Worth the Candle, Ch 139: Piece of Mind

The knock on my door was a timid one.

“Come in!” I called.

I was surprised to see Valencia step through. She looked trepidatious, with her hair (white, dyed brown) covering her face some. Her eyes were crimson red, rather than the purple they took on when she put her lenses in. She wasn’t the same girl we’d rescued from the Amoureux Penitentiary: she was healthier now, with better posture, and a fair amount of muscle from the training that she’d been putting in, some of it in the time chamber.

“No devils,” she said, holding up a hand.

“Okay,” I said. I turned back to my things. “I’m just in the middle of packing up. I’m going to be living in the tree soon, in the bottle, to be with the locus. Historically, trying to force loyalty hasn’t worked, but it’s worth a shot. Maybe I’ll come to understand it better.” I’d meant to make the move sooner, but things had been a little bit hectic.

“You did well with Grak today,” said Valencia.

“Devil’s insight?” I asked. I tried to keep the frown from my face.

“In this case, yes,” said Valencia. “Not when you were there, just with him alone. I wanted to be sure that he wasn’t going to try something.”

“Is he?” I asked.

“No,” replied Valencia. “I don’t think so,” she hedged. “There’s something that I want to talk to you about though.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“He has feelings for you,” said Valencia.

I stopped what I was doing to stare at her. “I mean, that’s … what kind of feelings?”

“You’re going to have to talk with him about that,” said Valencia.

“Is he in love with me?” I asked.

“It’s complicated,” said Valencia. She gave me a frown that was very reminiscent of Amaryllis. “I just didn’t want you to get blindsided.”

I closed my eyes. “Shit,” I said. “Okay, well that’s going to make things awkward.”

“Probably,” nodded Valencia. “I just thought that you should know. You were planning on having him move into the tree with you, weren’t you?”

“I was,” I said. I kept my eyes screwed shut. “Fuck,” I said. “I wanted to be able to keep an eye on him and maybe help with the loneliness. Dwarves like to have someone to sleep beside, I thought … I offered to be his krinrael.”

“Bethel told me,” replied Valencia.

“Lovely,” I said with a sigh. I opened my eyes and looked at Valencia. She was watching me. I had no way of knowing whether or not she had a devil in her or not. “Okay,” I said. “Do you have advice?”

“Advice?” asked Valencia, momentarily nonplussed.

“What do you think I should do?” I clarified.

“I — why?” asked Valencia.

“Because you’re here?” I asked. “I don’t know, I just wanted some insight into what you thought I should do.”

“You want me to use a devil against Grak?” asked Valencia.

“No,” I said. “I want your advice.”

“But … you hate me,” said Valencia.

“I don’t hate you,” I replied. “I think what you did to me and Fenn was shitty, and I don’t actually trust that it was for the ‘right’ reasons, whatever those are, and yeah, it pissed me off, especially after she was gone, but I didn’t and don’t hate you.”

“You did,” said Valencia, shaking her head. “Devils know hate.”

“Alright, well, fine,” I replied. “Maybe I hated you for a bit, but if we don’t give each other second chances, then we’re not going to be a very effective team.”

Loyalty increased: Valencia the Red lvl 27!

“Thank you,” she whispered.

“I’m glad we could clear that up,” I said. “But do you have advice on how to handle Grak?”

“Find him someone, or wait until the Dungeon Master does,” said Valencia. “That’s how I got over you.”

“Ah,” I said. “Wait until he gets a Jorge?”

“Do you still not like him?” asked Valencia, cocking her head to the side. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “He’s an interloper. He’s … maybe this isn’t an analogy that you would get, but it feels like when you have a long-running sitcom, and a new character gets dropped in at the start of the seventh season, and you’re just supposed to accept that he’s there now, a part of the crew without any real introduction.”

“It’s not because you still want to have sex with me?” asked Valencia.

I winced. “Jesus,” I said. “That’s –”

“I’m only asking,” said Valencia, frowning at me. “Can’t we talk openly?”

“We can,” I said, rubbing my forehead. “It’s just hard to be laid bare like that.”

“Well I didn’t want to tiptoe around it,” said Valencia. “Sometimes it seems like half of what you people do.” She crossed her arms in front of her chest. “I haven’t looked at you while holding a devil since you asked me not to, not even when it would have made sense to for other reasons, and I’ve tried my best not to think about you while I had a devil either, so I was just asking, because I don’t know how else I’m supposed to know.” She hesitated and let her arms drop a bit. “I’ve missed talking to you. So just … talk to me, if you’re going to?”

