We finally reunited at that awkward time when you’re not sure whether it’s late at night or early morning. I’d done a values ping on Amaryllis, and she’d responded back, rapidly moving values in the low-level range so that we could have a crude channel of communication that wouldn’t be too disruptive. Our method basically allowed a single letter at a time, which was painfully slow, but it was enough to communicate our respective locations, that we were all okay, and after that, to organize the meet up.
Amaryllis came in with the teleportation key, targeting a section of railroad tracks and bringing Grak with her. If we were going back to Caledwich with the key, that meant either Raven or Grak had to stay behind, and Amaryllis had made her choice, picking the utility of warding over raw combat prowess. Part of the reason that we had to meet so late was that it took us time to book it over to where Amaryllis had a path in, which involved a long car ride and then a brief stint where Solace turned us into wolves.
“What happened?” asked Amaryllis, once she was recovered from using the key.
“Can I say, first, that I’m extremely glad both of you are alive?” I asked.
“Pleasantries later,” replied Amaryllis.
“We’re happy you’re all safe,” said Grak.
“Is Raven alright?” I asked.
“She’s fine,” replied Amaryllis. “We’ve already linked back up. She said that it was two members of the court that took you. How’d you escape from wherever you were?”
“I woke up in a cell,” I replied. “Your cousin Yarrow was apparently a secret soul mage, and when he peeped at my soul, he went catatonic. Your other cousin, Zinnia, went ape shit trying to figure out what was happening and get me to undo it. She brought in Solace and shot her in the head, then brought in Pallida and started torturing her, and when I finally reversed the damage to Yarrow, she left to go speak with him, presumably about him soulfucking me or me soulfucking him. I was in entad manacles, used Essentialism 60 to slip out of them, then the same thing to get past the wards, and we broke out. I killed half of the people and the rest surrendered. Pallida killed them when I was out of the room.”
“He soulfucked Yarrow, then Zinnia,” said Pallida. “And he was going to leave them alive and planning to release them back into Anglecynn at some point.”
“Everyone at the black site is dead?” asked Amaryllis. “You killed a prince and princess of Anglecynn?” For whatever reason, she was directing this at me.
“Pallida killed them,” I said. “I was going to try to figure out a way to let them live.”
“If you soulfuck them, then letting them live isn’t a good idea,” said Amaryllis. “But everyone there is dead, those two included?”
“Yes,” replied Pallida.
“Fuck,” said Amaryllis. “Either Onion doesn’t know, or he’s bluffing well.”
“He doesn’t know, or he didn’t this morning,” I replied. “I have an entad in my ear that I can use to talk to him. He thinks that Yarrow still has it. We were supposed to teleport him intel and didn’t, so he knows something is up, not sure if he’ll have sent people to the black site yet.”
“Fucking Christ,” said Amaryllis. “We’re in the middle of my desertion trial. Onion was going to bring you and Solace in as witnesses.”
“Wait, we were only gone a day, right?” I asked. “Day and a half, depending on how you want to count it. You’re on trial?”
Amaryllis nodded. “They rushed it,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that it’s not going to work out for them.” She turned to Solace. “I told them about the locus. I’m sorry, but it was the firmest and most verifiable out.”
Solace shrugged. “I suppose the time was right.”
“You’re not upset?” asked Amaryllis, eyebrows knit.
“Not particularly,” replied Solace. “I won’t, of course, be submitting to any kind of trial, nor will the locus be poked and prodded to satisfy your courts.”
Amaryllis winced. “Understood, though that does make things more difficult.”
“What do you need from me?” I asked.
Amaryllis bit her lip. “Right now, I need you to disappear.” She shook her head. “Fuck, if I had known you’d escaped, I would have done things completely differently. We could have used you to feed false information back to Onion and Phlox. Now they’re going to try to pull you out of the black site and find everyone there dead.”
“Actually, no,” said Pallida. “We took the bodies with us, they’re in the bottle.”
“And I cleaned what blood I could find,” said Solace.
“There are probably traces that we were there,” I said. “But we did take some time to cover our tracks.”
“I don’t think it passes a sniff test,” said Amaryllis. “Onion knows that you were taken during the altercation, he knows where you were taken, so if he goes there and finds — Jesus, everyone, a whole crew of guards?”
“Like I said, about half of them surrendered once their mages and superiors were taken out,” I replied. “Er, less than that, call it a third left alive.” I’d been forgetting the ones in the hallways.
“Onion had some legal pretense,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think that it will hold, given that it’s got to be a fabrication, but I don’t know that we have enough leverage to call him on it, and it feels like the kind of thing that would get tied up in court for months if not years.”
“Unlike a desertion trial,” I replied. “Which can apparently happen in the space of a day.”
“They’ve been planning it for a while,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head. “I think that it was a measure they were keeping in their back pocket, and when things spiraled out of control, they wanted something that would soak attention and political capital. The trial might not go their way, but it seems likely that they’re going to try forcing me into the Host.”
