Worth the Candle, Ch 152: The Time to Talk

There was a hiccup in the Demon-Blooded Festival, right at the last second: apparently the prisoner that they were going to execute escaped from custody shortly after what I can only assume was an absolute farce of a trial. The committee decided to instead use an entad, helpfully donated by Oberlin, but everyone was well aware that it was an effigy, and no one was really happy with the outcome.

“But … we had nothing to do with it,” said Amaryllis, when we heard the news.

“Maybe she had a plan, and that was why she refused our help,” I said. “Or maybe it was some other group that wasn’t going to take no for an answer like we were. At any rate, I’m glad that she got out.”

Amaryllis fidgeted.

“She’s thinking about narrative implications,” said Valencia.

Amaryllis glared. “Devil?” she asked.

“No,” said Valencia, looking quite proud. “That was all me.”

“It was fairly obvious,” replied Pallida.

“It’s just,” began Amaryllis. “How does it fit in with everything else? She’s a loose thread now, until she shows up again, but then what’s the resolution?”

“Can we just carry on without worrying about how it all fits together?” asked Pallida. “It’s so exhausting, trying to put everything into that frame.” She looked to me. “Juniper, you said that you dropped threads all the time in your campaigns.”

“I did,” I replied. “Sometimes I just forgot, which I don’t think can happen in this case … unless things are a lot less steady than they seem. I suppose if the Dungeon Master controls everything, maybe he could forget, it would just run its course because it was no longer under his supervision.” I paused to think about that. In the simulation framework, the Dungeon Master couldn’t forget, but I had to remind myself that Aerb-as-simulation was only a dominant theory, not something that I could accept as material fact. Maybe the Dungeon Master could forget, and if it did, then things would continue on apace without whatever had escaped his notice. “Other times, it was clear that the players didn’t have any interest, so I would slowly and quietly write the plot thread out and hope that the thing they weren’t having fun with would be forgotten by them, if not by me. And hells, sometimes the dice just didn’t end up agreeing with me, and a plot thread would die in its crib. No plan survives contact with the players.”

Amaryllis folded her arms.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I just want to make sense of it,” said Amaryllis. “I want to see how it fits in the puzzle.”

“I don’t actually know that there is a puzzle,” I said. “And I’ve said as much many, many times. This could actually be two or three completely unrelated things. Maybe Harold is just the big one, and the other ones are side quests, or they’re meant to point at Harold, but,” I shrugged. “The meta-analysis doesn’t seem like it’s bearing fruit, so why don’t we go focus on the non-meta analysis? Namely, what I’m going to do about the fact that classes are over, and I’m expected to go down into the temple, alone, with practically all of my neat toys taken away from me?”

“You’re going to have to go down there on your own,” said Raven.

“On what grounds?” asked Amaryllis. “We could walk away.”

“On the grounds that Uther was forced to go alone more times than I could count,” said Raven.

“More meta-analysis,” I said, shaking my head. “On the concrete, object level, should I or should I not go down into the temple in order to unlock still and vibrational magic?”

“You should,” said Grak. “The risk is that you will be alone among bad actors. There is no evidence to suggest that they will attack you down there.”

“There’s some evidence,” said Amaryllis. “A single, mysterious death, likely connected to a cover-up from on high, a handful of disappearances, and a collection of entads to aid in meditation, during a ritual that’s centered around meditation, when the entity in question appears to have some access to people in altered states.”

“Juniper has seen Harold before,” said Grak. “If it happens in the temple, he can stop meditating.”

“I can probably stop,” I said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have any information on what specific entads are in use down there, nor do we know how they interact with Harold.”

“About that,” coughed Pallida. “I might have obtained both a detailed schematic of the temple and a list of entads used there.”

“Stole?” I asked.

“Such a strong word,” said Pallida. “I would prefer to say that I acquired them, and I would rather that no one asked me the specifics of how that was done.”

“It’s important to know provenance,” said Raven.

“Fine,” said Pallida, pouting at losing a bit of her mystique. “Then yes, stolen from inside the offices of the dwarven construction crew that was being brought in for the underground expansion. The entad list was apparently something their magic specialists demanded, since some of them have significant range. Bethel?”