“If there’s some part of me that finds you physically attractive,” I began.

“There is,” said Valencia with a nod.

“Then my ideal version of myself shouldn’t be thinking about that or taking that into consideration where Jorge is concerned,” I said. Especially since there’s absolutely no chance I would ever act on that attraction. “So I’m just going to resolve not to do that. I do think that it’s a little weird that you’re dating so quickly, and as far as emotional and social maturity I’m skeptical, but … he’s a good guy?”

Valencia gave a firm nod. “He’s the best person I’ve ever met. No offense.”

“None taken,” I said, and tried to mean it. “But, wait, really? Of everyone?”

“Yes,” replied Valencia. “I checked him over very thoroughly.”

I frowned. “I’m not going to say that your judgment is suspect, but, uh.”

“Everyone has dark, ugly parts to them,” said Valencia. “I’ve seen them in everyone I’ve met. It’s just how people are. Jorge’s dark parts are only a little dark, and his ugly parts are only faintly unattractive.”

My mind drifted, naturally, to the dark and ugly parts of myself. “You said my flaws were beautiful, back when we first met,” I said.

“No,” said Valencia. “I said that it was beautiful to see you struggle against those flaws.”

“Ah,” I said. “I guess I didn’t remember it exactly right.”

“You probably didn’t want to,” said Valencia. “I still think it’s true, by the way. What you’re doing for Grak doesn’t come naturally to you. You’re comforting him. You’re being a warm blanket to curl up in. When people are hurting, you want to be a rock for them, a solid, dependable protector. It’s what you wanted to be, for me, I think.”

“You think?” I asked. “You don’t know?”

“I don’t trust the devils,” said Valencia. “I don’t trust myself when I’m borrowing their wisdom and knowledge.”

“Probably smart,” I said. “But I think that’s right, for what it’s worth. That is what I would have wanted to be for you. It just … it couldn’t be tied in with all the romance stuff, not when you’re still developing as a person.”

“Romance and sex,” said Valencia.

“I … yeah,” I said. “That’s one of those things I’d rather we never said out loud.”

“I know that,” said Valencia. She frowned at me. “One of the hardest things about people is all the things that they don’t say, especially the things that everyone knows, or everyone but me knows. With a devil I can figure it out, but even then it seems so pointless. And we could become the sorts of people who just talk about all the things we’re thinking, but we don’t, because it would be work.”

“It’s just people,” I said. “People are hard. Really hard, sometimes, or even most of the time.”

“I wish they weren’t,” said Valencia. “I wish that I could have a devil in me all the time, and change people so they aren’t so much work. You and Mary both told me not to do that though, even if it would make us a better team together.”

“We’d have to trust in your judgment,” I said.

“I know,” said Valencia. “And I know that I don’t know enough to start fixing everything. Don’t worry, I’m not going to try.”

“Okay,” I said. “Thank you for the heads up about Grak though.”

“I wasn’t sure whether I should say it, or whether I should have said it earlier,” said Valencia. “You’re really not mad at me?”

“No,” I said, and I found that I meant it. “In the other timeline — you and Jorge were happy.”

“We were?” asked Valencia. “For a long time?”

“Yes,” I replied. “Up until you died and the world ended.”

“I’m not sure that I want that with him,” said Valencia. She shifted on her feet. “The forever future, I mean, not the death and apocalypse, obviously.”

“Well, the books just show a single future,” I said. “You don’t need to feel bound by them.”

“I don’t know,” said Valencia. She frowned. “I think … I think I fixate on things. That’s what Mary said, but I think that she’s right. I don’t know if that’s bad or good, but Mary thinks that it’s bad.”

“I fixate on things,” I said with a shrug.

“Mary said that I fixate on the first thing that I come across,” said Valencia. She looked down a bit. “Because I’m broken.”

“Did she say that?” I asked. I felt a flash of anger at the hypothetical Amaryllis who would have called Valencia broken, even if it was sort of true, and even if Amaryllis would never say that.

“No, she didn’t say it,” said Valencia. “But she thought it.”

“We’re all broken,” I said, resisting the urge to tell her that she couldn’t actually see inside Amaryllis’ head. “It’s just a matter of how we deal with the broken parts of ourselves. If you find that you have a tendency to fixate on the first thing that you come across, you have ways of dealing with that. I guess I would argue that it’s not a real negative, unless it’s stopping you from finding something that you’d like more, or if you’re just deluding yourself.”

“Do you think I am, with Jorge?” asked Valencia. “Deluding myself?”

