Worth the Candle, Ch 149: I Have to Hand it to You

Dinner went … okay. There were questions and answers, but we avoided talking about some of the bigger stuff, like the narrative, and the exact nature of Uther Penndraig. How Reimer hadn’t made the connection to Arthur … well, he’d grown up his whole life knowing about Uther Penndraig, the mythical figure who had done so much that a lot of it people were willing to believe was mostly mere legend, and this Reimer had also grown up knowing his own Arthur Blum, and the idea that his now-passed friend was, in some sense, the reincarnation of Uther Penndraig wouldn’t have been promoted to consideration, not without some details that I had left out of the conversation.

I wasn’t lying, per se.

The main course was duck, stuffed with herbs and seasoning, then crisped to perfection, and the dessert was a chocolate cake. It had none of the usual experimentation that Bethel had been showing recently, which I hoped wasn’t the result of Pallida being critical (even though it was a marked improvement over the Full Grebellian Breakfast).

“So,” said Reimer. “Are you guys going to do some kind of loyalty pledge?” He moved his fork between Amaryllis and Lisi.

“Those aren’t real,” said Amaryllis.

“Yes, they are,” said Lisi.

Amaryllis stared at her.

“I didn’t mean anything by it,” said Reimer, holding up a hand.

“They’re propaganda,” said Amaryllis. “Part of the deliberate mythology.”

“They’re grounded in second century practice,” said Lisi. “That doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.”

“From a practical standpoint,” Amaryllis began.

“Concede that you were technically incorrect,” said Lisi.

Amaryllis glared at Lisi’s set face. I wondered whether this was just what it was like in the Lost King’s Court sometimes. I watched the muscle in Amaryllis’ jaw briefly clench and unclench.

“I don’t want to get into an argument about semantics,” said Amaryllis. “I concede that I was using imprecise but colloquially correct language.”

“Colloquially incorrect language,” said Lisi.

<I’m enjoying this immensely,> Bethel said into my head.

“No, the meaning of colloquially,” Amaryllis began, before shaking her head a bit. “It doesn’t matter, and I just said that I don’t want to get into a debate about language or semantics.”

“Do you want my loyalty pledge or not?” asked Lisi.

“I,” started Amaryllis, looking flummoxed. “I do.”

“Good,” said Lisi. “Amaryllis Penndraig, tenth of her name, I, Lisianthus Penndraig, fourth of my name, do pledge my everlasting loyalty to you, let my soul be condemned to the hells for eternal torture at the hands of vile devils should I ever betray you.” She gave a curt nod.

“Er,” said Reimer. “That’s not how it is in the books.”

“It’s historically accurate,” said Lisi. “The actual punishment was only used on three occasions.”

“Right,” said Reimer. “Just so we’re clear, I’m not pledging loyalty to anyone.”

“No one expected you to,” I replied.

“I’m actually not sure what it is you need from me,” said Reimer. He gave me a little grin. “Other than help with optimizing your character, naturally.”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “That’s what we’d like.”

“That … that was a joke,” said Reimer, staring at her.

“Mary is bad at jokes,” said Valencia.

“Mary?” asked Lisi.

“It’s what we all call her,” said Valencia.

“A nickname, given to me by a friend,” said Amaryllis.

“Sorry,” said Reimer. “You want me to manage the magical character sheet?”

“It doesn’t make sense as a nickname,” said Lisi. “A-muh-rill-us, Mary isn’t a diminutive.”

“She was that kind of friend,” replied Amaryllis with a nod.

“Reimer, think of yourself as a consultant,” I said. “A very confidential consultant, sworn to secrecy, and hopefully not in any actual danger.”

Reimer’s mouth opened and then closed for a bit as he looked at me. “Can we talk in private for just a bit?” He held up his thumb and forefinger, half an inch apart.

“Sure,” I said. But not really. “We can go into the next room.”

I pushed back from the table and went ahead of Reimer, just to make sure that Bethel wasn’t going to try to pull anything. She seemed to have a problem with him, which was her own damned fault, because she’d been the one giving him a dozen different drinks and an assortment of snacks the first night he’d come over (not to mention the bar of gold).

“Okay,” I said, once we were alone. The room was, thankfully, normal, just a plain sitting room with some books on the shelves and minimal adornment, though I was fairly sure that it didn’t fit in with the previously established geometry of the house.