“So which people are left to kill?” I asked. “Hyacinth is a given, Onion is a given, who else? Phlox?” I hadn’t met her, but I hadn’t heard good things. “That look you’re giving me seems to suggest that we’re not at the point of assassination just yet, for some unfathomable reason.” Amaryllis gave me a hard stare. “They kidnapped me, tried to torture me, tried to kill me, shot Solace in the head —”
“A druid acts from the heart, not the head,” said Solace with a happy smile.
“These people are monsters,” I finished. “I don’t give a rancid shit about the legal pretenses or the state of political capital. I’m out for blood.”
Amaryllis grit her teeth for a moment. “I understand your feelings. But at this point, putting Onion to the sword would be tantamount to calling the entirety of the Court down on you.”
“And together, we can take them,” I replied. “Not a ton of combat mages among the Court, the Armateurs are mooks, the most that I would be worried about are powerful entads, hidden research projects, secret memetics and whatever else is hiding in dark corners, and okay, now that I say it out loud, it might be a problem.”
“And it wouldn’t just be the Court, it would mean making an enemy of the Empire,” said Amaryllis. “Unless we can do it in a deniable way, we’re not slicing our way through the Court.”
“Okay,” I replied. “So I call in Bethel.”
“Juniper, no,” said Amaryllis.
“She could and would do it,” I said, folding my arms. “We probably wouldn’t even need to talk with her about it, and then she could fuck off back to wherever Val is keeping her stashed..”
“I understand that you’re feeling angry about how things happened,” Amaryllis began.
“Yeah, sorry if I’m a little hard done by about being drugged, robbed, and tortured,” I said. “I guess I’m just being wildly irrational about the whole thing.”
“There are rules for staging a successful coup,” said Amaryllis. “You need to target all the right people so there’s no resistance, you need international acceptance, and you need the appearance of legitimacy.”
“I don’t give a shit about that,” I replied. “We’re not taking over Anglecynn, we’re just killing a few people who need killing and then moving on.”
“You’d be fine plunging Anglecynn into a civil war?” asked Amaryllis. “Forget for a moment that people would come after us, you’d be fine with the shockwaves that it would send through both Anglecynn and the Court to know that there’s someone out there just killing high-level members of the government?”
I clenched my hands into fists. “Alright,” I said, letting out a breath. “Fine. You have a point. I’ll even accept that you have several points. We should probably not actually go in guns blazing and shoot all the people that I want to shoot unless we know that we can get away with it and that Anglecynn isn’t worse off than when we got here. But if you’re still here talking about having your day in court, we’re on such different planes of existence that I’m going to have to unlock star magic to reach you.”
“Har,” replied Amaryllis. Either she was losing her patience with me, or she thought showing some anger was a better tactic. “You understand you’re not invincible, right? You talk about getting knocked out and tortured, and then in the next breath you talk about going up against the full might of the Court.”
“I was serious about bringing in Bethel,” I replied.
“Val is trying to fix her, because we might need her,” said Amaryllis. “And one of the things Bethel fucking hates is being used like she’s some pistol to be pointed at someone. You’d be tearing apart all of the hard work that Val has been doing on so many different levels. Not like this. Not over a grudge, not because Onion is fucking awful and killing the people who held the blade didn’t give you the satisfaction you thought it would. That’s childish.”
We’d moved closer without really meaning to, just the result of shifting our footing or getting in closer to make a point. I felt like Amaryllis was about to hit me, which would have done fuck all, and might have been the reason she wasn’t trying to knock sense into me. She definitely seemed like she wanted to.
“Then what’s the plan?” I asked. “You go to court, get your ass handed to you, and I have to break you out, or kill a bunch of people anyway?”
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. Her fists were clenched at her sides. “If it comes to that, yes.”
“Except nothing will have changed,” I replied. “We can play within the system and still get fucked. You know why I got knocked out by that entad? It’s because I thought we’d be fine. I thought if they were dumb enough to attack me, I would fight back with everything I had, and at least I would have followed the rules, at least I could say, after the fact, that I hadn’t breached trust. Trying to do it that way got me fuck all. I’m done being reactive. Once we’re finished in Anglecynn, — I don’t give a shit about killing Blue-in-the-Bottle, and I don’t think he’s going to be that much easier to kill than a dragon would be. And really, I don’t even think that we should bother with any of it, because we know that Fel Seed is our destination.”
“Let’s talk grand strategy when you’re less pissed off,” said Amaryllis. “In the here and now, assassination is off the table. It’s my side quest, we’re doing it my way.”
“We don’t even have a quest,” I replied.
Quest Accepted: Full Court Press – Amaryllis never wanted to return home, but now she finds herself once again embroiled in court politics, propped up on one side by her mother-figure Rosemallow and the interests of Uniquities, and set against a coalition of relatives who would really rather have her be dead. Help her to secure a future for the both of you in Anglecynn. (Companion Quest)
“You just got one,” said Amaryllis.
