Worth the Candle, Ch 185: Mirror Room

The Mirror Room was called that because it was arranged down a center line that bisected the large, central table, with both halves of the room being designed to be exactly matching opposites. The center of the room was a large vertical ward, separating the two halves from each other with all the might that Uther could muster while still allowing a conversation to take place. Furthermore, the room had two entrances, which could only be reached by going through opposite ends of the castle. For that reason, it had been the room of choice for any two parties that were low on trust but who nevertheless needed to have a conversation with each other. Uther had used the room on more than one occasion when he’d needed two people to have a safe place to converse without killing each other. He’d gone overboard on the mirroring though, in Amaryllis’ opinion: the opposite walls had landscape paintings that were exact mirror images of each other.

Naturally, the fact that the barrier between sides allowed sights and sounds meant there were vulnerabilities, even if Uther had made the wards such that sound above a certain decibel level couldn’t cross and lasers or other bright lights would be stopped short. That left the obvious possibility of exploiting the information that could pass through, which wards couldn’t defend against. If you had access to a deadly meme and were either immune to it or could direct it across the table, you could easily launch an attack that there was very little recourse against. For that reason, Amaryllis had a scroll with a certain image on it in a tube at her hip, not that she was planning to use it. It had the added benefit of being able to render anyone who spied on her private materials catatonic, though that might come with its own complications, especially given the viral nature of the meme.

“The wards are strong,” said Grak, looking at the barrier between the sides of the room. It shimmered slightly, in a way that must have been deliberate, so that people wouldn’t make the mistake of trying to walk through empty air. It also gave the other side a slight imperfection that one might associate with looking into a mirror. “It’s more through brute strength than anything clever. I might be able to subvert them.”

“Subvert Uther’s wards?” asked Amaryllis. “You could do that?”

“Possibly,” replied Grak with a shrug. “Difficult with another warder watching though. And useless to us.”

“Could they do it?” asked Amaryllis.

“Likely not,” replied Grak. “And not without it being obvious to me.”

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Thank you for coming with me.”

“You needed a warder,” said Grak. He paused, then glanced at her. “We all want the best for you. I’m skeptical this is the path.”

“Hyacinth?” asked Amaryllis. “Or Anglecynn in general?”

“Anglecynn,” replied Grak. “I don’t think your family makes you a better person.”

Amaryllis was silent on that. A part of her wished to say that her family had no impact on whether or not she was a good or bad person, now that she was of age and had been away from them for so long. She wasn’t sure that was true. Her family had always tugged her in certain directions, toward compromises she didn’t want to make, putting her in a position where she had to do things which went against her natural inclinations. There was no telling whether or not that would continue to be the case, if she stayed close to Anglecynn.

One of her fears was that she would become like Rosemallow some day, more concerned with artfully playing the game than actually achieving objectives. The great hazard of optimizing against metrics was that the metrics could come to rule the optimization process, warping and twisting the original intent. Fishers were given quotas to fill and bonuses based on the number of fish caught, and suddenly they would start catching scrawny fish, or overfishing, or damaging the seafloor with aggressive techniques, all unintended consequences of an easy-to-measure metric, intended to increase yields. Amaryllis could see some version of herself, years in the future, looking back at what she had done and seeing that she’d been focused on the wrong thing, power in and of itself rather than power as a means to do good.

“She’s late,” said Grak.

“We were early,” replied Amaryllis. “Hopefully it’s nothing. Lateness is sometimes a way to assert power, and if that’s what she’s trying, I would rather have her believe she has us at her mercy.”

The meme was a last resort, to be used only in an extreme defensive scenario, because it wouldn’t be that much different from killing Hyacinth and her warder, at least in the eyes of the law. Anglecynn effectively had two different legal standards, one for the members of the Court and the other for commoners. By the noble’s standard, familicide was one of the worst crimes a person could commit, unless in strict and plain self-defense. There would be no second trial by adversity, Amaryllis was sure of that.

Besides, if it came down to it, Grak was wardproof now, and he could simply vault across the table and cut Hyacinth down with his axe. There would be fewer legal and political repercussions from that form of defense.

Hyacinth arrived in the Mirror Room after not too much time had passed, late, but only fashionably so, accompanied by a warder who Amaryllis didn’t recognize, and who apparently didn’t warrant an introduction. Hyacinth was still in her black mourning clothes, which Amaryllis didn’t take as a good sign. It was past the period when Hyacinth was still socially obligated to continue wearing them, though not yet at the point when it would start to make people uncomfortable. It was a ploy, a tool in the arsenal, a social weapon, as clothing often was.

“Cousin, it’s good to see you,” said Hyacinth, sitting down at the table. “I take it your return to Anglecynn has been going well?”

“It has,” replied Amaryllis.

“And from what I understand, you’ve been speaking to Rosemallow and now wish to renegotiate the terms of your abdication,” said Hyacinth. “I can’t say that wasn’t predicted, but it’s quite the disappointment.”

“I understand,” replied Amaryllis with a nod. “I apologize for any deception, and hope that we can come to an arrangement that’s suitable for all parties.”

