We spent our days (yes, multiple days) being a support organ for OIDR’s rapidly expanding efforts to get something resembling a workable government. They also took our assistance in hunting down and killing all the random crap that was coming out of (or falling off) Mome Rath’s corpse. I took point on a lot of it, in part because I was somewhat immune to the memes, in part because I was virtually invincible, and in part because without sleep, I had to do something with my time.
And, in part, because I didn’t want to be in the house. I hadn’t told anyone what had happened between Bethel and I. Amaryllis didn’t know, and I was sure that she would be angry once she found out, but I didn’t want to complicate things, I just wanted them to go back to the way they were. It was making me feel slightly sick all the time, except for those moments when I could zone out and forget, more than the lingering problems my burnt out bones had caused me, more than the danger of leveling up. It was just this gut-deep tension that didn’t really make sense to me, because Amaryllis wouldn’t actually be that angry, she would be more angry that I had kept it from her, and whatever drama came of it would probably be nothing in comparison to what I was feeling. But I kept silent, because I didn’t want to talk about it, and I didn’t want to have to explain, and so long as I kept quiet, I wouldn’t have to let Bethel stop believing her own version of events.
There were a few dangling threads in Li’o. The biggest was who would be in control of Li’o once OIDR finished up their work there. The ruling council were dead to the last, and the rules of succession weren’t as firm as anyone would have liked, nor did they have a strong continuity of governance. For anyone who was more concerned with the imperial side of things, this was especially troubling, because they were inevitably going to be a part of the conversation, not to mention that fact that if they were malfeasant, it would be entirely possible to install imperial-aligned interests on the new ruling council, if there was even going to be one. For the empire to violate a member city-state’s sovereignty was one thing, but it was another entirely for the empire to perform what was, from some angles, a coup.
Eventually, it came down to a giant meeting of thirty-odd people at the forward operating base OIDR had set up. The optics of this had been cause for some criticism by Amaryllis, who thought that they should have chosen more neutral ground, but we hadn’t exterminated all the monsters in the city, and it was the safest place for all the most important people to be, aside from Bethel.
I had only barely heard of most of the people involved. The dwarven shadow-city was there, represented by three dwarves, though they weren’t vying for control, only there as stakeholders. Unsurprisingly, the dwarves had come off pretty well from the whole thing, given that they lived pretty deep underground. They’d had a few collapses from what went on above, and a handful dead in those collapses, but that was about it. Aside from them, there were business collectives, the remnants of the security apparatus of Li’o, lower level functionaries who hadn’t been outright killed by Harold, and finally, the student council.
Jiph settled into a scowl when she saw me. She was flanked by the tywood and the masked woman (SSSC Secretary L’osh and SSSC Treasurer Midahl, I now knew). The man with grey at his temples (SSSC President Daven) was absent, which, given how things had been, meant there was a pretty good chance that he was dead. I wondered what she had heard about me in the interim, and whether she had made the connection that I was a master still mage shortly after I had been down in the temple, a place that I’d exited the same day that Mome Rath had come down. It was also somewhat common knowledge that I was a registered soul mage, given how many people I’d had to go through aboard Bethel. The paperwork would, Finch assured me, be backdated, as ironclad as he could make it, with a lot of strings pulled in the background.
Jiph didn’t approach me, which I was thankful for. Amaryllis and I had a seat at the table, as did OIDR, but we were only there in an advisory capacity. Amaryllis was pretty sure that the real reason we were there was because it was impossible to hide Bethel’s involvement in things, both because she’d had an extended sortie and gotten the killing blow, and because there were thousands of witnesses who could speak to having been picked up. That made us heroes, sure, but it was in Satyr’s interests to parade us around so that he could assure everyone that the empire had only acted when all other options had been exhausted, and in fact, had erred on the side of extreme caution before taking the final step of invoking Article 86.
There was a lot of crosstalk, especially at the beginning. Amaryllis had thought there would be. She’d had a lot of experience with meetings, and to hear her tell it, meetings were held together by strict procedure, clear hierarchies, and clear purpose. Amaryllis had argued that we should follow Penndraig’s Rules of Order, the first and last word in procedural conduct, but Satyr had declined. Hierarchies? That was at least in part what was being decided on, and the man with the highest, clearest position here, Captain Satyr, was duty-bound not to actually exercise any of that power, given how contentious this whole thing was among the imperial constituents. And as for purpose, that was up in the air too, because while the nominal goal of the meeting was to decide on rulership of Li’o, the subtext was that we were deciding on the fate of the city-state, the athenaeum, and roughly a tenth of Aerb’s remaining magics.
