Worth the Candle, Ch 189: B-Side

We were taken to the Erstwhile Manor by an armored car, bulky and frankly ugly by Earth standards. I was multi-threading, as I always did, watching for threats from beyond the car, but the other half of my mind was the more important one, focused purely on Amaryllis. Her face was completely blank and controlled.

“So,” I said.

Amaryllis looked at me. “Just so we’re clear, this is a purely mercenary arrangement.”

“Okay,” I replied. “That’s … I wasn’t suggesting anything different.”

“We’ll have to tell a few lies,” said Amaryllis. She turned back to face ahead, looking out at the street. We had one of Rosemallow’s drivers, and I was using vibration magic to keep him from overhearing, as well as to scan for threats. “The Court isn’t entirely unprepared for a sham marriage in order to grab political power. We’ll need a few token physical displays of affection, and we’ll have to figure out what to do about consummation.”

“Uh,” I said. “Because Anglecynn has some really regressive laws, I’m guessing?”

“Regressive would imply that they were once better,” said Amaryllis. “When it comes to the Court, it’s pretty much always been like this. The laws and the councils make some assumptions about how things are to be conducted between a couple.”

“Still,” I said. “That’s, uh — I mean, there are similar things on Earth, I guess.”

“There are,” nodded Amaryllis. “You’re aware that marriage is different here? More sacred, for lack of a better word?”

“My Aerb parents divorced,” I replied, which I knew didn’t really counter what she was saying.

“They divorced, and it’s a black mark against them,” said Amaryllis. “They’d be seen as people who don’t take vows seriously. It’s actually marked on your father’s military record. I’m surprised that it didn’t come up during the council session. For a member of the Court, especially given that we share voting power, it’s even more sacrosanct.”

“I understand the gravity of it,” I replied. “I’ll do what’s required to keep up the charade.”

Amaryllis watched me as the car moved along. “Good,” she said. “From here on out, if anyone asks, we love each other completely, and have for some time. We’ll work up a backstory to keep everything consistent, but it will mostly involve reframing a number of things that happened between us as being romantic rather than platonic.”

“Like cuddling up during movie night,” I said.

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “Or going for walks together in the bottle. Or me making dinner for you when we were in the time chamber. You rescued me from near-certain death a number of times, some of which are no longer secrets, and it would be easy to frame those as acts of love.”

“You’ve helped me through a lot,” I said. “Called me on my shit a few times.”

“Only a few?” asked Amaryllis, giving me a faint smile for the first time since the trial ended.

“I think we can sell it,” I said. “It just takes getting creative with the facts. How deeply are we going to be interrogated?”

“That depends,” replied Amaryllis. “I don’t know if they’ll try to push for the trial-by-combat as soon as they can, or if they’ll punt it. I doubt they know about our impending deadline to take out Blue-in-the-Bottle, but I’ve been surprised before.”

“Can I ask a question?” I asked.

“Sure,” replied Amaryllis.

“You seemed like you had the legal issues all thought through,” I said.

“And?” Amaryllis asked, folding her arms. “That’s not a question.”

“I mean … did you make that plan workable on the fly?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “I probably could have, because it wasn’t complicated and it involved legislation that I’d already read, but no, I’d foreseen the possibility and double-checked everything.”

“But you didn’t share that plan with me,” I said.

Amaryllis hesitated. “It wasn’t just narrative considerations, if that’s what you’re thinking,” she said. “And it wasn’t actually a plan, it was just a curiosity of how the Court works.”

“Okay,” I replied. “It would have been a little awkward to talk about.”

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “Real fucking awkward.” She sat staring forward for a bit and smoothed out her dress. She was looking particularly good, in part because her hair, makeup, and outfit had been professionally done that morning. I wasn’t used to seeing her like that, but her swearing was like getting a peek at the person under the mask that I knew and … well, ‘loved’ would be a strong word. “Of course, being awkward isn’t a reason not to bring things up, but I was worried that if I did bring it up, it would eat into planning and strategy time for our actual plans, while being a categorically worse option on most levels.”

“Plus it would be awkward,” I said.

“How does that meme go?” asked Amaryllis. “It’s an anime one.”

“I never watched much anime,” I replied.

“It was something Fenn said a lot in the time chamber,” said Amaryllis, frowning slightly. “‘It’s not like I like you or anything, baka!’ I think that’s it.”

“She would say that to you?” I asked, laughing a little.

“All the time, at least until she got bored of it,” said Amaryllis. “We were sharing a bed, and every time she crawled into bed with me, she would say, ‘but it’s not like I like you or anything, baka’. I can’t remember what baka meant.” She had a faint smile, but it began to fall, and I knew that feeling, of a warm memory that led to sadness, because the other person was gone. “She was a flirt,” said Amaryllis, frowning again. “I miss her. I have no idea what she’d make of all this.”

