Worth the Candle, Ch 177: The Erstwhile Manor

We got to see Caledwich from the sky, laid out in all its glory. The city predated Uther by hundreds of years, and had probably been settled by humans for thousands of years before it was a city, but when he’d become king, Caledwich had become his home, and the combination of a clear vision and nearly limitless resources had allowed him to reshape the place to his liking. Beyond that, the Apocalypse Demon had wreaked havoc on the city, which was exactly the sort of thing that allows for the bypass of eminent domain issues (not that such a thing existed in a monarchy like Anglecynn’s, though you had to be conscious of the lower classes revolting).

Back on Earth, D&D games had a tendency to drift into things that weren’t even remotely related to adventuring. Sometimes the party just wanted to parlay their gold into a spice trading company, and we would spend a session with me trying to desperately graft rules and dice rolls onto whatever it was they were doing. Reimer was always the one to focus most on that aspect of things, but Arthur was, somewhat predictably, about the big picture, with grand ideas that he wanted put into place. Over the years, I learned that there were a few things that were catnip for my friends, and if I needed a break from running a combat or narrative focused campaign, I could just throw some property their way, or better, a ship, and have them spend a few hours entertaining themselves and arguing at length about how things should look or function. Arthur had always loved castles, cities, and country estates, going so far as to make architectural drawings that he would bring in next session (but, you know, the kind that you do in high school, nothing rigorous).

Caledwich wasn’t purely the creation of the boy I’d known in high school, but I could see echoes of conversations we’d had and things he’d idly put on paper. The city had grand, sweeping avenues radiating out from its port, with traffic smoothly flowing around tall buildings, and green spaces never too far from each other. It was all done almost exclusively in white, which made it look similar to Minas Tirith, always one of Arthur’s favorite fantasy cities. Some of the buildings I recognized straight away, like the reconstructed Greychapel, and the Caledwich Castle, places that I had either read about or heard of from Amaryllis. There was a huge library with iconic minarets, and Caledwich’s own version of Grand Central Station, where a huge number of rail lines converged from all over the world. Other buildings were large and interesting looking, but I had no idea what they were, or if they were important at all.

“It’s breathtaking,” I said to Amaryllis.

“Uther had a flair for design,” said Raven. “Caledwich has had very few changes in the past five hundred years.”

“Yes, but some of that is due to the laws,” replied Amaryllis. “There have been restrictions on new buildings above a certain height, restrictions on buildings which don’t pass the Cultural Commission’s strict guidelines, and a number of other ways in which the city has been artificially limited from natural growth.”

“I’m not sure that’s fair,” replied Raven. “Part of his design philosophy was that a city has wants, and should be built so as to force those wants down constructive pathways. ‘We shape our cities; thereafter they shape us.’”

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “He had the same philosophy toward government. It’s a fine philosophy, as it goes, but he simply didn’t have the foresight to keep the whole city together without his vision and guidance, such as they were. The same goes for the kingdom, which, I don’t think I have to tell you, reached a point of near civil war between his two sons shortly after he left. Unless there’s some hidden aspect to that which makes it all sensible and completely vindicates Uther?” Her voice was sharp and pinched, words too fast.

“You’re stressed, I understand that,” said Raven. “We can talk later, when it would be more productive.”

“Shit,” said Amaryllis after Raven had gone away. The ship was circling some tall buildings, angling toward the train station, whose roof was dotted with other modes of aerial conveyance, including a few helicopters. “I guess I owe her an apology.”

“We all know Uther wasn’t perfect,” said Pallida. “That was known in his lifetime, in case there was any doubt.”

“There’s still a time and a place,” I said. “I do want to hear from Raven how things went down with Uther’s sons, if she knows. It was the very first story that I heard when I got to Aerb.”

“There’s a lot of magic down there,” said Grak, who was watching the ground a lot closer than the rest of us. “People. A welcome party.”