“The biggest single driver of income to Li’o is the athenaeum,” said Jiph. Her voice was strained. She’d been introduced as acting Sound and Silence Student Council President, which confirmed my suspicions. I wanted to know what had happened to Sonee, but there was no way for me to ask. “The athenaeum is, in a very real sense, the focal point of Li’o, from a cultural, economic, political, and social standpoint. The ruling council of Li’o was made up entirely of students who had been through S&S.”
“If that argument were persuasive, then it wouldn’t be persuasive in favor of you,” said a member of one of the business collectives. One of the things that vibration mages did, when they weren’t off exploding heads somewhere, was factory work, primarily in materials analysis and ensuring precision, thanks to both their heightened senses and their ability to manipulate vibration. Orcaz, one of the few orcs I had ever seen, owned one of a few factories in Li’o. “The argument would instead be that someone of importance from the athenaeum be appointed, someone with administrative experience.”
“We have administrative experience,” said Jiph. “And we’re here having spoken to as many of the surviving staff and faculty as we could find.”
“Backroom deals then,” said Orcaz with a shake of his head. He looked over at Satyr. “We can’t elect a new council when half of the candidates have been excluded from the running before it’s even begun.”
“I couldn’t force people to come to this meeting,” replied Satyr. “I did, as it happens, extend invitations to a number of likely surviving faculty and staff. Some don’t plan to stay in Li’o, others deferred to the decisions of the student council.”
Orcaz didn’t seem happy about that, but being shot down on that point seemed to take the wind out of his sails. I glanced over at Amaryllis, who had nudged me, and looked down at her rapidly moving hand beneath the table.
“He should point out that the majority of people in Li’o don’t attend the athenaeum, even if it is the most important place,” said Amaryllis, using Gimb. Symbiosis gave her half my effective level in Language, which was apparently rounded down. She’d gotten Gimb, rather than Groglir or Kindeh, presumably because that was the first of them she interacted with, though we didn’t have enough data to determine the rule.
“He’s a businessman, not a politician,” I replied. “At least, that’s my read.”
“I concur,” replied Amaryllis, signing rapidly. “But he would be a good check on the power of the athenaeum. Historically they end up dominating almost any region they’re in. This is the first time in living memory that one of them has had a near-total reset. It might be the only opportunity.” (The phrase ‘in living memory’ meant something different on Aerb, as you might imagine. Here, I was pretty sure that it was exaggeration for effect, rather than precision. Lisi would have called her on it, but I stayed silent.)
“The weakness of his play might be because of how powerful the athenaeum is,” I replied. Gimb didn’t really have a way of marking emphasis on a word, so I tried to draw the cheremes out, which I wasn’t sure was entirely effective communication.
My increased Spirit was mostly a boon as far as helping people went, but the Multithreading virtue was amazing in general practice, because it meant that I could pay attention to talking to Amaryllis and the conversation around the table at the same time without actually having the feeling of split attention. My experience with fighting the monsters that roamed Li’o had shown it was equally valuable in combat, if not more so. And thankfully, it was something that I got at level 30, which, after mucking with the spirits of hundreds of people, I had already passed, and wouldn’t go back down below.
Unfortunately, the meeting itself was irritating, mostly because there wasn’t much we could say. We weren’t citizens of Li’o; even if you were a student, you needed a year of residence, and some paperwork that I obviously hadn’t and couldn’t have filed nor faked. I didn’t even think that being a student would really count in my favor either, given that Jiph thought I was a cheater. I wondered whether she thought I was under the employ of the empire.
“Jiph has this,” Amaryllis signed. “She has no opposition. I’m surprised that Ermaretor isn’t here. She was always politically minded.”
“She’s dead,” I replied. “I found out this morning. Not dead in the attack, dead in her office, bottled suicide. She had a husband and two children, all of them crushed. Souls unretrieved.”
“Unfortunate,” replied Amaryllis. Her sign was terse, but she seemed genuinely saddened to hear it, and I spent a bit too much time looking over at her.
“There has been too much death and destruction,” said Jiph. “We need to clean up, clear out, and rebuild. The only question that anyone should be concerned with is what shape that rebuilding will take. There are people who will argue that Li’o should become a ghost town, that the temple and rod should be moved somewhere else. Mortality has been extremely high. Infrastructure is in a sorry state. There is a corpse sitting in the middle of the city, smelling more every day.”
“The empire is attempting to pass legislation that will bring a group of star mages in to take care of it,” said Satyr. “That is beyond the scope of this meeting.”
“Thank you,” said Jiph, nodding at him. “But my point is that things are stacked against us, and I can perfectly well understand why people might want to flee from this place, but the athenaeum is the beating heart of this city, and so long as I have a say, it will stay right where it is.”