“Er,” I said. “I don’t know him. I’ve met him once or twice, briefly, but everything that I know about Jorge comes from what you’ve said about him, and from that, he seems nice, so … not really my place to judge.” And the bias I feel … well, better not to give it a chance to express itself. “If we were talking about Harry Potter though? Then yeah, I think you’re wrapping yourself in the first thing that resonated with you and holding onto it a bit too tightly.” I shrugged. “I do like the books.”

“Thank you,” said Valencia. “For talking to me. And for giving me something to think about.”

“I’m not saying that Jorge isn’t great,” I said. “I really want to make that clear. I’m just saying that if you find yourself falling in love with the first thing you come across too often, maybe that’s not because it’s the best ever, it’s just a case of you giving too strong a weight to what looks like an island of stability in a sea of uncertainty.” I paused. “I guess I should probably meet Jorge. Bring him around to dinner, maybe?”

“Yes,” nodded Valencia. “I think I would like that.”

After having lived in Bethel for quite some time, the tree house in the center of the bottle was a pleasant change of pace. Everything was small and cozy, with a great deal of thought going into the proper placement of everything. It wasn’t that Bethel was thoughtless, it was just that she liked to go big and luxuriant, more of a palace than a house, for all that she complained about having too many people in her and feeling more like a facility. She also changed frequently, moving around rooms on us to fit her whims.

“I’ll need you to get in and out, when I’m staying here,” I told Solace. “So I would appreciate if you stay in here when I’m here, if that’s okay, just in case there’s an emergency.”

“Understood,” said Solace with a bow in my direction. She was three feet tall, in her child’s body, with the green skin of a crantek and two small antlers on her forehead, new additions and from what I could tell, only added for a little bit of flair. She was wearing clothes, thankfully, most likely out of respect for my wishes. “I’m happy that you’re here.”

“I’m hoping that it will help,” I said. “I have no idea how it would, but maybe not knowing is to our benefit.”

“Your profane texts didn’t hold any clues?” asked Solace.

‘Profane’ was a strong word, and one that I didn’t think really fit with the Second Empire’s research. They didn’t give a shit about the loci and saw them as both a political tool and an impediment to progress, but ‘evil’ was another strong word, and while it did fit, it was at least goal-oriented evil, the kind of evil of people who were willing to pay steep prices, so long as someone else was willing to foot the bill.

“No, nothing,” I said, keeping my thoughts to myself. “I think our plan is to knock out as many quests as we can as quickly as possible, and in the downtime, I’ll try to, um, connect with the locus.”

“Good,” said Solace with another small bow. “Grak will help me tend to the domain in the meantime.”

I saw Grak nod beside me. We’d flown down into the bottle together, as birds. “Whatever I can do to help,” he said.

I had invited him to come live with me before Valencia had said anything about him having feelings for me. That was something that I wasn’t looking forward to navigating, but I would try to be as forthright and honest as I could be, and then hope that the Dungeon Master would throw Grak his Jorge.

“Excellent,” said Solace with a pleased smile.

On cue, the Six-Eyed Doe showed up, tall and imposing, but with a slender body and six curious eyes. I looked it over, trying to see the beauty in it, trying to feel some sense of wonder and majesty, and failed entirely. Why a deer though?

“Let’s go for a walk, shall we?” I asked.

The doe huffed at me and nodded its head once.

I began walking, and the doe followed along beside me. I had no idea what I was supposed to say to it, or how I was going to have to have a conversation with it given that it didn’t actually talk.

“Alright,” I said. “First things first, can I call you a she, rather than it? Everyone just calls you ‘the locus’, or talks around it, but I think it helps me, mentally, to compare you to a living thing rather than an inanimate object. Maybe that’s me placing a bit too much faith in Sapir-Whorf.” I’d already been making an effort on that front, but I had forgotten to ask the locus’ opinion on the matter.

The doe bent its head once.

“Second question,” I said. “Do you want me to explain references that I assume you won’t get? I don’t even know if you speak Anglish, or you’re just reading intent, or maybe feeling my aura or something, but –”

The doe shook its head once.

“Okay,” I said. “No explanations. I guess I’ll just talk then, because I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”

There was no response to that. The doe kept on walking beside me. I was following one of the little trails that ran through the bottle, one I’d been on a few times before, when Fenn and I had wanted to get away from the house.

