What the actual fuck?
I tried to think of some other way to start this letter, but I kept asking you that question in my head. If it wasn’t going to be the first line, then it needed to be the second. Some possible first lines, ‘So you married Amaryllis,’ or ‘I hear you killed the head of the Host,’ or ‘You punched a dragon so hard that it fell from the sky onto Greychapel’. I don’t actually believe that last one, and I wouldn’t believe the first two, except that it’s all been printed in the newspapers so much that there must be a little truth.
What the actual fuck?
I got your letter six days ago. I waited half a day before opening it, because I wanted to have a cup of tea and a package of cookies ready, with my favorite songs on cylinder, just in case it was soul-crushing. But it was all so normal, just this assurance that you were alive and well, that you had gone through the trial by adversity unscathed and were in a much better mindset. You were always good at writing letters. I felt so relieved. But I also felt like you were suddenly back in my life somehow. After you went to prison, I sort of made my peace with the topic of you being this thing that I would get sad about sometimes, a wound that would eventually close up until it was just scar tissue.
But you were fine, and it was all okay.
And then I got a letter from Reimer, which said, paraphrasing, that you had been with him in Li’o during the exclusion. It took all my strength not to write the last part of that sentence in capital letters, taking up half the page, because I know you hate when I do that, but it would have been a really appropriate way to express how I felt about it. He hadn’t been sure whether you would send me a letter or not, but he felt like I deserved to know that you were alive and well, except he also mentioned that you were some kind of government official for a foreign government, which you had left out. It really made me think that you weren’t out of trouble at all, you were in some different kind of trouble.
I get the paper from Anglecynn two or three times a week, mostly because I want to be able to send letters to my mom and dad about what’s going on there. On one of those days, I saw your name in the paper, on the front page, making the claim that you were a traveling companion of Amaryllis Penndraig, imprisoned on orders of the Host.
What the fuck?
I put off writing you a letter because it seemed like it was this colossal mistake, or a prank, or maybe just someone who shared your name. I did write a letter to Reimer and sent it express to him, but by the time he got back to me, another day had passed, and the newspapers were saying that you were — Juniper, I can’t even finish that sentence. The stuff they were saying about you in the morning edition was insane, but at least it was within the realm of possibility. The stuff they were saying in the evening edition was … Juniper, you have to know this by now, but they were saying that you were a master of eight magics, that you had personally killed the creature in Li’o, that you were guilty of maybe as many as hundreds of murders, and then to cap it off, you had ended the day by getting married to Amaryllis and THEN ON TOP OF THAT declared a trial by combat.
I’ve been talking to my friends here, and I think they just don’t believe me. I’m sure that there are people coming out of the woodwork to claim that they knew you before you became whatever you are now. I’ve just been sitting in my apartment, trying to work out what the everliving fuck to tell my future self, reading through the newspapers over and over and hounding the newsagent for more.
I didn’t even mention that you killed the head of the Host in a battle that virtually no one believes actually happened. The newspapers all use weasel words. It is ‘alleged’ that you shed your armor and sword and then beat a master blade-bound to death with your bare hands. They say that you regrew an arm without using magic.
And then the next day, there was all this stuff about a gold dragon, dozens of people dead, and apparently, a naked man with incredible powers that you stopped dead in his tracks.
What the actual fuck?
I know that bit probably wore out its welcome the second time, but it’s the only thing that’s been going through my head. I don’t know if I should hold off for another day, to see whether something else happens, but I’m hoping that you can give me some answers, because if you can’t …
This is my lost year. It’s a year that revision mages live through, knowing that they’re going to have it all be undone, with nothing to show for it but the notes that we leave for ourselves and the ways that people treat us differently. I have no idea what to tell myself. I have no idea how much more change there will be in the next few months. They’re saying that you’re dream-skewered, but Reimer was talking about you like you were the same old person, so if you remember me at all, and if you still care for me, even a little, then please reply back. Just help me make sense of it.
Your friend, for what it’s worth,
Yeah, things have been a bit nuts.
Sorry I didn’t send you a letter before the trial, it’s been hectic. And sorry for not including more, especially about Li’o, but I was trying to bring you some closure. Feel free to talk to anyone from the old group, if you think it will help you. If you want, I can help to set up entad support so that it can happen in realtime, or I could pay for travel so that you could meet with them face to face.