“It’s in the best interests of everyone who is staying to have others stay as well,” said one of the dwarves, speaking up for the first time since we’d made introductions. I was used to Grak’s slightly stilted way of speaking, and it was weird to hear one of them speaking perfect Anglish with no trace of an accent. “The question is whether we can shoulder the burden of staying, and whether we can stay, should enough others leave. The site is, I should remind, an active exclusion zone.”
“We don’t understand the connection between the enormous creature and skin magic,” said Satyr. “Until we understand that connection, there’s an inherent risk in staying here.”
“The fact that it’s an exclusion zone could be a boon,” said Amaryllis. “This is the only place on all of Aerb where tattoo magic still works. There are relatively few tattoos that are still worth anything, given the circumstances, but –”
“It was my understanding that you were only at this meeting in an advisory capacity,” said Jiph.
“She is,” said Satyr, giving Amaryllis a displeased look.
“Have you interfaced with the Athenaeum of Steel and Sweat?” asked Amaryllis. She was firm and unflappable, with the kind of stoic determination that I’d come to expect of her. I was pretty sure that she knew the answer to that question: otherwise, she wouldn’t have asked it.
“Speaking to Steel and Sweat seemed inadvisable,” said Satyr.
“Why?” asked Amaryllis, pressing him. “There are hundreds of thousands of tattoo mages who have lost their primary form of employment. There are hundreds if not thousands of scholars whose expertise is only useful within this city and the surrounding areas. Worse, tattoos completed outside the exclusion zone will not be active within the zone,” that was per our experimentation, “which means that this is the only place that a person can have a tattoo added to them.”
“Be that as it may,” replied Satyr. “It is imperial policy to allow governance of exclusion zones to fall under the purview of the original governmental authority, and while it is entirely the case that Steel and Sweat might have an interest in the exclusion zone, that interest is completely subordinate to determinations of sovereignty.”
Amaryllis looked around the table. I suppose she was hoping that someone else would object, but there were no takers.
Satyr cleared his throat and moved the meeting onward, but it was pretty clear that Jiph had taken the reins on the matter, both because she was being quite forceful about it, and because she’d clearly done a fair amount of work in the lead-up to this meeting. It wasn’t really a surprise when there was general agreement that the SSSC would have provisional control over the city-state of Li’o, subject to further discussion once things had settled. That, I viewed as a formality; once someone had power, it was pretty damned unlikely that it would be stripped from them, especially not when the empire was in a precarious spot.
“It’s fucking bullshit,” Amaryllis signed to me as we left the meeting. “She’s going to take over without any of the other stakeholders having their say.”
“We were in a room full of stakeholders,” I replied. I was listening in on other conversations, though there was nothing terribly important. We got a few looks, but we weren’t dumb enough to say anything incriminating in Gimb, on the off-chance that someone knew it. “And she might be least worst.” One of the remaining low-level governmental functionaries had spoken up and made a fool of himself, which had made Jiph look better.
“It doesn’t put us in a good position,” signed Amaryllis.
“No,” I agreed, “It doesn’t. But I’m not sure how important any of it will be going forward. Jiph hates me, but it’s pretty clear that the athenaeum is going to be on the back foot for a long time, and the time scales we’re dealing with are pretty damned short, in the scheme of things.”
(This is all heavily translated, by the way. Gimb was a weird as fuck language without a lot of the features that I took for granted in English/Anglish. It was supposed to be signed by a species with gravity senses that could effectively do 3D mapping of the fingers, which meant that we were doing a bastard version of it that was slightly more calibrated to our regular old human eyes.)
“Quest,” replied Amaryllis, which I think was as much as she wanted to say on the matter. I wasn’t actually sure which she meant; we had two that were likely measured in years, the one to stop the Void Beast, and the one to make the Republic of Miunun a member in good standing of the Empire of Common Cause. Jiph could potentially fuck us there, not through an overt use of power if she did end up becoming the top of the pyramid of power at S&S, but by poisoning the well if she was in conversation with other imperial members.
“Point taken,” I replied. “Not much we can do about it.”
Amaryllis was silent at that, but she didn’t seem very happy about it.
We headed back to Bethel, and when I saw the house looming, I wasn’t very happy either.
On the fourth day, Anglecynn showed up.
With the matter of Li’o’s governance at least partially settled, there was an entity that could send out requests for aid. OIDR had been established as a collective disaster response force, but that hadn’t fully eliminated the backroom deals, and it was often the case that a member polity could lend additional support, expertise, or magic. I was vaguely reminded of the way that intelligence services in the United States had historically squabbled with each other and duplicated work, or the way that developing a standard meant that there was one more standard to comply with. It was almost funny to see it here on Aerb.
