Worth the Candle, Ch 195: Family

It was well after midnight when we went back to the Erstwhile Manor. We were a bit split on whether to head to the Hotel Delzora instead, but the Erstwhile Manor required less in the way of stairs, and I was still down a leg, though the vines were more or less adequate for moving around, so long as I only used one at a time. We got a car, the three of us, Amaryllis, Grak, and myself, with Grak up front next to the driver.

“Where’s Pallida?” I asked Amaryllis as the car started moving.

“Dead,” replied Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. I felt my heart sink a bit. “I thought maybe she’d ducked out.”

“No,” replied Amaryllis. Her lips were tight.

“Shit,” I replied, not knowing what to say. “Do — do you know where she went? I mean —”

“No,” replied Amaryllis. She looked exhausted, and was resting her head against the seat. “We’ll have to follow up. Gemma is dead too, by the way.”

“Wait, really?” I asked. “That’s — she had a whole thing, fox people and their grudge, I barely had a chance to talk to her.”

I resisted the urge to ask what the point of her was, because it would have made me sound like a dick, but there was some validity to that line of questioning, at least so far as the narrative went. Hadn’t Gemma been with us for a reason? She’d had a whole backstory that I hadn’t asked her about, and her role in the plot had been incredibly minimal. I could feel myself going down the narrative rabbit hole, thinking that maybe Gemma had died because I wasn’t particularly interested in hearing her life story. But maybe it was just one of those things that happened in tabletop games, where you wrote up a big backstory and then died in the first encounter. Maybe it was a lesson that people could just die, their narrative purpose unfulfilled.

In a way, hearing that Gemma had died affected me more than hearing Pallida was ‘dead’. It was grim in a way that I hadn’t expected.

“We thought a velocity mage would be our best bet,” said Amaryllis, oblivious to my train of thought or tactfully ignoring it. “When he came back down, she was one of the first in. He was faster.” I could understand some of her grim expression.

We hadn’t really had a chance to talk inside Greychapel, except to coordinate. The actual death toll from the Cannibal had only been forty-three people, though with perhaps twice that number having had a bite taken out of them or worse. Another thirty-two had been killed in the extradimensional collapse, most of them in smaller meetings or working in a few of the Greychapel offices. It was a surprisingly low death toll, but disproportionately made up of members of the Court.

“Solace?” I asked, not really wanting to hear the answer. I wished now that I had noted the absences earlier, but I had just thought — well, I had just thought that everyone was doing their part, and it wasn’t me who was coordinating efforts, I was just using bone magic to heal people up. In retrospect, Solace’s absence was conspicuous, but —

“She’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “She wasn’t even at the trial. I think she’s still at the manor, actually.”

“Oh,” I said, letting out a sigh of relief. “And … Lisi?” She was the last of the people I actually cared about.

“I’m not sure, Juniper,” replied Amaryllis. She still had her good eye closed.

She had gotten healing, but no replacement for the limb yet, not because one wasn’t available, but because the kind of things that could very quickly heal a limb tended to be quite permanent and not terribly good. We were going to get top-of-the-line replacements, either exact duplicates or something better than what we’d had before. Amaryllis’ bad eye must have been plucked from her head, because the liberal healing she’d gotten hadn’t fixed it. That, too, would get either a replacement or complete restoration.

I frowned at her answer and tried to think. Lisi had been a part of the War Council, would she have run or stayed to fight? Run, if she could, though she also seemed to be the sort of person who would take action on the assumption that if she didn’t, no one else would. I hoped that she had made it through.

“Wait,” I said. “Where’s Raven?” I was sure that the Cannibal hadn’t gotten her, because I’d seen her after. Hadn’t I?

“She was pretty badly injured,” said Amaryllis, and that was coming from someone who had lost an eye and an arm, speaking to someone who had lost a leg and part of a hand. “When she heard that Uniquities had taken the Cannibal, she grilled Finch and then left to go supervise their containment procedures. She wanted Grak with her, but —”

“The survivors needed me,” said Grak from the front seat.

“Are you okay?” I asked Amaryllis.

“Are you?” she asked back.

“Missing a leg,” I said. “Hand is fucked up. Worried that Tommul is going to come back. Worried that I’m going to get another bill from the Draconic Confederacy. Worried that the Cannibal is going to escape, but the next time I’ll have less warning. I thought that we were basically done in Anglecynn, and fuck me if there wasn’t another fight for my life. But don’t dodge my question.”

“I need a new eye and a new arm, but that will be handled tomorrow,” said Amaryllis. She was silent for a moment. “I didn’t handle Hyacinth properly.”

“No?” I asked. “And … where is she? Out of the glove, right?”

“She bled out,” said Amaryllis.

“Oh,” I said. “Shit. Fuck, I’d only meant to cut her vocal cords, I just didn’t want her to say it again.”

“That’s more mercy than I would have shown,” replied Amaryllis. She was slightly slumped in her seat. “It reflects poorly on me.”

“It does?” I asked. Killing Hyacinth outright seemed reasonable to me, the only reason I hadn’t intentionally done it was out of reflex.

“She called in the Cannibal knowing that it would almost certainly kill her,” said Amaryllis. “She knew what would follow. She tried to get us to go somewhere else, but when we didn’t … she’s dead, so there won’t be any answers. But I’m forced to confront the possibility that maybe she really did let me see behind the mask. Maybe she loved Larkspur. It’s possible that she was pregnant with a child she cared about, and really did lose it. I thought that I had the measure of her. I thought that it was all an act, because it was the kind of act that I would have put on.”