“I guess I’ll talk about the personal stuff,” I said. “We can start with Fenn. She was …” I trailed off and then stopped. She was. “I wish that I could have saved her. It’s hard for me to not blame myself for that, and maybe I shouldn’t even be trying to skirt blame. Maybe I should just accept some share of responsibility.” I sighed. “And now that she’s gone, it’s like she’s sitting over my shoulder, and I might be able to shake that off, but I don’t think I want to. I think about what she would say sometimes, if she were here, and sometimes it just seems like we all stop talking so she can make the obvious joke, until we realize that she’s not making jokes anymore.” I sighed again. “That’s probably just me, seeing meaning in silences, because I miss her.”

The doe huffed once. I looked over at her, and the three eyes that were pointed my direction. Only one was watching me. I had no idea whether she was finding this worthwhile.

“So that’s its own thing,” I said. “But at least it’s nothing actionable, nothing that I could confront or change. With Grak … Valencia said that he has ‘feelings’ for me, but I’m not sure exactly what that maps to, and I’m not looking forward to that conversation. Dwarves aren’t so different from humans, I guess.” I paused. “I’m not gay. I mean, he’s not technically a man, but he’s got a beard, and no boobs, so the lack of attraction is, I don’t know. It’s nothing against him. And even if he looked like Amaryllis,” I paused again as I tried to contemplate that. “It would be weird. He would carry himself differently than she does, and we’d probably use female pronouns for her, even if she still had a cloaca and all the other dwarven internals, but, I don’t know.”

I glanced over at the doe as we walked. “I think that Amaryllis is legitimately as beautiful as I could find a woman to be. Pallida has this hairpin that makes whoever wears it more pretty, and I keep thinking about what it would be like if Amaryllis put that hairpin in. Would it just not do anything? Would there be a buffer overflow that would make the game crash? I don’t mean to objectify her, because she’s so much more than how amazingly pretty she is, but it’s really hard for me to properly express what I feel when I look at her. I thought that I was mostly past the ‘holy shit she’s gorgeous’ part of things, and maybe I was for a while, but I came back from the Library and when I saw her I just thought, ‘Oh.’ It’s so hard to believe I’d gotten used to it. I have higher Poise now, and I have no idea whether or not that’s even doing anything, but if it is, it’s not enough to be noticeable.”

The doe nodded once.

“But when I think about Grak in Amaryllis’ body, besides the fact that it weirds me out, I still don’t feel the same way about hypothetical-her. It’s not like I’m in love with him and I wish that he had a different body that I was attracted to, it’s just … there’s nothing there. He’s a friend, and I care about him, and if what he needs is physical affection, I’ll get over my cultural hang-ups and provide it, but this kind of puts me in a bad spot, because I don’t want to lead him on, and I also don’t want to just reject him, because I feel like that’s me telling him, ‘Hey, live! But not with me, ew’, which isn’t what I would have wanted to hear in his position.” That was an understatement. I’d have been crushed. “I can’t just lie to him though.”

The doe nodded along. I had no idea what she was thinking, if anything.

“And moving down what’s a very long list, we have people pairing up, or seeming to, and,” I stopped and looked at the doe. She seemed a bit like she was smiling, or as much as a deer could smile. “I’m a total shitheel. I don’t know if you know that about me. I have these stupid feelings, all probably rooted in reasons that have obvious evo psych origins. I was evil for a bit, you probably know that, but this is a different sort of evil that I keep having to go over in my head. It’s like, I want Amaryllis to be happy, I want Valencia to be happy, but there’s this part of me that sees them with partners or potential partners and screams, ‘No, mine!’. And how fucked is that? I don’t actually think, on an intellectual level, that either of them owes anything to me, but there’s still this emotion, jealousy or something else, that just … blegh.”

The doe snorted once.

“Exactly,” I replied. I was sort of getting into this. “I think if I had an afternoon free to do it, I might be able to go into my soul or spirit and just tear out everything that was causing problems, but that might mean giving up my humanity, and I find it offensive on a personal identity level, not to mention the utilitarian objections given that I don’t have a degree in psychosurgery.” I did wonder how easy it would be, with both of them pushed to max, but momentarily pushing skills up came with high costs.

“I’m already not acting on those feelings, because I know they’re in that middle area of the Venn diagram of stupid and abhorrent. I maybe have the excuse of being in love with Amaryllis, and maybe that relationship would even make the both of us happy, but with Valencia?” I shook my head. “It sucks, because I know she still sees right through me, and she knows that I know she knows, and I don’t talk about it, even though she said that we should. I just don’t see what it helps, to bring all that shit into the open. I mean, I’m doing it now, but to confirm the things she already knows would just be painful and awkward.” I thought about that for a moment. “It’s not how I was raised. You’re allowed to think things, so long as you don’t say them or act on them.”