“I thought about bringing her back,” I said, looking away slightly. “Not her, but something close to her, scraping everything that I could from her soul and sticking it into Zinnia. It wouldn’t be the same, not nearly, but body, memories, values … and we don’t have her spirit, not that I could figure out with skills maxed, but maybe I could have spent a week hacking away at what was there until … I don’t know.” I turned back to Amaryllis. “But then as soon as the thought crossed my mind, I remembered that Fenn’s soul was in your glove, half a world away, and yeah, it would have been, you know, really fucking evil and creepy.”

“If we ever find a way to bring her back for real, we’ll do it,” said Amaryllis, letting my blasphemy slide. “The closest we could get would be sending her to the hells and,” she made a turning motion with her hand, not Gimb, just to indicate that she was skipping over things she didn’t want to say even with the sound being deadened outside our small bubble of space. Presumably the words she was skipping over were something like, ‘and then Val somehow finds her and kills all the infernals in the area’, which would leave only the flora, fauna, and physics as agents of torture.

“I wonder what she would make of this,” I said, indicating between the two of us.

“Her as she was when she died?” asked Amaryllis. “If through some magic the Dungeon Master just plopped her right down between us?” Amaryllis waited a beat, as though willing that to happen through sheer comedic value alone. “I think she would understand that it means nothing,” said Amaryllis.

“Yeah, it’s not like I like you or anything,” I replied, giving her a smile, and she rolled her eyes at me, but she smiled too.

As we rolled up to Erstwhile Manor, I tried to figure Amaryllis out. I knew that she’d once loved me, the kind of love that had caused her actual distress, and I had to wonder whether or not she’d turned the love switch back on. There were tons of reasons for her to emphasize that this marriage didn’t actually mean anything, but if she was back to having feelings for me … well, that would make the whole thing even more awkward than it already was. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where we both said how we felt that wouldn’t feel like the Dungeon Master was mashing two dolls together.

I liked Amaryllis, I did, as more than a friend, but it hadn’t quite been long enough since Fenn had passed, nor since all the shit with Bethel, and the idea of dating her left me feeling anxious and overwhelmed. The idea of being married though, husband and wife, pretending that it meant nothing even if it clearly would, seemed silly enough to me that my worry and stress evaporated almost completely.

We hadn’t been sure whether they would push for the trial-by-combat to happen immediately, or whether they would try to drag it out for as long as possible through various procedural methods. We also had a long conversation about which we would prefer, which partly came down to whether or not we thought I would be able to beat Onion.

“He’s in his sixties!” I practically shouted. “And he’s just blade-bound, nothing more.”

“It is explicitly a matter of law that all magic known to either the defendant or the prosecution be, firstly, registered, and secondly, warded against,” said Amaryllis. “There will be warders watching the fight to make sure that the rules are followed, and if they’re not, you’ll be killed.”

“Basically, being blade-bound is the best thing to be,” said Pallida. “So you’re saying that he’s only the exact best thing that he could be for the situation.”

“Well I’m blade-bound, I’m just a lot of other things too,” I said.

We had requisitioned a big room at the Erstwhile Manor where we were running through the next steps. I kind of wished that we would split off into a trial-by-combat and trial-by-law groups, because Amaryllis had stated her intent to go through the legal trial if she was still able, mostly on the basis of how close the votes were and what position she wanted to end up in once the dust settled.

“Your build isn’t geared toward the physical,” said Amaryllis. “Even if you made some serious trades, based on what we know about attributes multiplying skills, you would still be behind.”

“Again, he’s in his sixties,” I replied. “There’s got to be a malus for advanced age in there somewhere.”

“I’ve been sixty quite a few times,” said Pallida. “It’s really a matter of how well you take care of your body. Reflexes are slower, energy is lower, exercise gives worse results, but if you keep plugging away at it, having a lot of skill can make up for having a bad body.”

“You don’t remember being sixty right now though,” said Raven, frowning.

“Well, no,” replied Pallida. “But I remember reading notes that I left myself when I was in my sixties, and that’s almost as good.”

“Put some stats on Onion,” said Amaryllis, ignoring the sidebar. “Pretend that he’s a guy that you never expected the player to actually try to fight, and put numbers on him, based on what you know about him.”

I twisted my lips in a grimace, but started writing things down with a pencil and paper, plugging in some quick math. Onion was supposedly a great swordsman, maybe the greatest, but he hadn’t done any particularly impressive feats of swordsmanship in the past twenty or so years, which was one of the reasons I was skeptical. Everyone considered him the best though, so I put him somewhere in the nineties on a number of purely physical swordsmanship skills. Normal people didn’t seem bound by attributes quite like I was, but if Onion had been, his physical skills meant that he would have to have thirty or so points in physical attributes. That would mean that his totals when attempting a strike would be, as a reasonable approximation from assumptions, something like three thousand, which would match up against my one hundred and fifty. It was a feature of the game system that sufficiently advanced characters would basically curbstomp people at lower tiers.