“Shit,” said Amaryllis, looking to the ground. The ship had found a spot, and a man on the ground was waving flags to help get it into position, a process that apparently took quite a bit of shouting from our captain, though I gave her a little assistance with vibration magic. The sails had been furled as we’d passed the border of the city, and I had manipulated the weather with a combination of air and water to make it perfectly calm for us. It was probably the best and easiest flight that the captain of our ship would ever have.

Grak pointed, and I could see the people he’d been talking about. They were walking toward where our ship was landing. Even from a distance, I could see that they were coated in magic, just from the colors and cut of their clothes. There were three of them, not officials, unless I had completely missed the mark. With a small mental push, I looked at them using soul sight, and saw not just the color of their souls, but the colors of the entads they were wearing. The only real thing that revealed to me was that they were wearing mostly their own entads, with only a few whose colors marked them as having been loaned.

“Friend or foe?” I asked Amaryllis.

“That’s not the right question,” she replied. “The question is whose side they’re on. We don’t have friends or foes here, just … sides.” She bit her lip and waited as we got close enough to see their faces. “That’s Aster, Heath, and … Basil, maybe. They were in Rosemallow’s faction a few months ago.”

“That’s good,” I said. “We wanted to see Rosemallow.”

“Wanted is a strong word,” replied Amaryllis.

The ship landed, and we waited for the officials to come on board, as they’d done at the border. We answered their questions, had them look at our papers, and were finally released. Captain Bonny was much friendlier about the goodbye than I’d thought she would be, given the grief we had caused her by way of a looming dragon, but we were getting out of her hair, and she’d gotten her hazard pay and then some for basically nothing.

The three Penndraigs waiting for us on the tarmac (if it could be called that) were all talking amongst themselves, right up to the point when Amaryllis stepped off. I didn’t know if security was super lax around this place, or if they were allowed right up next to a few landed ships because they were royalty, but they were right there, waiting. They seemed to all come from the same mold, all on the taller side (though I had at least two inches on all of them), all with fair skin and red hair. I was pretty sure that I was going to get sick of how much the Penndraigs looked like each other.

“Our disgraced cousin returns!” said the one on the left. I didn’t know enough to put the names to the faces, but this one had a metal pail at his hip that was full of shurikens, so I mentally tagged him as Shuriken Bucket, surely the most distinctive thing about him.

The three princes gave a brief round of applause to Amaryllis, which they escalated to a rapid series of bows, which were surely sarcastic.

“You’re back much sooner than anyone thought you’d be,” said the middle one when they were done bowing. His sword was so ridiculously big that I dubbed him Monkey Grip. It was taller than him, and it seemed more like he was leaning against the sheath than the other way around.

“Everyone is very eager to hear the story of how you didn’t die,” said the one on the right. He was the least magically endowed of the three of them, without any armor on, though the holstered pistol at the side of his hip was definitely magical, as was the crown of moss and twigs. I was trying to think of a more clever shorthand than ‘Mosshead’ when Amaryllis deigned to respond.

“Cousin Heath, Cousin Aster, Cousin Basil, it’s good to see the three of you again,” she said, giving nods to each of them in turn, which helpfully let me know their actual names. “I’ve clearly missed much in my time away from Anglecynn, and I look forward to hearing from you or others what’s been happening in my absence.”

Heath (Shuriken Bucket) stood up a little bit taller. “Aunt Rosemallow is requesting an audience with you. She’s missed you terribly and wants to see you, before you go through with whatever asinine deal it is you’ve made with Aunt Hyacinth.”

“She’d be Cousin Hyacinth,” said Aster (Monkey Grip). Heath looked at him for a moment, then nodded. The way that the Penndraigs used ‘cousin’ and ‘aunt’ were more like honorifics than actual maps of familial relationship, which was confusing, because sometimes they meant the actual relationship. I’d noticed it when Amaryllis and Lisi were talking.

