for the lowest common denominator, is it? It’s why the girl is the one to die.”

The man reached back and grabbed something off his table. He pointed it at Fenn, and I only realized that it was a gun when he fired it at her. She slumped against me, dead, with a bullet wound in the center of her forehead.

“Why?” I asked as I stared at him. The others hadn’t moved or reacted to the gunshot, nor to Fenn’s death. I had a queasy feeling in the pit of my stomach.

“Wasn’t me,” he said, throwing the gun behind his shoulder.

I woke up drenched in sweat. It took me a while until I remembered the affliction the crown had saddled me with, Bad Dreams.

“Come on,” said Amaryllis as soon as the door to the time chamber was shut. “With me.”

“Where?” asked Valencia.

“We have just enough time to spar while they’re in there,” said Amaryllis. “You’ll have to take the armor off, but you were probably planning to do that anyway.”

“You want to test me,” said Valencia.

Amaryllis started walking, and fervently hoped that Valencia would follow. It was with a bit of relief that she saw Valencia fall into place behind her. They didn’t have much time, maybe half an hour at the most, all of that in the chamber’s spin-up and spin-down time.

“Why?” asked Valencia.

“Juniper is going to do it,” said Amaryllis. “If he doesn’t, then he’s at least thought about it. Better for me to test you first.”

“I can just tell you,” said Valencia as they moved through the bowels of Bethel.

The training room was one of the places that Amaryllis spent the most time, at least when she wasn’t working on the fledgling republic or doing some of the managerial and engineering work that was going to be necessary to make the grand entrance into Earth exploitation. Keeping in peak physical condition was a necessity, as was honing and refining combat skills. Amaryllis had absolutely no illusions about what sort of role she was playing in this world: peace was never going to be an option for long.

The training room was enormous, with one full wall taken up by a five story climbing wall, complete with auto-belays. Half the floor was taken up with exercise equipment, while the other half was devoted to training mats for sparring. It was more ostentatious than anything Amaryllis had known as a princess of Anglecynn, but that was a part of Bethel’s nature; there were no amenities that she wouldn’t provide, so long as she could give them freely, and so long as they fit within her conception of what it meant to be a house. It was maddening to deal with, and so far, Amaryllis had been the only one really putting effort into testing what the house would and would not do, a venture that had only earned Bethel’s enmity.

Amaryllis made her way to the closest of the mats, shedding armor as she went.

“I can just tell you,” repeated Valencia. “We don’t need to fight.”

Amaryllis sat on the ground to strip off the last of the immobility plate. She tried not to think about how her body had changed with the repeated overwriting of her soul. She was back to the body she’d had before the pregnancy. Magic handled the worst of it, certainly, in terms of what her body was supposed to feel like, but she kept being momentarily intellectually surprised by the changes. It wasn’t pleasant.

“You’re going ahead in the hopes that I follow in your wake,” said Valencia.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. She stopped momentarily. “I need to know the truth. I need to know what Juniper might discover. If your plan is to just talk your way out of being tested, then … you have to understand that’s not going to work. If there are secrets, then they’re going to come out. It’s narrative, it’s plot, a force powerful enough to shape our entire existence. Reading Uther’s biographies always gives me the sense that there are entire civilizations that only ever existed because Uther needed something to do for a few weeks between larger plots. Everything, everything, has to be calculated with that in mind. I tried to tell Fenn that, but she didn’t fucking listen, and now she’s dead.”

Amaryllis was breathing hard and did her best to calm herself. The aggression was pumping through her veins, making every situation seem like it could be solved by beating the problem to death with her bare hands. She could almost understand why Juniper would have thought that killing the Dungeon Master was a smart idea, which was a sign of just how compromised her own thinking was.

“Okay,” said Valencia. Her voice was small. She began taking her own armor off as well, then stopped and sat on the floor and began crying.

“Val,” said Amaryllis. “Up.”

“I screwed up,” said Valencia from the floor.

“Up,” Amaryllis repeated. “Take on a demon, tell it to me while we fight, I know you’re good enough to keep your emotions in check while you have one.”

Valencia shook her head. “I screwed up,” she said again.

“Eat a demon, now, or I’m going to punch you in your face as hard as I can,” said Amaryllis. “In fact, I’m going to punch you in the face as hard as I can no matter what you say or do, and it’s up to you to stop me.”