“You think Onion was like a father to her?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “Her parents died when she was young, as did mine. When that happens, you either grow up fast or you find someone to take you under their wing. Sometimes both. After my mom died, Rosemallow was as close as I had to a mother.” She pursed her lips. “I knew they were close, I just thought that it was political. I thought they were playing the game like Rosemallow plays the game, like I would play the game. And that’s not what Hyacinth was doing. She was trying to kill you, to kill us, at the expense of her own life, because she thought that was what was best for Anglecynn.”

“You might be giving the opposition a little bit too much credit,” I said.

“Maybe,” she said. “I can’t help but feel like this was preventable. Like there was a path we didn’t take.”

“Sure,” I replied. “It would be a pretty bad tabletop game if there weren’t multiple paths we could take. A good Dungeon Master makes plans that can survive the party deciding that they want to do things a stupid way.”

“And you think we have a good Dungeon Master?” asked Amaryllis. This was usually the point where she would have arched an eyebrow, but she just sat back in resignation.

“Eh,” I said. “Good in some ways, bad in others. I’m tempted to say more good than bad. Trying to be objective about it, he does some of the dumb shit that I did when I was starting out.” I felt oddly at peace, for everything we’d gone through in the past few days, not even all that tired. “I would set up these things in advance, not traps necessarily, but sometimes traps, sometimes literal traps, and … it would seem like some of these things came out of nowhere to the players, because they would miss the hints that I’d prepared, or they would figure out a way to skip the exposition, and then I’d have to make a choice about whether or not to fuck them over.”

“And sometimes you made things like Fel Seed,” said Amaryllis.

“That’s a different issue,” I said. “That was anger and spite. Part of a general trend of including things that the group didn’t really care all that much about because I had developed an intense and personal obsession that lasted a few weeks. I don’t think that we’ve seen all that much like that on Aerb, because it’s all so … so me.” It was hard to describe. “I don’t think we have an adversarial relationship.” There were too many proper climaxes, too many fights that we’d just outright won without them being undercut.

“And you think there was another path?” asked Amaryllis. “A way that this didn’t end with so many dead?”

“Sure,” I replied. “Probably several ways.”

“Okay,” said Amaryllis.

“Do you feel bad about them all being dead?” I asked. I didn’t, not really, not even if it was true that they were all people with their own stories, not (just) terrible villains. Too many lines had been crossed for me to feel much regret, even if there were another way.

“I don’t know,” she sighed. “It’s this feeling that we left utility on the table. The outcome is obviously not as good as it could have been.”

“We will take some time,” said Grak. “Process first, then speak with cool heads.”

“My head is perfectly cool, thank you,” said Amaryllis. “But yes, we should take some time before we make big decisions.”

But when we got back to the Erstwhile Manor, Rosemallow was waiting for us.

“I need a situation report,” said Rosemallow once we had taken our seats in the White Room. She didn’t seem like she gave much of a fuck about our injuries. Grak had begged off to go be with Solace, and my personal feeling was that he was a lucky bastard to be able to clock out.

“How much do you know?” asked Amaryllis. “I don’t want to repeat anything. And we’ve had a long day, as I’m sure you can understand.”

“I’ve had a pot of Dalldear ready for the last few hours, since the initial reports came in,” said Rosemallow. “This is important.”

Amaryllis frowned at the pot of tea on the table, then poured herself a cup and drank it down without spending any time seeing whether it was cool enough. I followed suit, and was mildly surprised that it was both the perfect temperature, and the best tea I’d ever had in my life. It took almost no time for it to go into effect, and I felt rejuvenated, as though I’d had eight hours of sleep, a full meal, and a few glasses of water. It came with a crash, as a lot of such drugs did, but for the moment it had put me back in my right mind.

“Hyacinth came to us after the trial was concluded,” said Amaryllis. “She was distraught and claimed to have suffered a miscarriage. There were a few accusations against the two of us, and then she summoned the Cannibal. We fought it and contained it.”

“How?” asked Rosemallow. “And if you’re speaking of what I think you’re speaking of, be cautious in what you say.”

It wasn’t just the name she was worried about. The phenomenon of ACSLB didn’t just care about the name, it cared about where you got it from, and the tracking on that was complex. The method the Penndraigs used was a phonograph on a loop in the woods, which was used in preference to other methods because it didn’t seem to trigger the same links. Writing it down on a piece of paper, then handing that piece of paper to another person was proven to cause problems, and by that, I mean that people had died. If you picked up a piece of paper with the name and handed it to someone else, that could cause problems too, were they ever to say it. And because it didn’t just target those who knew the name, but also those who were a part of the chain of command or causality, and because it erred on the side of killing munchkins, there were some false positives. Say too much, and that might be interpreted as priming, or ordering, or coercing, or something that would get you killed.

We had no idea whether we were actually safe. We hadn’t defused the bomb, we had only stuck it inside a box, hoping that nothing would set the fuse going again. If someone said the name, would that spawn in a new one? Would it pull the old one out of custody? We didn’t know, and had no way of safely testing it.

“We put a paper bag over its head,” said Amaryllis. Rosemallow narrowed her eyes slightly, waiting for her to continue. “That’s it,” said Amaryllis. “That’s how we beat him. It turned him docile.”

“What was done with him?” asked Rosemallow, after she’d taken a moment to process. She was processing fast, but that wasn’t any surprise, because surely she’d gotten a fair bit of information from other sources.

“We handed him over to the Empire, through a contact we have within Imperial Affairs,” said Amaryllis. “With the way they showed up, we suspect that they were monitoring the situation remotely.”

“And the dragon?” asked Rosemallow.