“We should get going soon,” said Heath. “It’s not clear why Hyacinth doesn’t have her own welcome party here, but let’s assume that’s our lovely aunt’s doing, shall we, and not risk a confrontation.”

“Araluen got bumped up to Chief of the Guards of Caledwich,” said Basil (Mosshead), “And you know that she was a right bitch even when we were all younger.”

“I barely remember her,” said Amaryllis. “And obviously I wouldn’t want to run afoul of either Hyacinth or Araluen, given that I’m in legal trouble at the moment. Hyacinth offered me a deal, and I intend to take it.”

“So what do you need to hear to come with us?” asked Heath. “That you don’t have a choice? Fine then, you don’t have a choice, if you don’t come with us, we’ll, I don’t know,” he looked at me, the first time he’d given me more than a glance. “Fuck, is he human? Tall, for a human. What have you been feeding him?”

“This is Juniper Smith,” said Amaryllis. “We met in the Risen Lands. Show him some respect.”

“Well,” said Heath, laughing just a bit as he squared his shoulder. “Cousin Amaryllis, Mister Juniper, come with me, or I’ll have to get violent, and nevermind that you have us outnumbered five to one.” His shoulders slumped. “There, was that properly threatening for you? You can say that you came with us to avoid a confrontation. Say that we put you between a rock and a hard place, which is true.” He looked at the collection of people standing around the ship. “Maybe we don’t need all twenty of your people to come with us though.”

Amaryllis turned back, looking at the ten tuung that we’d brought with us. “Rebecca, set up at the Hotel Delzora with the rest of the tuung. Gemma, Solace, you’ll be with them. Pallida, you’re the local guide. Grak, set up defenses.” I wasn’t too comfortable leaving Grak behind, given that a warder was an incomparable asset, but I had to trust Amaryllis on this. The Anglecynn thing was her show, after all.

“It’s been some time since I’ve been through Caledwich,” said Pallida. “But I’ll manage, I’m sure. Will you?”

Amaryllis nodded, then turned back to the three princes. “It’ll be the three of us then, myself, Juniper, and this is Raven Masters.”

“Named after the Knight?” asked Basil.

“Something like that,” replied Raven.

“Then come on, let’s get going,” said Heath. He hefted his bucket of shurikens so that it was behind his back and smiled at us.

“Seems as though you’ve amassed a great deal of power in a very short time, cousin,” said Heath as we walked through the train terminal. People were avoiding us, and the station guards, dressed in identical heavy armor that was almost certainly entad-made, stoically held their gaze anywhere but where we were. “We’ll have to talk about that on the ride over.”

“I’ll talk to Rosemallow when I see her,” said Amaryllis.

“How good is your intelligence service in the Republic of Miunun?” asked Heath. “Middling to poor, I’m guessing, unless you’re feeding at the teat of the Empire. Given that you’re being press-ganged into a ride with us, perhaps it would behoove you to spend the time getting up to speed. All we want is the scoop, the scuttlebutt, the hot gossip, whatever you can tell us about the most talked about girl in all of Anglecynn.”

“It’s not actually so bad,” said Basil. “In case you were wondering. There’s been a press offensive, but very little substance. They are talking about you though.”

“We will accept scraps,” said Heath. He pointed ahead, out into the street, where trams were lined up. An armored man with folded hands was standing by one of them, and no one was going in it. “We’ll be pulling rank and taking one of these, I hope you weren’t expecting anything more.”

“It’s a step down from what I remember,” said Amaryllis, frowning. “Less secure.”

“Well, of course, things have been a little different in recent months,” replied Heath. He hopped up into the tram and set his bucket of shurikens down beside him, and the other princes followed after him, with Aster’s enormous sword taking some maneuvering. We followed after them, taking the opposing bench, which left us facing each other. The tram was one of many, big enough for maybe a dozen people. There was no driver, but there were controls, and Basil fiddled with them, which caused the tram to lurch into motion, not seeming to require anything else in the way of interaction. I had a lot of questions about how this all worked, and kept them to myself.