Officially, Anglecynn was lending additional troops from their Host to assist with final extermination of the remaining monsters that had come down off Mome Rath. Some of those creatures were incredibly resilient to our efforts: hard to spot, hard to kill, and worst of all, fast breeders. The arachnid Mom Raths could burrow into any humanoid that they had killed and lay a half hundred eggs, during which time she would be antimemetically hidden, the corpsenest only visible to me or through an expansive ward that Grak developed. It remained to be seen whether or not they could actually be contained, but we were doing our best. One of the big risks, long-term, was that Li’o would become ground zero for a number of invasive species. The saving grace was that most of them were incredibly, unthinkingly hostile; if the Mome Rats had the wherewithal, they could have fucked off without anyone being any the wiser. There was a possibility that this had happened: we couldn’t be confident that it hadn’t.
That Anglecynn was showing up was certainly not coincidence, though it was hard to tell whether this was the work of the Dungeon Master or the work of our enemies, not that those were mutually exclusive. I had always thought that if I were the Dungeon Master, Anglecynn would come back into play, not just because of Amaryllis’ history there, but because we’d left a few dangling plot threads behind. Of course, I would have been paying attention to what my players found most interesting, engaging, and fun, which would have ruled Anglecynn out almost completely.
One of those dangling plot threads came to Bethel’s door on the morning of the seventh day. She was wearing different clothes from the ones she’d been wearing when I’d seen her in Boastre Vino, black mourning clothes rather than the frilly red dress she’d been in before, though she was still wearing the circlet with gemstones on it, an open display of both opulence and power. She had four guards with her, all of them in entad armor, with entad weapons, and almost certainly mages of one kind or another.
“I should kill them all,” said Bethel. “Penndraigs,” she spat. She was wearing her human body, which she’d been doing a lot of lately. Seeing her still set me on edge as emotions came racing back, some of them good, some bad.
I had finally broken down and made a few changes in my spirit, which had helped immensely. Isolating the specific thread was difficult, and knowing how much of a change I should make was impossible, but I had tamped down on my fear and my sense of violation, which were both, in my opinion, greater than they should logically have been. One sign of that was that I was going in to muck with my internals in the first place. I didn’t remove the feelings, not entirely, but I swung the balance a bit, so that it was a thing I hadn’t wanted to happen, not something more and worse. Bethel hadn’t meant anything by it, I was sure of that, she’d only thought that my reluctance was petty morality, or that I was too much inside my own head. If she realized that I was more spooked than I was letting on, or that my anxiety and discomfort was more about the act than my worry about Amaryllis, she hadn’t said anything. She also didn’t appear to have said anything to anyone else, so far as I could tell.
So my feelings toward her were maybe, on balance, more good than bad, but it wasn’t a calm neutral, it was the good and bad smacking up against each other like two warring armies, the memory of her borrowed body moving against mine, the look in her eyes when she came, matched against the sickness I felt in the pit of my stomach, and the fear of something like, say, penile degloving.
“Don’t kill them,” replied Amaryllis. “Public assassination would put us at war with not just Anglecynn, but the entire empire.”
“But private assassination?” asked Bethel, arching an eyebrow.
“If it couldn’t be traced back to us in any way,” said Amaryllis. She looked over at me. “It likely wouldn’t be worth the risk, given that there would be no way to guarantee that there was no evidence, not with the wide range of entads available.” I could tell that she didn’t want to so much as invoke the term ‘remote viewing’, which was a real problem. “Come on, let’s get this over with.”
“Who do you need for this?” I asked.
“You, Valencia,” said Amaryllis. She gave Grak a guilty look.
“It’s fine,” said Grak. “I have found myself not caring for Penndraigs. I exclude present company.” I couldn’t help but see that as a slight against Lisi, which I made a note to ask him about later.
“And I suppose Raven and I will stay behind, as is our custom,” said Pallida with a sigh. “You know, I really wish that I had that hat. It could give me any disguise, really was a thing of beauty, I could be by your side without anyone the wiser.” It wasn’t fair to leave them, really, but Pallida was renacim, and her kind were recognizable, easy to place. Raven was a bit less suspect, but she was a figure of myth, and the longer we could go without revealing her, the better.
“You’ve said,” I replied. “If we find a way, we’ll search for it.” We didn’t have a quest, obviously.
“I’ve heard that Doris Finch can find things,” said Pallida, raising an eyebrow.
“Yes, well, let’s take our adversaries one at a time,” I said.
We went out into the main entryway, which Bethel had kept more or less static since Satyr had paid us a visit. It was far too grand, but at least it made an impression, one that I hoped might give us a tiny bit of leverage in the coming negotiations.