“My fault,” I said. “I used an entad to take the Cannibal away from civilians and give me some room to try other strategies. Unfortunately, it took me above the legal limits, and as the dragon in question was already out for my blood … well. It would have been covered by exigent circumstances, but I’m not sure he knew about my recent change in status. The Cannibal knocked him out, he fell into Greychapel, through the wards, and that was more or less that. I’m counting on Anglecynn’s support where the Draconic Confederacy is concerned.”

“You’ll have it, of course,” said Rosemallow.

We sat in silence for a moment, and she took a sip of her own tea, which I assumed wasn’t the same brew we were drinking, given its effects.

“It’s obviously a complete disaster,” said Rosemallow. “That said, we need to take stock of where we stand with respect to the Court, the councils, and the kingdom. On that count, I think a level-headed assessment is that we now have the necessary leverage to make sweeping changes, to say nothing of the obstacles that have been removed.”

“Yes, let’s pat ourselves on the back,” said Amaryllis. “Now’s a great time for that.”

“I’m talking about next steps,” replied Rosemallow, her face stern. “The faster we act, the more control we have over what happens next. I’m already doing my best to control the mass media, ensuring the public that this was not, in fact, a rogue dragon attack on the legislature. Obviously Hyacinth was to blame, and you named her publically, so that can’t be undone, but we can control the narrative, the why of her doing what she did.”

“Aunt Rosemallow,” Amaryllis began.

“This is time sensitive,” said Rosemallow, looking between the two of us. “You wanted your Second Grand Reconciliation? This is exactly the moment to strike. Obviously not publically, but the groundwork needs to be laid. The councils need to be prepared for our roadmap. There will be pushback, possibly sooner than later. This is our window.”

Something in Amaryllis’ expression changed, and she gave Rosemallow a hard stare. For a moment I thought that she would repeat the plea to speak about this later, but it must have been something else, because she had that same look on her face that she had when she was thinking hard.

“After Onion died, two things happened in quick succession,” said Amaryllis. She had straightened somewhat, and was taking on a more formal tone. “First, Phlox suffered from some sort of medical emergency, one which presumably happened when she was without fast or easy medical care. It slipped through a crack. She was important, so she would have had both entads, pharmaceuticals, and mages. It’s very true that you can’t protect against everything, but she would have been well protected, medically speaking.”

“Make your point, dear,” said Rosemallow, voice calm.

“The same goes for Hyacinth,” said Amaryllis. “If she was pregnant, especially with the child of a man she loved, or even if she was thinking in terms of politics, pregnant with the son of a dead man, she would have been taking precautions. She would have covered the bases she was able to cover. And yet her unborn child died, likely within hours of Phlox having her own medical problems.”

Rosemallow waited for the accusation, head held high.

I had taken it for granted that this was just narrative convenience, that everything was getting wrapped up with a little bow because that was just how plots worked. If something hadn’t happened to Phlox, then she would still be a thorn in our side, so the plot couldn’t be fully resolved without her being removed somehow. And Hyacinth had to be taken out too, one way or another, just for this ordeal to be truly over, and if the mechanism for that was her going over the edge … well, something had to push her over the edge.

But even if that was all narrative convenience, it would make more sense for these ‘coincidences’ to have been the result of clear cause and effect, beyond just the stresses of losing someone important.

“It was you,” said Amaryllis. “This isn’t a window of opportunity, it’s a window that you wedged open.”

There was a slight quirk of Rosemallow’s lips, just a hint of a frown. “I didn’t anticipate that Hyacinth would cause such problems,” said Rosemallow. “For whatever small part I played in the events of today, I apologize.”

“How did you do it?” asked Amaryllis. “Poison?”

“Does it matter?” asked Rosemallow. “Hyacinth is dead. Phlox will likely stay in a hospital bed for the rest of her life. Those are the salient facts. If you’ve made up your mind about what it is that I’ve done —”

“I haven’t,” said Amaryllis. “I’m asking you directly. I want you to be honest with me. We’re in one of the most secure rooms in Anglecynn. Tell us what you did.”

“Three people can keep a secret if two of them are dead,” said Rosemallow. “And even then, one must be concerned with the prospect of damnation. You understand the world we live in, Amaryllis. Secrets can be ripped from your head. The imperial regime has only been partially successful in stomping out soul mages, and soul mages are only the tip of the spear. You do not tell things to people if you want them to stay secret, even if you trust them fully and completely. It doubles the attack surface. You know all this.”

“Doubling the attack surface — tripling it, as it were, is a cost, one that you’re being asked to pay,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t mention that a soul mage would have a hard time with us, I assume because it was something we all knew. She wasn’t trying to negotiate, she was using force.

Rosemallow hesitated, gazing first at Amaryllis, then flicking her eyes to me, just for a moment. “Phlox was poisoned,” Rosemallow finally said. “I had some insight into the particulars of the entad she used to prevent herself from being poisoned, and there were certain flaws in it: it allowed the poison to stay within the body, inert. The poison was administered last year. It was just a matter of where and when I would have someone ward against her entad, after I’d had its signature acquired on a separate occasion. The entad ward was woven into the existing ward against teleportation keys in her home, where it wouldn’t be noticed except on close inspection. The warding alteration has already been removed, and at this point it seems safe to assume that it wasn’t found.”

“And Hyacinth?” asked Amaryllis.

“Entad assistance, and poison of a different sort,” said Rosemallow. “She was given a bottle of pills, recommended by her doctor for the health of her child. It was only a matter of exchanging those with something else.”

“Not lethal for her though,” said Amaryllis.