“Quite,” smiled Hyacinth. “My starting offer is that you give up everything currently held in trust to me, participate in entad investiture and ward bypass at my discretion and, where applicable, at my expense, that you are sterilized, with confirmation, by a mutually agreeable doctor, and that you renounce your title as princess. In exchange, I’ll tell Sweet William to give you generous terms insofar as the Draconic Confederacy is concerned, cease all offensive actions against you, and resolve the issue of your desertion from the Host.”

Amaryllis almost laughed. You were supposed to laugh when someone threw out a ridiculous offer like that. But laughing would not do: the only reason that Hyacinth was being so ridiculous was because that had been the previous offer, and a laugh might provide Hyacinth with the opportunity to point out that Amaryllis wasn’t keeping to her word.

“Are you suggesting that you have other offensive actions against me?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow. That particular line had caught her attention.

“I would include any ongoing or future actions,” said Hyacinth. “If you uphold your end of the bargain, I’m perfectly content to have nothing to do with you beyond the continuation of an entad investiture and ward bypass relationship, which wouldn’t require us to ever see each other.”

“I don’t particularly care if I see you again or not, cousin,” said Amaryllis. “Nothing of what’s happened between us was personal, at least for me. But I’m afraid that your opening offer leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth. Further, you know that Rosemallow has her own offers.”

“And what are the details of those offers?” asked Hyacinth.

“She wants me to come back,” said Amaryllis. “My guess is that we would go through with a trial, almost certainly before the War Council, where I would lay out the circumstances of my desertion, which would surely result in the charge being dropped. From there, it’s likely I would become a member of the Host.” It was painful to admit that, from a negotiation standpoint, but necessary, because Hyacinth was allied with Onion, whose control of the Host wasn’t easily contested. Bravado or lies wouldn’t suit Amaryllis on that point: even her assessment of how a trial would go was a bit much. “As I survived the trial by adversity, everything currently held in trust would be under my control, with my eighteenth birthday quickly approaching. I haven’t spoken with my accountant, but the value in aggregate would likely be on the order of one and a half billion obols. For the transgressions against the Draconic Confederacy, I would think that would give me quite a bit of leverage over Sweet William, who I don’t doubt would benefit handsomely from the bidding war.” Unspoken was the possibility that Hyacinth had more than money on Sweet William, whether it was blackmail or threat of force. Even if that was the source of Hyacinth’s leverage, Amaryllis had quite a bit of money to ameliorate those concerns.

“And yet you’re meeting with me,” said Hyacinth. “That means there are aspects of a deal with Rosemallow you find unsavory, unless you called me here for a gloat about how well you think things will go for you.”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “I called you here because I think we can all come out better for it. My opening offer is three percent of my estate, gifted to you, with your choice of holdings from among that three percent.” Amaryllis was willing to go as high as ten percent. “In exchange, Onion would give me a position with the Host that would allow me the freedom to do as I please, and you would tell Sweet William that there’s no need for the dragons to extract much capital and labor from my nation. And naturally, whatever nameless plans you have brewing, you would put an end to them.”

“Three percent isn’t particularly generous,” said Hyacinth. “I would take forty, with the other considerations, plus a guarantee not to have children until you’re aged thirty-five, put against an additional twenty percent of your holdings by contract, and a guarantee that you wouldn’t hold office in the Court, nor on any of the councils, again with a penalty of twenty percent.”

“That’s very high,” said Amaryllis. “I doubt that I would get support from Rosemallow for a deal that effectively removed me from office.”

“You wouldn’t need Rosemallow’s support,” said Hyacinth. “This would be between us, and she would keep her nose out of it, which I know you would prefer.”

“It’s tempting, but too high,” said Amaryllis. “Seven percent, with the penalties as outlined and other considerations, and ten percent of my entad investiture, excepting a few essential entads to be declared later.”

“That does begin to sound agreeable,” replied Hyacinth. She smiled at Amaryllis, in the wide, pearly way that she sometimes did, a debutante’s smile, nothing authentic or warm about it. It wasn’t hard to do a warm smile, if you practiced in the mirror enough times, and Hyacinth seemed as though she was perfectly capable of faking one. She simply chose not to. “However, there is one other matter. I would need you to admit that you killed my husband.”

“I didn’t kill Larkspur,” said Amaryllis. The words came out quickly, automatically. This was not the direction that she’d hoped the conversation would go. It would be far better for them to be haggling about percentages and conditions.

“I’m not asking for a full confession before the Court,” replied Hyacinth. “I know that would probably cost you your neck, even if you could conclusively prove that it was self-defense. All I want is a private admission, here in this room, to give me some closure. Just tell me that you killed him.”

This was as clear and obvious a trap as Amaryllis had ever seen, which was what made it so troubling. Obviously Amaryllis wouldn’t and couldn’t admit that she had a hand in killing Larkspur. But Hyacinth had to know that, so why even ask? Amaryllis did not believe for a single moment that this was the request of a grieving widow seeking closure, in part because she had a measure of Hyacinth, and in part because Hyacinth was doing nothing to present herself as driven by love or a desire for knowledge, mourning garb aside. So why ask? Amaryllis wasn’t under oath, there were no penalties for lying in this room, so what was the point in asking for that concession? An attempt to rattle? That hardly seemed likely. The only reason that Amaryllis was giving it a second and third thought was that it was so clearly obvious that a lie was in order. Even if Hyacinth knew everything that had happened in that copse of trees outside Boastre Vino, even if she had a mountain of evidence, there was no reason not to lie.