“You can go first,” said Amaryllis, folding her hands in her lap. “Tell me about my diaries being public.”

“Happened about a week ago,” said Heath, seeming to enjoy himself, with his bucket of shurikens set beside him, held in place with one hand. “Popular opinion among the Court is that it was Rosemallow’s doing, since it was her people who helped to get your affairs in order after your presumed death. Beyond that, there were some articles in the dailies, a few pointed discussions on the radio, and that was enough to get the ball rolling on its own. Legally, there’s an inquiry into the inquiry that got you sent to the trial, and a call for an end to the trials, which were already up in the air because of the whole skin magic exclusion — had news of that reached your shores?”

“It had,” replied Amaryllis. “You know that. What’s the point of all this?”

“Rosemallow keeps her cards close to her chest,” said Aster. He looked ridiculous next to his enormous sword, which barely fit in the tram.

“If you want to talk best guesses, she either wants you back, or she wants good relations with whatever scheme you’ve got cooking,” said Heath. “She’s presenting herself as having a real desire for change and reform, some of the stuff you wrote about in your diary, but if you believe she’s turned over a new leaf, then you’re dumber than I remember you being.”

“Did she think publishing my diaries would endear me to her?” asked Amaryllis.

Are they really your diaries?” asked Heath. “Everyone is wondering.”

“I haven’t read what she published,” replied Amaryllis. “I can’t know what she slipped in there.”

“Most of the essays are hers, or ghost-written, I suspect,” said Heath. “I read some of it. It’s a lot of raging against the system, cynicism about the Court and the Empire, paired with a naked idealism about how the world might be. It’s trite and naive enough to have been written by a teenager, I’ll give it that.” Heath himself was in his early twenties, by my best guess, though he had a billionaire playboy vibe to him that could potentially last a man well into his thirties.

“The diary is very raw,” said Basil. “That’s what people like about it.”

“Hrm,” said Amaryllis. “And what else has been happening in the Lost King’s Court in the last few months?”

“Larkspur Prentiss died, though I’d be surprised if you didn’t already know about that,” replied Heath. “He wasn’t a linchpin, but he was important, and the circumstances are a bit, shall we say, curious. He was blasted out of the sky by a dragon while flying a helicopter in a country he shouldn’t have been in.”

”He was Foreign Security Director,” said Aster. “It’s not that curious that he was off flying in a helicopter somewhere.”

“Regardless,” replied Heath. “All that aside, there have been some minor scandals in the half year or so, I can’t recall exactly when you left, but in terms of highlights, cousin Origanum got into a fantastically public fight with his wife about infidelity on his part, the legislature has been in deadlock again, —”

“On what issue?” asked Amaryllis.

Heath, Aster, and Basil looked at each other. “Not sure,” said Heath.

“The legislature is deadlocked, and you don’t know why?” asked Amaryllis.

“Cousin,” said Heath, clearly exasperated, “The legislature goes into deadlock often enough that I don’t really pay that much attention to it. I get told how to vote when the important votes come up, like a good little soldier in the grand war of laws, but I don’t take an active interest in whatever the hells our esteemed family is doing. It’s a sausage factory. Best not to know.”

“Then what are the papers saying that the deadlock is caused by?” asked Amaryllis.

“That depends on what papers you’re reading, I assume,” said Heath.

“I think … officially it was something about payments to the Empire,” said Aster. “Maybe because of the new exclusion? Or the refugees? We took in a lot with the Risen Lands, and no one is very happy about all these people from Li’o, even if they’re more on the imperial side, or because of that. But don’t quote me on that.”

“That would, obviously, just be what they’re saying it’s about,” said Heath. “Most likely it’s down to this or that holding getting more or less governmental aid, or whether or not a new facility built in Pembershire will get ten or twelve million obols, or some other horseshit like that. But as it stands, we don’t really know what this particular standoff is about. Oh, and one of the guilds is using the opportunity to go on strike.” He looked to Aster.