“What do you even think of me?” asked Valencia, still crying. She shrugged, using her hands, and let them fall back into her lap.

“I think this might be another tactic to get out of the fight,” said Amaryllis, stretching out slightly. She didn’t like to see Valencia like this. Without the armor, she was pretty far from fearsome, and that was before she was sitting on the ground crying. “You offer up a half-truth, or a clever lie, something that minimizes whatever actually happened and gets you out of the fight, where you’d have to reveal the full truth, or depend on your native ability to lie under pressure plus whatever the demon gives you. And then, at some critical moment weeks or months in the future, everyone learns the truth and it all goes to shit.”

Valencia nodded once, looking miserable. “And no one can ever trust me anymore, because I screwed up, I wasn’t looking far enough ahead, I wasn’t thinking about what might happen, I was –” She choked back a sob and lay there, crying.

Amaryllis made a fist and walked over. Was Valencia trying to call a bluff? If she was using a devil’s powers, then she would know that Amaryllis didn’t bluff like that. So why make the play? Was a devil good enough to know that Amaryllis would second-guess herself? Or was it a move made out of desperation, predicated on hope more than practicality? Or … was she telling the truth, and it wasn’t a ploy all along? But Amaryllis couldn’t stop, because if she did, then she would be the sort of person that could be manipulated by a sobbing mess of a young girl.

“I’m going to punch you in the face now,” said Amaryllis, clenching her fist. “I don’t want to, and I don’t want to hurt you, but you need to take a demon now, and you need to keep him so that I can get the full story from you, without varnish.”

Valencia only cried, shaking her head.

Amaryllis looked down at her fist. The anger was fading away. It hadn’t been more than an hour earlier she’d been furious with Juniper for not bottling away his emotions and getting things done. It shouldn’t have been different for Valencia, but somehow it was. Maybe Juniper was an equal, more or less, and Valencia was … a child, in many ways.

There was a side of Amaryllis, naturally, that was horrified of the idea of hitting Valencia, in the world where Valencia had simply made some error in judgement and was too distraught to comply with orders.

Amaryllis didn’t put quite as much power into the hit as she possibly could. She had blood and bone magic at her disposal, and she didn’t tap into them, choosing instead to use only her physical strength. It was still a full-on strike at someone with no defenses up.

Valencia moved at the last second, raising an arm to push away the strike and rolling backward to get away. She was on her feet in seconds, standing in a loose fighting stance, one she seemed to prefer. There was a rigidity to how people fought when they’d had extensive training, a way that certain patterns and stances were ingrained in them, not just in their muscles, but their muscle memory. Valencia was always more adaptive, unless she was intentionally aping a style. She didn’t need a default stance, not when she could create a fighting style from whole cloth to suit her opponent.

She still had tears streaming down her face.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Good. Now –”

Valencia moved forward and kicked at the last second, catching Amaryllis in the gut. It hadn’t quite been a feint, but Amaryllis had been expecting a strike to the face. Amaryllis had the wind knocked from her, which she thought was probably the point. She stood, trying to catch her breath, and put up as much of a defense as she could.

“I wanted them to break up,” said Valencia. She delivered a strike, which Amaryllis blocked with her forearm. Valencia paused. “I’m going to have to hurt you, or you probably won’t believe me.” She made another strike, but it turned into a grab, which she used to flip Amaryllis through the air. “I’m not in love with him,” said Valencia. “I just didn’t think they were any good together. I could have fixed them, but it would have taken too much time and too much of Juniper’s attention. I should have said that I didn’t want to do it, but it was selfish to think that.”

She continued her assault on Amaryllis, who was doing her best to play defense. If this had been real combat, Amaryllis was sure that she’d have been dead a dozen times over. There were too many places where someone as skilled in hand-to-hand as Valencia (temporarily) was would have had a chance to deal the killing blow.

“Did you kill her?” asked Amaryllis. She’d given up on healing the damage as it came in, instead electing to let her flesh be battered. Juniper managed mid-combat healing deftly, but at half his skill, Amaryllis still found herself having to devote too much attention to it, which caused her guard to lapse, which Valencia was taking advantage of.