“Okay,” I said, pushing the paper away. “So if Onion is really one of the greatest swordsman in the world, which is apparently what’s on his business card, since everyone keeps telling me that, then I’m not quite fucked.”

“Did you do the math right?” asked Amaryllis.

“All I need to do is sac thirty-some points into Essentialism, get Scaphism, then eat from a bunch of the souls we have,” I said. “Figuring that the average mook we’ve killed has stats in the twenties or something like that … I’d need what, only nine souls?”

“Nine souls to put you on par with him, but you’d be undergoing rapid decay,” said Amaryllis.

“Fights don’t last that long,” I replied. “And we have enough souls that I could build up a huge buffer, enough that I would be a physically inferior but massively overskilled blade-bound. Plus I would get all the upper echelons of a whole bunch of skills, including all those juicy virtues.”

“And you don’t think that would risk exclusion?” asked Amaryllis.

“Eh,” I replied. “I would be spending lots of limited resources in order to secure a one-time benefit. That’s not the kind of thing that I would exclude.”

“Wait,” said Pallida. “This soul thing doesn’t make any sense.”

“It doesn’t?” I asked.

“No,” said Pallida. “Let’s say that there are two guys who went to the same athenaeum, graduated at the same time, each about a twenty in their skill, doesn’t matter what it is. You eat both their souls, adding their numbers to your own, and somehow that makes you a master? But the numbers are just meant to represent what they know. If you add up the knowledge of three people who went through the same training and education, you shouldn’t be any better than they were. You haven’t added any new knowledge to the mix.”

“Well, sure,” I replied. “It’s game mechanics, not reality.”

“But why?” asked Pallida.

“I don’t understand the question,” I replied.

“Why make it like that?” she asked.

“Oh,” I replied. “You mean, why not make it more sensible and change it so that it would mirror reality?” She nodded. “It’s a map and territory thing,” I said. “You’ve got the map, which is a description of reality with baked-in assumptions about that reality, simplifications and shorthands and whatever, and then you have the territory, which is the actual reality itself. So in tabletop games, you have the rules, which are a playable map, and it’s totally disconnected from reality, so you start to get it into your head that those numbers are the thing you’re talking about, not a representation of them. And from there, you get into the business of number manipulation, rather than trying to simulate reality, in part because fuck reality, reality is boring and lame.” The map and territory thing was an idea that had come from Arthur, who had gone through a phase of talking about the concept at great length.

“Don’t give the Dungeon Master ideas about what to patch,” Amaryllis said to Pallida.

“That too,” I said.

“And try to focus on the issues at hand,” said Amaryllis.

“Er, right,” I replied.

The rules for the trial by combat were straightforward, with a few things that baffled me. Participants were allowed pretty much whatever weapons and armor they wanted, but no magic aside from two entads of their choosing, a rule that would be enforced by wards and warders. The trial was to the death. Pseudomagic, like being blade-bound, was fine to use. The defendant in the trial by combat had to be the person who was charged with the crime, but the prosecution could be any member of the Court who volunteered.

Trial by combat was dumb, and Anglecynn didn’t actually use it much. Asking for trial by combat was seen as an admission that you had no hope in a fair trial before the councils. Besides that, if you opted for trial by combat, you would personally be going up against one of the most skilled swordsmen that the Court could supply, outfitted in the best entads that the Courts could supply, and you would almost certainly die. Basically no one asked for trial by combat, because you’d have better odds getting convicted and hoping for the trial by adversity, or some lesser penalties, depending on what you had done and who was gunning for you. There were only three people who had picked trial by combat in the last twenty years, and all of them had been killed by Onion, who was always picked as the prosecution by the Court (and yes, this did lend some credence to the tales of his prowess).

“I don’t really understand this ‘two entads’ rule,” I said.

“What’s not to understand?” asked Amaryllis, looking up from her legal book.

“Trial by combat is dumb, because it means that innocent people die just because they’re weak, and guilty people go free just because they’re strong,” I replied. “I maybe kind of get why you’d want to exclude magic from the process, though it doesn’t make that much sense. Some magics, in single combat, are just too damned good, and at least if it’s two blade-bound fighting, maybe you could justify it as leveling the playing field, though I don’t get that either.”

“It’s ritualized dueling,” said Amaryllis. “It was meant for cases where there was no actual answer to be had in court, but still a wrong that needed righting. It used to be that a victim or their family could demand it, but those days are long gone.”

“But why allow people entads?” I asked. “And why two?”

