Worth the Candle, Ch 17: Voting Blocs

“So,” said Fenn as soon as we were through the door to our room. “I finally figured out what this companion thingy reminded me of: a kharass, an elf cultural thing. Basically, there are groups of people who are cosmologically linked to one another by a wampeter, which I guess is their … purpose is close, but theme might be closer. I’ve always been garbage at translating.”

“We were going to talk about why we’re really in Barren Jewel,” I said.

“Oh hush, I’m getting there,” said Fenn. “See, I’ve been thinking a bit about us as a trio and what our theme might be, what might unify us. A princess, a looter, and someone with brain damage? There wasn’t that much in common. After a little bit of time though, it occurred to me that we are all displaced in one way or another. You have probably noticed by now that I’m a half-elf, which leaves me between worlds. Juniper thinks he’s an Airthian stuck here on Aerb. And Amaryllis is a princess without a kingdom, a noble among the poor.”

“And?” asked Amaryllis, after a pause in Fenn’s monologue.

“And I was thinking that my situation is not one that can be solved. I will never be an elf, I will never be human, and there are no sanctuaries for half-elfs, nor would I go to one if I could. I was cast out of the two homes I was born into simply by the nature of my birth. Likewise, Juniper’s situation has no solution. There is no place called Airth, there’s no way for him to go home, his displacement is as permanent as mine. Yet you, princess, you want to go home, and while that might just be feasible given the benefits of your bloodline and with Juniper’s help, it’s not part of our wampeter. It can’t be, because neither Juniper or I have any stake in the matter. So, you tell us why we should brave the thaum-suckers of the desert and take back your ancestral home.”

I raised my hand. “Can I ask, are you pronouncing Earth wrong on purpose?”

“I don’t want to take Caer Laga back,” said Amaryllis. “There are a significant quantity of magic items there, all of which should be mine to bind to.”

“Either way,” said Fenn. “This is an ‘Amaryllis gets what she wants’ type of plan you were going to pitch us, and while Juniper might go along with it because you’re a young, stunningly attractive female of his species, I personally must make my reservations known, especially if we are unified by cosmological purpose.”

“I’m missing several things,” I said. “First, what is a thaum-sucker?”

“They’re a creature that feeds on magic,” said Amaryllis. “The Datura Desert would be dangerous even if it were only four hundred miles of hot sand with no water or plants to speak of, but it’s the thaum-seekers that elevate it to the level of a major exclusion zone. It is true that going to Caer Laga would require us to brave them, but I have confidence in our abilities, so long as we have some time to prepare, which I believe we do.” She turned to Fenn. “You’re a self-confessed looter, I would have thought I would get less resistance from you.”

“I never looted for the love of it,” said Fenn. She rubbed her chin. “That is to say, I did love the feeling of finding buried treasures, and the, um, archeology, looking through other people’s things, and I loved surviving with only my wits, my luck, and my grossly overpowered warbow. And I loved the solitary nature of it too, certainly. But for all that I’m not some idiot who would have gone and done it if there was some other profession waiting in the wings for me.”

“That’s not why you don’t want to do it,” I said. “You would have led with ‘it’s hard and dangerous’ if that was what was really motivating you.”

“Can we talk about the elephant in the room?” asked Fenn. I nodded. “We are in possession of a fucking teleportation key.

“Um, I don’t really have context for that,” I said. “Amaryllis told me it was our ticket out of the Risen Lands, and that it was valuable, but … it does seem really useful, and it’s irreplaceable, I get that, I just don’t … really understand the fuss except by inference.”

“Dream-skewered,” spat Fenn, as though it was a swear word. “Oh, this is not going to be very fun.” Then she brightened slightly. “Except, wait, you don’t know any jokes from Aerb, do you? This duck walks into a bar and asks, do you have any grapes?”

“When originally created, there were a thousand teleportation keys,” said Amaryllis. “Some were lost over time, a very few destroyed. At current, they number just over nine hundred, but that’s including some guesses as to which are held in private hands or otherwise kept secret. Five people, twelve times a day, times nine hundred keys, means some fifty-four thousand people traveling freely around the world every day. It’s the backbone of intraimperial travel. It’s the glue that allows the empire to functionally work. Now, the value placed on teleportation for a single person is close to ten thousand obols, which means that the per-day value of a teleportation key is six hundred thousand obols.”

“Define obol,” I said. “Define it in terms of … a loaf of bread. How many obol does a loaf of bread cost?”

“And does a spoiled princess know?” quipped Fenn.

“It depends on the sort of bread,” said Amaryllis, with a roll of her eyes in Fenn’s direction. “Barren bread sells for something like a tenth obol apiece. Proper bread, the kind made using wheat flour, would be more like two or three obol. Anything made by an artisan would be more.”