“Here,” said Bethel, placing papers in front of us.

I looked over the list, curious what would be there. The map was easy enough; it showed the temple itself, the barracks next to it that housed the staff during their shifts, the adjoining rooms, the Spelunker’s Stroll that students went down for initiation, and the far more practical elevator that was used for the transport of both staff and the newly-minted mages. Beside the temple was the room that contained the Rod of Whispers, and all the floorspace necessary for supporting the safe and efficient initiation of new vibration mages. It was all fairly simple; the list of entads was much more interesting.

There was a spoon that took care of food for everyone in the temple, its effect extending out to cover the entire underground complex. There was a cup that had to be tipped upside down every four hours to keep everyone hydrated, which was done by an attendant in a room beside the temple. For sleep, there was an orb that kept everyone wide awake, though after they left its effects, they would need to pay back an extra hour of sleep every night for each hour they were under the effect (approximating to half a year of extra sleeping after initiation, something that I’d been warned about by S&S). An entad censer kept the air pure and clean, despite how cramped the temple was and how many people were breathing, and an entad chest handled waste elimination. An entad sand timer took care of bed sores. Lastly, there was a small entad fountain whose water helped to calm, center, and open the mind; the magical waters it produced were converted into vapor and circulated through the room.

“So it’s only this last one that we need to worry about,” I said. “And it sounds like the kind of thing that might just be assisting Harold in, I don’t know, doing whatever it is he’s doing to these people. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a direct risk to me.”

“Except for the risk of being surrounded by hundreds of converts who know that you’re opposed to them and not converted, without your weapons, tools, or most importantly, backup,” said Amaryllis.

“It is my understanding that initiates are hot-swapped,” said Grak. “There would be converted and unconverted in the same room.”

“They might still go for him,” said Amaryllis, crossing her arms. “It wouldn’t be hard to separate him from the herd and take him to a back room where they could put a void gun against his head.”

“He would kill them all,” replied Raven. “I say that on the basis of having seen him fight.”

“Against a still mage?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow. “Against unknown entads, magics, wards?”

“Yes,” nodded Raven.

“I’ll implant some unicorn bones beneath my skin,” I said. “They don’t help against an instantly decapitating strike, but if I get into the thick of it, they should help me survive, in the event I’m outside of a ward against active bone magic.”

“Which there will almost certainly be,” said Grak. “I would assume they are following perfection protocols.”

(‘Perfection’ was a loaded term for a warder, when it came to security, because spaces needed to be usable. The perfection suite was a set of wards that would guard a place against every conceivable form of attack, and in practice it was never used, mostly because it was expensive and impractical. Still, there were ‘theoretically optimal for these circumstances’ wards, which shared a lot of similarities with the theoretically optimal solutions that you could arrive at in a game of Ranks.)

Amaryllis rubbed her forehead. “This is above our pay grade.”

“No response from Finch,” I said with a shrug. “He should be back on the Isle of Poran, if we wanted to go visit him. He’s almost certainly gotten our letter by now.”

“He should have got it days ago,” said Amaryllis with a frown.

“I mean, I can opt out, if you really think that’s wise, but the whole point of us even coming here was so that I could unlock those two magics, and if we need to resolve all this other flaming garbage first, I don’t see how we’re going to do that from where we’re sitting,” I said. I breathed out, letting some of my frustration show.

“I’m just worried about you,” said Amaryllis. “It bothers me to have you so far away with no possibility that I can reach you.”

“I can tunnel through rock,” said Bethel. “It’s courtesy of an entad I was merged with for moving around the Boundless Pit. If needed, I can move all of us close to the temple.”

Amaryllis looked at her. “You would do that?”

“I would,” replied Bethel. “It isn’t particularly house-like, but if needs must.”

“Thank you,” I said. “That should alleviate all concerns?”

“Most of them,” nodded Amaryllis.

“There are underground structures,” said Grak. “We will have much to avoid, moving adjacent to the temple. There is also some risk of detection.”