“Now?” asked Solace.
“What does it say?” asked Grak.
“No,” I replied. “This fucking — no, this doesn’t matter, my life isn’t going to be dictated by quest text.”
“Juniper, we’re partners,” said Amaryllis.
I hesitated for a moment. “Alright,” I replied, then read the text for her.
“That says nothing,” she said when I was finished. “If it was going to be that vague, why not give it to us months ago?”
“Comedic timing,” I replied. “Or who knows.”
“It implies a future in Anglecynn,” replied Grak. “You are unlikely to have one if you assassinate someone.”
“So … it’s a hint,” said Pallida.
“It’s a push,” I replied. “I did it when I was DMing. If two players are getting into an argument about the game, I would sometimes offer some clarification about what the quest actually was, or what they knew.”
“Then the quest is to find a place for ourselves,” said Amaryllis, frowning.
“Regardless of what the quest is, I’m not going to go through with this trial bullshit just because the Dungeon Master says that it’s possible, because first off, he’s a fucking liar, and second, he’s not my real dad.”
Amaryllis gave me a raised eyebrow, the kind that I knew from long experience meant I was speaking a bit too much Earth for her.
I sighed. “It’s this thing in Earth sitcoms and movies where there’s someone trying to be a father figure, and the kid will yell something like, ‘You’re not my real dad!’ and then storm out in the middle of an argument, I was just — he can’t tell me what to do, he can only force me to do things.”
“That’s a cruel thing to say to a surrogate father,” said Grak.
I stopped and looked at him. “I … I would have thought we were all in agreement that the Dungeon Master isn’t actually a father figure to me?”
“I meant in the abstract,” replied Grak. “As a trope.”
“But it’s a joke?” asked Pallida. “A common enough joke that it’s a thing on Earth?”
“Uh, yeah,” I replied. “Feels weird saying Earth, because it’s really just America, but yeah, the nuclear family is dying a slow death, there are lots of marriages ending in divorce, and so it comes up a lot. More as a meme than in reality, I guess. Not really on topic though.”
“Do you want to go back to arguing?” asked Amaryllis. She had cooled off, same as I had, and she was standing there with a questioning look.
“Not really,” I replied. “But that leaves us with the question of what we’re going to do.”
“You think the court is bullshit,” said Amaryllis. “I do too, it’s just a question of degree. So long as people are willing to vote mostly on the basis of evidence, so long as there are consequences for bias, there’s something to be redeemed there. If we could get Anglecynn on our side, which is a realistic possibility, then we might actually have the support necessary to assault Fel Seed and skip the rest of the quests. Plus, there are a billion obols on the line, which I can virtually assure you aren’t going to be had through a few strategic killings.”
“Alright,” I said, taking a breath. “Coming at this with a mindset of compromise … how likely do you think you are to win your trial?”
“Without Solace or the locus to present as proof of necessity, my odds are hurt,” said Amaryllis.
“I refuse to have any part in it,” said Solace.
“I know,” said Amaryllis. “I wasn’t trying to make my case, I wasn’t pleading with you, I was just saying — it is what it is. When I thought that Onion would bring you into the Court, it was a much better strategy. Now, the question of necessity rests on trust and belief in myself and Raven. We’re only trying to convince the middle, not those who have been bought or otherwise compromised on either side, but if the trial isn’t a complete farce, then we’re depending on them, and I’m not sure we have them. If Onion knows that you’re out, we’re in an even worse position.”
“So we bring me in,” I replied. “I can testify for you.”
“You’re a wanted criminal twice over,” said Amaryllis. “Once for desertion, once for whatever charges Onion was using to justify Yarrow and Zinnia taking you.”
“So then I’m a surprise witness,” I replied. “You call me forward, I say whatever you think it’s best I say, and you have more leverage. They’d let me have my say, wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “It would go to a vote. Most likely enough people would want to hear what you had to tell them that you would get a chance to speak. And after you were done testifying, you would immediately be arrested.”
“No,” I replied. “Once I was finished, I would use the Ring of Upward Bliss and nope out of there, unless everything goes more smoothly than I think it would go. I’d at least be doing something. And I would also be on hand in case things went south for you during the trial.”
Amaryllis considered this for a moment. “It’s reckless,” she finally said. “And it might be better to try securing you a pardon. But … okay. And if they attack you, or me, or they even seem like they’re going to be engaging in foul play, that’s when you either bail out or impale them.”
I got a new message from Onion right at the crack of dawn. I’d kept the marble in my ear, for no real reason than because Onion might let slip what he knew, but it was almost surely going to be trashed after that, a piece of evidence that I didn’t want to be hanging onto for too long.
«Charon is empty. Where are you? Name color seventeen.» He hadn’t even used all fifteen words. (I assumed the punctuation that should have been there.)
“That’s Onion,” I said to Amaryllis. “He knows something is up, it’s a challenge that we don’t have a response to.” I repeated the message back to her, and she nodded.