“It’s the Warehousers. They have a list of seven demands,” said Aster. “I don’t think I would be able to recite it from memory. Better pay was one. There was an accident a few weeks ago, a shipment from Ellison carrying something that it shouldn’t have been.”

“Three dead,” said Basil, making a face.

“Enough about all that,” said Heath. “If you want to know what I think Aunt Rosemallow is up to, my guess is that she’s trying to make you a lightning rod for the opposition and sweetening you up to come back. She’ll stick your neck out and try to profit from it, which I’m given to understand was what she did leading up to your trial.”

“Sorry,” I said. “Why are you taking the tram rather than a car?”

“Oh!” replied Heath. He turned to speak to Amaryllis, rather than to me. “Not really sure, but I think it’s one half the strike, one half the diary. There’s a bit in there about you trying Barren bread and thinking about all the good things you have, and how much waste there is, and the difficulty in paring down the Court into something more austere. Rosemallow has floated the idea of a Second Grand Reconciliation, but there’s no way that actually happens. Hence, highly public shows of humility for a few weeks until people calm down. Did you actually write that stuff though?”

“I did,” said Amaryllis. “I would have to check the wording to make sure it wasn’t edited.”

“Well, it struck a chord,” replied Heath. “Our dear auntie has suggested that it would be better for us to be seen as men of the realm, bound by the law rather than above it. I’m not sure how long she expects us to keep it up for, but it’s already starting to chafe.” He had been sitting forward slightly, and leaned back in his seat, looking over Amaryllis. “Now, we’re halfway through our trip, more or less. Would you like to tell me how you ended up as the de facto leader of a nation of frogs?”

Amaryllis gave the abbreviated version of things, naturally, not just because the long version would have been too long, but because there were some things we were planning on just not telling anyone. Officially speaking, Amaryllis and I went to a hidden cache of entads in Silmar City following our drop into the Risen Lands. That cache allowed us to travel outside of the exclusion zone, which we did, and from there, we’d been making our way through the world, trying to gather together whatever remnants of her life (and fortune) we could, those things not snatched up by the Anglecynn legal system. During a train trip away from Cranberry Bay, we met with Esuen and helped her escape, which is what led to us being gifted the Isle of Poran and taking on fairly powerful advisory roles in the new tuung government.

Then, at least partially in repayment for my extended service and unwavering loyalty, Amaryllis had helped me to enroll at Sound and Silence, which —

“Holy shit,” said Heath. “You were there? You were in Li’o when the exclusion hit?”

“The tuung were first responders,” said Basil. “I’d wondered about that. And there were rumors.”

“I’ll have to see what the papers are saying,” replied Amaryllis. “But yes, we were there when the exclusion hit.” She paused for a moment, then looked at me. “Juniper was the one who killed the creature.”

I could feel all eyes on me. It wasn’t technically true. All I’d done was attack using a combination of blood magic and bone magic. It had been Bethel that had delivered the killing blow. Granted, she wouldn’t have been able to do that if I hadn’t been sapping the kaiju of all its strength, but I still felt awkward getting all the credit.

“I thought that it was a — a monster, so tall it was scraping the clouds, so big that when it fell it crushed thousands,” said Heath. “They were bringing in star mages to remove the body, that’s how big it was.”

“I’m a fairly capable warrior,” I replied.

I could feel their eyes on me, paying attention to me for once. Heath moved his bucket of shurikens a little bit closer to him. I don’t know what good he thought the shurikens would do, especially in the cramped car, but I also didn’t know what the nature of the entad was (by soul sight, both the bucket and shurikens piled inside it were entads linked to him, obvious enough, but still worth checking).

“Just how much firepower is sitting in this tram right now?” asked Heath. He’d been keeping things light since the moment we’d met him, but now his voice had become perfectly level.