I looked over at the doe again. We’d reached the edge of the bottle, where the path turned to match the curve of the glass. The bottle only held about a square mile of land, but the paths wound around within that mile, through a variety of terrain. If we followed the loop, eventually we would come back to the house, but it would take some time. I continued on; I didn’t know what I was doing here, but this didn’t seem to be hurting, and in some ways it felt good to be able to say these things out loud. That was probably why Valencia had wanted to talk about it.

“That’s where Fel Seed comes from,” I said. “When I was drawing up this great and terrible villain, he was every dark thought I’d ever had. I would think about the times that I wanted to hurt people, and I would think, ‘What if I felt like that all the time? What if I could enact that pain with impunity, with no one to challenge me?’ And it just sort of went from there. The City of a Thousand Brides was a crystallization of the same kinds of feelings I have about Jorge and Valencia.” Stupid, stupid, nonsense feelings.

“And when I think about Amaryllis and Pallida … I don’t know. They’re both women, so it doesn’t trip the sensors as much. I don’t think that they would be happy together, and I know that they weren’t too happy in the doomed timeline, but I don’t know if saying that to Amaryllis would just be in service of killing that relationship in the crib or what. And if I was going to propose that she start loving me again, maybe I should have done it already.” I looked out at the grass. It really was beautiful in the bottle.

“It really is beautiful in here,” I said. “This landscape, confined within a mile-tall glass bottle, is everything that I could want in a place.” I glanced over at the doe, wondering if that was insensitive. “There used to be a thing called a demiplane. If I had to guess why they were excluded, I would say that someone found a way to proliferate them too much, or nest them, and if you could stick everyone into custom demiplanes, you have to imagine that everyone in the world would do it, which would change the nature of everything. But demiplanes were always my favorite. They were cozy little places. This bottle is probably from or inspired by my microworlds campaign. I loved the microworlds, the tightly packed, highly detailed places where you would know everyone and see everything. I know it’s not what you want to hear, I know you want to be big and sprawling, but these contained worlds, with everything organic but all still in its place, they hew close to my ideal.”

Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 8!

I had just been rambling, not really thinking about what I was saying, and the message took me by surprise.

“Um,” I said. “I just got a loyalty message, which typically seems to mean that something has changed in how you view me, or something like that, but I have no idea what I just said that would have resonated with you. Surely I’ve called this place beautiful before? Or, was it that I expressed my own form of beauty?”

The doe let out an unhelpful bleat. On instinct, I reached forward and patted her on the flank. She was softer than a real deer; I’d always thought deer were a little bit bristly, but all of my experiences with touching them had come shortly after having killed them.

“Amaryllis has some theories about companions,” I said as I resumed walking. The sun was starting to set, which added some color to the surroundings, given that it was one of the few clear days on the Isle of Poran. “The big central axiom is that companions aren’t random, and that they’re related to me on some axis, which is about as broad a statement as you could make. If Fel Seed is everything evil and wrong about me, then it’s pretty clear that Bethel is some of those same instincts, but much more aligned with our goals.” I scratched my head, then ran my fingers through my hair. I needed a haircut. The last one I’d had, Fenn had given me, against my better judgment. “Valencia is obviously Joonbait, and Raven is an idealized version of Maddie. Grak is meant to help me confront the fact that I attempted suicide, maybe? Or maybe it’s about growing up in a rural area and knowing that the rural life isn’t enough. Probably both.” I looked over at the locus. “You have to understand that I don’t actually think of people this way, I’m trying to get myself in the mindset of the Dungeon Master and what it is that he might have been thinking, if anything.”

The doe nodded her head once and blinked at me, with her six eyes out of sync with each other.

“Amaryllis is maybe meant to teach me a lesson about how it’s okay to just be friends?” I scratched my head again. “No real clue there. Similar for Fenn, though in her case I guess that maybe the lesson, or the point would be that people, or women, or women that I love, are capable of being imperfect, and deserve no less love for it. Or maybe that I should value people for who they are, not for what I want them to be. So many of these lessons I know though, which makes it frustrating, like I’m being told to be a good person in all the ways I already know I should be. It’s one of the reasons that I’m inclined toward saying ‘fuck the narrative’.”

I could see Grak and Solace in the distance. We hadn’t talked about it in front of him, but Grak was on an informal suicide watch, and had been for a while. I wasn’t too worried, but I didn’t want him to be left alone. Solace was calm and gentle, and I hoped that she would provide what he needed.

“That brings us to you,” I said to the doe. “If we accept that companions are some form of communication by the Dungeon Master, or maybe just purposeful, or can be meaningfully read as such, then what would your existence as a companion be trying to say? Thoughts?”