“No,” replied Rosemallow. “If it was Larkspur’s child, which it might well have been, then it would have been a liability on several fronts. Phlox is old, and diagnostics are difficult, but for someone young and healthy, like Hyacinth is, too many questions would be raised. There are limits to the number of moves it’s safe to make at once.”

Amaryllis was tense, but it was the kind of tension that came with smooth, calculated movements, the tension of a professional working their muscles. “And my mother?” asked Amaryllis.

“I’m far from the only person in the Court who has employed poison, Amaryllis,” said Rosemallow. Her face fell, and she took on a tone of pleading. “Admitting to one poisoning does not therefore mean that I admit to all possible poisonings. Amaryllis, I have read your diary, I know the doubts and hard feelings you’ve had towards me, but I did not poison your mother.”

“You had the means, the motive, and the opportunity,” said Amaryllis.

“Amaryllis, it was many years ago, there was a full inquiry, as there often is,” said Rosemallow, continuing to look as though this was a painful accusation from her beloved niece.

“I don’t trust a single fucking thing that comes out of the councils,” said Amaryllis. “And I don’t trust you.”

“And what would change your mind?” asked Rosemallow. “What possible evidence would convince you, if you’ve arrived at this conclusion through no evidence at all?”

Amaryllis didn’t hesitate in the slightest. “Submit to inspection by Juniper,” said Amaryllis.

I glanced at her, then back at Rosemallow.

“You suggest that I give up my dignity and my autonomy, and allow a capital crime to take place within my own home, all by way of indulging your mistrust and paranoia?” asked Rosemallow. “I won’t say that I cannot, but the cost is too high.”

“He would just be looking,” said Amaryllis. “It would be no different from what an anolia does. He would make no changes at all. If you cared for my mother, that’s evidence. If you care about me. I won’t say that it will be enough to sway me, but it’s concrete evidence.”

Rosemallow hesitated. It was still a loss of dignity, that was certain, but not autonomy, and Rosemallow would have submitted to inspection by anolia on a semi-regular basis, just as a matter of course for a high-level official. She had to decide whether she trusted us or not, whether she trusted me, and if she didn’t trust me … well, I was Uther reborn, wasn’t I? And I was the key to absolute control of the kingdom, wasn’t I? She was probably thinking not just about trust, but about what I could find within her, what might incriminate her not just of the specific thing she was being accused of, but of other things that would cause more of a rift between us than outright refusal. It was a given that I would look at her values, and what would I find there? Nothing that could incriminate her, surely, because a soul mage had access to relatively little unless they manipulated you into being someone who divulged things. And if we were to break our agreement, if I were to just soulfuck her rather than looking as I’d agreed to … maybe it was her measure of us that this wasn’t something that we would do, not unless we were planning to kill her. Maybe she really thought that her soul would look good to me.

“Very well,” said Rosemallow. “If this is what it will take.”

Amaryllis turned to me and signed in Gimb. Go into her memories. Trace values. Take your time. I will stall.

Rosemallow didn’t ask about the hand signals, but she definitely did notice them, because Amaryllis wasn’t trying to hide them. I wondered how much fear was coursing through Rosemallow’s system at the moment, because this was one of the scariest things you could let another person do, especially given all the connotations that soul magic had on Aerb.

She let me though, holding out a hand for me to take. I sat beside her and felt the veins beneath her wrinkled skin for the blood that flowed inside of her. I was worried about a trap, naturally, but Amaryllis was there beside me, and it was clear that I was an outside context problem to the Court. If it was possible to place a trap in the soul, then people would have done it, and the only person to have done it was me, entirely on accident.

I saw Rosemallow naked within her soul, so that was something. I was slowly becoming okay with the forced nudity that greeted me on entering souls, because by this point I had seen a lot of them, especially when I’d been trying to clear people of Harold’s influence back in Li’o. It was still really unnecessary.

Soul mages could technically work on memories, it was just hellishly difficult, because there were lots and lots of memories in the average person’s head, and the memories weren’t sorted in any sensible way, they were just linked together haphazardly. There was some organization to them, in the form of links, but it absolutely sucked, which was either by design, or as a reflection of how people actually remembered things. People were terrible about putting events in their proper orders, about when and where things had happened, and I vaguely recalled that a lot of memory was backfilled, your mind storing a few key details which were then filled in when you played a memory back.

If you were a soul mage, it would take a really long time to comb through and find what you needed. And because you needed to be in soul trance the whole time, it would only work if you had either a willing subject or someone who was really firmly your captive. And if you had both those things, why wouldn’t you just soulfuck them and have them tell you what you wanted to know directly?

Rosemallow probably thought that she could bank on me checking out other bits of her soul, then reporting back. She’d seen me do the impossible in the arena, but she also knew that it had taken a significant amount of prep time, and I was fairly sure that the reports she’d gotten from other encounters, including the one with the Cannibal, painted me in a far less godly light.

I found the name of Amaryllis’ mother, Magnolia, in Rosemallow’s soul, then switched to the spirit view, which showed threads that led back down to the soul. That was one half of my comparative advantage: I could at least narrow down the memories a little bit. But as I watched, Amaryllis was helping with the other part of my comparative advantage: I could see which of those threads were in use. And that was going to lead me to the truth.

“Tell me about your mother,” I said to Amaryllis. We were in the bottle together, sitting at the large table, not more than a few days after things with Larkspur had concluded (with his death). Amaryllis was making notes, lots of notes, as she was wont to do.

“What about her?” asked Amaryllis, looking up at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “You have all my biographical details, and I don’t have yours. And if she was poisoned, as you said, then maybe it’s a quest.”

“A quest to find my mother’s killer?” asked Amaryllis, arching an eyebrow. “All set up in advance?”