“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “If I had to make something up, it would be that someone complained that obviously a member of the court can scrounge up entads, especially if they’re not guilty, and if fighters are deprived of the entads they’ve been training with for years or even decades, something something obvious miscarriage of justice if it’s not allowed. Two, because that’s one weapon and one armor.”

So far as I could recall, this was the first time that Amaryllis had elected to ‘yadda, yadda, yadda’ her way through a conversation. It made me uneasy.

“Any thoughts on which two Onion will have?” I asked.

“The last time he acted as prosecution was seven years ago,” said Amaryllis. “That was his last public swordfighting match. What he picks for entads will depend on availability and what he thinks you will pick, but last time, it was armor of blinding white light and a sword that created a mirror duplicate of him. He wore very dark tinted goggles to allow himself to see.”

“So I should get a pair,” I said, nodding. “Except there’s a good chance he won’t try that again.” I sat for a moment and thought about the rules. There wasn’t any restriction on mundane equipment, which meant that I could bring whatever the fuck I wanted. There wasn’t an explicit rule about void weapons, but I was pretty sure those were out. Everything else?

Well, I could flash him a meme, but I wasn’t sure whether that was on the table or not, and there were going to be enough spectators surrounding us that I would really be risking collateral damage. Raven had a collection of other memes, but none so deadly or fast-acting as the one I was carrying around in my skull, and she had been really against my idea of printing a bunch of them on my armor or making a bunch of different scrolls tucked into my bandolier. It was also entirely possible that I would be disqualified for using memes, which ‘weren’t’ magic, but might be close enough to count.

Other than using a truckload of souls to pump my combat skills through the roof, there was the obvious question of which two entads to use. And that led to the question of Bethel.

I’d threatened to bring in Bethel to kill all those pesky Penndraigs who were being shits, and it hadn’t exactly been a bluff, just one of those things you say in the heat of the moment that aren’t necessarily true. A bluff has some element of deliberate deception to it, but this was more a case of realizing that I didn’t really want to embark on some particular course of action. The idea of having her back in my life … well, it wasn’t something that was sitting right with me. I didn’t know how long it would take Valencia to clear her, if that could ever happen, but I wasn’t looking forward to it.

It sure would have been nice to have her as one of my two entads though. Whatever bullshit Onion might pull out, there was no possible way that he could beat Bethel. It wasn’t just a matter of my feelings toward her though: Amaryllis was right, Bethel had opinions on being used as a weapon, and even if she was being used as a scythe that would sweep through a whole collection of Penndraigs, I didn’t think it would start things off on the right foot. Maybe Amaryllis would send a letter to Valencia and explain things, but if Valencia didn’t think it was a good idea, then we weren’t going to entertain the notion.

(I missed Valencia. She had a certain lightness and cheerfulness that our current party was lacking. I did sometimes think about her devil’s eyes on me, stripping me bare, and how she chose to use that information, but I had come around a bit, partly just from the way time eroded emotions, and partly because I’d made an effort to forgive and forget. I’d only written her one letter since she’d been gone, something I’d meant to be a short little note, but which wound up being seven pages, mostly talking about my mom and how any utopia would have to contend with imperfect people of varying stripes, which was what had been on my mind. I hadn’t gotten back a response, but I had also told her not to feel obligated to write one. It was on my mind that I should send her a second letter, one where I would tell her that she should feel obligated to respond, because I missed her.)

“I want Sable,” I said to Amaryllis, after thinking about it for some time while the rest of the party was working on legal stuff.

“Sable is our best entad,” said Amaryllis, which made me optimistic, because it wasn’t a flat no. “No.” Dang it.

“Sable would give access to a lot of tricks,” I said. “Ten seconds in, but zero seconds out, that’s just begging for combat applications.”

“I know the combat applications, thank you very much,” said Amaryllis. “But what are you planning to pull from it in the middle of a fight with an extremely proficient blade-bound?”

“Guns, blades — with enough water, I could probably flood the arena, and in addition to that, scuba gear for me — poisons, antidotes, chemical weapons, all kinds of stuff that you would think they would ban from a trial by combat but apparently don’t, all being pulled out at a moment’s notice and hidden from view or awareness until that time,” I said. “I actually think that it would be worth giving up magical armor for.”

“You have no training with it,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t know when the trial by combat will be, but it could be as soon as tomorrow. You’re trying to cram the night before the test.”

“Please?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned. “Fine, but that means that I’m taking time out of preparing for my trial in order to help you with yours.”

“I can help with that,” said Rosemallow, who had crept up on the room we were using, and was standing in the doorway, watching us all at the table. I had sensed her, because I was multithreading and in a permanent state of high alert, especially with reports of a dragon flying over Caledwich, but that didn’t mean she wasn’t creeping. “And obviously there are a number of entads I can furnish you with for your trial, Juniper.”