“Amaryllis Penndraig,” said Hyacinth as we walked forward. “I had heard rumors, but I hadn’t thought that they’d actually be true.”
Hyacinth Prentiss had heard more than rumors. The unfortunate thing about running a combination field hospital and refugee camp was that there were a ton of people, and at least a fraction of them were coming and going at any given time, a necessity because we couldn’t in good conscience keep family members from each other, nor could we really keep anyone from leaving if they really wanted to. That meant that anyone who really wanted to could throw on a disguise and get inside with relative ease, and short of killing them and then hiding their corpse in extradimensional space, there was virtually nothing that we could do about it. Of course, one of the fortunate things about having both Valencia, Bethel, and Grak working together was that there was virtually no way that a spy could get onto Bethel without us knowing about it. Grak in particular could use the Penndraig line against them; if anyone with Uther Penndraig as a direct ancestor passed through one of the inner wards, Grak would immediately be notified.
We were pretty sure that the four spies we’d clocked coming in ahead of Hyacinth’s visit were the extent of what she’d sent, because they’d have to be very, very good for us to have missed them.
“Cousin Hyacinth,” said Amaryllis with a curtsy. “I was sorry to hear about your husband. I don’t know if you knew this, but he and I were once quite close.”
“It is the risk that we take in service to the Kingdom of Anglecynn,” said Hyacinth, seeming unbothered. “The price of duty. Of course, the fact that you’re here will serve as further proof that you’re derelict in your duty. A perennial fault of yours, it would seem.”
“I don’t even know what my legal status in Anglecynn is,” said Amaryllis. “I think we can agree that I survived the trial by adversity.”
“You are, technically, a deserter from the Host,” said Hyacinth, smiling at Amaryllis. She looked over at me. “As are you, Juniper Smith.” I wasn’t too surprised that she knew my name, but I was a little surprised that she deigned to speak to me.
“And the Kingdom of Anglecynn intends to enforce that?” I asked.
“No,” said Hyacinth, laughing softly, with an absolute lack of warmth. “We could, obviously, attempt to extradite you from Li’o, but as soon as we tried, you would fly off in this marvelous entad. When the common folk talk about the accountability of the Lost King’s Court, it’s people like you they think of. People who perceive themselves as being beyond the rule of law.”
“So you say,” replied Amaryllis. “From where I’m standing, we saved thousands of lives and rescued thousands more from an eternity of torture in the hells.”
“And you just so happened to be in Li’o at the time?” asked Hyacinth. “You happened to have all the tools at your disposal to kill a beast the like of which has never been seen on Aerb?”
“If you want to make an accusation, make it,” said Amaryllis. “If you had the evidence, you would already have presented it, but you don’t have the evidence, because we had nothing to do with any of it.”
She was convincing. I believed her, and I knew that she was lying.
“Tell me,” said Hyacinth. “How did you arrange for Juniper to be granted the Special Returning status at the athenaeum?”
Amaryllis frowned. “Tell us why you’re here, Hyacinth. Stop fishing.”
Hyacinth once again gave us her soft little laugh. “Oh, well, you have to understand that Anglecynn is, as always, the heart of the Empire. What would it look like if we turned our back on a member in times of need, especially one of the athenaeums? We’re here to help. To that end, we have travel arranged for those who don’t wish to stay in Li’o, and housing has been secured for anyone that wants to take up residence in Caledwich or one of the other cities. We need to talk to the people you have here, to let them know of our generous offer. Obviously having you act as intermediaries would be unacceptable for a whole host of reasons.”
“If that was all you wanted, then go right ahead,” said Amaryllis. “This is the single most secure place in all of Li’o right now. Your people can move freely.”
Hyacinth seemed nonplussed. I suppose she had expected us to refuse, or at least to quibble. “I’ll have a detachment over soon,” she replied. She briefly touched her collar. “I do have to ask, in case you might give me a straight answer, what your endgame is. You should know that foreign control of an ethnostate rarely works out, even when compliant species are involved.” She’d shifted topics to the tuung, and the Republic of Miunun. The tuung were of considerable interest to the people inside Bethel, in part because their species was so rarely seen outside of their hidden-away enclaves. I wasn’t surprised that Hyacinth would look at them and wonder what the hells Amaryllis was planning.
“A student of history wouldn’t look at the failures of the past and conclude that nothing could be done about them,” replied Amaryllis. “They would instead learn lessons from those failures and correct for them.” One of the big things was that they weren’t culturally tuung at all, they were Amaryllis’ own custom blend of culture, plus what she called ‘drift’, an inevitability given that she wasn’t spending a decade of her life in the chamber.