“It’s a mystery, right?” I asked.

“It’s unknown,” replied Amaryllis. “That doesn’t mean that it’s a mystery. And — you’ll think that this sounds cold.”

“Go ahead,” I said.

“We had a complicated relationship,” said Amaryllis. “She was doing her best to prepare me for what Court could be like, but her marriage to my father had been mercenary, as had my birth. I must have spent about a month of my time at Quills and Blood trying to find out what effect that had on a child, whether that was something that might have made me different from my peers. There were too many confounders though. Usually when there was an unwanted pregnancy, or an unwanted child, it was because of a failure of prophylaxis, or simple negligence. I wasn’t exactly unwanted, but I think it’s safe to say that if there weren’t firm material incentives, my parents never would have married, never would have had sex, and I wouldn’t have been born.” She set the pen she’d been holding down. “It’s supposed to be the case that in an arranged marriage, the participants eventually fall in love with each other. A love can grow, that’s what we’re taught. I imagine that the same theory applies to children.”

“So when your mother died … you didn’t care?” I asked.

“I cared,” said Amaryllis. “But I cared because I thought that I might be next. I was worried about my future, who would take care of my estate for me, or if this was some attempt to take control of the vast wealth that had once been my father’s. It wasn’t entirely clear whether or not she’d actually been poisoned, and it took some time for there to be a final report. There was just never that enormous sense of loss that some people report feeling. Life wasn’t so different under the care of my relatives.” She shrugged. “Like I said, I know it sounds cold.”

“No,” I said. “I understand. I have my own complicated relationship with my parents, as you know. The happy times were few and far between. If one of them died … I don’t know. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t be sad, but yeah, I would probably be thinking more about the impact on my life.” I wasn’t sure how true that was. It felt true, at the time I was saying it.

“No quest?” asked Amaryllis.

“No, no quest,” I said. “But as far as getting a quest goes, ‘I wasn’t hugely impacted by my mother’s death because things were complicated’ isn’t really the kind of thing that you can hang much of a narrative hat on.”

It still took me some time, even with Amaryllis doing her best on the outside. I hit a few false starts that didn’t make too much sense to me, scenes of Rosemallow with Magnolia, usually brief snippets. I knew at least some of the family history from Amaryllis, including a few details about the poisoning, which we’d naturally talked about. Amaryllis was blasé about her mother’s death in a way that weirded me out a bit, but was still sort of understandable. That it was a poisoning wasn’t entirely conclusive, otherwise there would have been a deeper investigation, but when a healthy thirty-two-year-old with a fair amount of influence and power died, you had to be fairly suspicious.

I got my first look at Magnolia. She was a Penndraig, through and through, with that same imperious look that most of them had, and the same red hair. She was quite pretty, but far less than Amaryllis was, and in a way I found somewhat generic. I wouldn’t have described her as stiff, necessarily, but she was definitely controlled and composed. The memory was of them talking about Amaryllis and her future, and I was mildly surprised to briefly see Amaryllis herself, not much more than seven years old, dressed up like a doll and sitting for a painting.

“Quills and Blood would do her good,” said Rosemallow.

“It would mean taking time away from the Court,” replied Magnolia. She had a surprisingly high voice, almost so high that I suspected it was affected. “I’ve been maintaining three council positions for some time now, and with some success, I must say.”

“It wouldn’t be necessary for you to relocate,” replied Rosemallow. “And even if that were necessary, there are always options for attending council sessions remotely.”

“We both know that decisions within the Court are rarely made through council sessions,” replied Magnolia. “I would lose the power that I’ve spent these long years accruing. If Amaryllis were to attend Quills and Blood, it would mean leaving her in the hands of someone else, even with regular visits on my part. And there’s nothing of use she would learn at Quills and Blood that she couldn’t learn here.”

“Blood magic?” asked Rosemallow.

“Of use, I said,” replied Magnolia.

And that was essentially it for that memory. There was a weirdness to seeing the memories, because they weren’t like videos that I was putting in and playing, they were living things, with certain details of a scene obviously filled in so that it wouldn’t be incomplete, and various lines that I’d heard were a little wobbly, the wording not precise, giving the feeling that listening a second time might change what was said, if not actually changing anything of substance. Beyond that, there were other things to consider, like the fact that this was what Rosemallow had taken away from this single moment in time, and how it would have been colored by her perception of what had happened. Maybe that accounted for some of the bitchiness I’d sensed from Magnolia, and the way Rosemallow came off as only offering up a reasonable suggestion.

I went through another three like that, disagreements between Rosemallow and Magnolia, two of them about how Amaryllis was to be raised and who her prospective marriages would be, and another one that was longer than the others about how procurement was handled by the various departments that the Court oversaw, though the actual discussion had too much nuance and too much required background for me to really follow.

Eventually though, I hit paydirt.

“I have the specifics of the entad here,” said Rosemallow. She was in the White Room, with a man I didn’t know, older and dressed down, and maybe it was the glasses, but I was assuming he was an academic. “Better that it looks like an unfortunate accident, but if that can’t be helped, then it can’t be helped.”

“TImeline?” he asked, looking over the list.

“There’s no particular hurry,” replied Rosemallow. “A wait of weeks or even months would be perfectly fine.”

“And is this a precaution or something you plan to use right away?” he asked.

“Hrm,” replied Rosemallow, sniffing slightly. “I don’t think I’ll say.”

“It matters,” he replied. “Just like vital statistics matter. Height and weight are good numbers to have, in my business, as are diet and habits. But potency falls off with time, so knowing whether the solution can be one with a window of a few days, or if it needs to be shelf stable, that’s a different matter entirely.”