“We didn’t come to Anglecynn to fight,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t believe that whatever wrongs I perceive to have been done to me will be righted by unleashing our might on members of the Court.”

Heath relaxed, but only fractionally. “I’m pretty sure that Rosemallow is going to have you looked over by a warder,” he said. “Either Salvia or Citronella. Just so you know.”

“That’s a fool’s errand,” said Amaryllis. “I could kill her with my bare hands, if I wanted to.”

“Cousin,” began Heath.

“The Lost King always said to speak softly and carry a big stick,” said Raven. It was the first time she’d spoken. “One of the principles of big stick diplomacy is letting the other party know, ahead of time, that you really do have the bigger stick.”

“Sorry, and who are you?” asked Heath, looking her over.

“Raven Masters,” replied Raven. “The last living Knight of the Square Table.”

There was a dead silence in the tram, and I listened to the sound of it moving over the track. I had been multithreading the whole time, focusing on the world around us with one mind, taking in the city, not just for threat assessment, but because I had never been here before. Caledwich was incredibly clean for a big city, especially given how many people there were on the streets, and how much white dominated the color scheme. Most of the color came from the interiors of buildings, which were revealed to the street through large, multi-paned windows. The clothing of the people I saw going by was likewise bright and colorful, more than in Cranberry Bay or Li’o, and it might have been my imagination, but a fair number of people seemed like they were wearing mock-entads, pieces that had the out-there styling common on entads, but without actually being magical. I wasn’t big on cities, but so far as cities went, it didn’t seem so bad. There weren’t billboards or other huge advertisements, which I guessed was down to some strict regulations, something fairly common in Caledwich, from what I had read.

“Well, this is above my pay grade,” said Heath, letting out a breath and returning to his previous demeanor. The twinkle came back in his eyes. “What would it take for me to get in on the ground floor?”

Aster shifted on his part of the bench, moving his enormous sword to the side. “Offering to defect, even in jest, is probably not something you should be doing.”

Heath turned and clasped him on the shoulder. “Cousin, do you know what I like about you?”

“What?” asked Aster.

“Nothing,” replied Heath with a giant smile. He turned back to us. “So if I can ask, what’s the plan here, with Hyacinth and Rosemallow? Meet them with overwhelming firepower?”

“We do bring overwhelming power to the table,” said Amaryllis. “But no, there’s no plan. Hyacinth is threatening the Republic of Miunun, and I’m here to pay the price.”

“That being?” asked Heath.

“Revocation of my lands and properties, which are currently held in trust, an arrangement for investiture of bound entads, and sterilization,” said Amaryllis.

“Well that’s insanity,” said Heath. “You know whatever Hyacinth has on you, Aunt Rosemallow is going to make you some offer, or help the problem go away.”

“I know that’s probably her plan,” said Amaryllis. She paused for a moment. “She was supposed to protect me.”

“Bad blood, I understand,” replied Heath.

“You were guilty though,” said Aster.

“Guilty of moving money around,” said Amaryllis. “It’s the same budgetary malfeasance that half of the Court gets involved in. None of it was to enrich myself. And half of what they pinned on me wasn’t even my doing. Beyond that, it was nothing that should have required a death sentence.”

“Technically, the trial by adversity isn’t actually a death sentence,” said Aster.

“That’s not helpful,” said Basil.

“She’s sitting right across from us,” replied Aster. He looked annoyed. “Obviously if the Court actually wanted her dead, she’d have died.”

“Semantics aside, it was obviously unjust,” said Heath. “And I’m not just saying that because I fully believe the three of you are capable of leveling a city block if you so choose. I could repeat back everything the opposition said about you, and is saying about you now that you’re beloved by the people, but I don’t see a point in relitigating. You feel hard done by, and that’s perfectly understandable. I don’t think that means you and Rosemallow can’t work something out.”