“Better not to respond,” said Amaryllis.
“No,” I replied. “Better to throw him off as best we can.” Val would have known what to say.
“I don’t think you can faze him, but you’re welcome to try,” replied Amaryllis. “Run it by me first to make sure you’re not breaking opsec.”
I ran my first thought by Amaryllis, and she rolled her eyes, but decided that it didn’t break opsec, even if it did give him a hint as to what was going on.
«It is me, your nephew Yarrow, who is completely alive and safe. Do not worry.»
“I don’t think that’s going to rattle him,” said Amaryllis. “If he’s smart, he won’t respond. Once you’re finished, we’ll dig a hole and place the marble in it, then have Grak ward it, then bury it.”
But Onion did respond, and with considerably more venom than I had imagined.
«Your bones will be dust your skin flayed your blood curdled your soul eternally damned» came his response. I almost laughed. It was some internet tough guy bullshit.
«That is a very rude way to speak to your beloved nephew who is alive» I replied.
I was hoping that would get his goat. Onion was supposed to be a smooth operator, cool as a cucumber and fully in control of a monstrous bloodthirst, but my guess was that he had limits, and if I could get him nice and steamed before the trial, all the better. Amaryllis didn’t think much of this plan, but I was hopeful.
I sat on a bench with some other people, in my full armor, waiting for the trial to start. We had gone back to the hotel and done some planning and strategy discussion there, with our need for sleep offloaded to the tuung. So far, I hadn’t had another terse conversation with Onion via the entad link between us, but I wasn’t sure why, since the entad should have been recharged. We’d elected not to try faking up some (late) transcripts to send over. Without Yarrow or Zinnia, it was hard to know what kinds of questions they would ask, what kind of format it should be in, and a whole host of other questions, aside from the fact that teleporting it over would be some concrete evidence that we’d been fucking with Onion.
I watched the council be seated, and after a bang of the gavel and some opening words by an elderly woman whose name plate informed me was Phlox, the trial was once again in motion. Amaryllis had given me the short version of the trial, but it still felt like I was coming in on a new series starting on the second episode. Amaryllis went to take her place in front of the council, and I watched her carefully. Stripped of her armor and other offensive gear, she looked a lot less deadly than she was.
“The matter of desertion from the Host by Amaryllis Penndraig is hereby resumed,” said Phlox. “Onion, have you obtained the witnesses requested at the last council session?”
“No,” replied Onion. “Further discussion on the matter is classified, but it wasn’t feasible to transport them.”
“Are there full or redacted transcripts?” asked Amaryllis.
“You’re out of order,” replied Phlox with a frown. She turned to Onion. “The question stands.”
“It is not possible to produce transcripts at this time,” said Onion. He was tight-lipped. Surely this was something that the two of them had talked about beforehand, and this was the part where they ripped the band-aid off in front of the council, revealing that more information wasn’t forthcoming. There was some light rumbling from the council, but no one made a motion.
It also let me know that Onion knew what was up. I wondered whether he’d been to the black site himself, or whether he’d sent someone.
“Then I would like to call forward a witness to corroborate,” said Amaryllis.
“Very well,” replied Phlox. “You may call your witness.”
“I call Juniper Smith,” said Amaryllis.
That was my cue, and I stood up and walked forward to stand in front of the council, replacing Amaryllis, as the council erupted into conversation that was quickly killed by the vibration mages.
“Motion to dismiss the witness,” said Onion.
“Second,” came a voice I didn’t recognize, even after looking at her. There sure were sure a hell of a lot of Penndraigs, and I was finding that the flower names were making it hard to keep them separated in my head.
“Then we’ll bring it to a vote,” said Phlox.
“Point of information,” came another voice, this one from a man who was half-standing to be recognized.
“Proceed,” replied Phlox.
“Why would we dismiss the witness?” he asked.
“Juniper Smith was arrested under the TRAITOR Act two days prior,” said Onion. “On top of that, there’s an active arrest warrant against him for the crime of desertion.”
Amaryllis came forward from the stand. “Juniper Smith has not been informed of any of that,” she said. “Per the language of the TRAITOR Act, the arresting officer or deputized individual should have informed him of the evidence against him within twenty-four hours of his arrest, which was not done. Regarding his active arrest warrant, Mr. Smith is just now being informed of it, but as he’s not a member of the Court, that’s an issue for the city guard and the Host, not for this council. Both authorities are subordinate to the council for purposes of testimony.”
“We will take the propriety of this witness to a vote,” said Phlox, but she didn’t seem very happy about it. Amaryllis and I stood there awkwardly while yeas and nays were counted, and when we handily won the vote, she retreated to her place in the galley.
“I’ll take the first question,” said Onion. Phlox nodded to him. “How did you escape custody?”