“You understand, of course, that the Republic of Miunun is put in a delicate position by having two of its most prominent members be citizens from Anglecynn and wanted criminals on top of that,” said Hyacinth. “The Republic will be unable to fulfill its aims, if the will of the empire is against it.”
Amaryllis pursed her lips. “The empire would be much more effective than it is, if it could be said to have a will at all.” Amaryllis had, on more than one occasion, described the empire as a sack of ornery cats.
Hyacinth laughed. “Very true.” She took a moment to look around the room. “Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“You’re offering a deal,” said Amaryllis, nodding slightly.
“Give up your lands, drop any wards, surrender your entads, and undergo sterilization,” said Hyacinth. “The matter of your desertion will be put behind you, and your Republic will rise or fall on the merits of your rule, rather than the circumstances of your birth.”
“I’ll consider it,” said Amaryllis with a slight nod, and I could see from Hyacinth’s expression that she definitely didn’t see that coming. “My lands are held in trust for the time being, forfeit to the kingdom in the event of a trial in absentia?”
Hyacinth nodded. She seemed slightly off-balance, which made me feel a little better about how things were going.
“And if I were to forfeit everything that rightfully belongs to me, it would go to you?” asked Amaryllis.
“It would have gone to Larkspur,” said Hyacinth. “But as the Foreign Security Director was murdered by parties unknown, your lands would pass to his widow instead.” She placed her hand on her chest.
There was a bit that I didn’t understand, and was forced to figure things out on the fly. Maybe Amaryllis hadn’t told me, or maybe I had simply forgotten, but from what they were saying:
- Legally speaking, Amaryllis was supposed to have completed the trial by adversity in the Risen Lands and then report to the Host, where she would spend a mandatory minimum of two years in service to Anglecynn.
- Because she had completed the trial by adversity, she was cleared of her crimes, but because she hadn’t reported to the Host, she was guilty of desertion.
- If she didn’t report back to Anglecynn, there was a possibility that they would just hold a trial without her there, which would probably not go well for her.
- Amaryllis had a bunch of stuff in Anglecynn, because while there were potentially recoverable caches of stuff, a few of which we’d already hit, those hadn’t made up the bulk of her material possessions back when she was a princess in good standing. All her stuff was being held onto, for the time being, by parties unknown to me, probably many of them because all that stuff was spread out across a few different countries.
- Hyacinth was Amaryllis’ next of kin, in some manner, and would get all of Amaryllis’ stuff, in the event that Amaryllis died. Some of that was legal, some was just the nature of magic, because Hyacinth (despite being older) was next-most-direct female descendant behind Amaryllis.
- For whatever reason, even though it had been a few months by this point, there hadn’t been a trial, and Amaryllis and I weren’t convicted deserters.
To me this meant that there was a glimmer of hope, even though I had the political savvy of a wet sponge. The fact that it had been months without trial in absentia meant that there was some reason for them not to, either an ally working for Amaryllis, or some kind of leverage that we could use. All the stuff that rightfully belonged to Amaryllis was part of it, but I wondered whether that was the whole story. I knew jack shit about how the law worked in Anglecynn, except that it was different if you were a part of the Lost King’s Court, so I didn’t really have a good grip on what was going on there.
“I need time to think, but we have time,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll be here until you can help these people to clear out. We can also deliver them for you.”
“Deliver them how?” asked Hyacinth. “Not in this ship, I hope?” The word ‘ship’ caught in her throat, which I thought was probably Bethel being petty. She really didn’t like being called a ship, and had worse and worse reactions to it as the days went on.
“That was our plan,” replied Amaryllis.
“You risk raising the ire of the Draconic Confederacy,” said Hyacinth. “To do so on your own would, naturally, be your own prerogative, but to risk the lives of others would be unconscionable.”
“Per the 501 FE Sky Treaty, the dragon’s domain over air doesn’t begin until three hundred feet,” said Amaryllis. “We can keep below that for the entire trip, though it will make us significantly slower. Even if that weren’t the case, we could file priority paperwork with the DDACN. It’s a non-issue.”
“Is it?” asked Hyacinth. “Surely you’re aware that the Sky Treaties are forged between the Empire of Common Cause and the Draconic Confederacy? If you claim to be of the Republic of Miunun, which you certainly seem to, you have no standing so far as the Sky Treaty is concerned.”
“Imperial non-members are afforded a blanket protection by the Sky Treaty even if they’re not signatories, so long as they comply with the terms as outlined,” said Amaryllis. Her face was set. I was pretty sure that she could have done this without the Pedant’s Pendant, but that probably made it a lot easier.