“Doable, given how small I can get,” said Bethel with a nod. “In theory, I might be able to extend myself to encompass the entirety of the temple, as well as the room which contains the Rod of Whispers, which would save us quite a bit of headache.”

“Do you think it’s doable?” I asked.

“Full entad wards,” said Grak. “They’re ruinously expensive. I would expect the livelihood of the athenaeum to be protected with them, though.”

“Possibly,” said Bethel. “The schematics don’t mention wards.”

“Good security,” said Grak with a slight nod. “Entads need disclosure more than wards.”

“Could the two of you power past them?” I asked.

“No,” said Grak. “It would be possible to bend them, if they are poorly constructed. I would be surprised if they were.”

“Better,” said Bethel. “So long as Pallida is here with that armor, I can become wardproof.”

“No,” said Grak, shaking his head. “Full entad wards would counter a wardproof entad.”

Bethel frowned at him. “Really? That makes no sense.”

“I can explain the arcana later if you do not believe me,” said Grak, face impassive.

“He’s right, for what it’s worth,” said Pallida. “I’ve run into that problem once or twice, had to hire a warder good enough to poke an exception into the ward.”

“Either way, good enough,” I said. “And if I need to contact you, then I can contact Bethel through the soul link, which, in theory, can’t be warded against. That should be good enough, shouldn’t it? Plus I think, with enough time, we might be able to prepare a few other tricks.”

There was some broad agreement among the assembled.

Amaryllis frowned, but said nothing.

“Alright,” said Lisi, staring me down like I was going to run. “The Claret Spear is simple in theory and difficult in execution. Before we start, I need to know that we have magical healing on hand, and that you’re capable of blood hardening and blood bypass.”

“Magical healing we have plenty of, but the blood stuff, I don’t know what those are,” I said.

“But you might still be able to do them?” asked Lisi.

“Maybe,” I said.

She folded her arms and frowned, then glanced over at Reimer, who was sitting with Amaryllis to one side of the dojo. “It’s technically a violation of my agreement with Quills and Blood to teach you blood magic. I could be killed for the transgression.”

“You already agreed,” I said. “Besides, teaching me the Claret Spear in the space of an afternoon should be impossible, so you’re probably in the clear.”

“You said you have a time chamber,” said Lisi. “That would be one possible mechanism, and more likely than the apparent truth, so far as a disciplinary tribunal would be concerned.”

“I know,” I said. “But you already agreed, and I might need the Claret Spear soon.”

Lisi glared at me, then gave a fractional nod. “Blood bypass means altering the flow of blood such that it doesn’t exit the body from a wound, or, more difficult, altering the flow of blood to prevent internal bleeding. Can you do that?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, that’s easy.”

“Good,” she nodded. “Blood hardening is altering the blood and harnessing its force in order to prevent injuries. Can you do that?”

“Uh,” I said. “I haven’t, but probably?”

“Amaryllis!” called Lisi.

Amaryllis got up from where she was observing and walked over. “Yes?” she asked.

“You didn’t teach him blood hardening?” asked Lisi.

“It wasn’t covered in my studies,” Amaryllis huffed. “I was focused primarily on the topics that would make me a better administrator. Is that all?”

“How far did you get in blood magic?” asked Lisi.

“I could perform Aarde’s Touch and the Crimson Fist,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll also note that Rosemallow cut my education short so that I could get more hands-on experience in Anglecynn.”

“Hrm,” said Lisi. “That’s all.”

Amaryllis didn’t quite stomp back over to Reimer, but it was clear that she was restraining herself.

“Blood hardening is a necessary prerequisite to the Claret Spear,” said Lisi. “Do you have a stick that I could hit you with?” A stick materialized out of thin air, landing right beside her. “Oh.” She looked up slightly, at the place in the air where the stick had dropped from. “Thank you.”

“I’m pretty sure I can do it,” I said. “I have 30 in Blood Magic, and even if you’re a savant, you should have less than that.”

“Then let’s prove it,” said Lisi, picking up the stick.

“Not sure why you need a stick for this,” I said, getting to my feet.