Valencia paused, tears in her eyes. “I chose you,” she said, her voice soft. “Juniper took Grak and Solace, and I had to choose between you and Fenn. I didn’t know for certain that she would die, but … I could see that Juniper was suffering under the poison. I saw him go back in. I almost stopped him, so I could give him the crown, but I decided that we needed to give Solace every advantage we could. He was late coming out. If I’d handed over the crown, he could have put it on her, gotten out faster, they might have –” She sat down on the ground and broke down into tears again.

Amaryllis slowly started the healing process, burning bones that would need to be replaced later on, when she had a spare moment.

“We’re going to have to tell him,” said Amaryllis. She went over to Valencia and put an arm around her. “Soon. It will come to a head otherwise. You didn’t do anything that can’t be forgiven.”

“I know him better than you do,” said Valencia. “I know how he thinks.”

Amaryllis was silent. It was difficult to defer to that opinion. It was also difficult not to start proposing solutions, which started with infernal manipulation and got less ethical from there. Narrative was going to be a problem even if there weren’t serious qualms about those less savory methods of dealing with the problem.

“If you tell him as yourself?” asked Amaryllis. “You’ve said before that the infernal skills don’t give you self-reflection.”

Valencia looked up at Amaryllis. “I would have no defenses. Not even hiding how I felt.”

Amaryllis frowned. “I think it’s the right way to go about things. Maybe he still won’t believe it, but it will be more true to yourself.”

“When?” asked Valencia.

“Later,” said Amaryllis. “Their time is up, and it will be our turn soon. When we come out … maybe then.”

“He’ll hate me,” said Valencia.

“Well,” said Amaryllis. “Let’s hope that you underestimated him.”

I stepped out of the chamber feeling better than when I’d gone in. The nightmares were a nightly occurrence, and I often woke up from them sore from how tense my muscles had been. They were vivid and slow to fade, leaving me with unpleasant imagery for most of my mornings. In a weird way, it was almost helpful. Dealing with the shift between dreaming and waking life helped me come to terms with the fact that I lived in a world without Fenn. The dreams had gotten less intense with each passing night, which I was thankful for, but I suspected there would be a long tail of bad dreams that would plague me for weeks if not months.

“Hey,” I said as we stepped out.

“What was Grak’s affliction?” asked Amaryllis. She’d ditched her armor somewhere, and had a sheen of sweat that I didn’t remember being there when I’d gone into the chamber.

“Bouts of mania,” said Grak. He turned to look at me. “Juniper was helpful.”

I shrugged. “My mom had a few episodes,” I said.

“I didn’t know that,” said Amaryllis, frowning slightly. “You managed?”

“With her, or with Grak?” I asked. “I guess the answer to both is the same.”

Grak had all sorts of ideas while he was in his manic episodes, mostly related to warding. I’d recognized the signs when he started talking quickly in Groglir, and tried my best to direct his efforts towards things that didn’t have too much of a cost. When the mania passed, he’d realize all his ideas and plans had been half-baked, the warding diagrams he’d drawn up nonsensical. I had talked with him some about what mania was like, which seemed to help. His affliction was passing too, though still not completely gone.

“And … how are you?” asked Amaryllis.

“Well, she’s still dead,” I replied. It left a bitter taste in my mouth. “I’m … better.” I hated saying that. It felt like an admission that I hadn’t loved her enough. The affliction, Griefstricken, was gone, and that had felt like a slap in the face. I still felt the grief, but it wasn’t the same oppressive cloud it had been in the first few days. “We should have a funeral, once you get out. I intend to bring her back from death, but that doesn’t seem like it’s in the cards for quite some time.”

Amaryllis nodded. “Grak, can I have the glove?” she asked, holding out her hand.

Grak had been the one to be invested with it, for reasons that were both obvious and a little bit painful. He’d been my caretaker, in a manner of speaking. He handed the glove over to Amaryllis without any fuss. Where the glove would ultimately end up was an open question, and not one that I really wanted to think too much about. It was another reminder that Fenn was gone; the glove had been one of her signatures.

I hadn’t looked over at Valencia. I could see in my peripheral vision that she was keeping her eyes at the floor, studiously not saying anything. Good, I thought, but I didn’t like thinking like that, because there was a chance, albeit a small one, that she didn’t deserve to be cast in such a bad light.

Amaryllis handed me an envelope, which I stared at dumbly for a few seconds before taking it.