I think I have to tell you now that you might be in danger. Anyone who knows that you were my girlfriend might think that they could use you to get to me. We’ll be hiring private security for you, which might come before this letter gets to you. I know that it’s an imposition, and I know that it might not be what you want, but I want to do as much as I can to make sure that you’re not used as leverage over me.
The reason that Reimer talked about me like I was the same person I was in high school is because my dream-skewering situation is complicated. I don’t remember anything about my life on Aerb, but my life on Earth seems to have run in parallel. I don’t remember you, but I remember a different Tiff. We used to sit up on your roof looking at the stars. I remember how nervous I was to tell you that I liked you. And after Arthur died, I was a dick to you and everyone else. I’m sorry. I wish I could undo things. Unfortunately, time travel doesn’t seem to be within my purview.
Almost everything else is though. If you hear more crazy stories about me, you should place at least a little weight on them being true. I really am married to Amaryllis; from what Reimer said, I had a crush on her in this world. I hope that’s not too awkward for you. I need to be careful about what I say in this letter, because I don’t know who might end up reading it, but it would suffice to say that something like what happened with Uther is happening with me. Actually, reading that back, that doesn’t at all suffice, but it’s as much as I can say. Sorry.
I hope you have a good life. I’m doing my best to write you out of my personal story. This will be the last letter I send you until this is all over. If they do come for you … it hurts me to say it, but I won’t save you. That’s the only way to deal with having you there as leverage. I hope that your security will be enough. In the meantime, if money can solve problems for you, we’ll be giving you a million obols. And as I said, we’ll be providing security for you, which I hope will help to keep you safe.
The entire Anglecynn adventure had a few pluses and a few minuses, with the good mostly outweighing the bad. I had gained a level, Amaryllis and Grak had new abilities, and we had gotten not just an enormous amount of money, but a fairly wide stock of entads.
The clones were pretty straightforward. We’d spent a day with the first clone, trying to see what they could and couldn’t do. If you pricked them, they bled, but they didn’t have souls or spirits that I could see, though they did have latent magic. In terms of magic and entads, they seemed to follow a rule of least benefit, meaning that they were considered people or objects depending on which would work against them. When you killed one, she popped like a soap bubble (and yes, we had tested killing one, with consent). The plan was to have ten being used in Anglecynn and nineteen used in Poran, keeping them all as safe as possible, with the thirtieth clone kept as backup. While they were pretty much the absolute worst at any form of combat, they were still as durable as Amaryllis, which is to say, you would still have to be trying to kill one in order to actually kill it.
Grak’s ability, Warded, was also fantastic, though it was a really significant contrast, because the clones were primarily supporting and furthering plots that existed outside of adventures. With Warded, Grak became a phenomenal front-line fighter, not just because of his sheer defensive power of being able to stay maximally warded, but because he could barrel through all kinds of defenses. Wards could do nothing against him, he was Wardproof, but one of the first things he’d done was to put up a full entad annihilation ward, with a few select holes poked in it for what he was wearing. Beyond that, he had a velocity ward that would keep anything from hitting him if it was going too fast, and a number of wards that would completely no-sell attempts to harm him in other ways. And beyond that he had an offensive suite that he could turn on with a thought, wards that were fully set up save for the last little bit that would turn them lethal, annihilation wards that would kill or critically injure anyone he touched.
And then there were the entads. Some of them were still under contract, and would be added to our store at a later date, and some of them were relatively garbage or not good outside the context that they were already being used in, but there were so, so many of them, and they were all ours. This was good, because we had lost a huge number of entads during the fight with the Cannibal, including my space plate, Alvion’s Vambrace, the Ring of Upward Bliss, and a handful of others. Beyond that, the probability blade was toast from the fight with Onion, and stubbornly refused to unrust itself, even with special attention from a variety of sources.
The highlights from the haul:
- Reflection Blade — A frankly beautiful blade which was covered with intricate designs that had been etched into the metal, depicting scenes of battle at miniscule detail. It was capable of mirroring wounds on anyone it had cut, which meant that a gash on someone’s left would become a second gash on their right. It worked whether I was the one that had made the wound or not.
- Elemental Plate — Armor which could be transitioned through twenty-seven different forms, most of which were useless, with each form conferring ‘elemental immunity’ and sometimes giving other benefits. The elemental forms were acid, base, blood, bone, chitin, clay, earth, electricity, fire, flesh, glass, gold, ice, iron, lava, light, magnetism, mist, rust, salt, sand, shadow, smoke, steam, stone, water, and wood. It had no helm to speak of, which was a shame.