“Economy of motion,” said Lisi. “I don’t want to get tired. Now, when I hit you, I want you to use your blood for a counterforce. It’s likely and expected that the skin might break. Ready?”

“Sure,” I said. The ‘stick’ was more of a quarterstaff than a proper stick. I wasn’t particularly worried though. Unfortunately, I had forgotten two things. First, Lisi wasn’t the kind of person to pull her punches, and second, she was a trained blood mage with all the force of her blood behind her strike.

She hit me across the chest, and I nearly fell over, because it hurt worse than anything had hurt me in the past two weeks, the kind of pain that didn’t really compare to, say, having my hand sliced off, or literally dying to Raven, but also wasn’t something that I could get used to.

Spell discovered: Blood Hardening!

Blood Hardening: Channels the force of your blood to minimize damage from attacks. Bludgeoning attacks are reduced by three orders of magnitude. Piercing and slashing attacks are reduced by one order of magnitude. Only applies to parts of your body that have sufficient blood flow. Consumes 5 drops of blood.

I had to close my eyes to see the spell description, and when I opened them, Lisi was watching me.

“Well?” she asked.

“I guess I didn’t know it until just now,” I said. “Can we move on?”

Lisi frowned. “I’m going to hit you again, to make sure you have it.”

“No,” I said. “I have it.” She didn’t put down the stick. “Lisi, you can try to hit me, but you’re not going to land the hit, because I’m bigger, stronger, faster, and more skilled than you are. I know you like violence, but this isn’t the time.” It was the place though, realistically speaking; Bethel’s sparring room was state-of-the-art. “If you want to spar later, I’m sure that either Valencia or Amaryllis would love to take you up on it, though I have to warn you that you’re not going to beat either of them if they’re trying their hardest.”

“Fine,” said Lisi, dropping the staff. She pulled a small dagger from within her dress. “The Claret Spear is a delicate weapon, one shaped by both your raw will and the paths of your blood as it flows along.” She moved the dagger across her wrist, making a bloodless cut. “A true blood magus would be able to draw blood from their body without any actual wound, but I’m not at that point yet. The first step is blood bypass, to ensure that you don’t bleed to death, and after that, it’s a matter of visualizing the pathways in order to get the blood to take shape. A blood spear is a frozen-in-motion point, with concentration put toward the very tip, which does the bulk of the damage.”

Blood shot from her wrist, faster than should have been possible from blood pressure alone, and froze in place in midair as she concentrated on it. With each additional spurt, the spear began to take shape, until there was what looked like a pint of blood, suspended by nothing and gripped in her hand. She took a steadying breath.

“There are four difficult aspects to the technique,” said Lisi. “The first is operating while light on blood, though there are techniques to increase the blood volume of the body and magically compress blood to have a greater natural store. The second is that concentration must be maintained on the Claret Spear at all times, even in the heat of combat. The third is that the spear must be retracted back into the body, unless you want to spend an enormous quantity of blood with every use, and the blood outside the body will have contact with foreign particulates, air, and germs, which means techniques have to first be mastered to purify blood, either inside the body or outside it. Fourth, you have to come to the counter-intuitive understanding that the spear is maintained in its shape by pure will, and does not obey the laws of physics as such.”

She moved her hand in a slicing motion, and the spear stayed in its position relative to her hand, not curving through the air like I had expected it to.

“Why a haft?” I asked, pointing down at the rod of blood.

“It’s defensive,” replied Lisi. “As with a mundane spear. Do you understand what I mean about physics?”

“Meaning, if you swing the spear, then the tip doesn’t necessarily change position, because in a spear, it would be a result of the tip being connected to the shaft, and here, it’s all just your control,” I said. “So if you want the tip to move, you can’t take advantage of rotation differentials or whatever, because making the spear do that would just be using more of your concentration or will or whatever.”

“Yes,” replied Lisi. She retracted the spear back into her body, then tossed her dagger to me, seeming unconcerned about whether I would cut myself on it. I didn’t, because I had the reflexes of a cat, but still. “You try.”