“I wish that I could offer you some solace,” said Amaryllis. “I know that to be widowed at a young age must be heartbreaking, especially when there are no answers for how or why it happened. I don’t have the answers that you want, not in a simple, convenient narrative, or even a complex, inconvenient one. I didn’t kill Larkspur.”

The goal of a conversation like this was to make the other person look and feel unreasonable. Amaryllis was taking the high road, showing empathy and concern, phrasing it exactly as she would in some future deposition or court hearing. Let Hyacinth look like an asshole or show her proof, if that’s what she really wanted to do.

“You lie so easily it’s almost impressive,” said Hyacinth, turning her lips down. “We both know that he had his eyes set on you. I argued against him, told him that he was operating outside the laws of our kingdom, but he didn’t listen to me.” That was more of an admission than Amaryllis had expected, but its purpose was obvious, framing Larkspur as the only one guilty of criminal wrongdoing. “He went after you, fully armed, with overwhelming firepower. It wasn’t a dragon that got him. He had enough experience directing helicopters to keep them low to the ground, and the crash sites were inconsistent with a dragon attack, high or low. It was you and your people. All I want is a confession, a private one, with no legal standing, to give my mind some peace.”

There were tears at the corners of her eyes and a tremor in her voice. There was a mastery and beauty in the way she spoke, the impassioned plea that came from a place of grief. Amaryllis felt a keen urge to strangle her, metaphorically and literally, to squeeze her hard enough that the truth would escape from her blue lips. If the point of Hyacinth’s performative grief was to set Amaryllis on edge, then it was starting to work. Amaryllis wouldn’t misstep though, she was too pragmatic for that, whatever her feelings. Another possibility occurred to Amaryllis, which was that this was a way of putting on pressure, not in the here and now, but as a demonstration of what the future might hold. ‘See what it will be like in the councils if you don’t make a deal? See what I’ll put you through, what political hell your life will become, what endless trials and attacks you’ll be forced to endure if you don’t add another few percent?’

“I cannot and will not confess to a crime that I did not commit,” said Amaryllis. “My last offer was seven percent, I believe.”

“I’m with child,” said Hyacinth, placing a hand against her stomach. “My little boy will grow up not knowing his father.” She shook her head, and a real, actual tear slid down her face. Crying on command was, Amaryllis knew, difficult, though easier if you were drawing on actual emotions. Who knew whether the pregnancy was real. It was never a lie you could call someone on, and if there were no baby, then she could simply claim a miscarriage. “I know that what Larkspur did was wrong. I said as much to him. If you killed him in self-defense — all I want to know is what happened.”

“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “I really wish that I could give you closure. If a confession to a crime I did not commit is what it will take to close this deal, then I doubt we can come to a deal at all.”

Hyacinth gave Amaryllis a hard look. Her lip trembled, just slightly, the perfect picture of emotions held barely in check. As a weapon, it would have been more effective if deployed immediately, rather than as additional leverage when needed. “I’m sorry, would you allow me a moment to gather myself outside this room?”

“Certainly,” Amaryllis nodded. “I know this has been difficult for you.” In reality, Hyacinth was almost certainly going outside the Mirror Room in order to confer with a third party, and while it would have been better to keep Hyacinth operating on her own, there was no gracious way to prevent her from leaving. Even if Amaryllis had violated social expectations and insisted that Hyacinth stay, she didn’t think that doing so would get her closer to a resolution. The truth was, Hyacinth wasn’t in charge here.

Hyacinth stood up, smoothed her mourning dress, sniffled slightly, then left the room. Her warder stayed behind, hands clasped on the table. It was entirely possible that this woman wasn’t a warder at all, and this was the moment that she would spring into action as a master assassin once there was a measure of deniability and safety for Hyacinth, but Amaryllis rather doubted it, given how secure the ward was.

They all sat in silence for a moment. Amaryllis wished that they had a method of telepathy, because it would have been a good time to conference with Grak, not that his mind was keenly suited to human politics. The person that Amaryllis would really have liked to have talked to, if there were a way of communicating beyond the room, was Juniper, not because he was likely to have brilliant political insights, but because he was the one she most wanted to share her thoughts with. Hyacinth was choosing to act erratically, as though ruled by her emotions and not amenable to reason, and it was difficult for Amaryllis to see the point, other than as a weapon in this small war they were fighting. It would be so easy for this to all be settled and done for ten percent, the opening, insulting offer aside. It had been dangled in front of her, frighteningly close, a solution to the current plot that wouldn’t require conflict or danger.

Narratively, it didn’t fit.

There was a great and obvious sickness in Anglecynn, a factionalism among the Lost King’s Court and a disregard for the common people, among other things.