- Crown of Eyes — A crown, tin, with carved stone eyes inset, which allowed me to see through the eyes of everyone in a fifty foot radius around me, and make sense of it. It wasn’t just good at being able to see more, and it wasn’t just good at knowing ahead of time when someone was around me, it also let me see what other people were paying attention to.
- Amulet of Five Spirits — A golden amulet, flat enough to be worn beneath armor, which depicted five animals curled up against one another. The entad power allowed me to change into one of the five stored animals, though it didn’t meld my equipment with it, just cast it off (amulet excepted), meaning that I would be naked on transforming back. The animals within the amulet could be changed by touching an animal for a few minutes, limited to those animals without ‘extra’ magic.
- Ring of Moving Winter — A white ring that allowed for the creation of up to two gnome-sized ice golems, plus the ability to cool down things with a touch, very similar to the Icy Devil spell I used to have.
- Ring of the Stored Sword — A dark brown ring with green lines that could attune to an item of twenty pounds or less, then store it or unstore it with a thought, almost (but not quite) explicitly meant to be used as a quick and inconspicuous sheath.
- Ring of the Focused Mind — A pink ring that reminded me of sea salt, which allowed for the storage of mental energy for later use. Whatever process regenerated mental energy, it would fill the ring when mental energy was full. It was most helpful for gem magic, because it gave me a bigger mana pool.
- Ring of the Dragon’s Mouth — A blue ring that gave me a breath weapon, subtype lightning, usable once a day. It was probably one of the most D&D items that was in the bunch, at least in my opinion.
- Rilke’s Strap — An embroidered bandolier that had a fairly significant amount of extradimensional space inside it, and whose pockets responded to a thought, pushing up whatever was needed. There were some unfortunate limits on size, meaning that I couldn’t put some of the bigger bones in it, but it was still a major upgrade to that part of my kit. It was thankfully very durable, making it immune to the elemental plate.
- The Fourfold Flask — A set of four shot glasses, each of which connected to a set of twenty extradimensional storage tanks. A drink poured into one shot glass could be poured out of the other, and you could have up to twenty different drinks at once. Drink was loosely defined, but the closer to water, the more it could hold. It was useful mostly by virtue of not having a range, meaning that the four glasses could be used to pass messages across the hex: you could roll up a piece of paper and slip it in, which would just barely fit by virtue of not actually being a drink.
- Messiah’s Shotgun — A gilded shotgun that amplified the amount of shot by quite a bit, and had a ludicrous amount of spread. The thing that made it good, other than the amount of damage output it had, was that allies were immune to it: the shot would simply miss them.
- Perfidy Pistol — A pistol whose rounds would rot away at flesh, with accents of rotted flesh where you would otherwise expect to find wood or ivory. It also had a fairly powerful antimemetic effect: for the first minute that it was drawn, no one would know or acknowledge that it was out, even if someone got shot with it.
- Gloves of Adaptation — A metaentad that was really underwhelming, as far as metaentads went. All the gloves did was coordinate with the rest of my outfit, which meant that they would transform with me for the purposes of the shapechanging amulet, and would take on the powers of the elemental plate. Mostly, they protected my hands.
And that was all the stuff that I was going to be kitted out with. The rest of the party took their pick of things as well, including the tuung, who found a few major upgrades to the ink magic that I had been furnishing them with. For those that would be staying in Anglecynn, that was particularly important, given that I wouldn’t be able to keep them supplied without doing a bulk teleport.
But that wasn’t even the end of the story for the entads, because I was a special snowflake, and things worked differently for me. We spent an afternoon working on abusing degrees of reasonableness.
“I think it made more sense in the context of a roleplaying game,” said Amaryllis. “I mean, it’s sensible to have some mechanism for players to argue with their game master about what applies and what doesn’t, and making that into a mechanic is … well, not without precedent, in the rulebooks I’ve read. But transplanted to our circumstances, we can’t actually argue with the arbiter, because he doesn’t respond back.”
“Sure,” I said. “But we could imagine that the Dungeon Master has a good enough model of us to know how such a conversation would play out, and even if he doesn’t, he can just stop time, spin up a copy of us, talk to that copy, then kill the copy once the conversation is concluded.”
“Well that’s horrifying,” said Raven. She was sitting with us in the ballroom, curled up like Maddie used to do, hugging her knees to her chest. We were staying clear of the Erstwhile Manor, which Amaryllis was set to inherit, but there were other properties in Caledwich.
“It’s just library timelines,” I said.