“This is all so fucked,” said Reimer. “You know, I didn’t come to the athenaeum for this? I thought it would be years or longer before I saw anyone from Sporsan, least of all you, and you’ve changed so much, and there’s apparently some serious magic floating around, and you’re not you, and …” He shook his head. “You just plopped a quarter million obols in my lap like it was nothing, and I have no idea what role Lisi is playing in all of it, but I’m with a princess, just like we’d always joked about, and it’s all just way, way too much, way too fast.”

“So you’re bowing out?” I asked.

“No,” said Reimer. “No, I didn’t say that, I just wanted to talk to you, or whatever of you is left, even if you’re some weird alternate version of yourself.” He shrugged. “Too much cross-talk going on in there, and Lisi … she’s great, nuts, but great, and …” He let out a breath. “Pretend it’s one of our games,” he said. “Pretend that we all got off-track somehow, talking about Animalia rights or accessibility or gender politics, like we always did, and you’re there trying to pull everyone back into the session, kicking and screaming. That’s all I want.”

“O-kay,” I said. “Not my forte.”

“No shit,” replied Reimer. He was fidgeting and looking around.

“It’s hard to think about things that won’t blow your mind,” I said. “Or things that would be far enough off topic that they wouldn’t just loop back to how crazy everything really is.” I paused. “Hang on a second. Okay, how about this: there’s this world made up of islands that float through the sky, gentle places that have no predators, no harmful magics, no exclusions, nothing like that, just people farming.”

“Always with the floating islands,” said Reimer. “Fine, so how does it go shitty?”

“It … it doesn’t,” I replied, narrowing my eyes.

“It always goes shitty, that’s just how you think,” said Reimer. “They’re, what, facing resource scarcity, their livestock have died and they can’t replace them, the islands have another ten years of fuel left before they crash into the monster-covered lands below?”

Those all did sound like things that I would have used in the past. “It’s not a setting for D&D,” I said. “It’s just a scenario to think about.”

“Then how do they keep everything balanced then?” asked Reimer.

“I don’t know,” I said. “They’ve got some kind of biomanipulation going on, and they’re capable of creating their own custom species to make more food than they need, which means that labor is what’s limiting them more than anything else, in terms of what’s expensive and what’s cheap. Custom plants that they can weave the fibers of, custom homunculi for simple, unskilled labor, biomanipulation on people in order to cure diseases and prevent most aspects of senescence … that kind of thing. So, what’s your character like?” That was a classic DM tactic; people loved to talk about their own characters, and if I needed Reimer to get his head on straight, I was hoping this helped.

“What kind of institutions of learning do they have?” asked Reimer. He moved over to the couch and sat down, and I took a seat opposite him.

“Groundseers and windseers,” I said. “I’ll grant that it’s not a big community, so there are relatively few people involved, not anything like S&S, or even our old high school. Groundseers are focused on the ground and the islands, the different species, the biomanipulation, that kind of thing, and the windseers are focused on the skies, birds and weather.”

“Okay,” said Reimer, taking a breath. “But the groundseers are the more important of the two, right?” he asked. “Like, the bioengineering is how they keep everyone fed, how they grow trees to make wood for houses, how they make whatever flying mounts they have, –”

“No flying mounts,” I replied. “They’ve been trying for decades, but you can’t just scale up a bird –”

“Because of the square-cube law, yeah,” nodded Reimer. “Should still be possible to ride a flying creature of some kind though, there are like, four primary species of flying mount, and I don’t think all of them use magic to do it.”

He caught me slightly off-guard with that. “Right,” I said. “Doesn’t mean that it’s trivial. So if you’d like, you can be between the two institutions, someone hoping to synthesize their disparate fields of knowledge. The windseers train the birds that fly between the islands, and at least a fraction of them are veterinary experts. So maybe that could work for you.”

Reimer frowned. “Except this isn’t a game that we’re ever going to play, is it?” he asked. “Because you’re some kind of warrior mage now, in service to a princess, just like you always wanted.”

“I can’t speak for the other Juniper, but I never wanted to be a warrior mage,” I said.

“Oh, I meant more the ‘service to a princess’ thing, less the warrior mage part,” said Reimer with a smile. “Tiff used to call it monarch fetishism.” I winced at that. “Yeah, out of all of this, I keep thinking back to that poster, and how you’re just casually standing next to Amaryllis Penndraig now, and it’s just … let’s say you’re right about everything you’ve said. Well, then it’s like some malevolent genie came in and granted you your dreams, at this absurd cost.”

You’re more right than you know. “He was obsessed with her?” I asked. “The other Juniper?”

“Eh,” said Reimer with a shrug. “We didn’t really talk about that kind of thing much. I mean, both Tiff and Maddie, I found out after the fact.” He was watching me. “You think you’re from Earth, yeah? Same thing over there?”