The Grand Reconciliation had happened a decade after the fall of the Second Empire, when the laws for nobles and the laws for commoners had been brought more in line with each other, making certain crimes of the nobility against the commoners far more likely to be met with harsh punishment. Yet the Grand Reconciliation had only partially closed the gap, leaving many seams of inequality, to say nothing of the difference in means that separated the classes. The Grand Reconciliation had taken a good deal of effort, effort which was only possible in the wake of the reforms following the Second Empire. It now seemed incredibly far from ever happening again. The commoners weren’t powerless, but the workers’ organizations like the guilds, or political alliances like the Society for Justice, had stopped accomplishing any important goals decades ago. The infrequent protests were met with scapegoats or temporary shows of austerity, if not just plain, empty words. No one within the nobility seemed capable of cooperating, to the detriment of not just Anglecynn, but the Empire of Common Cause as well. There were true, serious ills, and a number of fronts that they would need to be fought on, if the problems weren’t simply intractable.

If those were Anglecynn’s problems, how would bribing Hyacinth help? Narratively, how would it resolve the conflict as presented? The simple answer was that it wouldn’t, and if you were thinking in a strictly narrative fashion, you had to understand that this negotiation was essentially worthless. It wouldn’t cure the ongoing sickness in the kingdom. Amaryllis would likely come out of it with a significant amount of capital, but that capital would only be a tool with which to implement a solution, and that solution … well, there were options, and Uther had often fixed systemic problems with reforms using his vast resources, clout, and outright strength. If nothing else, Uther had proven that it was possible within a narrative framework. According to Raven though, these moments of reform almost always came after a long, arduous, difficult fight, in the wake of key members of the opposition dying, or when some of the systemic problems had been laid bare to the world, the roots exposed.

Hyacinth returned before there was too much more time for rumination. She was calmer than she’d been before, false tears wiped away, and she sat down at the table with a straight back and more deliberate poise than she’d shown before.

“I’ll accept ten percent if it’s signed here and now,” said Hyacinth. “No more consultation with Rosemallow, no deliberations on the finer points, just a contract, drawn up by my lawyer, in plain language, signed here today.”

Amaryllis frowned. “Why the change of heart?” asked Amaryllis.

“I took some time to reflect,” Hyacinth replied.

“I would obviously need my own lawyer to look things over,” said Amaryllis. They had one on retainer in Caledwich, set up long ago, though it would be better to go with one selected from within the Lost King’s Court, owing to differences in how the systems of law applied attorney-client privilege. Amaryllis had read through the legal codes of Anglecynn back when she’d been burning time in the chamber, but law wasn’t entirely contained in the codes, it was in the prior rulings and the people responsible for interpretation, which was one reason that a layman couldn’t walk into a high-stakes contract negotiation and expect to come out with something bulletproof.

“I’m afraid that’s not the offer,” said Hyacinth. “You agreed to my terms once, then went to Rosemallow and decided on renegotiating. I’m not going to let you leave here so that you can use this meeting as leverage.” There was an unspoken ‘again’. Amaryllis had used Hyacinth as leverage over Rosemallow.

“Beyond my need for a lawyer, there are some questions of those elements which can’t be contractually stipulated,” said Amaryllis. “You’re placing pressure on Sweet William with regards to the dragons, and any agreement to relax that pressure would be not only unenforceable, but not the sort of thing that anyone would want to commit to paper. Similarly, I question how you could possibly agree, in a legally binding way, that I would be able to avoid military service with the Host, not unless Onion were a signatory on the contract.”

“There’s precedent for family members being given lenience when they come in from the cold,” said Hyacinth. “I don’t believe there would be anything illegal about a guarantee that you would avoid the standard two years of military service, if we structured it as some alternative to service, rather than complete circumvention of the terms of your trial. Are we getting anywhere, or are you planning to walk away no matter what arguments I make?”

“I don’t particularly trust you or anyone else in this family,” said Amaryllis. “But to agree to a contract, here and now, without speaking to my people first, without consulting Rosemallow, seems imprudent.” This, too, felt like a trap, but there was an alternate explanation: whoever Hyacinth had contact with in the other room, they had pressed her to take the deal while they could.

“It’s what’s on offer,” said Hyacinth. “You’re right that nothing about the Draconic Confederacy could ever grace paper, but by the terms we plan to set forth, we might leave the entad investiture and ward bypass rights as contingent on loose language with regards to moral conduct. Surely you must believe that those rights are worth more to me than inflicting damage on a tiny nation that means nothing in the scheme of things.”

Amaryllis wavered. Hyacinth was making the offer here and now, and it was, at some level, sensible for her to take it. The deal would keep options open with Rosemallow, and below the cost that Amaryllis had expected to pay going in. It was only the timing of it that worried her. And she wouldn’t be limited from having children of her own, not that there weren’t ways around sterilization, and with luck, the entirety of the drama which would surround a trial for desertion could be avoided, as well as the two years in the Host. There was no question that this wouldn’t be the end of it, but it might be an important first step, a measure of trust between sides. Perhaps that was the start of this narrative, a reconciliation. Yet it felt exactly like a trap, time pressure for some unknown reason.