“What’s this?” I asked, even as I read what was written on it. ‘In Case Fenn Dies’. It was written in Fenn’s handwriting. “She … she wrote a letter? To me?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I advised against it. She wanted me to wait a bit before giving it to you, in case she wasn’t dead, but it’s been a week for you now, and I’m going in, so … I don’t know what’s on there, but maybe it will help.” She hesitated slightly, then gave me a nod and strode forward into the chamber. Valencia and Solace followed her, neither of them saying anything.

“We’ll see you soon,” said Amaryllis as she closed the door.

I didn’t have a response. I was staring at the letter.

Dearest Juniper,

If you’re reading this, then I’m dead, which is probably a bummer.

Mary told me not to write this letter, because, and I quote, ‘if you write a letter to be opened after you die then Chekhov will rise from his grave and shoot you himself’. But hey, she’s still pretty wrapped up in the narrative thing, and I’m with you on it not really holding water. I guess if I’m dead, she’ll get one more ‘I told you so’ in.

I naturally don’t know how I died, but for the sake of this letter I’ll assume that I went down in a blaze of glory, maybe after having mouthed off to the wrong person, or in a moment of heroism, or … just, hopefully something cool, rather than a freak accident or as a result of my own stupidity.

I’m doing a bad job of getting to the point. The thing is, I’m writing this letter with a request, and I don’t want to just come right out and say it, because it might sound mean. Here goes.

Juniper, I don’t want you to do the same thing to me that you did to Arthur.

I guess that means I have to explain what you did to Arthur, but I’m worried that I’ve got it wrong, and then you’ll have a letter from your dead girlfriend (or wife, depending on what’s happened since I wrote this) where you’re thinking to yourself the whole time, ‘what kind of idiocy is this?’.

You used to have this way of talking about Arthur like he was the greatest guy in the world, and this burning fire when you talked about getting him back. There’s a little less of that now, I guess, but I haven’t asked, because I think you wouldn’t take it well if I said anything.

And, you know, there’s a part of me that gets all hot and bothered about you doing that for me. What right-thinking woman wouldn’t want you as her avenging champion, sword in hand, going on a rampage of revenge? The fantasy version of it all is that you finally find the bastard that killed me, after a two year quest, and you say ‘This is for Fenn!’ before blasting him to pieces. It really does it for me. I almost want to die just so you can avenge me.

The thing is … I’m trying to be a better person. Old Fenn (no age jokes, please, I’m dead, have mercy) would just punch people in their faces when they were being jerks and then run away because, as it turns out, most people don’t like that. There was this one guy who I overheard talking to his buddy, and he was saying that elves were a serviceable lay if you didn’t have to look at them. So I went over, punched him in his mouth, and then made myself scarce. That was Old Fenn. I spent a good amount of time laying low after that, and took on longer expeditions in the Risen Lands so that there would be some time for the air to clear.

But you see, New Fenn is a different sort of girl, isn’t she? I’ll still punch people in their stupid faces, but it’ll be for good, sensible reasons. You imagine Amaryllis punching someone in the face (not that she’s who I want to be when I grow up) and it’s hard to imagine that she would do it because that was what she felt like doing, right? She’d have some kind of calculation to it, I would think. I’m trying to think if I’ve ever seen her punch someone in the face, and I don’t think I have. She’s more the stabby sort of person, or a shooty sort (even though everyone knows that guns are a coward’s weapon, completely different from bows, which are noble and brave). Me? I’m a puncher, unless I have my bow, in which case I’ll gladly put an arrow into someone who seems like they might deserve it. Or at least, that was the Old Fenn, who I’m trying to leave behind.

The thing is, giving in to those stupid impulses is the mark of a bad person. There are probably plenty of bad people who don’t have impulse problems too, I guess, but whatever. I know that having you become obsessed with avenging me is probably not what’s best for the world, or for you. So though this letter is being written by a not-dead Fenn, who doesn’t have to deal with all the problems of being dead, let me do my best to absolve you of the need to go all bonkers because I’m dead.

First things first? I need you to not see me as someone that I wasn’t. I mean, maybe by the time I die, I’ll have become the sort of girlfriend that deserves being thought of how you think of me, but probably that was still a road that I was walking. The Fenn writing this letter? She’s kind of shit. I’d always thought that about myself, but I guess it was only in the last few months that I started to really realize that I thought it. Parsmont had a lot to do with that. So if I’m dead, and you’re thinking of me, then I really want you to remember me as I was. Don’t go making up some fake version of me that never really existed, because it feels better not to think about all the ways that I was flawed. I’m not saying that you did that with Arthur, but you totally did that with Arthur.