I swapped the dagger to my left hand, then stared down at my wrist for a moment before making the incision. I had practiced dealing with wounds before, and took a moment to make sure that the cut wasn’t producing blood. Then, with a short, silent countdown, I let the blood flow out, trying to shape it as I did.

Spell discovered: Claret Spear!

I found it to be simplicity itself, and moved the spear around as I watched it. Holding it in place wasn’t really hard, just an annoyance that tickled at the back of my mind, less so than burning bones did. The word ‘spear’ was a really, really poor approximation of what it actually was, and the only way that I could think anyone would ever find it accurate was if they’d seen a blood mage thrusting with it and knew nothing about the underpinnings or practical advantages and limitations. The only thing that was stopping me from growing the spear longer was that I could feel my control of the construct getting worse with distance. I could see other possibilities with it too, ways that it hooked in with my existing knowledge of blood magic.

“Neat,” I said, before retracting it back into my wound, then eating a marzipan fairy to heal myself.

“That’s it?” asked Lisi, staring at me. “Just like that?”

“Yeah,” I said. “There are other advantages with it, aren’t there? If I can force my blood into someone –”

“Yes,” said Lisi. “We call it the bloodline.”

I had already learned that aspect, back when I had given Fenn a quick and sloppy transfusion, this was just a fast, easy, and effective way to do it against an opponent. All I would need to do was stab them once, push my blood into them, and then use it against them.

“And it can be launched?” I asked. “If I wanted it to be ranged?”

“Yes,” said Lisi. “At the cost of a fair amount of blood. Easier, with more blood to provide pressure. You learned the technique in the span of a moment?”

“Well,” said Reimer, coming up to us. “It looks like the ‘learning’ variant is in effect. Joon got tired of us leveling up in the middle of a dungeon, and he said that a new rule was that mages don’t learn new techniques from nothing, they have to have some kind of teacher or read it in a book, something it was assumed we were doing during downtime. Otherwise, we were just pulling new powers we shouldn’t logically have had out of a hat.”

“But that’s in addition to the restrictions on skill caps?” asked Amaryllis. “Why both?”

Reimer shrugged. “It wasn’t the best game in the world. I mean, a lot of the design decisions were just based on what bugged Juniper or what came up in the middle of play.”

“But why though?” asked Amaryllis. “Surely there were predicate conditions?”

“Sure,” said Reimer with a shrug. “I mean, it’s easier to graft on a new system than to make modifications to the old ones. So skill rolls are modified by abilities, and then they go up on the basis of use, but you run into problems where skills are just going up way too fast for it to be sustainable, so you say that actually, skills are going to be a logarithmic curve, and then people start dicking around boosting skills, so you say that you need a teacher or better training, if it’s not going to be actual, ‘legitimate’ use, and then we have a big argument about what ‘legitimate’ means, and how that’s a completely nonsensical term and doesn’t map to how skills improve in the real world, and … you get the idea.”

Amaryllis sighed, then looked at me. “I do,” she said.

“I actually remember that conversation,” I said. “Doesn’t apply to D&D.”

“How many of these systems were there?” asked Reimer, raising an eyebrow.

“Uh,” I said. “Lots? Maybe not hundreds, but probably close. Of the ones that we actually played, for at least one session, I’d say maybe twenty.”

“Twenty?” asked Reimer. “Why would you ever need that many?”

“Different strokes for different folks,” I said.

Reimer actually laughed. “Did you come up with that? Different strokes?”

“Sure,” I replied with a smile. “But seriously, different game systems have different natural outcomes, so depending on what outcomes you’re looking for, you have to have a different system. And sure, part of it was just people making iterative improvements, or wanting to sell a complete system that wasn’t piggybacking on someone else’s work, but that’s partly to do with how fluff and crunch are intertwined with each other.”

“Are you going to explain fluff and crunch?” asked Reimer, once again betraying an astounding ignorance of the norms and terminology of tabletop role-playing games. It was weird, because he was otherwise so much like the Reimer I’d known.

“Is any of this relevant?” asked Lisi.

“No,” I replied. “Not really. It’s just fluff. We’ve already dealt with the crunch.”

“Ah, I get it,” said Reimer, snapping his fingers. He glanced at Lisi. “Well, we should get going then?”