I nodded. “I’m sure there’s some universe where Juniper Smith isn’t a shit.”

“At least you know it,” shrugged Reimer. “I’ll give myself a point for that.”

“You really shouldn’t,” I replied with a sigh. “You’re feeling better though? Calmed your nerves?”

“Yeah,” said Reimer. He rubbed his neck for a moment. “Thanks.”

“Sure,” I said. “You’re … a friend. I guess.”

Reimer laughed. “Yeah, I know what you mean. That’s what I tell people.” He looked over at the door back to the dining room. “Say, however you cock things up, can you somehow manage to not fuck with what Lisi and I have going on?”

“Which is?” I asked. You telling her everything she wants to know, presumably because she pressed you hard enough?

“I have no idea,” said Reimer. “I just don’t want you to fuck it up, alright? You can do that for me?”

“I … sure,” I said. “I can try. Seems really foolish to me, from what little I know of you, and if you have some kind of idiot crush on her, –”

“She uh,” Reimer swallowed. “She gave me a hand job.”

“Fucking what,” I said.

He grinned at me. “Yeah, I don’t know, it was … it was a thing that happened.”

<That’s hilarious,> said Bethel.

“I just …” I squeezed the bridge of my nose. “Why?”

“Like I know?” asked Reimer. “And come on, it’s not like you’re the handjob police.” He paused. “Wait, is that what this is all about? You went to join the handjob police?”

“Reimer,” I said. “Jesus Christ just,” I shook my head, because I had so many questions, and I was picturing it, despite the fact that it really wasn’t something that I wanted to picture. “Let’s shove all this shit into some cupboard that we never speak of, okay?”

“Yeah,” said Reimer. “Sorry, it’s just … you’re the only person I know at S&S, and this is part of the confusing shit that’s been going on in my life in the last handful of days.”

“Right,” I said. “The realm of things that I’m equipped to deal with has been growing lately, but that –”

“Yeah,” said Reimer, sitting up a bit. “Got it.” He paused for a moment. “Are you and Amaryllis … ?”

“Are we what?” I asked.

Reimer made a handjob motion.

<I’m back to liking him,> said Bethel.

“I think I’ve had enough of you,” I said. “Amaryllis will want your opinion on the best possible builds, given what’s been done in the past and what our options are for the future, but I frankly think that tonight has gone on for long enough. We’ve got class tomorrow.”

“Seriously?” asked Reimer. “You’re still going to class? And you think I’m going to class?”

“I have to go,” I said. “I’m at S&S for a reason. I need to attend classes in order to have the instructors sign off on the special form. Once all that’s done, I’ll get to level 30 in both Still Magic and Vibrational Magic in short order.”

“Yeah, but why would I go back to class?” asked Reimer. “Isn’t this going to be, like, my job now?”

“We’re not hiring,” I said. “I mean, I should actually double-check with Amaryllis about it, but … Reimer, I don’t want you to freak out –”

“Too late,” he replied.

“I’ve killed a lot of people since I came to Aerb, probably in the double digits, more if you include all the people my companions have killed. A lot of people have tried to kill me. One of my closest friends died a few weeks ago.” I swallowed. “There’s a good chance that this is what your life has been building up to, and I don’t think that I can dissuade you, but if I were you, I would continue on with classes while spending my nights hoping and praying that I never had to deal with the shit that’s plaguing my good friend Juniper.”

“My mediocre friend Juniper,” said Reimer, but his grin faltered. “How bad is it?”

“It’s escalating,” I said. “What kind of shit did I throw at you when you were level 14?”

“Oh,” said Reimer. “But … the world isn’t like that, there aren’t just arbitrarily powerful threats, and there are governments to deal with that shit, the empire, you were always bending over backward to explain why these were problems that only four or five people were working on instead of dozens or hundreds.”

“I don’t want to tell you more,” I said. “I want you to be able to walk away. I’m hoping … I’m hoping that maybe it will work if I let you know enough, so you can make your own choice.”

Reimer stared at me. “Shit.” He let out a breath. “Let me think on it.” He looked at the door. “Do you think Lisi will want me to walk her back to the dorms?”

“I have no idea,” I replied. “Try not to complicate things. We have a lot of moving parts.”