“Very well,” replied Rosemallow. “Right away then. I assume that offers a better chance of success, as you’ll have a wider range of options to use.”

“I will,” he replied. “Nothing else you can give me?”

Rosemallow considered this, and I wasn’t privy to her exact thoughts, just a vague weighing of possibilities and what could be said to this man. To order a poison was one thing, but to say who it was to be used on was another. Deniability was the name of the game.

“She suffered a clot ten years ago, shortly after her child was born,” Rosemallow finally said. “She has spoken with a few doctors about it, for fear of another. If it were possible to work around her entad and create such an effect, that would ensure that fewer questions are asked.”

“And if I can’t?” asked the man. “Should we talk again?”

“Better we make these visits infrequent,” replied Rosemallow. “If you cannot, then you cannot, so long as I know what to expect.”

And that was it, a single conversation, but as much as I needed. In a court of law back on Earth, this would probably have been circumstantial evidence, but we weren’t on Earth, and we weren’t even an informal court of law.

“She did it,” I said as I came out of the soul trance. “She poisoned your mother.”

Rosemallow turned to look at me. “And by what means did you come to that conclusion?” she asked.

“Fuck off,” I replied.

“Why did you do it?” Amaryllis asked Rosemallow. “I have my own thoughts on motive, but I want to hear directly from you. If there’s even a whiff of a lie, I’ll have Juniper look deeper to see if he can get to the truth.” She didn’t threaten a soulfuck, but I had to imagine that Rosemallow could see which way things were trending.

Rosemallow looked between the two of us, her face frozen, not a single muscle moving. “We had different ideas on the direction of the kingdom,” said Rosemallow. “She had become a power in her own right and threatened to upturn a lifetime of my work. In a teenager, a rebellious phase is to be expected, but from a woman in her thirties, it’s a sign of something more serious, a fundamental disagreement in how the game should be played. Given another five years, I would have been sidelined, and it would have been virtually guaranteed that Phlox and Onion would have won.”

“Won,” said Amaryllis. “Amassed power for themselves.”

“They would have implemented their policies,” Rosemallow replied. “They would have secured a position in perpetuity. It would have been unrecoverable.”

“You talk about that like it matters,” replied Amaryllis. “As though there were any policy you wouldn’t budge on, any tenet of faith that represented a line that could not be crossed. As though you even had a coherent memeplex.”

“There are classified matters,” said Rosemallow, and I rolled my eyes. “Everything that I have done has been in service of the future of the Court, the kingdom, and the Empire, in that order. I could wax rhapsodic about the values that we shared, but it was never a question of that, it was a question of approach. Amaryllis,” she took a breath, “You’ve seen the numbers. You were there at Li’o. How much longer do we have until civilization breaks down? Every exclusion brings an economic depression. Millions of hours of education and research are wiped away. We can put ourselves in a position to weather these calamities, but you have to look at the end game. It’s what we’ve been preparing for, all of us in the know.”

“But not me,” said Amaryllis. “I was never in the know.”

“You were seventeen, and showing signs of rebellion,” said Rosemallow. “I couldn’t predict how you would react to some of what we’ve kept secret. Listen, there is a magical library, one known only to the Second Empire, its knowledge long forgotten, and written there is every book that ever has or ever will be published. The librarians change the future, thread the needle, and just barely see us through to a timeline where —”

“We know about the Library,” I said to Rosemallow. “I’ve been there.” More plot hooks from the Dungeon Master, in case we had elected not to bring the Library to us. It did make me a bit hopeful, seeing things like that, because it meant that we really were plowing through the main quest. Eventually all that would be left would be a set of clues pointing us in the same direction, and I was confident that direction would be Fel Seed.

Rosemallow stared at me.

“So what I think,” I turned to Amaryllis, “If I may?”

She waved a hand. She looked faintly disgusted with the whole thing.

“I think you had your justification planned out from the moment that you did it,” I said. “Anyone that you’ve poisoned, it’s been with some calculation about who might find out, or who might guess, and what they’ll need to be told. There are enough entads floating around that maybe one of them would fuck you, hells, that’s happened to me.” I waited for her to chastise me about swearing, but she didn’t. Maybe she knew that her life was on the line. “So whenever you did this kind of thing that you apparently regularly do, you try to minimize fallout, not just in terms of infosec, but in terms of planning things out, which is just good sense. But you didn’t update your spiel enough, or you don’t understand who or what you’re dealing with.”

“The question is whether we can still work with you,” said Amaryllis. “Knowing what we know about who you are and how you operate, what should we do?”

“Phlox is gone,” said Rosemallow. “Even if they find some way to recover her, she’s lost too many allies. Someone needs to steer the ship. Do you really think, at age seventeen, that person is you?”

Amaryllis looked to me, then back at Rosemallow. “It would be expedient for you to remain the de facto leader of Anglecynn,” said Amaryllis. “That would allow continuity of governance, and I’m sure that you have plans ready to go that I would find agreeable, now that the opposition has been crippled or killed. Beyond that, there are all the classified documents and information that you have access to and I do not, whatever shapes those end-of-the-world plans might take. The kingdom of Anglecynn is in a delicate place right now. Institutional memory has just been badly damaged, and I would be very surprised if continuity preparations had been adequate to this level of turnover.”

“Are you serious?” I asked, looking at Amaryllis. “You’re thinking about letting her get away with this?”

“I’m thinking about it, yes,” said Amaryllis. “Unless you’re under time pressure, it always pays to think about your options, repugnant as they might be.”

Rosemallow sat in silence, waiting while Amaryllis thought. Perhaps she thought she’d made her case, or maybe she thought that anything more she added would damage the arguments she’d made, even if just by the fact that Amaryllis disliked her. She was waiting to see her fate.