Second … blegh. Make sure that I’m really dead first, and spend some time getting over me so it’s not a mistake, but you should try your best to move on. Like I said, I do love the idea of you pining for me for the rest of your life, because I’m pretty great and all, but Good Fenn is in the driver’s seat now. I don’t want you to be looking at me with rose-tinted glasses, and I don’t want you to fuck everything up because you think that I’d be furious, or that I need, want, or deserve that level of devotion. (Hopefully the Dungeon Master gives me a ringside seat once I’m out of the game, and if he does, I’ll do my best to keep these instructions in mind.)

(If you’re going to hook up with someone in the group after I die, which seems likely, here’s my list in order, because I know you like lists: Amaryllis (she’s hot), Grak (he needs to get laid), locus (it would be fucking hilarious), Solace (grown up, naturally), the house (if she doesn’t look like Tiff), Valencia (bleh), and the house (if she looks like Tiff). But maybe the party will have a bunch of new members by the time I die. Not really planning to rewrite this letter.)

Third, you owe me one favor. For that favor? Don’t send me to the hells. I know you’ve got your own views on whether it would be better to be tortured forever or face oblivion, but for me, I choose oblivion. If I’m dead, you’re probably the one that gets to make that choice, and unless there are some really unusual circumstances, I don’t want to go to hell. Use my soul for parts, if it makes sense to, sell or use all the shit that I gathered up from our whirlwind tour of Aerb, and burn my body up after taking the bones out to use for their luck. Double check that I’m dead first, naturally. Maybe even triple check.

Mary thinks that it’s both morbid and stupid for me to be writing this letter. Stupid, maybe, I don’t know. Morbid though? I think we come closer to death on a regular basis than most people get in their whole lives (right up until they actually die, anyway). It’s a bit fun sometimes, I’ll grant that, but it’s no way to live long-term. Really, it seems like a good way for one of us to die. Solace already did, but she’s coming back, so I’m not sure that means anything. Maybe if I die, I’ll come back too, but I’m kind of skeptical that’s going to happen. Mary’s the one that was supposed to give you this letter, so if she did, that shows what she thinks about my chances.

All my love from beyond the grave,


(How cool is it that I can do things from beyond the grave? I don’t know why more people don’t write death letters.)

(Also, this is a cheap shot, because I can get the last word in, but you were totally wrong about the baryton/baritone argument, I looked it up like five minutes ago using the backpack. A baryton is a thing on Earth too, it wasn’t put on Aerb to confuse you, you were just wrong. Happens to the best of us, clearly, if I’m dead. Probably would have been more appropriate for another letter, but I’m dead, I can do what I want.)

I stared at the sheets of paper after I’d finished reading. I missed her terribly. It was astonishing to me how much we were thinking in the same direction. Fenn got me, in a way that I didn’t think anyone else ever had. And at the same time, we were nothing alike. I’d written more than one letter like hers, to be opened after my death. One for Tiff, one for Reimer, one for Tom, one for Maddie, one each for my parents … only if you wrote them like I did, you called them suicide notes instead.

We held a funeral in the late afternoon, the same day that Fenn had died. I was the one who dug the grave, in a courtyard within Bethel’s demesne. She’d said in her letter that we should chop her up and use her for parts, but there was no way that I could have ever done that. Just the thought of touching one of Fenn’s bones and draining it for its Luck gave me an uncomfortable tightness in my chest. We still had Fallatehr’s corpse, if we really needed elf luck by way of bone magic. (The fact that I could give consideration to the practical side of things was a sign that I was holding myself together well enough that maybe I wouldn’t fuck up our next serious encounter.)

The funeral was a small affair. She had a son out there somewhere, and he was the only one that I would have liked to bring in. The list of other people that might possibly have wanted to come and pay their respects was painfully short, no more than a handful of names. Fenn made fast friends, but our little group was insular for obvious reasons, and most of her friendships had been based on omissions of truth, if not outright lies.

Grak helped me lower her coffin into the grave; I cried the entire time, then set to the task of burying her. Most of this happened in silence. When I was finished, we said some words.