“Those are already horrifying,” said Raven. “Don’t think I’m unaware of how it must feel from the other side.”
“I would not consent to such things,” said Grak.
“Well, either way,” I said. “It doesn’t have to make sense, except in that it’s systematized.” I cracked my knuckles and looked over what we had. “Alright, where do we start?”
“The least rigidly defined are the most susceptible,” said Grak. “Reimer said that defining the letter A as B took five degrees of reasonableness.” I tried to think about what six or seven degrees would look like, and instantly understood: defining A as 1 would be six, and defining A as banana would be seven.
“Okay,” I said, looking things over. I reached down and picked up the Reflection Blade. “But we don’t actually know the wordings on any of these, do we?” I turned to Amaryllis. “We just know what they do by virtue of them having been put through the wringer by your people?”
Amaryllis nodded. “There’s a file for each of these, some thicker than others.”
“But those are kind of worthless, no offense,” I replied. “Since how you make an entad is, you start with a base case, then extrapolate out from there, eventually hitting some corner cases and getting ‘underlying’ laws that aren’t actually underlying at all, they’re just what the Dungeon Master came up with to justify or constrain the base case.” I looked at the blade. “So, Reflection Blade provides a reflection of wounds for someone that you’ve cut. That’s the base. Everything else is mutable.”
“If you say so,” replied Amaryllis.
“I’m doubtful of this conclusion,” said Grak.
“Well, potentially mutable,” I said. “Obviously if the internal wording that I’m assuming entads have, the same internal ‘wording’ that I give when I make inktads,” ink magic entads, I didn’t know why no one had coined it, but I was trying to make it happen, “is something like ‘reflect along the primary axis of symmetry’, then there’s less wiggle room, but if it’s just ‘reflect wounds across an axis of symmetry’, or even only ‘create equal wounds on the other side’, then there’s something to work with.” I looked at the three of them. “Who wants to be cut?”
Amaryllis stepped forward almost before I could finish my sentence.
“Go ahead,” she said.
I very carefully made a cut on the outside of her left forearm, half an inch long and not terribly deep, which she didn’t so much as wince at. I felt a surge of affection for her.
“Alright,” I said. Test number one was to close my eyes and see if I could sense her through the sword, which was harder than it sounded, since there were a few different ways I had of tracking. Unfortunately, it was a bust. I’d been hoping that since the wounds could apply against anyone the sword had cut, I might be able to get some tracking information from it, but that apparently wasn’t reasonable enough. “Okay,” I said. “Sorry, healing’s on the way soon.”
The next step was reflection, but the human body had at least three axes, the primary one, between left and right, which was called the sagittal plane, the second, between top and bottom, which was called the transverse plane, and the final, between front and back, which was called the coronal plane. I was slightly proud of being able to list those off the top of my head, but it might have been my stats doing some background lifting for me.
With a thought, I reflected the wound I’d given Amaryllis across the sagittal plane, giving her a cut on her right to match. Then I reflected it again, giving her four wounds total, two on each arm and two on each leg. And finally, I reflected it a third time, making eight cuts, some of them overlapping each other.
“Ow,” said Amaryllis, quickly healing herself using a bone she had at hand.
“I haven’t tested radial symmetry yet,” I said. “I can give you a bit though.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “You’ve cut yourself open to put bones inside, I’m not going to be more of a wimp than you, just do it.” She held out her arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, I cut her again. She hadn’t mentioned me screaming when the unicorn bones were put inside, which was nice of her. I was somewhat thankful that we didn’t have any more that were small enough.
Radial symmetry didn’t seem to work though, and my plan for a ring of wounds around my enemies didn’t seem like it was going to happen.
“Try healing,” said Grak, who had been reading the file on the sword.
“Healing?” I asked. “Huh.” I focused on Amaryllis, who was still bleeding a bit, and tried directing the sword to do its mirroring, but in reverse, mapping the uninjured side of her body onto the injured side. To my immense surprise, it worked, and the cut I’d made was instantly closed. I turned to Grak. “How did you know that would work?”
“It’s not only wounds the sword reflects,” said Grak, closing the file. “It was in use by a pustule mage.”
“Good work,” I replied. “I assume healing wasn’t something that it could always do?” Grak shook his head. “Not that I get injured all that often,” I said, swishing the sword around to feel its balance before I placed it back on the ground. I was getting a lot of looks.
“How many times have you died in the last few months?” asked Raven.
I took a moment to consider that question.
“The amount of time it’s taking you to furnish a response should put some fear into you,” she said.