“I suppose,” said Lisi with a sniff. “I doubt that I have anything more to teach you.”

“It was very welcome,” I said, with a small bow.

Amaryllis saw them out, while I looked at my character sheet to see what the spell had to say about the new ability.

Claret Spear: Channels the force of your blood into a pointed weapon. Damage and attack are dependent upon your Blood Magic level. Blood cost is dependent upon blood loss and your roll on the blood recovery chart. Complex variant shapes require higher Blood Magic.

It was more or less what I had expected, with another random table I couldn’t see or test thrown in there for good measure. The principles seemed more promising than the ‘spear’ itself; if I had sufficient multitasking or control, I could make myself into a blood porcupine, and even if that was currently beyond me, I was pretty sure that projecting the spear from the wrist to be gripped in the hand was all just a matter of convention and ease. If I were grappled and had a deep enough cut, I could probably just thrust the spear out from my back and into my attacker, which was a handy thing to keep in mind.

“You did well,” said Amaryllis, coming back in to speak with me.

“Well in what sense?” I asked.

“Handling her,” said Amaryllis. “You didn’t put your foot in your mouth.”

“Damning with faint praise, that’s an idiom on Aerb, yes?” I asked.

She smiled at me. “I just mean that you’ve sometimes been a bit insensitive to people about the game.” She held up her thumb and forefinger, a quarter of an inch apart. Just a tiny bit.

“Point taken,” I said with a stifled sigh. “How was Reimer?”

Amaryllis shrugged, but her face had fallen somewhat. “A bit of a know-it-all,” she said. “Our discussion on theoretically optimal character builds was of mixed success.”

“Oh?” I asked.

“He had a lot of assumptions about what it is we do, along with the resources at our disposal,” said Amaryllis. “We got into an argument about runeforges, and he just,” I saw her squeeze her hand into a fist. “It was often the case, in my short-lived career in politics, that I would come across someone who didn’t know the first thing about what they’re talking about. Some of them would fold and defer as soon as they saw that they were talking to someone that knew more than them, and others would try to just continue on, as though their ignorance was a match for my knowledge. Reimer was the second kind of person.”

“Oh,” I said. “That … doesn’t really sound like him, I don’t think. But sorry. He was probably just flustered. This hasn’t been the easiest thing for him, and even if it had been, you’re …”

“Yes?” asked Amaryllis.

“Imposing and beautiful,” I said. “If he was pretending to know about runeforges, it might have been because he was trying to impress you.”

“Well,” said Amaryllis, turning away from me slightly. “It did him no favors. There are five runeforges in the world, and I’ve visited two of them in person. They’re tightly controlled, and even if they weren’t, runic magic is labor and time intensive in a way that no other magic is. I said all that, and he made a retreat to a weaker position, still holding fast to his ignorance, and it made me want to throttle him.”

I shrugged. “Not sure what to tell you, except that he would probably benefit from a little slack.”

“You’re being understanding,” said Amaryllis, almost like an accusation.

“Yeah,” I said. “I’ve just known him a long time. He always liked facts and figures. Arthur was more about ideas, but Reimer was more about all the kinds of things you could pin down. Hard to imagine him without the internet, really. On Aerb … well, I can’t say, because I didn’t grow up here, but you have, what, encyclopedias?”

“And libraries,” said Amaryllis. “And yes, that’s probably where the tiny sliver of things he knew came from, plus whatever you made up for your game.” She shook her head. “Sorry, you’re right. Part of it is Lisi. She puts me on edge.”

“S’fine,” I said. I had a thought, and hesitated as I debated whether to voice it. “Sorry about earlier, if it was weird that I called you beautiful.”

“No,” said Amaryllis, “I know who I am, physically speaking. I’m likely in the top ten percent of women by attractiveness. It was a political consideration.” She shrugged. “I took it as a statement of fact.”

“Top ten percent?” I asked. “That’s … specific.”

“It’s just a guess,” she said. “Part of it is nutrition and healthcare afforded to me by my upbringing, and some of it is surely the eugenic effects of nobles selecting attractive partners. You’re right though, it’s something that might have been affecting Reimer, which is annoying, especially if he and Lisi are, apparently, a thing.”