“I have one more condition,” said Amaryllis. “My companion, Juniper Smith, is as guilty of desertion as I am. I would need penalties for that waived, same as for me, and a guarantee from Onion, committed to paper, that Juniper wouldn’t be subject to compulsory service.”

Hyacinth frowned. “He’s a commoner,” she said. “There’s considerably less precedent.” She hesitated. “But I can speak with Onion, and see what he says. A commoner can be given a relatively unilateral pardon.”

“He’s here now, isn’t he?” asked Amaryllis.

Hyacinth nodded. “He’s in the next room. I’ll get him and my lawyer now, and we can put much of this unpleasantness behind us.” She stood from the table and left, walking quickly.

There was no more talk about Larkspur, Amaryllis noted, hoping that it had all been a gambit that had failed.

“I’m not sure that you’re needed for the rest of this,” Amaryllis said to Grak. “Could you check on the others? Let them know where we’re at?”

“I would prefer to stay,” replied Grak. “I was charged with keeping you safe.”

Amaryllis was going to then say that she would leave to check on the others, or at least to announce the terms of the deal, but at that moment, Hyacinth stepped back in. She was accompanied by two others, who took the remaining seats on their side of the room. One was a woman in her fifties with streaks of gray in her bright red hair, a cousin whose name took Amaryllis a moment, Holly Penndraig, a member of the Legal Council, mildly well-known for crafting legislation and as a scrupulous person with relatively clean hands. The other was Onion.

Onion Penndraig had been a black sheep in his adolescence, acting with a blithe disregard for both society and the law. When he was sixteen, he murdered a fellow student at Stars and Sigils, supposedly over the outcome of a card game, and there were many rumors, unsubstantiated so far as Amaryllis knew, that this was his third or fourth time committing impulsive acts of violence that would have landed anyone else in prison. In that era, the trial by adversity was done in the Whiffle exclusion zone, and while survivorship rates were abysmal, Onion had reached the border walls seven days after he’d been dropped, windseared and injured, the only one of his cohort to have lived. He had joined the Host, and unlike some others who had made it through their trial by adversity, he had treated it less like a prison sentence and more like an opportunity that could be grabbed by the throat.

At twenty-two he was given an honorable discharge and joined the Golden Cete. Over the course of a decade, he worked with them closely, being involved in a number of dangerous operations in exclusion zones and wild lands, as well as a number of foreign conflicts. At thirty-two, he killed a superior officer, apparently in cold blood, and was shipped back to Anglecynn for judgement. This was, again, rumored to be the last of a string of offenses, including a number of war crimes. This time there was much more substance to the rumors. Not wanting to put him back into the Whiffle exclusion, which he’d beaten once before, and not wanting to resort to simple execution because of the precedent it would set, special dispensation was given to place him into the lower Chthonic exclusion zone, which was meant to be as good as a death sentence. He instead emerged from the caverns after three long months and what was reckoned to be a five mile climb up through twisting passageways and attacks by horrific monsters. He was missing several fingers and stark raving mad, but alive all the same, and after a period of convalescence which returned him to being a functional member of society, he was once again placed into the Host as a private, where he was watched with bated breath.

A pattern soon emerged: he would bait others into altercations, then use lethal force against them. Whatever had happened to him in the subterranean hell that was the lower Chthonic, it had tempered him somewhat, and he showed a respect toward the law that hadn’t previously been there. It was said that he knew the laws on self-defense backward and forward, and was always careful to place himself in a position where, though his actions might be impugned, nothing would come of it from a legal perspective. His rise through the ranks of the Host was much slower this second time, but it was steady all the same, in part because he was now scrupulous in following orders. The killings eventually became few and far between as his reputation preceded him and no one was left willing to take him up on his provocations. When Onion reached the age of fifty-five, he was given command of the Host as the most-senior military member of the Court, a contentious decision that followed in the wake of a brutal political battle. He had ended up maintaining the status quo with a steady hand, rather than leading a new era of brutality or a military coup, as some had feared.

In his prime, he was said to be an incomparable swordsman, and even now, there was virtually no one that would have risked going toe-to-toe with him, even given his age. Onion was the kind of man who there were always rumors about, which made it hard to separate fact from fiction. It was said that he’d parried a car once, using his blade to sweep it aside. During his time in the Golden Cete, he’d reportedly killed fifty men single handedly when his company’s position had been overrun. His blade was supposedly so pseudomagically sharp that it could slice clean through a person in full plate without so much as slowing down. And there were rumors about his behavior, and his apparent suppression of his bloodthirst, none of which could be entirely discounted. If Onion was murdering commoners on a regular basis … well, it wouldn’t have been the first time the Court had been marred by such a scandal.

Disappointingly, Juniper’s primary takeaway had seemed to be that the man’s name was Onion, which was, apparently, the height of comedy.

“Amaryllis,” said Onion. He wore entad full plate that glistened like melting ice, and a sword at his hip with a gaudy hilt, which was thankfully sheathed. Amaryllis had faith in the wards, given that they had been inspected by Grak, but having Onion on the other side of those wards made her glad that Grak had stayed. On six of Onion’s fingers were rings, all entads: he collected them. He had a calm face, remarkably free of wrinkles for his age, with striking blue eyes and nearly white hair. Judging him just from how he looked, one would probably have been surprised by his reputation for extreme violence. “I had hoped to see you in the Host once you completed your trial by adversity. You always struck me as a strong girl. Those that complete their trial usually are.”