I nodded along, letting the confusing words wash over me. “Okay, let me pick a new metric, how much would someone get paid in hourly wages for, say, being a cleaner? Not a professional, just a small job that needs doing?”

“Five obol, maybe,” said Amaryllis. Which was just about minimum wage. Which probably means that the value of an obol is close enough to a dollar that I’m not that far off if I freely convert the two.

“Thank you for the context,” I said. “I think I understand … except that we used tcher to pay for the bone mage.”

“Is this really something that we should be talking about right now?” asked Fenn. “I personally thought that we were trying to discuss, oh yes, the fact that we have a fucking teleportation key. Or was I the only one interested in that?”

“I am,” I said. “But how easy is it to extract value from? You said before that they go to either the touchstones or where you’ve been before. I would imagine that we don’t want to go to any of the touchstones, because people would see us and steal our incredibly valuable teleportation key that we’re really not supposed to have. That leaves us with the places we’ve already been, and this is another place where I’m sure my ignorance is showing, but … I was also told that bulk teleportation of non-living things is relatively cheap, and you have radio technology, which means that being couriers is probably out, even if we could do that without drawing attention to ourselves, and that leaves … smuggling?”

“See?” Amaryllis asked Fenn. “Juniper has been in this world for three days and he can see all of the inherent problems. Smuggling? We’d be starting from nothing and going against all the gangs, cartels, syndicates, et cetera in Aerb who are already doing their best to occupy that same niche. And they have production, distribution, and economies of scale on their side.”

Fenn shrugged. “Point taken, regretfully.”

“So then the question is how to leverage the teleportation key without drawing undue attention to ourselves, and without putting ourselves in a position where we’re in danger,” I said. “That leaves looting, doesn’t it? We can return to the top of Sorian’s Castle and take everything there that’s not nailed down.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” said Fenn. She turned to Amaryllis. “You knew that the key was there. Fireteam Blackheart knew it was in the city. Blackheart got written off, but who else is going to be looking for it? If we teleport in, how likely are we to be surrounded by angry men with swords and guns?”

“I need a day, or maybe as much as a week, to get some news from Anglecynn,” said Amaryllis. “Internal politics are hard to track from the outside. Unless we have some pressing reason to rely on luck … the odds that someone will be waiting for us, or that there will be wards set up to catch us, are unacceptably high and get higher as time passes.”

“And yet,” said Fenn. “Caer Laga beckons.”

Amaryllis bit her lip hard and winced at the pain. “Alright,” she said. “Can I make a proper pitch?”

I nodded and Fenn laid back on the big bed before saying “Fine.”

“Juniper, first you need a very brief education,” said Amaryllis. Fenn let out a “harumph” at that. “Just as on your world, there are artisans on Aerb who make all manner of things,” continued Amaryllis, speaking quickly. “Sometimes, for reasons that no one really understands, one of these artisans will go into a forge frenzy where they’re overcome by a very particular idea and become dead-set on pursuing it, to the exclusion of money, reputation, family, sleep, food, et cetera. Once they’re finished, they come out of it, and sitting on their workbench, or wherever, is this thing that they didn’t actually know how to create, drenched in otherworldly magic and utterly, forever unique. Those are the entads. You’ve seen two of them so far, Fenn’s bow and the teleportation key.”

“But you said there are a thousand of the keys,” I said.

“All thousand were created at once,” said Amaryllis, “All in the course of a single forge frenzy. Supposedly it was a giant tower of keys that interlocked. Anyway, the entads range from useful to overwhelmingly powerful. Now, one of the quirks that most of them have is that they don’t change ownership lightly.”

“Ah,” I said. “Some are bound along cognatic primogeniture lines while others are gavelkind.” Amaryllis stared at me. “It was in your biography, which I still need to read for you. But I get the gist of it, there are magic items that pass down as heirlooms that you have claim-in-fact to, and some of them are sitting unrecovered in Caer Laga for some reason.”

Amaryllis paused to consider her words. “Caer Laga was abandoned by my great-grandfather with wards still intact and a cache of heirlooms, primarily because of the cost associated with maintaining it within the Datura. My bloodline gives me the right to pass through the wards with the two of you in tow. There shouldn’t be anything within and we should be able to use the teleportation key to leave, which means that the only risk involved is in passing through the Datura and facing down the thaum-seekers.”

Quest Accepted: Mothballs – According to Amaryllis, one of her ancestral homes lies empty with riches bound to her within it. Unfortunately, it’s quite some distance away through hostile territory. Prepare carefully.

“I’m in,” I said. “So long as we have some time to prepare.”

“I’d like to first off know what’s in it for me, second to know precisely what you’re hoping to gain from it, specifically the nature of these entads, and third, I want to know what the wampeter of our kharass is. Except I think those are actually in the opposite order of importance, so invert that list,” said Fenn. She didn’t seem concerned that I had accepted quickly.