I knew enough of the American legal system to know that this was the point you’d say, ‘objection, relevance’, but I also knew enough about how Anglecynn did law that this kind of thing was accepted as a matter of course. At most, you could object and ask to know where a line of questioning was going, but in this case it was pretty clear that if I was a witness, they could ask all kinds of irrelevant-to-desertion questions in order to determine whether I could be trusted.
“What makes you think that I was ever in custody?” I asked.
“Don’t play coy with me, boy,” replied Onion. “Refuse to give a straight answer to the council at your peril.”
I thought that was pretty fucking laughable, given that I was already guilty of desertion and apparently under the authority of some no-doubt draconian national security bill. “I was never brought into custody,” I replied. “Two days ago I was in a room at Caledwich Castle, waiting for Amaryllis to finish up a meeting, when two other members of the Court, Yarrow and Zinnia walked in. After we talked for a bit, Yarrow pulled out an unknown entad and used it, which put two of my companions to sleep. Just after that, when I was going to defend them, Zinnia released a monster called a skent, which we ended up fighting. In the middle of it, Raven and I got separated. I stowed my gear and then hid out, and I didn’t reconnect with Amaryllis or Raven until this morning. I was never in the custody of anyone, nor was I told what I was supposed to be taken into custody for, which you’re apparently still not going to tell me.”
“You’re a liar,” said Onion. “I have solid information that you were captured by Yarrow and Zinnia, then taken —”
“Prove it,” I said. “If you’re going to call me a liar, show some evidence that I’m lying.”
Onion grit his teeth, but before he could continue, Phlox intervened. “This is all beside the point,” said Phlox, clearing her throat. “It’s also a rather poor introduction to this witness.” She said this without casting a look at Onion, but it was clear that it was meant for him. “Tell us who you are and where you come from.”
“My name is Juniper Smith,” I replied. “I’m originally from Sporsan, Anglecynn, a small town that largely deals with agriculture. A few months back I was arrested for assault, admitted guilt, then got put in prison. Once there, I had a few altercations and was fast-tracked for trial by adversity. Down in the Risen Lands, I met Amaryllis, and I wasn’t here yesterday, but I believe she told you the rest. I’ve been by her side pretty much non-stop since then.”
“Tell me more about the assault that led to your arrest,” said Phlox.
“Ah,” I said. “Well, there we have a problem, because I don’t know for certain. My memory was wiped clean. I’m dream-skewered.” I paused for a moment, not sure whether I needed to explain. “I’m one of a group of people who are afflicted with complete memory loss and false memories of a counterfactual place called Earth. It’s a rare condition. We’re typically identified and then transferred to Speculation and Scrutiny, where they have a dormitory for dream-skewered patients.”
“And when did this affliction occur?” asked Phlox. “What do you remember?”
“I have vivid memories of a life lived on Earth, though I doubt that would interest the council,” I said. “My first memory on Aerb was of being strapped in place on a plane, shortly before being dropped into the Risen Lands. I can tell you anything that happened beyond that point.”
“This is ridiculous,” said Onion. “Do you have any proof of this supposed affliction?”
“I’ve spoken with Speculator Masters at the Athenaeum of Speculation and Scrutiny, who runs the Cerebral College,” I said. “He confirmed the affliction through use of an entad.”
“And would he be any relation to Raven Masters?” asked Onion.
“He’s her father,” I replied. I could see that didn’t sit well with the court, for obvious reasons.
“This affliction aside, you have a full recollection of everything that happened with Amaryllis?” asked Phlox.
“I do,” I replied. “And I’ve been with her almost the entire way. I’ll confirm everything she said about attempts on our lives by Larkspur, about our attempts to fight off threats to Aerb, including in Li’o, and about a desire to safeguard the last remaining locus.”
“I want to talk for a moment about your arrest and your time in prison,” said Phlox.
“Again, I don’t remember any of it,” I said. “It might as well have happened to a different person. All I know is what I’ve been able to find out after-the-fact, which hasn’t been much.” That was one of the reasons to admit to being dream-skewered up-front. I didn’t think that it would be possible to lie my way through things I knew nothing about.
“This is primarily for the council’s consideration,” said Phlox. She picked up a file and leafed through it. “You were a middling student until the age of seventeen, when you assaulted another boy. Following a short trial where you pleaded guilty, you were put into prison, with a term of three months, after which you would have been released in time to take your senior year of schooling over again. Instead, you acted belligerent in prison and racked up a number of infractions, including more fights, which culminated in you killing another inmate. The warden deemed you a good candidate for a trial by adversity, on the theory that if you were able to survive, your violent impulses might be tamed by the Host.”
I stood there and said nothing. Only a little of that was news to me. I’d punched the same guy in the face back on Earth, but the timelines were a little different, and on Earth, nothing had come of it. On Aerb, it was enough for a light prison sentence, which probably escalated due to how bad a place I would have been in emotionally. I was a little bit surprised that I would have been able to attack anyone while clinically depressed, but I didn’t have that good a handle on the Aerb version of myself.
“You claim to remember none of this?” asked Phlox.
“That’s what I’m saying, yeah,” I replied.