“And, in point of fact, you did not comply,” said Hyacinth. “Which means any protection under the Sky Treaty is null and void.”
“You have proof of this supposed non-compliance?” asked Amaryllis, but I could see something in her face change as she said it. This whole conversation with Hyacinth didn’t really matter, it was fact-finding, but you still didn’t want to ask questions that you didn’t know the answers to, and you definitely didn’t want to fall into traps.
“You’ve been crowing about it since it happened,” said Hyacinth. “There are thousands of witnesses.”
That was when it clicked for me. With the Egress inside of her, Bethel was incredibly fast, and with a combination of a reflective coating and all that speed, plus a few other tricks, there was pretty much no way to catch her violating the Draconic Confederacy’s rules about air travel, and it wasn’t like a dragon (fast as they could be) would be able to catch us. In point of fact, we had violated those rules when we’d come to Li’o, and a few other times before and since, mostly in the name of not having to spend an inordinate amount of time waiting for paperwork to be completed, along with a desire to keep our capabilities secret. I had no idea what kind of caveats were involved in the three hundred feet rule, which surely had to have exceptions and regulations that ran for several pages, nor did I have any idea whether Amaryllis had been giving instructions to Bethel in order to stay within the letter of the law.
But there was one clear time when Bethel had definitely gone above three hundred feet: when she was fighting Mome Rath.
“There were exigent circumstances,” said Amaryllis. Her lips were thin.
“Certainly,” said Hyacinth. “And you are, of course, heroes. But I don’t know that the Draconic Confederacy will see it that way. Given that you don’t have the formal protection of the Empire of Common Cause, and given that you clearly did violate the Sky Treaty, even if it was under exigent circumstances, as you point out, you are entirely open to a retaliatory dragon attack. The refugees will be taken to Anglecynn by other means.”
“Very well,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think there’s anything else we need to discuss, but I’m sure we’ll talk more in the coming days.” <You fucking cunt bitch.>
<You only have to say the word and she’ll die a horrible death,> said Bethel, presumably into both our ears. The words sent a shiver down my spine. I was certain that she meant it.
<No,> said Amaryllis. <We have no deniability right now.>
“It was a pleasure to see you again,” said Hyacinth, unknowingly speaking over the telepathic conversation. “It’s my hope that you’ll carefully consider what I’ve said here today.”
“I cannot believe that she would tattle to the dragons,” said Amaryllis. She had her arms folded and looked like she was planning to murder someone, which was probably an accurate reflection of how she actually felt.
“You know what we should do,” said Bethel. “Have Juniper soulfuck her.”
Amaryllis gave her a dirty look. “Anolia would find it.”
“Even with spirit manipulation?” asked Raven. I took the question as academic.
“Possibly,” I replied. “I think that I might be able to set the two components up so that her thoughts about me were amplified in a positive direction, without changing anything about the underlying soul. The soul contains values, which the threads use as part of, or maybe the entirety of, thought, so if you alter the threads, you can effectively bypass the values, at least to an extent. Ideally I would, I guess, hardcode something into the thread, but I don’t think that’s actually possible the way that things are set up, even if that would be the computing metaphor. The real trick would be making sure that there’s no thread updating that changes what’s in the soul. And obviously, I don’t have an in-depth understanding of how the anolia’s soul sight works, plus it’s possible that she has other methods of detecting changes, which we wouldn’t find out about after she’d already been soulfucked.”
“Possibly not even then,” said Amaryllis. “She wouldn’t necessarily know about every security check in place. We could be found out, which would be a disaster.”
“It’s disturbing to me that we’re talking about this at all,” said Raven, looking between the three of us.
“I agree,” said Solace. She was frowning at me.
“I’m not saying that we will, or even that we should, just examining what the immediate problems with it would be,” I replied. “It seems like it’s not even a question of whether it’s morally acceptable, because it’s not strategically viable.”
“Probably not strategically viable,” said Amaryllis, biting her lip for a moment. “We have no intelligence network in place, no information coming from inside of Anglecynn.”
“We have Lisi,” I said. “And … it might be time for you to speak with your Aunt Rosemallow.”
“Do we not have more important things we should be doing?” asked Solace. She asked it as though it was an innocent question.
Amaryllis shot her a frown. “A dragon descending on the Isle of Poran with claws and teeth, which is at least an outside possibility, would be an unmitigated disaster.”
“Would it?” asked Solace, again using that same tone, one that seemed curious, rather than accusatory.
“I know you want to help the locus,” I said. “We just don’t have any real way of doing that. We don’t have threads to pull on. We don’t have promising leads, or any leads. The only thing that gives me any hope is a loyalty increase, which can’t really be forced because the motivating factors have adverse effects.”