For Pallida Sade, being with the Council of Arches had taken a turn for the worse, in the past few days. Really, if she had to trace it back to one thing, it would be that she didn’t have her hat anymore. The hat allowed her to change her appearance, replacing pink skin with that lovely creamy color humans sometimes had, which would allow her to blend in. Pallida liked being renacim, but they were a damnedably conspicuous and staggeringly rare species. Her armor could cover her well enough, but the armor was conspicuous too. The hat would have solved her problems quite handily, but it was, unfortunately, somewhere at the bottom of the Bryllyg Sea. The ship she’d been traveling on had capsized and sank in a hurry, and while she was a strong swimmer, it was a stronger storm. Everyone else aboard had died and been whisked away to an eternity of torment in the hells, but Pallida had been reborn, as she always was.

It had been three hundred years, and she still missed that damned hat.

This whole life had been just a little bit off. The life before, she’d lived to the age of eighty and taken a controlled death, right next to a woman who’d gotten pregnant specifically for the purpose of bearing Pallida to term. It was a truly, horrifically soft way of both leaving the world and coming back into it. Not that Pallida could remember anything of what she’d been like at eighty one life ago, and not like she could remember the first few years of her life, but she was a strong believer that infancy set you up for everything else, and up until she was able to secure a release from the guardianship of the Renacim League at the age of ten, she’d had a coddled little life.

There had been a few times when Pallida had considered herself the greatest thief in the world. She was close enough in age to remember a few of them, breaking into the most secure places in the world, stealing from the rich and famous, and dabbling in related arts like forgery or assassination. There’d been two times she’d been so successful in her criminal enterprises that she’d ended up becoming a de facto government, and thankfully both those times were well in the past, because there was no one around who remembered what a wretched ruler she’d made.

This life? She had no great deeds to her name, as yet. She’d barely done any training either, meaning nothing much that would be carried on to the next lives. Sometimes there were nothing lives, ones where nothing much happened, nothing was gained for the future, nothing learned or experienced, and Pallida had made peace with that, but this life seemed to be at a critical juncture, the stars aligning just so, Uther (or someone like him) emerging back into the world, all the old threats rearing their heads. It wasn’t a great time to be feeling off.

Pallida walked through the streets of Li’o, with her inky black armor engulfing her up to her throat and down to her fingers, but with her weapons left back in Bethel. The armor certainly made a statement, though for those who knew what a renacim was, the pink skin said quite a bit more. She caught a few looks, and a handful of stares, but not as much as she might have in the past. Li’o was a cosmopolitan city in a cosmopolitan area, and there were so many species floating around that people just accepted the fact that not everyone looked alike. There were two hundred mortal species, give or take, and some variations among them, enough that it took actual work to memorize them all. Most people didn’t like doing actual work, and for everything that set Pallida apart, she didn’t like doing work either.

The trick for finding the underworld, so far as Pallida thought there was one, was that you had to work your way up from the absolute scum. There were bad neighborhoods, even in a magocratic city-state like Li’o, and even bad neighborhoods had places where people gathered, usually for drink, drugs, or something similar. It was one of those places that Pallida slipped into, knowing that it was going to be rough going for someone as clearly upper crust as she was.

Officially speaking, Amaryllis hadn’t given Pallida a task. Instead, what Amaryllis had said was that Bethel was one of their strongest members, and one that benefited greatly from entads, including those entads that were normally nearly worthless because of the restrictions on who could use them. Amaryllis hadn’t told Pallida to go out and steal anything, but the subtext was there.

And Amaryllis herself … Dahlia had left her mark on Pallida, that was certain. Pallida was old, not just as old as the hills, but older than them, as old as the world itself, by certain accountings, and Dahlia had been, simply, the best, the perfect complement, the perfect friend, the perfect lover, second to none. Or, at least, that was how it felt to Pallida in her 20s; her 30s were indistinct, and she couldn’t remember any of her 40s yet, from any of those lives, nor anything beyond that, but she also couldn’t remember being young and reading about some great love in those past lives, which she surely would have recorded for posterity.

Amaryllis wasn’t Dahlia. Physically, they were nearly identical, and there was some overlap in their personalities, some of which was, maybe, because they were both Anglecynn princesses. They had that same drive to them, that same ferociousness, the sense that if the end of the world was coming, they would be there with sword in hand … but there were also a lot of differences. Amaryllis was cold, sometimes in a teasing, mocking way that was really quite fetching, and sometimes simply in how she didn’t respond to the things that she should have. Pallida was no stranger to seduction, she had lifetimes of experience to draw on, but with Amaryllis it all fell flat, and not in the ways that it typically did. Maybe it was that Pallida was trying to force it, or maybe it was complications with Juniper, but it all felt just a little bit off.