“That would be appreciated, I’ll take a look at what you have,” I said, but all I could think of when I looked at Rosemallow was her trying to force Amaryllis into an arranged marriage, telling a twelve-year-old girl that — well, it didn’t bear thinking about.

“I’ll need both of you,” said Rosemallow, nodding to Amaryllis. I could sense some resistance to that, but Amaryllis stood up and followed Rosemallow out.

“What I’m about to reveal to you is something that I don’t want to get out,” said Rosemallow. “It’s a powerful entad that was kept off the registries, nothing untoward, but the effect is strong, and stronger when no one knows that I have it.”

“Consider me intrigued,” said Amaryllis.

“Here,” said Rosemallow, coming to a door and using an ornate key from her keyring to unlock it. I assumed there were also wards. We followed her into a rather sterile room with thin mats on the floor and weapons arrayed against one wall, all of them tinged in Soul Sight with Rosemallow’s creamy-white soul. She strode over to a cabinet, which was also locked, and picked out a bracelet from it, which she put onto her wrist.

“Amaryllis, this will make a duplicate of you,” said Rosemallow. “It will last for twelve hours. If you’re in direct physical contact with the duplicate at the end of that twelve hours, it will merge with you. Otherwise, it will evaporate.”

“You can be in two places at once,” said Amaryllis, looking at the entad with as close as I’d ever seen her come to lust.

“Yes,” replied Rosemallow. “I use it often when within the Manor, but rarely when outside it. The only stipulation is that it works best if you can cooperate with yourself.”

“I can,” nodded Amaryllis. “There’s no one that I trust more.”

“Turn away,” Rosemallow said to me.

There was a sound to the magic, like a bottle rocket going off, sparks hissing into the air, and I could see from the way it lit up the room that the magic must have been pink. I stayed where I was, eyes averted, until Rosemallow told me that it was fine for me to see.

Amaryllis was standing next to a second Amaryllis, this one making sure that her clothes were smoothed down and her hair was in place. She was wearing a different outfit, the typical one she wore for training, a tank top, sports bra, and form-fitting shorts. It took me a moment to realize that the reason I’d been asked to turn away wasn’t because of the magic, but because the duplicate almost certainly came out naked.

“Are we good?” the workout Amaryllis asked the one in the dress.

“We’re good,” said the original Amaryllis with a nod. She looked at me. “Be kind to her.”

“When am I ever not?” I asked. “But okay.”

They left soon after that, once Amaryllis had handed over Sable to Amaryllis, to go discuss matters of politics, councils, and trials with the rest of the group.

“Alright,” I said to the other Amaryllis. “First things first, we need a name for you.”

“Time pressure, remember?” asked Amaryllis.

“I was thinking Emuryllis,” I said. “Because you’re an emulation of Amaryllis.”

“That’s fine by me,” said Emuryllis. “Now, the most important thing about using Sable is knowing what’s inside of it,” she continued. “If there’s anything that you want to stock it with, we can make a list now. There is a sizable quantity of water in there, if you do want to try flooding the arena for whatever reason, roughly a thousand units in one-meter cubes.”

“On the other hand,” I said. “‘Emuryllis’ sounds kind of like ‘emu’, and if you ever turn into a flightless bird, we’d want to reserve that name.”

“It’s a different vowel sound,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll be fine. How long is it going to take you to get this out of your system?”

“Not long,” I replied. “There’s limited comedy to be mined here. We could call you Bmaryllis.”

“These are terrible,” said Amaryllis. “Amarlikeness?”

“Pot, kettle,” I replied. “Simuryllis?”

“Oh, that’s very good,” said Amaryllis with a smile. “I like that better than the emu one. My only counteroffer is Amarlimness.”

“I don’t get it,” I said. “Limb?”

“Limn, with an ‘n’,” she replied. “In the figurative sense, meaning to portray or depict.”

“Way, way too high brow,” I smiled. “Off brand. Plus we’ve been saving ‘Amarlimbless’ for if you lose a leg or arm.”

“Let’s not joke about that,” said Simuryllis. “Though I wouldn’t mind losing a limb if I got a replacement like Grak has.”

“Alright, I’m ready to be serious now,” I said. I held out my hand. “Give Sable please.”

Simuryllis quirked her lips into a small frown, then moved her gloved hand slightly and made a gun appear in her hand. She shot me almost the instant it was there, but my blade was out of its sheath and up to parry, just in the nick of time, aided by the fact that the probability blade took the shape of the perfect weapon for the parry.

“Well, pistols are straight out, even with Sable,” said Simuryllis. “Was it the hand shape that gave it away?”

“Just instinct, I think,” I replied. “Otherwise we could hook up a prosthetic to a gun that would disguise what was coming out of Sable. But I’m a middling blade-bound right now, and I saw it coming, so … yeah, probably a no-go. There are other surprises to pull out though, and we might be able to put him on the back foot, just because he won’t know for sure what might come out.” I didn’t complain that she’d tried to shoot me, because even if she’d hit, I could pretty easily recover from a bullet to the chest.