“You don’t know that,” said Solace. “It wasn’t in the notes that Reimer gave to you.”
That was true, though I didn’t know how she knew it, unless she’d delved into the game’s guts herself. The companion system was a mystery to Reimer, with no real analog in the game he’d played, since the other Juniper had never allowed companion characters or anything like them. Naturally we hadn’t revealed everything to him, given how many secrets we had, but we’d shown him enough of what the game had been revealing to me that he’d been able to identify it as anomalous. (I had asked Reimer about the ‘degrees of reasonableness’, and he’d said that it was all pretty much bullshit, and had been the source of a few fights between us, because the other Juniper has usually been the one determining what was or was not ‘reasonable’ on the seven-point scale.)
“My offer to eat the bottle stands,” said Bethel.
“We don’t know the outcome,” said Solace, glancing over at her only briefly.
“Based on what we know of the loci,” I began.
“You cannot trust what you’ve read from the Second Empire,” said Solace, shaking her head. “You cannot establish rules for what does and does not work.”
“Regardless of that,” I replied. “The books we took from the Infinite Library very much appeared to indicate that even if we were able to disgorge the locus’ entire domain from the bottle without killing it, that still wouldn’t allow it to grow and thrive, nor to induct new druids.”
“Based on experimentation carried out by the Second Empire,” said Solace. She said ‘experimentation’ like it was a slur, which I could understand given what the Second Empire had done.
“I want to help,” I said. “If we had a path we could follow, or a path we could forge, if … I don’t know, if there were something, I would drop other obligations.” I was pretty sure that sounded convincing, but I wasn’t actually sure that I was being honest. I more or less liked the locus, even if I was missing a lot of the cultural baggage, even if, as an entity, it might have been created in order to challenge me. And I did want to save it.
It was just that it was very easy to say that you would do anything when you didn’t actually have to do a single thing, because there was nothing to be done.
“Did you ask the Dungeon Master?” asked Solace. “When you spoke to the god above all gods, did you ask about the locus?”
“There were a lot of things that I didn’t ask him,” I replied. I was trying to stay calm in the face of hostility. Solace wasn’t normally like this. I had cleared everyone in our inner circle save for Raven, who had warned me against it on the basis of how many dangerous things I might see there. Solace still had the locus splattered on her soul where parts of her had been reconstructed by an alien intelligence with no regards for data structures. “But it was part of Amaryllis’ questions, and he blew all those off.”
“Very well,” she said. She stood, letting her cloak flow out from behind her. “I will tend to the locus. I’m sure that it would be eager to see you, should you have the time.” She blinked out right after that, leaving me no time to say anything in response.
“Nice of you to facilitate a flair for the dramatic,” I said to Bethel, frowning at her.
“That was her, not me,” said Bethel, looking me over.
“Sorry,” I said. I leaned back. “Not really where I was hoping this conversation would go.”
“You should give her a break,” said Pallida. “She’s only nine years old, still learning and growing.”
“She’s been frustrated for a long time,” said Grak. Solace had been sitting next to him, and he readjusted himself, looking uncomfortable. “This is her life’s purpose, before all else.”
I wanted to say that it was clearly insane to devote yourself to one person so much, especially when there were other things at stake, and it was only then that I saw a parallel between how I’d been in the wake of Arthur’s death and how Solace was acting about the locus. It was different, wildly different, but I finally saw the thread of similarity that seemed like it had been in the corner of my vision this entire time.
But that didn’t actually help me, because what had I learned about Arthur? That he’d cracked under the pressure of saving the world a few hundred times? Or that he’d been twisted and warped into something unsavory by Aerb? That he hadn’t been as pristine and perfect as he’d always been in my mind’s eye, in the time following his death? None of that would help Solace. I couldn’t tell her to take off the rose-tinted glasses, even if it were true that the locus wasn’t everything that it was cracked up to be. It wouldn’t actually help anything.
Most likely I was just jumping at shadows, in the same way that Amaryllis jumped at the idea of narrative, and Valencia jumped at anything that looked vaguely like Harry Potter.
But it did occur to me to think about whether or not the locus quest might actually be impossible, whether this was all an extended metaphor for letting go of things that were gone. I couldn’t see it, not really, I didn’t think that the Dungeon Master would do me dirty like that, and if he was going to, he would have placed in little hints about it, little nudges in the direction, more ambiguous wordings on the quest descriptions.
The conversation moved on, as it had to, because there were other things to discuss, things like the plan to get me out of having to sleep once we left the exclusion zone, things like Rosemallow and the internal politics of Anglecynn, but my mind was stuck on the locus, and the idea that there might not be a way to save it.