“She was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a sister,” said Amaryllis. “I feel fortunate to have had longer with her than the rest of you. We spent two months together in a room that was twenty feet to a side, and there were days when she made me forget that.” Amaryllis looked down at the grave. “If we ever gain the ability to bring people back from the dead, she’s the first on my list. Odds are, she’ll probably crack a joke. That was one of the best things about her.”

Grak had only a sentence. “She always found a way to be happy.”

It hurt, to hear him say that, because I knew it wasn’t exactly true. She hadn’t found a way to be happy with me. I understood where he was coming from, but it still rubbed me the wrong way.

“She had the mindset of a druid,” said Solace. She was still in a man’s body, a state that apparently didn’t bother her much. “She could bend like a reed in the wind and act without thinking when the time came to act. Her life was an act of improvisation and adaptation, always on her toes, adjusting to whatever the next day might bring. Part of that was because she was rootless, cast out from her two homes by family who didn’t understand her. It might have taken her some time, but I like to think that she found family in us, however briefly.”

My eyes went to Valencia, who was standing next in the circle. We hadn’t arranged a proper ceremony, but we were going in order, and she was next. Her hands were tucked into the pockets of her dress. It was a little bit too cold for what she was wearing, given the bleak weather on the Isle of Poran. Her nose was slightly red from the cold.

“I didn’t know her well,” said Valencia. “I had insights.” She twisted her lips slightly. “She was intensely loyal. She was trying her hardest to become better, more than most people ever try. She was … I wish that she could have been my sister too.” She began crying, silent tears rolling down her cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

I wanted to ask her what she was sorry for, but I didn’t think I could do it without sounding angry. Were those tears crocodile tears? I assumed that she could cry on command, if she needed to. My jaw was set and I was breathing through my nose, very deliberately. It felt like at any moment I would break again, and I wanted to prevent that. We were going to have to talk, but I wasn’t even remotely up for it.

“She had an attractive sort of flippancy,” said Bethel, speaking with the same calm voice she seemed to use for everything, as though she was above everyone else. The fact that she could kill everyone standing in the courtyard in the space of a few seconds added to that impression. “There’s something very fetching about a woman who thumbs her nose at pandering, even in the face of overwhelming power. When I first watched her, I thought that it was stupidity, but in time, I saw that it was an admirable attitude of defiance. She was my favorite resident.”

We’d come back around to me. I felt a lump in my throat. I didn’t know how I could possibly sum up what she’d meant to me. Most likely if I tried to write it all down, I would end up filling a whole book. To condense it all down into a handful of sentences seemed impossible. Worse, there was a sense of finality to saying goodbye like this. I didn’t want Fenn to be gone. There was a part of me that wanted to simply launch into a speech about how no, this wasn’t something I was going to accept, I was going to fight for her, I was going to keep the dream of her alive, put pieces of her soul into someone else until I’d reassembled her, throw her into the hells against her wishes and then rescue her from them …

“She was my first real friend in this place,” I said. The words felt thick in my mouth. I glanced at Amaryllis. “Sorry.” She gave a small wave of her hand. She understood; we’d had a bit of a rocky start. “She had a lot of edifice, and a lot of depth. She was dealt a bad hand, right from the start, caught between two worlds, neither of which really seemed to want her, and … she loved us like family, because she never really had a family. The edifice was there because that was her way of dealing with a world that was shitty to her, and it was a good edifice, one that she enjoyed. And her depths … I never really got to explore them as much as I would have liked.” I let that hang in the air for a moment. I hadn’t meant it as a joke, or something crude, but as I was trying to think of what to say next my mind kept circling back to that. I felt myself smiling a little. “I think we’re doing this all wrong. I’m sure she’d appreciate people saying nice things about her, but a solemn, somber funeral wasn’t really her style.”

“You’re probably right,” replied Amaryllis.

“I don’t know what she would have wanted,” I continued. “She didn’t say in her letter. I’d argue maybe that we should be celebrating her life, but a lot of her life wasn’t that great, and the part of it we shared with her wasn’t always the best either.”

“I have an idea,” said Valencia. Her voice was soft. I froze when she spoke, and didn’t look her direction.

“What kind of idea?” asked Amaryllis. “What … provenance?”

“My own,” said Valencia. I looked at her, finally, and saw her head hung low. “She — she had a campaign, with notes, one that she really wanted to run. I know that we couldn’t play it like she’d have done it, but it was something that she made, and wanted to share with us, so … I don’t know, I just thought.”