I got some more questions after that from the rest of the council, some of them softballs (including one from Lisi), some honest inquiries about dream-skewering and Earth, and a few from people who just wanted to smear me.
“Why didn’t you report to the Host?” asked Onion.
“Oh,” I said. “I had no conception of Anglecynn or the Host. The Risen Lands weren’t the best introduction to Aerb, as far as figuring out where I was or what I was supposed to be doing. Plus a bunch of people were trying to kill me, and some of the other people in the trial had said they were affiliated with the Color Riot, which I guess I thought was the same as the Host. They died before they could clarify. By the time I’d teamed up with Amaryllis and we had a chance to sort things out, we were halfway to Silmar City.”
“You use the name Juniper Smith,” said Phlox. “Why, if you have no memories of that life?”
“It’s what it says on my passport,” I replied with a shrug. That got a laugh from a few people, but I knew it wasn’t a great answer. The real answer, ‘oh, that’s also my name on Earth’, was bat shit insane. “It’s what one of the others called me. I think we might have known each other.”
Once we were through with the dream-skewer stuff, we got back on more solid ground, places where I actually knew the answers.
“When and where did you learn magic?” asked Onion, his eyes narrowed.
“I studied at the Athenaeum of Sound and Silence, shortly before the exclusion there,” I replied. “I was fast-tracked thanks to abuse of a special clause. After that, I trained in a time chamber.”
“Yet those aren’t the only two you know,” said Onion.
“No,” I replied. “I’m a registered soul mage, and I have some faculty with blood magic, bone magic, skin magic, water magic, passion magic, ink magic, air magic, and gem magic.”
Gods did I love the silence that followed that. It meant giving up some strategic advantage in exchange for political and legal advantage, but part of the reason that I was on board with coming clean like this was just seeing the looks on their faces. Some of them didn’t believe me, but I could see that many of them did.
“I have the feeling you’re not taking this council seriously,” said Phlox, frowning.
“I can give demonstrations,” I replied. “It’s a matter of fact. If I can have the council’s leave?”
Phlox nodded, suddenly not seeming too sure of herself.
I went through small demonstrations of each, leaving aside ink magic, because it took too long, water magic, because it needed more room, and skin magic, because it was excluded.
“Given you have no registration in any of those magics, you’ve just committed a number of serious crimes in front of this court,” said Phlox. “Your disregard for —”
“Point of law,” said Amaryllis, rising from her place on the bench. Phlox paused, then gave her a curt nod, probably knowing that the council would vote for her to speak anyway. “Under the revised MAC Act, it’s illegal to possess unauthorized materials teaching about magic, it’s illegal to sell or buy such materials, it’s illegal to use those magics for commercial activity, it’s illegal to teach those magics, and it’s illegal to be taught them. To my knowledge, Juniper has done none of those things.” She sat back down, smoothing her skirt, with not a trace of the smug satisfaction I knew she was feeling.
“How did you learn so much, so quickly?” Phlox asked me.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “Part of it is diligent training within a time chamber. The other part is a mystery.” I would naturally refrain from saying that I was Uther reborn. Better to have them connect the dots themselves, and see it by implication. “In terms of the charge of desertion against Amaryllis, my gifts are relevant only insofar as it was likely one of the things that attracted both Raven and Solace to us. Both were possessed of powerful magic that helped divine our location, and both had things for us to do which a visit to Anglecynn and potential incarceration wouldn’t have helped.”
“That it would be inconvenient does not save you from your duty,” said Onion.
“What happened at Li’o could have been much worse,” I replied. “It wasn’t a matter of inconvenience, it was a matter of hundreds of thousands of lives, maybe more.”
“Are you saying that it wasn’t coincidence that you were there?” asked a man.
“No,” I replied. “It wasn’t. We didn’t know what would be showing up, just that there would probably be something. As it turned out, we were right.” This was a tangent that could probably be mined for hours, but it would almost certainly do nothing but make us look good. After all, we’d saved the day.
Phlox cleared her throat. “And when you went to Headwater, stole a tuung woman away, then killed hundreds of tuung in a mad quest to create your own island nation, was that out of necessity?”
I frowned at that. Those were dots that I was hoping they wouldn’t connect, but Miunun was a nation of tuung, and there were only three places in the world where the tuung could be found. If you were trying to figure out where our little nation had gotten its native population from, you didn’t have to look around all that much, and even if you didn’t have a solid timeline, it wouldn’t have taken too much looking through newspapers to see our fingerprints.
It was, unfortunately, not something that I was adequately prepared for.
“To answer that, I would have to tell you what we accomplished, and it’s classified, for good reason,” I replied. “If I said it, I would be risking the lives of everyone in this room.”
“So you admit that in the course of establishing the Republic of Miunun, you committed a number of crimes?” asked Phlox.
“Yes,” I replied. “Though not, I think, any Anglish crimes.”