The locus raised her head high into the sky and let out another loud bleat. In the distance, I saw Solace and Grak stop what they were doing and turn toward us for a moment, before resuming their gardening.

“My own thinking is that it’s about the ineffable,” I said. “I mean, that’s obvious enough. Maybe it’s about beauty and art. Maybe it’s whimsy. I was always bad at that kind of thing. I would get pictures in my mind’s eye and then when I went to put them down on the page, they would come out too sensible, with none of the magic that I’d wanted to pour into them. From what I understand of it, that’s druidism in a nutshell, wrestling with manufacturing whimsy. But I don’t know how knowing any of that helps you, except that these stupid loyalty meters give rewards, and maybe one of them will get you out somehow.”

The locus bleated again, twice, then lowered its head and nudged me. I patted her on the head.

“My other theory, as far as ‘loyalty’ goes, is that some points I get just by being myself,” I said. “Some might be from changing, or recognizing that I’m wrong, but others are just because I was able to express something core to myself, something that you didn’t know before.” I found that I enjoyed talking out loud to the locus. I was used to keeping all my thoughts internal, but it felt good to verbalize them, even if it was to someone who wasn’t quite equipped to respond.

I began talking about the act of creation, not the simulationist part of it that was so often the result of trying to pin things down, but the truly artistic side. I rambled a bit, because I didn’t think that it mattered if I drove directly to my thesis, whatever it was. I described the times when things had seemed to simply come to me from the aether, connections that my mind had made without me, or details that had been added for the sole reason that they seemed right, not because there was necessarily any logic underpinning it.

I tried not to break my flow when the notification came.

Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 9!

“The Zorish Isles,” I said, continuing on. “They were one of those things that would have needed a lot of backfilling. I was sitting in my bathtub and imagining the tips of my fingers as islands jutting up from the water, and when I had it in my mind’s eye, my fingers blown up to ludicrous scale, and the people and life on the islands ignorant of the reality, it seemed so perfect and right. I tried to write up backstory for them, but everything I wrote seemed to diminish them, save for those explanations that raised more questions than they answered.” I stopped for a moment and thought about that. “Maybe that’s what it is for me, the sense of seeking as an elemental part of creation. Eventually I turn to filling things out, but that never gives the same satisfaction, it’s just going through a checklist of plate tectonics and biomes. Satisfying, maybe, but not as satisfying. I want the floating islands to drift over the land, and they’ve got to have some explanation, but sometimes it seems better to just say, ‘it’s magic, I don’t have to explain shit’.”

Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 10!

Companion Passive Unlocked: Six-Eyed (Six-Eyed Doe)!

I immediately closed my eyes to look at the virtue.

Six-Eyed: Any attempt to use any system in a non-standard way will be considered one degree more reasonable than it otherwise would be. Any existing virtues, entads, or effects that specify a degree of reasonableness are increased by one degree of reasonableness in your favor (calculated after all other effects). The Layman will look more favorably on your attempts to argue definition.

I looked at that for a while. I was going to have to write all that down for Amaryllis. Given that the game didn’t actually have a manual, the text of the virtues was one of the only things that exposed any of the game to me. ‘The Layman’ was mentioned once, and ‘degrees of reasonableness’ were mentioned twice. In theory, Six-Eyed meant that my Monkey Grip ability would let me wield even more unreasonably large swords than before, and I suspected that if I still had the Anyblade, it would be a little more lax about what counted as a blade, not that it had been an exceptionally strict item to begin with. I assumed that ‘the Layman’ was a conceptualization of DM-as-adjudicator, but I didn’t really see how that fit in with the rules system of the game as I understood it, not if most things had abilities that were set in stone. Boundary conditions, perhaps?

“Okay, so what counts as a chair?” asked Reimer.

“A chair is a chair,” I said.

“That’s meaningless,” said Reimer. “I’m asking for the purposes of the spell, what’s a chair? You said that it can make chairs valued under 25 gp, so what’s a chair?”

“Alright,” I said. I’d been prepared for this, after one too many arguments. “So there are a couple of different directions we can go with this. One, we do the porn test, I-know-it-when-I-see-it, but that requires me to see it, so every time you ask whether or not something is a chair, I say yes or no. That’s probably what we’re going to do, but there are other options, for the sake of a diegetic explanation.”

“A what?” asked Maddie.

“Diegetic,” replied Tiff. “Derived from diegesis. It basically means ‘in-story’.”

“It’s Juniper’s favorite word,” said Tom.