And Raven was around too, which wasn’t what Pallida would have preferred, even though they’d been friends once-upon-a-time. She could remember the falling out more than the friendship.

Not to mention that steadfast allies had died in the very recent past, Everett, O’kald, and Gur Dehla, not all close friends, as such, but people that could be depended upon from one life to the next.

There was the whole ‘end of the world’ thing happening again too. That wasn’t great. It was just a whole lot of not great things going on, frankly, and she was in a slightly-off life.

At least no one had called her ‘palisade’, so she had that going for her.

The bar was called the ‘Errant Shaft’, presumably for bawdy reasons, and Pallida Sade was better than anyone in it. She had more skills, more connections, more material wealth, more knowledge, more training, and she was, certainly, older. It was a mixed-species bar, the kind that people had stopped calling mixed-species bars, and now just called bars, because that was the way of the Third Empire. People still segregated themselves though, that was only natural.

Pallida sat down at a table near the back, interrupting a conversation going on between four human men. They looked her up and down, taking in the entad armor, the pink skin, and the cheerful smile on her face.

“A round of drinks, to start us off?” asked Pallida, grinning at them.

“Sure,” said one of the men with a nod.

Pallida whistled for the bartender, a loud, sharp whistle she’d mastered thousands of years ago, and had cause to dredge up more often than might have been expected. She ordered the drinks with a gesture, and hoped that the bartender wasn’t going to serve up the lowest quality, highest priced drinks available.

“I’d like to do some buying and selling,” said Pallida, still holding her slightly predatory smile. She wished that she’d brought her trident, for a prop.

“There’s a market,” said one of the men. Pallida liked to judge books by their covers, and he seemed like the most guarded of the lot, not the kind of man she was looking for.

“The kind of market I’m looking for?” she asked.

“Depends on what you’re buying and selling,” he replied.

“Oh, sundry things,” said Pallida. “Hard to find things. I’m new in town, you see, so perhaps someone in the know, someone who can procure things that are hard to come by.”

“Lorentz,” said one of the men. The others looked at him as though they didn’t think highly of him sharing that information.

“An address?” asked Pallida.

The man hesitated, then gave one, which drew more looks from his fellows.

And with that, Pallida popped up from where she’d been sitting, paid the bartender, and was on her way. With luck, she would be in touch with someone of real power in another two or three stops.

After Lisi and Reimer had gone, we had a meeting about it. I was tired, and not really all that interested in a recap of everything that had just happened, but Amaryllis was a little bit worked up.

“She’s as difficult as I remembered her being,” she said. She turned to Valencia. “Can we trust her?”

“Mostly,” replied Valencia. “She thinks that this is a chance for more power than she would ever have had inside the Lost King’s Court. The biggest risk of defection will be if she starts to view herself as subordinate to you. She took the loyalty pledge seriously, though it was more in the sense that she was making a precommitment than that she so fully intends to be loyal. It was calculated.”

“Naturally,” said Amaryllis. “And Reimer?”

“He’s in over his head,” I said.

Amaryllis cleared her throat and looked over at Valencia.

“Oh, Juniper is definitely right,” said Valencia. “He’s in over his head. Lisianthus manipulated him easily enough, and anyone else he meets with more social skills will probably be able to do the same, though perhaps with a bit more effort, after tonight.”

“I assume you’re against moving him here?” Amaryllis asked me.

“The only reason we’d do that is to keep him safe,” I said. “And while Bethel is likely one of the most secure places in existence right now, that would also mean keeping him with us indefinitely.”

“Until the end of our time at S&S then?” asked Amaryllis.

“Maybe,” I said. I shifted in my seat, then turned to Valencia. “Am I just pushing him away because of stupid reasons?”

She blinked at me.

Loyalty Increased: Valencia the Red, lvl 28!

“Oh,” she said. “Yes and no. You’re trying.”

“Not terribly comforting,” I replied with a frown. “I suppose I’ll defer to the Council.”

“I’d prefer him away,” said Grak. “What he offers can be extracted from him.”

“Mercenary,” said Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow. “But I suppose I concur.”

“You don’t think the same of Lisianthus?” I asked.

“With respect,” Amaryllis began. “Aside from the game he played and potential narrative revelations he might provide, Reimer is no more special than any other high schooler. By comparison, Lisianthus, for all her problems, was given the same intensive education and opportunities that I was. She was groomed for power and importance.”

“She’s a mediocre blood mage,” said Bethel, tapping her fingers on the table.