“We could put in a cup of acid to throw at him,” said Simuryllis. “Liquids, gasses, and explosions are supposed to be difficult for blade-bound to parry.”

We spent about an hour testing and training, sometimes going over things that Amaryllis had already been thinking of as contingencies, and others that we were trying just to see whether they would work. The real problem was that pumping up my skills with soul magic was something that we only really wanted to do right before the event. The other option was to use sacrifice to bump Still Magic up to 100, which would in theory make the drinking of souls ‘permanent’, but I was deathly afraid of getting slapped down for that, either with an exclusion, or some kind of bullshit.

“I really think acid could work,” said Simuryllis. We’d tried beakers a few times, but it was hard to get a really direct splash, and we’d gotten a few drops on ourselves in the process once or twice (though we’d been using water, so it wasn’t much of a problem). Finally, I had pulled out a Super Soaker, which I’d thankfully thought to pull from the backpack at some point, but that sent us down a rabbit hole of figuring out what grade of acid it could hold, whether that would be effective in a fight, what modifications we would need to make to the Super Soaker, and whether we could actually make those modifications within the next day or so given the materials we had on hand. There was something called fluoroantimonic acid, which would apparently completely dissolved clothes, flesh, bone, and whatever bottle you kept it in, unless you had Teflon. Spraying a blade-bound with that seemed like something they should be able to do fuck-all about.

Similarly, chlorine trifluoride was basically the world’s best lighter fluid, able to ignite all kinds of things on contact, from asbestos to concrete to glass (and obviously, flesh and bone). For that, we would need a specially prepared steel tank that had been impeccably cleaned with fluorine gas, which wasn’t a complete non-starter, but would eat into our presumably-limited prep time, as well as being fantastically dangerous. The byproduct of normal fire was carbon dioxide, but the byproduct of a chlorine trifluoride fire was fluorine gas (don’t breathe it!).

“Well, let’s fuck him up then,” I said.

“The more we think on this, the better I like your chances,” said Simuryllis. “I’d been waffling on whether or not to keep this existence, but it seems like I will.”

“Wait, really?” I asked. “Not merging? But why?”

“It was just a thought I had before the split,” said Simuryllis. “We could have conversations or interactions, and then I could discard them to Amaryllis Prime’s benefit.”

“Primaryllis,” I said, almost on instinct. “I’m really struggling to think what that would be, even in the abstract.”

“I have autonomy,” said Simuryllis. “Primaryllis doesn’t have to know what happened between us. In fact, it’s something that she expects. So, if there are conversations that you want to test out on me without risking problems with Primaryllis, or if you want me to directly give you advice on how to handle her, or literally anything else that would be better between the two of you with a trial run — can you really not see the utility there?”

“Uh,” I said. “I guess.”

“Pretend, for a moment, that I was created specifically for interpersonal reasons. I’m a simulation of Amaryllis. Yes?” she asked. I nodded. “Now, I won’t tell you things that the other me wouldn’t want me to: I’m on Primaryllis’ side, fully and completely. But she has explicitly had the thought that interpersonal issues could have a better chance of working out if I, the simulation, made the promise that I would keep confidentiality. Think about it like the library timeline. There, I was free to do what I wanted and experiment without fear of destroying the world or hurting the ones I loved. It’s a tool for conflict avoidance. It’s save scumming for hard conversations.”

“Huh,” I said.

“I’ve budgeted half an hour for it,” said Simuryllis. “Anything you wanted to say? Conversations you want to test?”

“Huh,” I said again. “Sorry, I was still stuck on questions of chemistry, it’s taking me a moment to refocus.”

“No problem,” she said. She was sitting cross-legged with books pulled from Sable around her, primarily focused on chemistry. There were obviously going to be some problems using advanced chemical knowledge from Earth, because Aerb used a lot of different words for things, had worse knowledge of chemistry, and different chemical processes owing to the existence of magical materials.

“I don’t want to doom you to death just to have a trial run of some delicate things that we haven’t talked about,” I said. “Seems bad.”

“Alright, then I’ll commit to not merging,” said Simuryllis. “Now you don’t have anything to fear.”

“Not fair,” I replied.

“I’m keeping notes about the practicalities, which I’ll deliver to myself. It’s twelve hours, I’m not going to miss anything,” said Simuryllis. She rearranged, stretching out her legs and then cracking her neck. “Come on, it’s only a half hour.”

“I don’t know what you want from me,” I said. “Do you want to talk about the marriage?”

“Do you?” asked Simuryllis.