“I don’t think wampeter and kharass are applicable to us,” said Amaryllis. “Except insofar as they represent useful terms for us to work with in forging a temporary or permanent team. As for the others, the answer to those questions is the same. Three of the seven heirlooms I believe to be at Caer Laga can either be used by the three of us as a whole or given to the two of you through investiture.”

“Well at that I’m all ears,” said Fenn. “You should have led with it.”

“I would have,” said Amaryllis with ice in her voice. “But you came in here talking about elfish traditions and how I was being too concerned with furthering my own interests.”

“Oh, I still think that,” replied Fenn. She had been laying on the bed, partly talking to the ceiling, but now she sat up and pointed a finger at Amaryllis. “You have more to gain than we do, and our gains will be chained to your successes or failures. Let’s say that you invest Juniper with a fancy new sword and weeks or months down the line you have some disagreement with him. That fancy sword was candy you dangled in front of him, but now it’s leverage over him.”

“That is entirely in the nature of investiture,” said Amaryllis, rubbing her face. “I don’t understand why you’re being so difficult about this. What is it you propose to do instead?”

Fenn frowned. “Better for us to get this out now,” she said. “I’ve traveled with people before, partnered for mutual benefit, and if you go skipping off happily into the sunset then come nightfall things get out of hand. I’m game for going to Caer Laga, so long as we do it with open eyes.”

Amaryllis stared with mouth agape. “You … you were willing to go this entire time?”

“Certainly,” said Fenn.

“Alright, fine,” said Amaryllis, swallowing whatever else she might have wanted to say. “Then we need to stop wasting time and get to planning.”

“The two of you smell,” said Fenn, “And I’m not so hot myself. So long as we’re not under a time crunch, I would propose that we find a bathhouse posthaste, get a night of rest, and then plan in the morning, with some sanity restored to us.”

Amaryllis made a strong argument that I shouldn’t go anywhere without having roughly two weeks of education in what not to do in Barren Jewel, but Fenn kept cracking jokes about the sewers smell and complaining that we were going to have to throw away one of the sets of new clothes that she had bought us. Maybe Amaryllis was as close to her limits as I was, because eventually she relented.

“It’s best that you not talk to anyone,” said Amaryllis. “I think you’re smart enough to figure out why. We’ll be apart while we change, which I think is the most dangerous moment, but at any other time the two of us can cover for you.”

“I think you’re overcomplicating this,” said Fenn. “There’s such a thing as being too paranoid.”

I laughed at that. “That really makes me want to stay inside,” I said. “The kind of people who say that there’s such a thing as being too paranoid are invariably not being paranoid enough.”

“Is that an Airth thing?” asked Fenn as she scrunched her nose at me.

“Okay, so you definitely are saying it wrong,” I replied. “And no, it’s not really an Earth thing. I don’t really have the proper qualifications to speak on what is or is not the proper level of precaution. We seemed to do fine with the bone mage.”

“You almost gave yourself away,” said Amaryllis. “Just don’t talk. Any questions you have can be raised later, with us, in private.”

That left the question of the teleportation key, which was worth something like billions of dollars in future earnings. Amaryllis had been guarding it closely and visibly touching her handbag for it often enough that if I were a thief I probably would have gotten a glint in my eye just from that. Going into the bathhouse would mean leaving it with her clothes there, which was a non-starter. Leaving it at our inn was also not an option, because the elderly innkeepers apparently couldn’t be trusted not to go through our things (at least according to Fenn).

My idea had been to hop the wall again and hide it out in the desert, but that was because I was ignorant of the fact that this problem could be solved using magic.

The tattoo mage seemed a little too pleased to be looking at Amaryllis for my tastes, at least until he got a whiff of her. The bone mage hadn’t complained, but she also had the benefit of incense in her shop and a specialty in medicine. After some negotiation with Amaryllis and payment from Fenn, he began a tattoo on the inside of her left arm. To my surprise, he was using a mostly modern looking tattoo gun which was plugged into the wall. I’d never had a tattoo myself, but I’d gone with Tiff when she wanted one to memorialize Arthur. The biggest difference between the tattoo shop in Bumblefuck, Kansas and the one in Barren Jewel was the effort put into sanitation; Amaryllis was getting a tattoo from a guy who didn’t seem like he’d ever heard of latex gloves, cross-contamination, blood-borne illnesses, or anything like that. Amaryllis closed her eyes while he inscribed a circle on her skin. Her tattooist kept looking at her. Any leering he’d had before was replaced by wariness, bordering on fear.

“Can we talk?” whispered Fenn as she slipped her arm in mine. “This will be awhile.”

“Sure,” I replied. She pulled me along until we were outside the shop.