“I had cause to think that I wouldn’t be safe,” replied Amaryllis. “Were you aware that members of the Fuchsia Coterie were part of the drop?”

“It came to light during your extended absence from the Court, yes,” said Onion. “The Coterie disavowed them. We currently believe the conspiracy to have been focused on looting opportunities in the Risen Lands. It’s an ongoing matter that I would be happy to discuss if you can secure a place on the Paramilitary Council.”

“I’m ready to draft a contract now,” said Holly, arranging the papers and pens in front of her. “The contract should be relatively simple, with three parties involved and only some minor questions of legal propriety. My fear is that the arrangement would constitute a bribe —”

“Just write the thing,” said Onion.

“I don’t want my name on it,” said Holly.

“Then leave your name off it,” replied Onion, giving her a cold stare.

“If I’m brought forward to testify before the War Council or the Legal Council, I will repeat to them everything that I’ve heard here today, verbatim,” said Holly. “I hope we’re clear on that.”

“We’re clear,” replied Onion. “Write it.”

Holly wrote up the agreement in silence. There was an opportunity for smalltalk, but no one was taking it. When Holly was finished, she started in on a second copy, and when that was finished, Hyacinth began reading it over before putting a signature on it. Onion signed his own without so much as a glance at the wording.

“Three copies,” said Holly. “Five signatures, three for the involved parties, two for the witnesses,” she nodded to the warders. The one on their side of the room was already writing down her name. “The Mirror Room is a terrible place for this, because we’ll have to send a runner around to you Amaryllis, but Hyacinth and you will each get your own copy, and I’ll take my own, to be kept in a safe place.”

“I would feel more comfortable if you signed it as a witness,” said Amaryllis. “You could be brought before the councils either way, and compelled to testify before them about your role in this.”

“I’m sorry,” said Holly. “A signature could be taken as an endorsement, which I don’t wish to do. This contract is against the advice of counsel. I have kept the language plain, in the interests of both time, readability, and fairness.”

Ten minutes later, everything had been signed, with long waits as an assistant moved the papers the long way around, through the maze of rooms at Caledwich Castle. Amaryllis checked over the contract, first comparing the wording of all three to make sure they matched, then taking time to think through the specifics, where the loopholes might be, what was enforceable and what wasn’t, and how it would inevitably be twisted against her. There was no legal way in which Hyacinth could be ordered to stop any ongoing plots, but that would have to be dealt with on the basis of trust and incentives.

“Done,” said Amaryllis, once Grak had signed, handing two of the three copies to the runner. He was a younger boy, and looked nervous, which was no particular surprise. He left the room in a hurry, and not too long after, came in through the other side of the Mirror Room, handing over signed copies to Hyacinth and Holly.

“Then our business here is concluded,” said Hyacinth. “I suppose next time we see each other will be in council sessions.”

“May our attempts at governance be successful,” said Amaryllis with a low bow.

She was hopeful about the outcome. From a narrative standpoint, it was nearly impossible that this was the end of things, but it was also extremely unlikely that either she or Juniper would ever be forced to serve their two years in the Host, and perhaps this would move them to the next phase of things.

When she and Grak left the room, their copy of the contract stored safely in Sable, it became clear that there was something terribly wrong. For starters, there were two holes in the walls of the hallway, tracing a line that started or ended at the Prince’s Room and must have narrowly missed hitting the Mirror Room, or possibly just fizzled on one of the many wards there.

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis.

“Stay back,” said Grak, moving in front of her to guard her against whatever had happened.

“Juniper!” yelled Amaryllis, but there was no response, nor any noise of combat, nothing but a dead silence. The Mirror Room had been warded against outside distractions, any noise of what went on beyond muted. “Extract now,” she said. Within a fraction of a second, the teleportation key was in her hand from Sable and she was peering down her worldline to the place that she’d marked before, taking her and Grak to the forty-first floor of the Hotel Delzora.

It felt cold-blooded, leaving Juniper and the others behind to fend for themselves against whatever had happened, or was currently happening, but bumbling into a warzone, even with a magus-tier warder beside you, was inadvisable even in the best of circumstances. Juniper and the others were almost certainly either incapacitated or had fled, otherwise they would have come to get her, and if the fallback point was severely compromised, then standard operating procedure was to retreat to a secondary fallback point.

“Fuck!” yelled Amaryllis. “We need to gather forces and get back there.”

“We need to stay where we are,” said Grak. “They know where to find us when the battle is finished. They might already be here.”

“Shit,” said Amaryllis. It was sensible, which grated at her. Fucking Parson’s Voice was gone with the Li’o exclusion. They’d had it for all of a few weeks, with almost no upsides where it counted. Amaryllis cut off a thread of lament and frustration before it could distract her from doing what needed to be done. “We’ll go down and join the tuung. If they’re fine, we’ll hunker down and set up more wards.”