“Sure,” I said. “I think it’s … basically exactly what I wanted, or what I didn’t know I wanted. I really care about you, and it sometimes feels like we’ve been married for months already, since there’s a level of commitment we have that feels eternal. Like we’re platonic life partners? And this way I get bonded to you, and I have an excuse not to push it, because it’s just a platonic, fake thing, but you know that I care about you, and in public we just have this comfortable pretending. I think it’s hard, otherwise, to let people know that you have a platonic lifemate. They would get the wrong idea, one way or another.”

“So you don’t love me?” asked Simuryllis. She didn’t seem offended, just curious.

I winced anyway. “It’s complicated.”

“Go on,” said Simuryllis. “Like I said, we have half an hour.”

“I love you like a sister,” I said.

Simuryllis raised an eyebrow. “Like a sister you want to have sex with?” she asked. “I know that’s a thing on Earth.”

“What?” I asked. “That’s not a thing on Earth. Oh, unless you mean porn, in which case, yeah, that’s a thing. But it’s more about taboo breaking than about actually doing it, I think. And usually it’s a step-sister, because that’s less gross.”

“I thought you found me attractive,” said Simuryllis, frowning. “What changed?”

“Nothing,” I said. “I still do, it’s just … can I be frank with you?”

“I’ve said so repeatedly, yes,” said Simuryllis.

“I used to imagine having sex with you a lot,” I said. “You were in my dreams. It was a distraction. Sometimes I would get angry with you for being so good-looking. It was like an assault on my senses, this unwelcome intrusion.”

“But over time, you got used to it?” asked Simuryllis. “Inured?”

“A bit,” I said. “And I can’t even remember which conversation it was, if it was one, but I began to realize how much you weren’t into it, how much you didn’t like it, how much it was a mismatch between fantasy and reality. Eventually it got to the point where even if I deliberately tried to construct this fantasy of you, I’d have these intrusive thoughts, because I knew that wasn’t who you were. I came to terms with the fact that for you, sex was or would be something to be endured, and even my fantasy Amaryllis was just going through the motions.” I sat back and looked at her. “There, how do you react to that?”

“It’s … almost, strangely, respectful?” said Simuryllis. “Almost.”

“I didn’t think that you would be offended,” I said. “It’s just weird. And the sex thing, sad as it is, kind of ruins the romantic love thing for me, because I guess it feels like a rejection of intimacy, even if it’s just a matter of who you are. I know it’s not a rejection, or not meant as one, just an incompatibility.”

“You know that I would have sex with you, right?” asked Simuryllis, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah,” I said. “And frankly — because you said that I could be frank — do you know what I find most attractive?”

“Based on what I know about you?” asked Simuryllis. “Based on what I’ve seen of flesh.txt?”

“That was a rhetorical question,” I said. “But now I’m both curious and horrified to see what your answer is.”

“Well, I know from context that I’ve got it wrong,” said Simuryllis. “So there’s no need for me to embarrass my other self.”

“Please?” I asked.

“I was going to say genital shape-changing,” said Simuryllis. “There are actually a few academic papers that point out that the effect is much more common than you would otherwise naively expect, in comparison to other shape and appearance changing effects. But that’s not what you were going to say.”

“No,” I said. I was a little befuddled by her response, and trying to work out whether flesh.txt really did have an overabundance of that kind of thing. By its nature, flesh.txt had a bunch of stuff, some just for the sake of completeness. “No,” I said again, putting that question to the side. “I was going to say that the thing I find most attractive is desire.”

“Your fetish is … consent?” asked Simuryllis.

“It’s not a fetish,” I said. “And consent is the wrong word, because that means, basically, permission or agreement, and you can consent to things that you don’t have any particular interest in. It’s — can I talk about Fenn?”

“I’m not going to remember any of this,” said Simuryllis. “I’ll give you pointers on things to say or not say, once I understand your point.”

“Fenn wanted me,” I said. “She had an appetite for me, and that helped drive my own appetite. She had this feral grin she would get sometimes, like she wanted to pounce on me.”

“I could fake it,” said Simuryllis, watching me.

“I would know you were faking it,” I said. “Even if I could forget, in the moment, I would feel bad about it afterward.”

“Alright,” said Simuryllis, shrugging. “I don’t really understand it, except by analogy, and I think I’m going to have to accept that. It’s not really a question that needs to be solved, except to the extent that it makes you unhappy, which it seems like it does. So how can we solve it, if we need to?”

“Soul and spirit modification would work,” I said. “I’m understandably reluctant to try that on either of us.”

“We could just try having sex,” said Simuryllis. “We have about fifteen minutes left for interpersonal stuff. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad?”

I frowned at her. “But you have no actual desire,” I said.

“No,” replied Simuryllis. “I have about as much desire to have sex with you as I do to have you lick the inside of my elbow. But if it’s something that you really wanted, if it would make you happy, then I would just say sure, we can set aside some time for it and you could knock yourself out.”