“I mean,” I said. “For what it’s worth, you’re … I might as well just come right out and say it, but my first thought on seeing you was that you were literal, physical perfection.”

Amaryllis raised an eyebrow. “Look,” she began.

“I’m not kidding,” I said. “I’m not trying to be poetic or to pay you a compliment. I mean that you are as beautiful to me as I think a person could possibly be, and there’s nothing that I can imagine that would improve you.”

“Very strong words,” said Amaryllis. She tapped her foot. “I didn’t think it was that overwhelming.”

“Well,” I said. “We’re friends and colleagues. Ideally, I’m not letting aesthetic preferences get in the way too much.” Ideally, I’m not letting the hammering of my heart and the adrenaline of being next to you do me in, I’m not acting on the errant thoughts of touching you, I’m not having private fantasies at night when I can’t sleep before I inevitably give in and use the sleep spell. “I think I did let looks get in the way, with Grak, the opposite direction, for … well, up until recently. And even now, I worry that Grak and I spend our time together playing games, not talking about our feelings or whatever, and I don’t know whether deep down he’s the kind of person who’s content to stay silent, or whether I need to be the one to initiate, or what.” I had asked, and he’d said that he didn’t like to talk unless he had something to say, but it was hard to tell if him not having something to say was what I should worry about. It was off-topic. I was rambling.

“Can I ask, if you find me so beautiful, why you ended up with Fenn?” asked Amaryllis.

“Ah,” I said. I chewed on my lip. “Do we really want to be having this conversation now?”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t mind that you were with her, I’m not jealous of what was, I just want to fit this into the context of my supposedly overwhelming beauty.”

“Well,” I said. “Half initiation, half personality, I guess. Fenn was always flirting, always, partly because she liked to tease, partly because she wanted me to reject her advances as some kind of screwed up inferiority complex, partly because she liked me. And some of the flirting was really blatant, basically an invitation for sex, and that helped me build up this image in my head of what it would be like, if we were a couple.”

(Whenever I talked about Fenn, I tried to keep an internal gauge of how much it was hurting, a technique that I had practiced for a time with Arthur. Thinking of Fenn still hurt, but a lot of the memories were more on the sweet side of bittersweet. I missed her, and wished that we had some plausible mechanism to return her to life, but none of the conversations I’d had with Pallida, Raven, or Heshnel had provided me with anything resembling hope. Uther had never returned anyone from the dead. For as weird and wild as magic got on Aerb, return from death was apparently not in the cards, not even if you were Uther.)

“Has your opinion of my personality improved?” asked Amaryllis, pressing on.

“You know, you were just complimenting my social skills,” I said.

“I don’t take offense,” said Amaryllis. She had look of gentle understanding, which I appreciated. “It was tactful.”

“I think compassion and conscientiousness combined with pragmatism and a long view can look like coldness,” I said. “You’re always trying to look a step ahead, which means sacrificing the present for the future, and … I like you, I do, but — am I making a mess of this?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. She turned away from me. “Now’s not the time for this.”

“Okay,” I said. Not what you just said a minute ago. “When is?”

She turned back. “I know I have my deficiencies as a potential partner, I’m painfully aware of that, but right now, I’d like for us to focus on what’s ahead of us. This interpersonal stuff, it’s not going to make the difference down in the temple, it’s going to be a distraction.”

“I don’t want you to come away from this thinking that I think you’re deficient,” I said. “Dammit, I was trying my best to just explain my feelings, and I feel like it came off as insulting. I didn’t mean for it to.”

“No,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “It’s good to clear the air.”

“You know that I didn’t mean that I thought you would be deficient, if we,” I said, faltering. My heart was breaking, just a bit. I really did care about her, and maybe I was even in love with her, but I had my reservations, and not just because of the ghost of Fenn sitting on my shoulder.

“I know,” said Amaryllis. She looked over to the door. “If. Come on, we should get some food, then some sleep. There’s work to be done.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 152: The Time to Talk

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