“I have no further questions then, and will open it to the council, but I’m ready to vote on an end to witness testimony now,” said Phlox.
There were, naturally, questions. I was Advisor on Culture for Miunun, and there were aspersions cast about this being a position gained through nepotism, as I had no qualifications that would have warranted it, the delicious irony apparently lost on the nobility. I was asked about my ability to learn new magics, which I tried my best not to answer concretely. I gave answers on Solace and the locus, on Larkspur, on that first altercation we’d had at the library in Cranberry Bay, and a whole host of others. It was exhausting, but in a way that was familiar from my DMing days, being the focus of attention and having to deliver considered answers about a wide range of different topics. In the corner of my eye, my mental resources were slowly draining, and I was sure that if I had a meter that showed social resources, it would have bottomed out a half hour in.
I was waiting for another hammer to drop. The questioning was going on for a long time, that made sense given all the ground there was to cover, and that the trial had specifically been maneuvered by Amaryllis to have components of ‘what were you up to while you were gone’. But on the flip side of that, all those questions were grinding me down, and there was a good possibility that I was going to make a mistake. If anyone had a big bombshell to drop, the time to do it would be right at the end, when I was exhausted.
Eventually, someone called on a vote to end questioning, and Phlox must have thought that the vote would pass. “Before we do, there’s one last thing I’m curious about, if the council will indulge me. We’ve heard a fair amount today about what you’ve done, some of which we’ll no doubt speak to Amaryllis about in determining whether her necessity defense holds water. But the final question I wanted to ask was what you knew about a half-elf named Fenn Greenglass.”
“She was … a traveling companion,” I said. “A friend of mine. She died, not too long ago.”
“She was a part of your Council of Arches, wasn’t she?” asked Phlox.
“Yes,” I nodded.
“So you would say more than a friend?” asked Phlox.
“A loyal friend,” I replied. I loved her.
“How did you meet?” asked Phlox, leaning forward. She was using a calm, gentle voice, which was setting me on edge.
“We met in the Risen Lands,” I replied. “She was in Silmar City when we got there.”
“And what was she doing there?” asked Phlox.
“Initially she said that she was looting,” I replied. The gears in my head were grinding against each other. “We found out a little more than a month later that she had been a convict, like us, not part of the trial by adversity, but pulled out of prison to serve as a guide. Her conviction was for looting the Risen Lands, something she’d apparently done for a few years. She knew the place well. All she really knew about her circumstance was that the people she was with, Fireteam Blackheart, had gotten separated from her, and she took that opportunity to make a run for it. From what she said, she didn’t think that her odds of leaving the exclusion zone alive were good.”
“She thought her odds were better alone?” asked Phlox, craning forward slightly.
“Er, no,” I replied. “She thought that whatever they were up to, they were probably going to kill her once they were finished. Their legal authority for being in an exclusion zone was, uh, unclear.”
“And you traveled with this individual since meeting them in Silmar City?” asked Phlox.
“Yes,” I replied. I felt myself tensing the muscles of my jaw, and willed myself to stop.
“Where is she now?” asked Phlox.
“She’s dead,” I replied. “Buried on the Isle of Poran, though she died elsewhere. The rest is classified.”
“I see,” replied Phlox with a demure smile. I wanted to punch her right in her fucking face. “And of the traveling companions we’ve spoken of, there is one we haven’t mentioned, isn’t there?”
I frowned. “Grakhuil Leadbraids?” I asked.
“No,” said Phlox. “Fallatehr Whiteshell, an elf.”
Fuck. “The name doesn’t ring a bell,” I replied, but how in the fuck had she found out about Fallatehr? And what in the world was I supposed to say about him? I resisted the urge to look over at Amaryllis, and wished that we had a telepathic link of some kind so that she could tell me how to play this. More than that, I wished Valencia were around to signal to me whether or not this was a fishing expedition.
“I’m going to enter a fair number of things into evidence now,” said Phlox. “The first is a brief dossier on Fallatehr Whiteshell, who was a noted soul mage during the Second Empire. He was fortunate enough to have dodged the calamity at Manifest, but unfortunately for him, he was imprisoned in the Amoureux Penitentiary, a sentient prison built on Sulid Isle, which was then under the authority of Anglecynn. Members of the council are welcome to look at the dossier during our next recess, but I believe one of the most relevant pieces of information is at the end: Whiteshell was never stripped of his ability to practice soul magic, in part because certain members of the Lost King’s Court, now long-dead, wished to keep him on hand in the event he was needed.”
That … hadn’t been what Fallatehr had said. It had been subjective months since that whole terrible ordeal, but I would have remembered if he’d mentioned it. I had no way to know whether it was true or not, but it would explain things. It also had the mark of the Dungeon Master on it, as it would allow questlines to lead to each other. If we hadn’t gone to Fallatehr, then he might have shown up as an antagonist later on, pulled from the penitentiary by Hyacinth or someone else, if he hadn’t gotten out on his own.