I really did believe that the Anglecynn thing was Amaryllis’ call to make, but the idea that she would decide on sparing Rosemallow left a sour taste in my mouth. I didn’t necessarily want to kill Rosemallow, but I thought (and maybe hoped) it would be what Amaryllis decided on. Other options included soulfucking her, though I didn’t know what the endgame was there, or maybe even putting her on trial. But to say ‘oh, you killed my mother, I guess that’s just how life is, you’re useful, we’re busy, you can stay’ … I wasn’t sure that I could stomach that. If Amaryllis decided that was what she wanted, I would think less of her, if only momentarily, whatever the object-level arguments were. I’d get past it, I was sure, but it would be a bitter pill to swallow.

“It’s going to be a blow,” said Amaryllis. “But we can’t have you be a part of this kingdom anymore.” I gave a sigh of relief.

“And what do you suggest as a remedy to this predicament?” asked Rosemallow. Her voice was calm, her eyes piercing, and I was really fucking worried about what kind of weapon she might pull out if it looked like we were going to go for her throat. Rosemallow didn’t seem like the kind of woman that we would want to back into a corner, and we really did seem to be backing her into a corner.

“There are options,” said Amaryllis. “You could step down, citing health concerns. We would certainly let you leave your current position gracefully, and allow you to act as both an advisor and to oversee the transition of power. There hasn’t been a full accounting of the dead yet, but I know for certain that a number of council members died.”

“You would push me to the side like that?” asked Rosemallow. “After everything that I’ve done for you? After the work I put into positioning you? Amaryllis, we’re talking about people who tried to outright murder you. We’re talking about a Second Grand Reconciliation, equality between the classes.”

“Will you agree to my terms?” asked Amaryllis. “You have some inkling what Juniper is, if not Uther reborn, then something like him. He proved that, to everyone, in ways that would be impossible to fake. And hopefully you’ve realized that where Uther had his Knights, Juniper has his own motley crew, myself included.”

“You’re threatening me,” said Rosemallow, frowning slightly.

“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “There’s been enough deaths in the past few days. I don’t want to add one more.”

I turned to Amaryllis. I don’t think we can trust her, I signed, raising an eyebrow. She won’t go gentle, and if it looks like she will, that’s because she’s playing us.

“These private conversations are tiresome,” said Rosemallow. “What is he suggesting?”

“He’s questioning my lenience,” replied Amaryllis. “He thinks you’ll stab us in the back at the first chance you get, or if not, that you’ll be an imperfect ally, the kind who needs constant attention to make sure that everything is going according to plan.”

“I haven’t even agreed to the terms,” said Rosemallow. “You’d be cutting my political life short.”

“Well, you did murder a few people in cold blood,” I said.

“I won’t beg for my life,” said Rosemallow, keeping her attention on Amaryllis. “You know that it would be motivated. All I can do is inform you of facts you already know. I’m a keystone member of the Court. I have manifold relationships, both within the Court, with individuals in businesses and associations, and through the various companies that I own. I won’t claim to be irreplaceable, only difficult and costly to replace.”

“The offer on the table is that you step down,” said Amaryllis. “Carefully craft a message stating that you have health concerns, that you’ll be seeking medical treatment from the best and brightest, and that you’re putting plans in place for a transition of power. It’s coming at a bad time, you recognize that, but you don’t trust your decision-making abilities anymore, and this is coming on advice of your doctors. After that, you let me in on every classified secret you know, working through legal channels, and not including those that would be a detriment to know. You take your marching orders from me.”

Rosemallow sat and thought about that for what seemed like a long time. It wasn’t an obviously good deal for her, but it still seemed generous to me. The whole fucking thing with the Cannibal … well, you could say that was Hyacinth’s fault, and I would have to agree with that, but it was Rosemallow who brought her to the brink.

“No,” she said. “I decline. I’ll stay on as a senior member of my councils, where I’m best positioned to help you. You may place some restrictions on what actions I take, but I simply refuse to take ‘marching orders’. I could, of course, lie, but that would only postpone the argument to a later date. Better to force it now, I think. You need me, Amaryllis.”

Amaryllis nodded, raised her hand, and in what seemed like one swift motion, called forth the flickerblade and materialized its blade right through Rosemallow’s head.

“We’ll store the body inside Sable,” said Amaryllis.

“Shit,” I said, staring at Rosemallow, who was unmoving, her eyes unfocused.

“There’s a good chance that’s not the real her,” said Amaryllis. “Or even if it is, there’s a good chance that her duplicate is out there. She didn’t give us a full explanation of the entad she used on me.”

“Pretty drastic action to take,” I said, still staring at the body.

“She was and is dangerous,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll have to worry about dead man’s switches for months. She would have had contingencies.” She looked over at me. “Hold the sword, please, I need to touch her to get her in the glove.” She gestured with her shoulder to indicate that this procedure wasn’t something that could be done with only one arm.

“Right,” I replied. “Sorry.” I helped her with it, and she put Rosemallow into Sable, the flickerblade still embedded. Not a single drop of blood had been spilled. “Do you really think soul magic would have worked on her, if she’d been the dupe?”

“We’ll bottle her,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s possible that was really her, but bottling will let us know for sure. Still,” she paused, “Either way.”

“Either way what?” I asked. “It was necessary?”

“Are you going to moralize at me?” asked Amaryllis, without any malice, only curiosity.