“Yes, well, we have some significant problems with hiring people, don’t we?” asked Amaryllis. “Valencia can do screening, but to put someone at the core of our team raises a lot of risks.”

“What would she even do here?” asked Bethel.

“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “But she is, at the least, someone that we can find a use for. Reimer, by comparison, becomes useless after we’ve had a week or two in the time chamber to fully debrief him.”

I frowned slightly at that. “Assuming he’d consent to that … I’m not willing to call him valueless, given the impossibility of a full debrief. There would be years upon years of my campaigns in his head, and even if those didn’t directly map to Aerb, then he’d at least be another person who knows how I think as a DM.”

“He’s a security risk,” said Grak, shaking his head. “He’s already proven that.”

“We did what we could about that,” said Amaryllis. “He knows some of what’s presumably going to be public when Uniquities inevitably leaks, or what an outsider might observe from putting the pieces together on their own.”

“Yeah,” I said. “The bigger risk right now isn’t that he says the wrong thing to the wrong people, it’s that someone kidnaps him and tries to use him against me somehow.”

“I’m willing to do a weeks long debrief in the time chamber,” said Amaryllis. “Ideally we would get some form of communication entad that would allow us to remotely bring him in for conversation when needed.”

“Do we have one of those?” I asked. Parson’s Voice was short range, and wouldn’t work outside of (roughly) the same large city, not that we’d want to outfit him with a tattoo, given how expensive they were, and the fact that he would be privy to conversations we’d want to keep private.

“We don’t have an entad,” said Bethel. “Lisi has one, a quill linked to its duplicate, though there’s a day’s delay on use. I don’t know where the pair is.”

“They’ll probably be together,” I said. “Assuming that we don’t bring her with us when we leave.”

“Why would they be together?” asked Amaryllis.

Valencia narrowed her eyes at me. “She seduced him?”

“Is that a question?” I asked.

“I think it’s what you think, but it’s not what I think, so I’m confused,” said Valencia.

“Here,” said Bethel. She held out a hand and replayed the conversation I’d had with Reimer about the hand job.

“What,” said Amaryllis. “That’s,” she looked at Valencia. “He’s lying.”

“How accurate is that playback?” asked Valencia.

“Extremely,” replied Bethel.

“Then I don’t think he’s lying,” replied Valencia.

“I don’t think we need to get into this,” I said. “I also think that Reimer told me that in confidence.”

“More fool him,” said Bethel.

“It’s important to know what their exact relationship is,” said Amaryllis.

“Well,” said Valencia, touching her finger to her chin. “She’s Hermione, and he’s Ron, so –”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Just, no.”

“I’m interested,” said Bethel with a smile.

Valencia had to have known that Bethel was just humoring her for the sake of exasperating Amaryllis, but she continued on all the same. “Well, Juniper is Harry, because he’s the protagonist, and Lisi is Hermione, because she’s a girl, she has an overbearing personality, and she focuses on intellectual endeavors. Reimer matches Ron’s strategic genius, the way he’s overshadowed by his family, –”

“Sorry,” I said. “Reimer’s an only child.”

“His metaphorical family,” said Valencia. “Anyway, what Lisi sees in Reimer is likely the same as what Hermione sees in Ron, which is that he’s got this spark of intelligence he applies only to certain things that capture his imagination, like Quidditch or wizard’s chess. Plus his courage, naturally.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But you tried to do this with the houses too, and it’s just –”

“It’s the same thing that Mary does,” frowned Valencia.

“It is not,” replied Amaryllis.

“I read the books very quickly, and might have missed something,” said Bethel, “Did Hermione give Ron a handjob?”

“This is too vulgar,” said Amaryllis. “And no, she didn’t.”

“It’s implied in the text,” began Valencia.

“Is it?” asked Amaryllis in disbelief.

Valencia huffed. “Well, you have to understand that the books were written for children, but given that sexual curiosity is completely normal in the early and late teens, their close proximity with one another, their history of dating others, then yes,” said Valencia. She folded her hands. “The lack of explicit sexual activity probably has more to do with the marketing of the books and the social mores of both the author and audience.”

“How does any of this help us?” asked Amaryllis.

“You were asking what’s going on between Lisi and Reimer, and Valencia was interpreting, like you asked her to,” I said. I looked at Valencia. “You were saying, essentially, that they were attracted to each other?”

“Yes,” nodded Valencia. “Though specifically with regards to manual release, I think it’s also likely that she either had some existing fetish, pattern of behavior, or commitment to that course of action. Say, for example, she had wanted to get some experience with boys following a relatively cloistered existence at Quills and Blood, as I think is common there, sapphic experiences excepted.”