“No,” said Craig. “His favorite word is egregious. It was on the bingo sheet.”

“I have a lot of favorite words,” I said. “But to go back to what I mean, and Maddie, hopefully to help you understand, we can say that in game terms Reimer-the-player is asking me-the-DM whether or not something is a chair and I’m replying to him, but that doesn’t actually explain what Karbon is experiencing in-game. A wizard attempts to cast the spell, but does he hear a voice in his head that says ‘hey, that’s not a chair’? Probably not, though that is one of the options. Instead, maybe there’s something like memetic space –”

“From Long Stairs,” Tiff said to Maddie.

“It’s basically a conception of collective memetic strength,” I said. “So if you took all the ideas about what a chair is in all the heads of all the people, then you could make an average weighted by confidence or strength or whatever, and you’d end up with something that wasn’t really a definition, but which mapped to various real-world objects with a given strength, and then you could have a cut-off as far as how far away from the meme is too far. Similarly, you could have a Platonic realm where all objects exist in their ideals, and you could see how close to the p-space ideal the target of the spell was.”

“Or you could give a literal definition,” grumbled Reimer. “You could say that a chair has got to have four legs, a place for a humanoid to sit, et cetera.”

“Doesn’t a chair have a minimum of three legs?” asked Tiff. “Or two, if they’re curved, like a rocking chair.”

“That’s exactly the sort of the argument that you’d get into literally all the time,” I said. “It’s the stupid ‘is a hot dog a sandwich’ thing again.”

“A hot dog is totally a sandwich,” said Craig. “Meat between bread, how is that not a sandwich?”

I let out a long, low sigh.

“Alright,” said Arthur as he sidled back into the room and took his place. “What did I miss?”

“Chairs,” said Reimer.

“Great,” replied Arthur with a smile. “Are we still standing in front of the count?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. I could usually count on him to get us back on track.

Unfortunately, this new ability didn’t seem help the locus in any meaningful way. More than that, it was a passive that applied to me, not to her, which made it unique among the loyalty bonuses. Weren’t they supposed to act on the person who received them, with only tangential or symmetric effects for me? That had been the rule thus far. I was glad that I’d been able to get two loyalty ups in fairly quick succession, though it was a sign that I really hadn’t been putting in the work as far as the locus was concerned.

I tried more, naturally, but there was only so much that I could say about artistry and creation, especially since it had been such a long time since I’d done any of it. I was having the itch to do it again, especially as I talked about it with the Six-Eyed Doe, but they were muscles that I hadn’t been using, and if I was going to do it, it would be strictly recreational. I was also forcing it, which was (maybe) a bit easier with higher social stats, but still grated on me.

“How are things?” I asked Grak and Solace as I approached with the doe stalking along beside me.

“Good,” said Grak. He gave me a tentative smile.

“Good,” Solace agreed with a nod. “I understand that the house has its own priorities, but it’s nice for someone other than Amaryllis and Valencia to come down here.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ll try to make more of an effort. It’s just … easy to get caught up with what’s happening on the surface, and then I was away at the Library for a week and a half. I’m sure you appreciate those excuses a lot.”

Solace laughed. “It’s fine,” she said. “We’ve enjoyed the company we’ve had. Valencia really is a lovely girl, you should give her more of a chance.”

“I already am,” I said. A frown crossed my face. I didn’t really think that it was any of Solace’s business.

“Oh, allow an old woman her opinions,” said Solace with a little laugh. She gave me her best child’s smile. I had never really been around children that age, since I was an only child and the youngest of my flock of cousins. I felt awkward and uncomfortable.

“If you wanted to be regarded as an adult woman, you could have picked a body that suited it,” I said.

“Bodies are bodies,” said Solace. “I’ve had my share, and appearing as a child when I still have something of a child’s mentality and development seems apropos.” She touched her antlers. “You didn’t say whether you liked the embellishment.”

“If you can change your form at will,” I began. The doe poked me in the back with her head. “Okay, okay, fine, you can’t mimic a doppelganger, that was too much to ask.”

(We could already kind of do that, if we had access to the body we needed. Essentialism in the thirties wasn’t quite enough to reach into the anima exa in a timely manner, which was a problem given that the anima exa dissipated pretty rapidly when out in the open, but I could still do body swaps and take on a novel identity, so long as the person I was swapping with had the same number of bones. There wasn’t much reason to take on a different physical appearance though.)

“Grak and I have been gathering up things for dinner,” said Solace. “Does roast smeerp and root vegetables sound good to you?”

“Smeerp,” I said.