“Do you love me?” I asked. “Did you turn that part of yourself back on?”

“That would be telling,” said Simuryllis. “And you just told me that you liked having a fake marriage that let you eat your cake and have it too. Besides, if that were something I felt like sharing with you, I would just do it as myself, rather than as this.”

“Okay,” I said. “And yeah, it’s … hypothetically, it’s not something I would really want to deal with right now. Fenn stuff, Bethel stuff. I guess functionally, on your end, it wouldn’t be much different from how it is now, if we were a, you know, proper couple.”

“No,” said Simuryllis. “Not given that we’re married.”

We sat in silence for a moment, marinating in that.

“How much time do we have left?” I asked.

“Not much,” said Simuryllis. “I don’t actually have a watch, just an impeccable sense of time. Five or ten minutes.”

“Can I kiss you?” I asked.

The simulated duplicate of Amaryllis looked at me for a moment, eyes moving over my face. “Why?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “It’s low stakes, no offense. Getting back on the horse, but it’s a small horse, and it’s going to disappear in less than a day, so if I fuck up, or can’t handle it, or it goes terribly, then I can just pretend that it didn’t happen, because the horse will be gone.”

“You’re a charmer,” said Simuryllis, giving me a smile. She paused for a moment, seeing whether I would move, then got up from where she was sitting and moved over to me, kneeling next to me. “How are we doing this?”

I didn’t know how much of it was an act. She looked like she wanted to kiss me, or like she was waiting for me to kiss her, but that was the kind of look that she was entirely capable of faking, if she was like the real Amaryllis, especially if she had practiced in the mirror enough times to get it right. She looked like she’d been wanting this for a while, and waiting for a moment when it could happen, like everything leading up to this moment had been a prelude.

“What are you worried is going to happen?” she asked, her voice practically a purr. She’d moved her face closer to mine.

That this is a lie you think will make me happy, or something worse. But I didn’t verbalize that thought, and instead leaned forward to kiss her.

I’d been prepared for it to be bad. It had been a long time since I’d kissed anyone, and so far as I knew, Amaryllis had virtually no experience at all. I’d thought that it would be disappointing and awkward, like my first kiss, with Alicia Aaron in freshman year, teeth clinking against each other, too sloppy, too uncoordinated, the kind of thing that we would maybe laugh about later even though it wasn’t that funny. But no, kissing Amaryllis was like melting into each other, feeling myself become an extension of her, and vice versa, at the point where our lips met.

She pulled away slowly, sitting back on her heels.

“How was that?” she asked.

“Huh,” I said.

“Elaborate on that,” she said.

“I’d been worried,” I said. “Worried that I would, I don’t know.” I shrugged. “Worried my mind would go elsewhere, worried that it would just feel like licking the inside of your elbow, or like kissing my sister, that after we kissed for the first time I would just … realize that this thing I’d been building up in my head wasn’t meant to be.”

“It’s just a kiss,” said Simuryllis. She gave me a smile. “I mean, it was nice, but a bad kiss wouldn’t have meant any of that. Did it help?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think so.” But maybe we could do it again, just to be sure. “But maybe we could do it again, just to be sure.”

Simuryllis smiled at me and moved her head closer. “Five minutes, then back to preparing,” she said.

It took about two of those minutes for me to rethink everything that I had said before about not thinking that we would ever have a real relationship, and even the stuff about how her lack of desire for sex killed my desire, because as it turned out, actually kissing her made me think that maybe I would be totally fine with her faking her way through it, or that we should try, just to make sure that I didn’t magically awaken something in her. There was still a jarring disconnect between what I thought would happen and what I wanted to happen, but as we were making out, I started to convince myself that I was wrong, that she wasn’t actually asexual, that there was some mysterious, hidden alchemy that would change her, and that this was also somehow not ten kinds of creepy.

“Okay,” said Simuryllis, pulling away from me and breathing a bit harder.

“Did you like that?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Simuryllis, nodding quickly. “You couldn’t tell?” Her face was slightly flushed, and her lips were fuller, the slight messiness making her look more attractive.

“I thought maybe … it was just for my benefit,” I said.

“No,” she replied. “Maybe a little less with the tongue kissing. The texture was … weird. I could get used to it, I guess. But we should get back to making sure you don’t die when you go up against Onion.”

“It’s not like it’s going to be tomorrow,” I said. “We’ll have a week, I’m guessing.”

“I’d rather you did that with the real me,” said Simuryllis.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. I just … it’s been a bit since I’ve felt any actual desire. I was worried I was broken.”

“I’m glad I could help disprove that hypothesis,” said Simuryllis with a smile. She looked down at the materials and notes around her. “Back to the books though. If we can engineer or synthesize something quick and dirty that can be refined if we have time for a second or third iteration, that would be best. Put some of those new skills to work.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 189: B-Side

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