“The current wards are adequate,” replied Grak.

Amaryllis hesitated, then nodded, deferring to his expertise. “How long do we wait for him?”

“Raven’s personal travel entad would allow her to be in the lobby in minutes,” said Grak. “Travel from Caledwich Castle on foot, evading guards, would be longer.”

“Hours,” said Amaryllis. “God dammit.” She was left in a position of powerlessness again, having signed away a part of her inheritance. The speed that Hyacinth had demanded was obvious for what it was now: something had gone wrong, or some trigger had been pulled, and there was no way that Amaryllis would agree to any bargain after whatever the fuck had happened in the Prince’s Room. “We’re in the dark.”

“We are,” replied Grak. “We have the soul connection.”

“If all else fails, yes,” replied Amaryllis. Juniper could follow a line from his soul to their own and see what was there, but it was difficult to encode or etch a message that wouldn’t degrade quickly, as it really wasn’t what the soul was built for. Juniper could see that they were alive and confirm that they weren’t compromised by a soul mage, which would help to direct him to the secondary fallback. But what had happened? “Down two floors then,” she said. “Pay attention to your feelings.”

In a worst case scenario, Juniper could do short-term extreme values pumping as a method of communication. They had tested it twice, and both times, Amaryllis had found it extremely unpleasant. One moment she was normal, the next she was hyper-focused on Cranberry Bay and the ways that she might be able to go there and protect it, knowing that it was Juniper’s remote manipulations but not actually caring. She’d gone into what she’d termed an adversarial spiral after not much more than thirty seconds, wanting to stop Juniper from changing her soul back as a first step toward the eternal glory of Cranberry Bay. Thankfully, he’d reversed what he’d done very quickly, and they’d agreed on a shorter, less intense pulse, which was unnerving, but not actually dangerous unless she was in the middle of something. Now Amaryllis was hoping for a pulse that would tell her that he was okay, or point out where he was.

(The system had obvious flaws, like not working while Amaryllis was asleep, and the channel for communication back to Juniper being spotty at best, dependent on both of them being in a soul trance at the same time and focused on the same sets of values in her soul. This somehow managed to be faster and less error-prone than writing messages directly on the soul’s conception of Amaryllis’ body, a delicate procedure that Juniper managed once out of every twenty tries, and Amaryllis hadn’t managed at all. Juniper was convinced that there had to be some way of writing thoughts directly into her head using Spirit, but so far he hadn’t managed it, even at Spirit 100.)

“He might have to call in Bethel,” said Grak.

At first she thought that was pointless to say, because they both knew it, and it really wasn’t the time for small talk, but after a moment’s reflection, she realized that was likely Grak’s attempt at preparing her for the possibility. Amaryllis had plenty of experience operating outside her preferences, dealing with people she thought were scum, and she didn’t think that she would handle it differently with a rapist like Bethel if it meant the difference between life and death. Still, what Grak had said came from a place of honest care and concern.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” she replied. It wasn’t a conversation that she wanted to have. If Bethel came back to save them all, or even just came back because Valencia declared her fixed, Amaryllis would do her best to hide her personal feelings on the matter, at least until the moment of crisis had passed.

When they reached the thirty-ninth floor, Brian and Alice, two of her tuung, were still there, mister tanks beside them. Alice trained her weapon on them as they descended the stairs, just for a moment, until she recognized them.

“Ma’am, is everything okay?” she asked.

“No,” replied Amaryllis. “We’re on a war footing. Any activity down in the lobby?”

“None,” replied Brian, not turning back to look at them. He had his pseudo-entad binoculars literally glued to his eyes. “Wait.” He paused. “That’s Raven.”

“With anyone?” asked Amaryllis.

“Alone,” replied Brian. “Wounded, holding her right hand. Superficial damage to her equipment.”

“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “Watch the floors. If anyone starts coming up, fall back. And tell Raven to meet us for a debrief as soon as she’s up. Is she going fast?”

“A fast walk,” replied Brian.

Amaryllis was trying to work out the timing. If Raven was here, now, walking into the Hotel Delzora, then when had the enemy action in the Prince’s Room happened? It must have been during the meeting, but when? The obvious answer was that it had happened when Hyacinth had stepped out, or been precipitated by something she’d said to someone on the outside, but that meant that she’d made a contract in a hurry because they had been trying to kill Juniper in the other room. Or, possibly, because Juniper had done something wrong.

(‘Juniper’ was a mental shorthand, one that she wouldn’t use out loud, because there were four party members involved. He was undoubtedly the most important though, above and beyond even Solace, though that would be impolite to say out loud.)

“I’m going down to speak with her,” said Amaryllis. “Grak, is there any magic down there or on her that we need to worry about?”

“Not that I can see,” replied Grak, peering over the railing. (The Hotel Delzora had not been created with multispecies accessibility in mind, which was typical for entad buildings. Grak hadn’t complained about it, but Amaryllis had definitely noticed the way that everything was outsized for him.)