“It’s like rabbit,” replied Solace.

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “It’s … roast smeerp is fine.”

“Good,” said Solace with a nod. “Grak, would you do me the honor of being my sous chef? Juniper needs to be a dedicated pupil and tend to his plants.”

We ate dinner together, then I helped clean up, helped start a fire, and finally got some time to relax when Solace was already heading for bed. She claimed that rest did the mind good when you were still growing up, but I thought that was only about half true, and she’d really been giving me space to talk alone with Grak.

Grak and I set about doing what we normally did together, if we had time to kill: we played Ranks against each other, using ‘variants’ taken from a thick book.

“Solace has offered to be my krinrael,” said Grak, after some time had passed. (We spoke Groglir, per custom.)

“Oh?” I asked. “That’s, um. Nice?”

“She’s like you,” said Grak. “She offers out of concern, as a way of fulfilling a friend’s need.”

“Can I be megi with you?” I asked. [megi, mɛgi: forthright, blunt, and true to one’s self, especially to a peer when social standing is forfeit]

“Yes,” said Grak. We were talking as we played, which was taboo in dwarven culture; Grak didn’t seem to care so much.

“Okay,” I said. I took a breath and steeled myself. “Do you have feelings for me?”

“That is not the nature of megi,” said Grak. He was moving pieces around his board, trying to find the optimal set-up. He was good enough at Ranks to do it all in his head, which was a good sign that he was doing this just to relax, not to compete. “You do not ask questions.”

“Right,” I said. “Let me rephrase.” And hope that you’re telling the truth about what you prefer. “I don’t have any romantic or sexual feelings toward you. I can give physical contact, if you feel a need to be touched, and we can cuddle, but not much more.”

“I know all this,” said Grak as he moved his pieces.

“Okay,” I said. “I just didn’t want to lead you on.”

“I know,” replied Grak. “I appreciate it. That was megi as it should be.”

I returned to the game board in front of me, moving around the carrot, wolf, and rabbit tokens, but my mind wasn’t even remotely on the game. I glanced over at Grak, who was giving his game board a vacant stare.

“Dwarves are responsive,” said Grak. He cleared his throat. “We do not naturally feel much lust. We do not get ‘horny’.” (This was an Anglish loan word.) “There are exceptions, especially among the agkrioglian, but I am not an exception.” [agkrioglian, ɑ gkriɔglɪɑn: a dwarf who makes their home ‘outside’, typically used to refer to those raised with imperial customs, cultures, and values.] Grak paused. “When I was at Barriers I had many krin and krinrael. Most of them were species that felt that sexual need in one way or another. I was happy to oblige them, if they would understand what I wanted in return.”

“To be touched and held?” I asked.

Grak nodded once. “I developed my responsiveness over time,” he said. “I would see that need, and feel the reaction before being touched. I came to enjoy it, that sense of being needed.” He hesitated. “I don’t want you to think that I left Darili Irid for that preference alone.”

“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t think that. And even if you had –”

“No,” said Grak. “I believed that about myself for a long time. No, I left for many reasons.”

“Okay,” I said. “I didn’t mean to imply anything.”

Grak waved that away. “What I feel for you is not love or longing. It is rilirin.” [rilirin, ɹilirin: wistfulness for something that never was, nostalgia for times and places not lived-in]

“Is there anything that I can do about it?” I asked. My throat felt thick. “If it’s an unpleasant feeling?”

“You don’t understand,” said Grak, shaking his head. “Rilirin, it’s a feeling of … I see how you are with Amaryllis, how you were with Fenn, and I wish that it were me instead. Physically, you’re of the sort I’ve most liked to be with, tall, muscular, able to wrap me in your touch. I saw how you were with Fenn, kind and considerate, at least as far as the physical went. I know that’s not an option between us.” He shrugged. “Rilirin.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” said Grak. “I am not Amaryllis, that I feel the need to excise it. I don’t want you to think that I’m suffering. Only rilirin.”

“Okay,” I said. “Is there anything that I can do?”

“You asked already,” said Grak. “I will find someone, I’m sure. In the meantime, I can sleep with Solace. It is enough that you made yourself uncomfortable while trying to help me.”

That didn’t make me feel great, but it was more or less true. I did feel uncomfortable, mostly because of the male coding and the cultural conditioning I’d gotten growing up in small town Kansas. Grak could see some of that, if maybe not all of it.

We finished up Ranks (his solution was far, far better than mine was) and he went to the nook where Solace was already sleeping.

I stayed up, trying to work things out in my head, and having no real luck.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 139: Piece of Mind

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