“Did she think that you could soften me up?” asked Amaryllis. Her voice was hard.

“You know, you come across much more personable in your diary,” said Heath.

“You said you hadn’t read it,” replied Amaryllis, crossing her arms again.

“Bits and pieces, and whatever people have been talking about,” said Heath. “I’ve read through osmosis. Cousin —” he gave a frustrated sigh, “Yes, I’m sure that Rosemallow selected the people who would pick you up very carefully, for her own reasons, but I wasn’t given any instructions on how to handle you, aside from a reminder that your ejection from Anglecynn was rather harsh. If I’m trying to get you to make a deal with Rosemallow, it’s because I think it’s in all our best interests.”

Amaryllis took a breath. “You’re right, cousin. And of course I’ll listen to whatever she says, but what I hear will be colored by the fact that she was grooming me, protecting me, and suddenly stopped when it would have cost her politically. If we reach some alternate deal, it will have to account for the distinct lack of trust.”

“Did she ever explicitly say that she would protect you?” asked Aster.

“Not the time, nor the question,” said Heath. He looked out the window. “We’re almost there.”

We had transitioned out of the parts of Caledwich with skyscrapers and grand avenues, into an area with enormous homes that were just barely visible behind acres of manicured gardens and tall fences. The tram slowly came to a stop at what seemed like a small town nestled in among the mansions, with not much more than a cafe, grocery store, and post office, if I read the signs right. My guess was that it was a place people around here went if they didn’t want a long trek into the city proper, though the tram ride hadn’t been too bad. We weren’t in the suburbs, just in a nicer part of town, but I could see how it would be annoying to spend twenty minutes traveling when all you wanted was a stick of butter. Per Amaryllis, most of the Court had live-in staff, with a butler and a housekeeper at a minimum, often more, at least in the larger houses.

We exited the tram and I watched for a moment as it went off on its own. It was remotely possible that the tram system was controlled through some ingenious mechanical or electrical system, linked up by underground wires and controlled from a remove. I could see, in my mind’s eye, how I would have done it, and tried my best to stop my mind from working away at the problem. There were lots of challenges to be solved, like keeping empty trams from clumping up, making the system robust and reliable, making it all extensible so more trams could be added, preventing gridlock, on and on. It was also entirely possible that the trams were some variety of magic, with all the obvious-after-five-minutes logistical and engineering problems resolved by virtue of ‘it’s magic, I don’t have to explain shit’.

We had a bit of a walk to get to Erstwhile Manor, which let me take in more of the picturesque neighborhood, whose only flaw was that it reeked of money.

The gate was set back from the road, and there was a guardhouse next to it, with a man in a prim black uniform and entad breastplate who came out to greet us. He looked sharp and serious, and asked a few questions of Heath, giving all of us the side eye before finally letting us in. This was another display of wealth and power, putting a well-trained man there whose only job was to guard the house, especially since he would be useless against most of the schools of offensive magic, not to mention a wide variety of entads. I wasn’t discounting the notion that he might be a mage himself, but if he was, that was even more of a display of wealth and power.

The Erstwhile Manor dated to Uther’s time, when it had been far more disconnected from Caledwich, out in the country more than located in a rich neighborhood. Uther had built it himself using steel magic, the magestone a result of a specially blended steel. It was a slate gray, which had been accentuated with a dark wood and bright greenery, some of which I thought must have been a nightmare to water given how high up it was. Unusually for steel magic, the exterior of the building was intricately detailed, with most of that detail being done in the same magestone, which meant that all the panels and vertical lines that broke up the surfaces of the building had been done at the time it was erected, rather than added after the fact. At the time it was built, it would have been a radical departure from architectural standards, but now it was almost orthodox, or perhaps even a bit stodgy. When I’d first been told about the manor, the thing that most caught my attention was the name: the Erstwhile Players had been the performing troupe that Uther had supposedly spent three years with.