Amaryllis cleared her throat. “Well, good to know,” she said. “If he’s not lying, then I suppose it’s good that it’s not base seduction.”

“She knows herself well enough to know that seduction isn’t likely to work,” said Valencia.

“Noted,” said Amaryllis, her voice firm.

Valencia looked like she wanted to say more, but she held her tongue.

<We should do handjob inquisitions more often,> Bethel thought in my direction.

<Har har,> I replied.

<You’re just jealous of him,> said Bethel, with a mental ‘tch’.

<Lisi’s not my type,> I replied.

<My experience has been that you have lots of types,> said Bethel. <More than a few around here who would give you a handjob, if you wanted.>

<Har har,> I replied again, as I used blood magic to slow my heart rate and suppress my blush.

<I can tell when you do that,> said Bethel. Her tone was teasing, with something in the mental connection beyond just the change to how the voice appeared in my mind.

<Not for your benefit, and I figured as much, since you’re constantly staring at my internal organs,> I said.

<Are you turning me down then?> asked Bethel.

Slowing down the flow of blood through my body was harder than it sounded, because I had control of my blood, not my heart. My heart was still getting its own hormones and electrical signals and whatever else, and it was kicking into overdrive, half because of the inherent danger at the prospect of turning Bethel down, half because there was a portion of my brain that was devoted to thinking about sex.

<Can we talk about this privately?> I asked. Valencia and Grak were talking about death of the author, and I wasn’t at all listening to them.

There was a flicker of black and I was transported from the dining room, where we’d been sitting there talking, to my bedroom. My position hadn’t changed at all. This came as a surprise, but it was part of a technique that we’d developed a week ago. Sable could take in any object that it was touching (so long as you were touching it for more than ten seconds), Bethel had enough effects going that she counted as touching everything inside of her, and there was nothing to say that Sable had to spit things out from the same place as it took them in. Normally that last bit didn’t matter, since Sable was a glove, and it was a difference of a few inches. When Sable was inside Bethel, however, it meant instantly moving objects through the house.

“There,” said Bethel, “Private.” She was standing in front of me, still human-sized, as she’d been in the dining room, though in her more traditional gossamer dress.

“I don’t know if you’re just needling me,” I said. “And if it’s not just that, not only that, then I don’t know what you would get out of it.”

“Because I can’t feel physical pleasure?” asked Bethel.

“For a start, yes,” I said. “So far as you’ve said, you have nothing like sexual need, sexual pleasure isn’t part of your sensorium, and you can already feel … well, damned near everything else, whether the other party consents or not. So I just don’t,” I squeezed my hands. “I don’t know what’s in it for you, other than to make fun of me for things outside of my control.”

“Perhaps I want to make you happy?” asked Bethel. “Or perhaps I’m just curious.” She sat down on the bed beside me and used a hand to smooth down the bedsheet, the combination of illusion and physical force immaculate, as though she were really there. It was easy to forget how deliberate she was. “Do you think that was what it was for Lisi? She wanted to see what it was like?”

“No clue,” I said. “I barely know her.”

“And what is it about me that doesn’t appeal to you?” asked Bethel, looking me over. “I can provide nearly any sensation you would like. I can take any form that you think would please you.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I mean, on the surface, that’s a pretty good deal.” I fidgeted. “Leaving aside some of the more complicated feelings on the matter, like the feeling that I would be following in Uther’s footsteps,” I swallowed at that, and avoided looking at her face, because she must have thought of that, “It’s not what I’m into.” I paused. “I wrote this campaign setting, flesh.txt, sort of a … well, pornographic worldbuilding, this fantasy world just made for … not sex, exactly, but for my own lewd interests. I assume you’ve snooped enough to hear about it.”

Bethel nodded.

“Anyway, there were magic items there, not entads, since they weren’t singular, but something close, and they could amp up sexual desire. Rings, usually, or chokers, things that could be worn while naked.” I stopped and sighed. “If we found something like that, and you consumed it, then maybe it would be more appealing to me, if that makes sense? If you got something from it, rather than just making me happy? I don’t know. The idea that you’d be touching me, and that it would be no more pleasurable for you than touching a piece of wet cardboard …” I trailed off. “I guess for me that would be worse than nothing, even if there was a physical response.”

“You understand that’s what it would be like for her, don’t you?” asked Bethel.

I sat in silence for a moment. “Yeah,” I said. “Maybe. To be determined.”

“And then?” asked Bethel. “If you love her, and she loves you, but there’s still no spark of sexual love between the two of you?”