“Joon?” asked Amaryllis.

“I .. sure,” I said. “I’ll need some time to look over her notes and see what I can make of it.”

“I was thinking that I could run it,” said Valencia.

I looked at her, feeling cold. “Why?” I asked.

“She meant for you to play it, not run it,” said Valencia. “She wanted to be the one in the driver’s seat.”

“I think it might be a bad idea,” said Amaryllis. She gave a polite cough. “We need to clear the air before too much longer, ideally before tomorrow’s visitors.”

“Clear the air?” I asked. I could feel my fists clenching, seemingly of their own volition.

Valencia was looking away.

“Val?” asked Amaryllis. “We need to get this done now, not in the heat of combat, and not when there’s some momentous decision that needs to be made in a hurry.”

“That was part of the argument for Fenn and I going to therapy,” I said. “Better to do it now than later, better that it be handled quickly on our own terms than at a time when it might blow up in our faces.”

“I understand how you feel,” said Amaryllis. “But in a full combat situation where you’re managing multiple different types of magic and trying to process information, we really can’t afford for any of this to come out. The line between life and death is razor thin here.” She looked at the small mound of earth where Fenn was buried. “I’m trying to keep everyone safe. Val, tell him.”

“No,” I said, looking at Valencia. “Take in a soul, then we’ll have Grak and Bethel watch your skin to make sure that you’re not using a devil. That’s the only way that I want to talk to you.” I could feel my blood starting to run hot. If she refused, it was as good as an admission of guilt. Of what, that remained to be seen, but my mind was already going to the worst case scenarios.

“Okay,” said Valencia. Her voice was small. She looked to Amaryllis, who was wearing the glove, Sable. “I’ll need a soul.”

Amaryllis frowned slightly. “I’d rather not do this at a funeral,” she said.

“I think we’ve all said our piece,” I replied. “And if we’re laying things to rest, I can’t think of a better place than here.” I was too angry, and I knew that I was too angry. It was hard to modulate my tone and think about the words that were coming out of my mouth.

“Fine,” said Amaryllis. She popped a small glass bottle from the glove and handed it over to Valencia, who took the stopper out and downed the small white sphere in a single swift motion.

Her face fell slightly as she looked at me. “I can still lie,” she said. “And … and I looked at what was going on from the eyes of dozens of devils, so I still remember what they would have said, even if I don’t have their powers. It’s important that you know that, because otherwise you might think of it later, and not trust me.”

“I already thought of that, thanks,” I said. “And I’ve already thought of the fact that you might have been lying about only being able to take in one at a time. You can kill them without taking them in, and your powers keep growing.”

Valencia slumped. “Then there would be nothing that I could ever say.”

I had no response to that. “Say what you have to say,” I said.

Valencia hesitated. “You were the only couple I ever knew,” she said. “My father’s relationship with his thralls was … it wasn’t ever like romance. And so I looked at the two of you, and you were happy together, and … and then I looked at you through a devil’s eyes, even though I knew that I shouldn’t. I could see all the ways you hated each other, all the things that I could have said to turn you against each other, the little annoyances and lingering problems, and … I hated what I saw.”

I pursed my lips.

“I could see all the good, too, the devils aren’t hopeless about that, they’re not Voldemort, not being able to understand love, they just hate it and they’re not as good at it because why would they be, but … it just wasn’t enough. The good wasn’t enough to outweigh the bad, and I never … never liked Fenn, not until after she began to change, and things just got worse between the two of you when she did, and I spent all this time trying to understand what had happened. It was all the stuff we talked about in therapy, the ways you were rubbing each other the wrong way, and it was becoming worse and worse as time went on, especially when you got back from being in the chamber, and … I should have kept to myself, but I couldn’t say anything without it looking like I was badmouthing this thing you were both proud of, and you wouldn’t have believed that I wasn’t jealous. And there were all these other things that I was keeping my mouth shut about, because I didn’t want people to know how I felt about them, because they wouldn’t have understood that I loved them anyway.” She was speaking fast and carelessly. I glanced at Grak, who was watching her impassively and not saying a word.

“So you decided to split us up,” I said.

“No,” said Valencia. “No, I never wanted to, even if you weren’t happy, I was just going to let you be, because trying to fix it without seeming like that was what I was doing would take too many plots and planning, and the devils aren’t all the same, they have different skills and approaches, so … I was going to not say anything and hope that it worked out somehow, even though I didn’t think it would. And then Mary said that maybe I should help work things out between you two, and, and I thought that maybe it wouldn’t hurt anything if I just — if I let the process fail.”