We were greeted by a butler, who led us to a waiting room, and the three princes went their own ways, their duties having been discharged. The interiors of the rooms that I had seen were less impressive than the exterior, though that was partly because I wasn’t a big fan of the ‘loads and loads of things’ approach to interior design. Walls got covered in paintings, cabinets filled with relics were given prominent locations, and it all wound up looking cluttered. The sitting room we got placed in was no exception.

A suit of armor was half-hidden against one wall, which I might have dismissed as more ostentatious decoration if Amaryllis hadn’t already clued me in that it was an automaton. Amaryllis didn’t think it would be any threat to me, except insofar as I might accidentally provoke it to attack me, which might result in embarrassment, if nothing else.

After a few minutes, a warder came in to look all of us over, which didn’t take long, and when she was done, we were left alone.

“How much of that was true, and how much for show?” asked Raven, after some time had passed. There was a warmth and gentleness in her voice which reminded me of my school counselor when he was trying to be helpful.

Amaryllis was staring off into the distance. “Assume this room is bugged.”

It would obviously have occurred to Rosemallow that Amaryllis’ outrage and indignation was performative. My own understanding was that Amaryllis really did feel hard done by, but that she was perfectly capable of being polite and masking her feelings, if the situation called for it. That she was reacting with hostility toward Rosemallow was at least partly because she thought it was to her benefit.

“We need to read the diaries,” I said. “Or failing that, it would be better if Raven and I knew what was in them. This is your show, after all.”

Amaryllis paused for a moment. “I started keeping a diary when I was nine years old,” said Amaryllis. “I burned the diary from the first year, then began keeping one that was a little more circumspect in what it included. Parts were rewritten when I was older. It certainly wasn’t exhaustive, but it included notable events in my life, along with certain ruminations on various subjects including monarchy, poverty, entrenched systems, whatever I happened to be reading at the time — these were sometimes in the form of essays to myself, a way to distill down whatever I was thinking into a more rigid, modular form. There are some observations of other people, my thoughts on how they presented themselves and what they wanted, with a focus on pragmatic empathy. It’s hard to remember what’s in there. I know there are a number of places where I talk about what I saw as malfeasance within the Lost King’s Court, either ways that procedure was ignored, ways that things were intentionally unjust or disordered, failures to live up to the supposed ideals … I don’t know if all that made it into the published version, naturally, but Heath described it as cynical toward the Court and the Empire, which I wouldn’t disagree with.”

“Anything about love interests?” asked Raven. “Any specific enemies that you might have made?”

Amaryllis pursed her lips. “There are many places where I was candid,” replied Amaryllis. “Many names were replaced with a letter though, usually according to my own system, though the details might be enough to connect those letters to people, especially if you had a record of where I had been on a given date. Love interests … there were none, aside from the arranged marriage to Larkspur. There were a few entries on that, which were fairly honest. Resignation, trepidation, grappling with the needs of duty … I don’t know if any of that would have made the cut.”

“Would you object if I started reading?” asked Raven.

“Go ahead,” said Amaryllis. “Ask me if anything seems particularly out of character for me.”

“Can I ask what’s not in there?” I asked.

Amaryllis paused again, furrowing her brow. “I left out specifics of meetings. There’s nothing ostensibly criminal either, though there are a few thoughts about criminality in a system where that criminality is part of the status quo. I also obviously didn’t break classification, which I would include under criminality.” She let out a slow breath. “There’s a lot that’s covered by classification, less so by criminality.”

The butler returned not too much later, while Raven was in the middle of spot checking the Diaries. He said that Amaryllis would meet with Rosemallow alone, in what he called the White Room. That wasn’t entirely unforeseen, and Amaryllis didn’t push back against it. I just hoped that she would be okay. There was bad blood, of a kind that I didn’t really have much experience with, but I trusted Amaryllis to keep her cool.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 177: The Erstwhile Manor

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