“So how in love with her are you?” asked Fenn. This was about as serious as I had seen Fenn, aside from when she’d told me that Quills and friends were going to kill us.

“Uh, I’m not,” I replied.

“Okay, on a scale from 0-9, how in love with her are you?” asked Fenn.

“There are a lot of different ways to divide up love,” I replied. “Physical attraction, emotional attraction, empathy, those sorts of things. I know you think that my mind is clouded because I’m a teenage boy, but –”

“No,” said Fenn. “I’m worried that I’m about to be the third wheel in this little group we have here. I see how you look at her, and I see how you don’t look at me, even when I’m giving you little lovers’ kisses.”

“That’s not –”

“It’s fine,” said Fenn. “I’m under no illusions about how I compare to a princess,” the word left her lips at a bare whisper, so quiet that I probably wouldn’t have caught it if I couldn’t see the movement of her lips, “and I know a half-elf is no one’s idea of a catch but a pervert’s.”

“I think you’re pretty,” I said.

Skill Increased: Flattery lvl 1!

“Well, you’re a pervert,” said Fenn with a smile. “You really walked into that one, didn’t you?”

“Look,” I said, “I think you’re probably worried about what it’s going to be like down the road, right? If everything goes well in, um, that place we’re going, then that will cement us as a team, even if it’s just one of mutual convenience. You’re thinking that if I were to fall head-over-heels for her then you would always get outvoted two-to-one, and that’s a perfectly reasonable fear.”

A silence lingered between us for a bit. “Except what?” asked Fenn. “Isn’t this the point where you’re supposed to make some soothing sounds at me about how you would never, ever do such a thing?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. I watched the people going by us and was momentarily stunned to see someone riding an ostrich-sized bird. “I’ve been in this world for three days. I’m missing huge swaths of knowledge about how it works and who the people in it are. Your fear seems reasonable to me. If you want me to give you my assurances, I guess I could say that our traveling companion scares me a bit, that she’s too impersonal to have much a connection with aside from what my special eyes tell me, and I’m much more focused on …”

I came up short. This was the place where I should maybe have said that I was focused on getting home, but the truth was that home kind of sucked. Home was a place full of anger and sadness. It was a place where people kept saying that it would get better with time, and they had been right, but I sort of still didn’t believe them. Aerb was all fresh and new, a complicated, aged, worked-over world, but here I was free of scars, and whatever emotional stuff I was working on had been dropped at the door, at least for the time being. I was worried that Aerb was eventually going to make me face some things I didn’t want to face, but until that point, and so long as I was gifted with superpowers and not in that much danger, I didn’t really want to go home.

“Personally,” said Fenn. “I want a big old castle with lots of servants, handsome men waiting on me hand and foot, exotic foods and thrilling plays, and enough wine to drown in if I so choose. Not such a bad goal, if you’re looking for one.”

I didn’t believe that for a second. Partly that was because characters in movies, novels, and games never had that simple of a motivation, even when they claimed to. The mercenary always had some tragic backstory to be solved, or some deep underlying issue that would mean that they would never be happy even if they got their gold-plated castle. The crude biography I had for Fenn seemed to say as much. I also didn’t believe her when she said that looting an exclusion zone was her only viable path in life.

“We should get back,” I said. “I don’t want her thinking that we’ve run off. I’ll take what you said under advisement, and I can at least promise that right now I don’t think we’re close to forming any ironclad voting blocs.”

Fenn nodded and clasped me on the shoulder. “You know, I somehow find that more comforting than a blanket assurance. It shows you’re thinking, at least.”

Loyalty Increased: Fenn lvl 5!

When we got back into the tattoo parlor, Amaryllis was just finishing up. I don’t know whether she noticed us leave or not, but her eyes were still closed and her face still calm as the tattooist completed the elaborate circle on her skin. When he was finished, he touched it with his bare fingers. Though the skin was red and raw, Amaryllis showed no reaction to this.

“Package?” the tattooist asked.

Amaryllis opened her eyes, reaching into her purse, and pulled out the teleportation key, which was wrapped in white cloth and tied shut with twine. He took it without a word and with a squint of his eyes the tattoo started spinning on her skin. The circle was a hand-length across her arm, curving with it. I watched carefully as the key was shoved into her skin, passing into it with only token resistance. When he was finished, ink moved within the spinning circle, then became part of it, until it reformed into a simple, unmoving image of a package tied up with string.

“Done,” said the tattooist. “To pull it back out, grab at the edge and concentrate on it.”

“I know,” said Amaryllis, flexing her arm. The redness of the fresh tattoo had faded completely, and once she had put her robes back on, there was no way to tell she had a billion dollar magic item hidden within her skin.

And with that, we were off to the public baths.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 17: Voting Blocs

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