“No,” I replied. “Just … it’s drastic. Irreversible. And I know she was, maybe not a mother, but —”

“She killed my mother,” said Amaryllis. She stood up and looked around the room for a moment. “Come on, we need to get going. I don’t want to be in this house anymore. There could be booby traps. And if she’s still alive, she’ll soon find out that we killed her double.”

“What’s the story?” I asked. “You can’t say that you killed her.”

Amaryllis sighed. “We’ll go back to Greychapel,” she said. “Mutilate the body and plant it there. There are a number of staff that will attest to her being here, but she has that duplication entad, so … I don’t know. Fear and uncertainty mean that it’s easier to get away with, and we have political capital to burn.” She had a far-off look in her eyes. “Come on, let’s get moving.”

The next hour was a blur, and there was nothing much to say about it but that it was certainly grisly, especially since we were doing it while missing limbs. By unspoken agreement, we went through it all together, just the two of us, husband and wife. We wouldn’t know whether or not we’d succeeded for weeks, except that when we got to the Hotel and trekked up to our room:

Quest Completed: Full Court Press – Amaryllis has returned to Anglecynn, and taken her place as the de facto leader of a new faction, a role which will require a fair bit of her time and attention, in addition to her duties as advisor to the Republic of Miunun and her role as your companion. Being pulled in three directions will test her capabilities, unless you can find some solution (wink). In time, she’ll find herself happy with the way things went, especially with you beside her, helping to secure her rule. (Companion Quest)

Companion Passive Unlocked: Multitasker (Amaryllis)

Amaryllis can split herself into multiple independent clones, with each clone taking eight hours each to create, though this takes no real effort on her part. Clones can also be recalled (with or without merge) from any distance with another eight hours each. Given ten minutes of concentration, Amaryllis can integrate with a clone, either merging her essence into a clone, merging a clone’s essence into herself, or doing a bidirectional update. If any clone dies, all clones die. If Amaryllis dies, all clones die. Clones cannot do magic or use entads. Clones automatically roll 0 with a total modifier of 0 for any combat roll. No more than thirty clones at a time can be created in this way.

“Holy shit,” I said, reading it over a few times.

“Yeah,” replied Amaryllis. “I just got a thing,” she tapped her head.

“I figured you would be happier,” I said. “It’s good.”

“It feels like the kind of present you give someone when you know you’ve done something wrong,” said Amaryllis. “It’s the flowers that a husband gives to his wife after giving her a black eye.”

“It’s still good,” I said.

“Oh, it is,” said Amaryllis, nodding. She stayed silent though, with that same far away look. “How much do you think was premeditated?”

“By the Dungeon Master?” I asked. I was a bit flabbergasted that her mind wasn’t on the shiny new toy. Thirty of her, and though they would take eight hours to make, time chambers could be rented, especially if they didn’t need to be large, especially if they were short term.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “By the Dungeon Master.”

“It’s hard to say,” I replied. “It’s really hard to say if you need empirical backing, but it’s still hard to say even if you’re asking me to go with my gut. My gut is uncertain. If it’s tabletop gaming rules, and the Dungeon Master isn’t being a cheat and looking into the future too much, then my guess is that things went off the rails from the word go. You plan for things to go off the rails, you make sure that there are other backup rails in place, just in case, and if that’s not where the party lands, you improvise, laying new track, cannibalizing parts of the planning you’ve done, but … I don’t know if that applies. If you’re asking how much it was preordained that we would be in that room with Rosemallow, I don’t know that either. But even if it was set up, I do think it was a real choice.”

“A choice between having a dagger pointed at our back or killing her?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Yeah, I guess? Are you trying to say that it wasn’t hard?”

“It was, but it shouldn’t have been,” said Amaryllis.

“Because you cared about her?” I asked.

“No,” replied Amaryllis. “Because it feels like there’s some possible world out there where she would have been the person that I wanted her to be. This isn’t the life I feel like I deserved, as arrogant as that might be.”

“It’s not the life you deserve,” I agreed. “But that’s why we have each other, right? To close this chapter of your life and write a new one, together.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 25!

I had an agreement with Amaryllis to tell her about her loyalty ups, but had negotiated some leeway as to when I told her, just so as to not ruin the mood. She hadn’t wanted to agree to that, but then I’d pointed out that if a loyalty up didn’t happen, it might ruin the narrative moment, which would lead to it being fudged.

“I’m glad it was you,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was soft. She was in her full armor, laying on the bed, but neither of us were planning to sleep for the rest of our lives so long as the tuung were ready and willing to take sleep off our hands.

“That you got married to?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “If there had to be someone from Earth that had their fantasies made into a concrete reality, and if I had to be born into that world, and get to know them, then I’m glad that person was you. But also yes, if I was going to get married, I’m glad it was to you.”

“Thanks,” I replied. And if someone had to be created for me, then I’m glad that of all the possible entities that could be created, it was you. “Sorry you’re in a funk.”

“‘This too shall pass’,” said Amaryllis. The Bible stuff made me uncomfortable, and I felt like there had been more of it lately. “And hey, I have clones now.”

I gave her a smile. “Alright,” I said. “The quest is done. I say we convert one of these rooms into a place where we can have a movie night. Skeleton crew to guard, something light and comfortable to watch, and whatever concessions we have left in Sable.”

“Sounds good,” said Amaryllis, smiling back at me. “You know, we really should write some vows. Cheering me up when I’m down sounds like prime material. For the marriage inspector, naturally.”

“Of course,” I said, though we both knew that at this stage it would be nearly impossible for us to get called on the sham by anyone in the kingdom of Anglecynn.

It was nice to have a new normal between us. It was only a shame that we were going to have to ruin a good thing by facing down monsters.


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Worth the Candle, Ch 195: Family

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