Phlox continued, “The second piece of evidence I’d like to enter into the record is a report from an expedition to Sulid Isle, one sent out by the Zorish, who now control the land and the penitentiary. It’s brief, but the primary takeaway is that the expedition found evidence of a battle between the surviving prisoners and the prison itself, with the prison reporting that no one was left alive. Conversation with the entad prison is apparently troublesome, but it reported that Fallatehr Whiteshell was seen leaving the penitentiary, accompanied by,” and here, for dramatic effect, Phlox flipped through a few pages to read from the physical document. “‘Amaryllis Penndraig, a dwarf, another human, a half-elf, and most curiously, a bound non-anima’.” Phlox looked up at me.
“A building told you this?” I asked.
She didn’t dignify that with a response. “Why did you take Fallatehr Whiteshell out of prison?” asked Phlox.
“I didn’t,” I replied.
“Was it because you needed a teacher for soul magic?” asked Phlox. “Or because you had some plans for him?”
“Mu,” I replied, finally remembering what Amaryllis had said.
“Motion for a recess —” came Lisi’s voice from the council, but it was shut down by the vibration mages, and Phlox continued on without acknowledging it.
“You have claimed that your soul cannot be inspected by anolia, for fear of a memetic threat,” said Phlox. “What, precisely, are you hiding?”
I stood there in stony silence. “I decline to answer further questions,” I replied.
“Very well,” said Phlox. “We can then vote on whether to keep you as a witness, but I believe our lines of questioning have been exhausted.”
The vote was close, maybe because Phlox had decided to leave so much on the table as far as questioning me went, but I had been up there for a long time, and I could sense that people were getting restless.
Unfortunately, that left the other business.
“Bailiffs, arrest that man,” said Onion.
“Wait,” I said, holding out my hand. “I demand a trial by combat.”
Onion actually laughed, the kind of laugh you sometimes see a person do right before they get violent. “We’d still have to take you into custody,” he replied. “But trial by combat isn’t allowed for any but a member of the Court.”
“Well then,” I replied. I wondered how much more trouble I would be in if I tried to kill Onion with a lucky throw of my weapon. It was insanity that I was allowed to speak in front of the council with a weapon on me in the first place, but they probably weren’t so insane as to not have wards, even if they had poor enough security that I’d been able to get into the War Room with only a little bit of help. My hand moved down to the Ring of Upward Bliss, and I prepared myself to be a mile up. Then, I paused, and turned to the side. “Amaryllis, will you marry me?”
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis, almost as soon as the question was out of my mouth. “Per the Decency Acts, Juniper and I have been cohabiting for the past three months and qualify to waive the wait time. I need a witness to vouch.”
“I — I vouch,” said Lisi from her place on the council.
I don’t know why Phlox didn’t say anything before that point. Maybe she was too stunned, or more likely, she was trying to work through the political calculus of this stunt. But just as Amaryllis began speaking again, Phlox called out, “Silence them.”
I wasn’t good enough at vibration magic to out-compete both of the vibration mages at the same time, though I sure gave it my damnedest. Fortunately, Amaryllis was prepared, because she started rapidly signing in Gimb.
Repeat after me, I, Amaryllis Penndraig, — I started signing along with her and very briefly contemplated a joke, but decided on swapping in my name for hers — take you, Juniper Smith, to be my wedded husband by the terms of the Decency Acts of FE 512, and confer onto you, by the Reconciliation Acts of FE 334, partial power of nobility and full status as member of the Court. I was pretty sure that I didn’t need to sign that too, but I did it anyway.
While all that was going on, Phlox was shouting increasingly less composed orders, either because she saw this for a political masterstroke, or because she just wanted to stop us from doing something we were trying to do. She called for the bailiffs to arrest me, but they were slow to act, maybe because of everything I claimed to have done, or maybe just because it was chaotic. I honestly didn’t have a good grasp of who was doing what and why, but I focused my eyes on Amaryllis, and when she finished … well, she didn’t look happy, but she had that set look that she sometimes got when something was done.
“Point of order,” called a voice from the council. It was Bartholomew, a guy that Amaryllis had pointed out to me as technically minded. I didn’t know if he knew Gimb, or was just guessing. “Juniper is a full member of the Court now.”
“And he’ll still be taken into custody,” said Onion, voice firm.
“I request to be remanded into the custody of Rosemallow Penndraig,” I replied. I would have cited the specific act, if I knew it, but I did know it was possible, because Amaryllis was in custody under the same terms.
In an ideal world, we would have walked out of the council room with our heads held high, but there followed a quite lengthy discussion by the council on whether or not what we’d just done was in any way legal or binding, and if it was, what the next steps were. As it turned out, Amaryllis was on the Legal Council, as of two days ago, just before her trial had begun. That gave her a special status, and allowed her proclamation to carry more legal authority than it otherwise would have. After a solid hour of intense argument, it was finally decided that yes, we really were married, and I was a member of the Court.
And then we walked out of the council room with our heads held high.