“Come on,” I said. “What is this? You’re going to go from propositioning me to relationship counseling?”

“Just curious,” said Bethel. “It might be my imagination, but part of the reason you’ve turned me down is that your moral code dictates that you would, one day, have to explain it to her, if we had sex? And you imagine that she wouldn’t take kindly to that.”

I shrugged. “The thought crossed my mind. It’s not a secret that I would want to keep, and it’s not one that I would want to tell. That’s not the primary thing stopping me though.”

“It’s the idea that I would get nothing but an experience I’m curious about?” asked Bethel.

“Yeah,” I said. “I don’t know. There was a time when I would have jumped at the chance.” I frowned slightly. “Don’t tell him, but same probably goes for Grak.” Two, three years ago? Maybe less. Maybe a lot less. I’d slept with Maddie, after all, and that was equally ill-advised, the pursuit of sex because hey, it was just sex. Even without the depression and the listlessness, I’d have tried it, with both Bethel and Grak, even if it wasn’t my thing.

“And if I do tell him?” asked Bethel.

“Then we would talk about it, and that would be fine,” I said. “Maybe he would learn about me, and I would learn about him, and it would be … whatever. I just thought that it would illuminate things for you to know that. Maybe ‘jumped at the chance’ is the wrong phrasing for Grak, but I would have, maybe, I don’t know, been really careless about it. Even though it’s not,” I shook my head, then looked over at her. “If you want, I can help you pick someone. Man or woman. I wouldn’t think that trust would be a big deal, given your virtual inability to be hurt and massive firepower, but –”

“You’d be mistaken,” said Bethel. “Trust goes beyond what can be physically inflicted upon a person. If you allowed me the opportunity to pleasure you, and I was terrible at it, then I trust that you would do your best to be honest with me, and to soften the blow, to tell me what I was doing wrong, how I could improve, that you would take my feelings on the matter into consideration. You would be nice.”

“I’m not really that nice,” I said.

“You would still be nice to me,” said Bethel. “Careful and considerate, not because you were afraid that I would tear you limb from limb if you said the wrong thing, but because you have a core decency to you.”

“I think you’re really overselling me,” I said. “Like, a lot.”

“Perhaps,” nodded Bethel. “Oh well.” She sniffed slightly, more performance, for my benefit, nothing more. “Remember the offer, if you’re ever in the mood. Would you like to return? Amaryllis would like to speak to you.”

“Sure,” I said. “Thanks for the pep talk.”

“Anytime, kiddo.” Bethel smiled at me, and there was a blink of darkness that saw me sitting back in the chair I’d been in when I left the dining room.

Everyone else had left and the dishes had been cleared away, leaving just Amaryllis, who was sitting beside me, just as she had been. She gave a stifled sigh of relief, and pulled away the paper that had been sitting in front of me. I reached for it first though, and she let me take it.

Took J for a private talk — Bethel

Bring him back when you’re finished — Amaryllis

In one piece


“You shouldn’t have worried,” I said.

“No, I should have,” said Amaryllis. “Verbalizing that worry was probably unwise though, or at least meaningless. You’re fine?”

“Yeah,” I said.

“Are you going to tell me what that was about?” she asked.

“Oh,” I said. “Just … stuff.” I swallowed briefly. “Juniper and Bethel stuff. I can tell you, if you’d like, but it’s kind of personal, and I don’t think anything good would come of us talking about it.”

“How are you feeling?” asked Amaryllis.

“Eh,” I said. “Yesterday was a long day, and today was too, and I have a feeling that it’s just going to be a series of long days until we’re out of here.”

“Time chamber,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah,” I said. “I might have to use it to stretch the days out. Get some homework done, get some more sleep in.”

“I did your homework already,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said.

“I won’t be offended if you throw it out and do it on your own,” said Amaryllis. “I know you had some preconceptions about what this would be. If running through the equations on your own is what will make you happy …”

“It’s a fantasy,” I sighed. “I know it is. Not even one of my top fantasies, to be honest, it’s just, growing up, reading about wizarding schools, going to the College of Winterhold, I thought maybe this was going to be more of a lull. I wish that Valencia was right, that it was, in some way, Hogwarts.”

Amaryllis nodded. “Sorry.”

“S’okay,” I said. “Where are the others?”

“Getting rest,” said Amaryllis.

“Well, we should gather them up,” I replied. “It’s late, but the jail doesn’t have set visiting hours, so … time to go visit my ethics professor, I guess.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 149: I Have to Hand it to You

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