Amaryllis waited a moment, watching, and there were no sudden feelings that some place or another was the most important place in the world. Neither was there a house forcing itself through the front doors of the Hotel Delzora. For all that the outside world was showing them, it might as well have been a completely normal day. Amaryllis looked down on the lobby and the many floors below, and used her vibration magic to listen, trying to hear something of note. Surely by now it was known that they were staying at the Hotel Delzora, and if they’d taken offensive action, then this was the next obvious place to hit.

The whole thing was fucking insanity, of course. A full-on magical fight with lethal means in Caledwich Castle wasn’t unprecedented, but it had been decades since it had happened, maybe as long as a century. Open warfare among members of the Court hadn’t happened since the end of the Second Empire. More deniable means, like poisoning and assassination, certainly, but the kinds of altercations that left holes in walls? It was possible that this was all a misunderstanding, though Raven’s apparent injury made that seem unlikely. Or if it wasn’t a misunderstanding, then perhaps an attempt at covert action had gone terribly wrong, which seemed likely given how insanely unprepared anyone was for Juniper, or Raven, or Solace.

Amaryllis vaulted over the balcony and dropped down, pulsing the immobility plate every few floors to control her descent and staying close to the railing so she could grab it. When she reached the third floor, she pulled herself back onto the balcony there and greeted Raven as she came up the stairs.

“Sitrep,” said Amaryllis as she moved in to heal Raven with bone magic.

“Juniper, Pallida, and Solace have been captured,” said Raven. “Yarrow and Zinnia were the two who did it.”

“Where are they?” asked Amaryllis. “Are they hostages?”

“I don’t know,” replied Raven. “I just know that they’re gone. They pulled an entad and disappeared while I was taking out the Armateurs. My guess is short-range teleportation, but how short, I wouldn’t know.”

“How?” asked Amaryllis.

“They came in not long after you and Grak left,” replied Raven. “They talked for a bit, not about anything important, then Yarrow pulled out an entad. Juniper drew his sword and threatened him —”

“Why?” asked Amaryllis.

“He saw it as a threat,” replied Raven. “It was a pipe, nothing that would suggest an attack, but Juniper saw it as one. Either the threat was a bluff, or Juniper decided against the attack at the last moment, but Yarrow lit the pipe, and it put everyone but me, Yarrow, and Zinnia to sleep. I went on the offensive, but there were Armateurs there, and Zinnia had an entad that wrapped itself around my head, so I was fighting blind after the first few seconds. Yarrow had an entad to gather the others up, a sword that he touched to them, which made them disappear. It’s unknown where Juniper and the others went, but Yarrow and Zinnia also left, again, unknown where, but almost certainly by entad, a hairpin, I think. I don’t believe they were expecting me to stay awake.”

“You didn’t pursue?” asked Amaryllis.

“Short range teleport, if that’s even what it was?” asked Raven. “They could have been anywhere. But no, there was a complication. Skent.”

Amaryllis frowned. “A countermeasure against you?”

“Not me specifically,” replied Raven. “They’re old, pushed into partial extinction by the Second Empire, one of those monsters that came in from the wilds on occasion. Horrifically violent, incredibly durable, with strong regeneration. If you have an egg and hatch one, they’ll bond with you, but they can’t be controlled. I’m not sure where it came from. I took the battle outside the castle, mostly for fear of civilian deaths, and once I was past the wards, I couldn’t get back in.”

“And you don’t know where they went?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” replied Raven. “My guess would be to one of Anglecynn’s black sites.” She held forward her hand and produced a book. The title was The Dragon’s Lair: A History of Covert Justice in Anglecynn. “I have them all listed here, though the list isn’t exhaustive, and it will take some time to find which ones are active in the current year. Oh, and if you haven’t fought a skent before, you should know they have a death doubling effect. If anyone dies within five hundred yards of them, a second person will also die at roughly the same distance from the skent.”

Amaryllis held back her question, which was why in the fuck would someone unleash that in Caledwich Castle? The answer was obvious: they wanted to kill Raven and didn’t particularly care about the consequences. Yet having a creature like that within the wards of Caledwich, and a death effect that would likely have extended into the Mirror Room … it was utter insanity.

“What do we do?” asked Amaryllis.

“We wait,” said Raven. “These things happen.”

“No, they don’t,” replied Amaryllis. “And even if they do, we’re not helpless.”

“Juniper was taken,” replied Raven. “His role is not to be captured and then rescued by us, it’s to be captured and then escape his confinement on his own.”

“You don’t know that,” said Amaryllis. “We’re not on the same script that Uther was following.”

“We can visit the black sites one by one, except that I’ve used my fast travel for the day and I doubt that we have worldlines to any of the extant places unless they’re ones that I’ve been to before,” said Raven. “We know who took him, but given that they left a surviving witness, they’re probably to the winds. You could go after Hyacinth and try to force her to tell you what she did with them, if you’d like a continuation of negotiation from a much worse position than before, but it’s possible that she didn’t actually know what was going on, or didn’t expect anything like the escalation that happened. When this sort of thing happened with Uther, whichever Knights were left behind bunkered down or made themselves useful in whatever other ways they could. Uther was almost never rescued by us.”

Amaryllis thought about that for a moment. “No,” she said. “Fuck that.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 185: Mirror Room

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