“We came to you for help,” I said. My hands were balled into fists. I wasn’t going to hit her, not unless she confessed to killing Fenn, but I wanted to. Valencia was small and vulnerable, without her armor or weapons, but even given that, there was a part of me that wanted to take out my frustration through excessive violence.

“I know,” said Valencia. “And I thought … I thought that maybe the ends would justify the means. And I didn’t think … the door was still open, it didn’t need to be forever that you were apart –”

“Well, it is now,” I said. “What about during the fight? Could you have saved her?”

“I … yes,” said Valencia. And then I thought that I really would have to kill her, because if she had sat there and done nothing, she was no better than the Dungeon Master. “But I chose Mary! I had to pick one of them, and I picked the one who was more important. If Mary dies we lose all our best entads, that was what I was thinking. Please, Juniper, I had to make a choice, and I wasn’t thinking about what would look good, I was trying to — to –” She closed her eyes. She was crying. “I was trying to make it through,” she finally said.

My heart was hammering in my chest, so I focused on my bones and began pulling WIS. It wasn’t just the stat boost that helped, it was the actual act of burning the bone, which took my mind off of what I was feeling. I slowed down and controlled my breathing, then slowed the beating of my heart by changing the flow of my blood through my body. I closed my eyes so I could block out the world around me, and focused on the manipulations of my internal magic.

“I forgive you,” I said. I opened my eyes and looked at Valencia. She was staring at me with tears still streaking her cheeks. “I forgive you for trying to manipulate me, I don’t actually think that you need forgiveness for saving Amaryllis, because it was a choice that had no good solution. If –” and there my attempt at magnanimity faltered, because ‘if you really didn’t do all this for nefarious reasons’ was the hitch in all of it, and the prime source of mistrust. “I’m probably still going to feel upset, but … I don’t want to be. You’re younger than your years. You’re going to make mistakes. Big ones, I guess.” I took a slow breath. “Fenn didn’t die because of you.”

Valencia let out a shaky breath. “I don’t deserve you,” she said.

“I’m not saying — it’s going to take some time to get back on good footing,” I said. I wasn’t even sure that I meant the words that I was saying, I only knew that some better version of Juniper would be saying them. That was the Juniper that I wanted to be, the one who could forgive a mistake and not go down the rabbit-hole of recrimination and anger. And if it hadn’t been a mistake … well, gods willing it would come out at some point, and I would deal with it when it did.

“Okay,” said Valencia, her head hung low. “Can I … can I see, with a devil, to see whether –”

“No,” I said.

“To see whether what?” asked Amaryllis, furrowing her brow.

“To see if he … if he means it,” said Valencia. “To see whether it’s actual forgiveness, or, I don’t know.”

“Absolutely not,” I said. “You look at me with a devil behind your eyes again and I’ll never speak to you again.”

“I can’t watch her all the time,” said Grak. “And she can’t be expected to hold a soul for the rest of her life.”

“I can watch her so long as she’s here,” said Bethel. “Though I don’t really think she’s done anything so bad. So far as I can see, everything said in the therapy session was essentially true, most of it offered by yourself and Fenn.”

“Don’t fucking start with me,” I said. I hadn’t known that she’d listened in. I’d known she had the capacity, but I hadn’t realized that she had been party to those talks. Even if she had, I hadn’t thought that she would say anything about them.

Bethel gave a casual shrug. “I’m only offering my perspective.”

“Are we done then?” asked Amaryllis. “Juniper, was there something else you wanted to ask, something that needs to be resolved?”

“No,” I said, folding my arms. “I don’t really feel up for playing Fenn’s game though.”

“Perhaps that’s for the better,” said Bethel. “We have a visitor.”

“We do?” asked Amaryllis. “They weren’t supposed to come here until tomorrow.”

“Not the ones you spoke of,” said Bethel. “An old friend has come knocking on our door.” She held her hand out in front of her, and an image appeared above it, showing a teenage girl with dark black hair standing in front of the door. It was Raven, Uther’s archivist, and later the keeper of the magical library, at our doorstep. The resemblance to Maddie was uncanny.

Fucking great.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 120: Deceptions

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