“Look, I don’t think loop deaths count,” I said. “And if you don’t count those, then I haven’t died.”
“How many limbs have you lost?” asked Amaryllis.
“Not counting loops, then … a hand and part of my forearm against Larkspur’s goon, not a whole arm, mind you, though against Larkspur himself — that was only a near amputation, it was still connected … uh, a bit of my leg, technically, against Zinnia, and an arm against Onion,” I said.
“Two fingers in the Datura,” said Amaryllis.
“Plus a leg and most of a hand against the Cannibal,” said Grak.
“Well, he’s a cannibal,” I said. “It’s not his fault, it’s society that failed him.” No one laughed. “I’m not sure what more was expected of me. And we got replacements, didn’t we?”
“We’re low on unicorn bones,” said Amaryllis. She was back in fighting shape, and had been since the day after the whole fiasco, when we’d been able to get the good stuff. One of the things Aerb was really lacking was good prostheses, druidic magic aside, and Solace had flatly refused us, which I thought was both understandable and a bit rude. I kind of got why prostheses were so vanishingly rare. If you had better-than-human prostheses, then everyone would be lopping off their arms and legs to trade up, and that was a particular aesthetic that I almost never went for, even though it was cool. There were too many worldbuilding complications.
Nonetheless, Amaryllis had replaced her eye with one that had a white iris and a piercingly blue sclera, giving her a weird and captivating heterochromia, along with a different sense of color. She’d replaced her arm with one that could feel electromagnetism, and was slightly more pale than her natural arm. Both had been in for long enough that they were imprinted on her soul and fully a part of her, thanks to some time in a rented time chamber, and both were entirely non-magical, which they had to be in order to work with her clones. I was fairly sure that the off-colored eye was a way of growing her legend, and given how bewitching it made her look, I was sure that it was going to work in her favor. I’d opted to keep myself as I was, given how few options there were for upgrades (or even sidegrades), and the uncertainty of how they would interact with leveling up.
“I was really hoping that you’d have a size reduction entad in here somewhere,” I said. “That should be a common enough form of increasing carrying capacity.” What we really needed was one that would make things small but still touchable, and was usable in the middle of combat, which narrowed down the possibilities somewhat.
“It’s not,” said Grak.
“No?” I asked. “Well, maybe I can do it with ink magic. But I always hated trying to come up with some fresh new take on the portable hole.”
“Have you considered your desire for variants might be the reason that the one specific one we need is rare?” he asked.
“Makes sense,” I shrugged. We’d seen a fair few storage entads, and heard about more, but very few that met the requirement that I wanted. The closest was the storage entad that Masters had, which shrunk things down so they could be put into a box, but it was awkward to carry around and you just keep the minis out of it.
We spent some time going through the rest of them, testing whether I could get away with being a little less than perfectly reasonable. For the most part, I couldn’t, or if I could, the boundaries would only shift a tiny bit. The biggest boon by far was the Amulet of Five Spirits, which normally only allowed the acquisition of non-magical animals.
“Humans are animals,” I said. “Sorry, that’s just a matter of fact.”
“The mortal species possess an anima exa,” said Grak. “Animals do not.”
“Well,” I said. “Sure. But that’s not necessarily the definition, is it?”
“It is, yes,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a fairly clear dividing line.”
“But they still have souls,” I said. “I mean, maybe you can’t take their soul out of their body, but they still have a soul, because otherwise bone magic wouldn’t work.”
“Just test it then,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms. “Maybe it will work, but it doesn’t seem reasonable to me.”
“How many degrees would you say it should take?” I asked. “Remember that five is enough to redefine a two into a three. And remember that some alternate version of myself built this system.”
“I didn’t say that it wouldn’t work,” said Amaryllis. “Just that it didn’t seem reasonable to me. There’s no point in arguing when we can just test it.” I could tell she was a little annoyed though, mostly because she was making no effort to hide it. I understood it: the rules were different for me, not for her, and her clones couldn’t use entads at all, which meant that she was going to be living roughly 97% of her time with some fairly severe handicaps.
“Grak?” I asked.
He held out an arm for me, but paused. “Why me?”
“From the file, people turn into their own personal animal equivalents,” I said. “You acquire a cat, you turn into the same cat every time, but not the same cat you acquired, just cat-you. If you hand the amulet over to someone, they can turn into a cat, the same cat every time, but it’s a different cat from the cat you turn into. So if I acquired a human, meaning Amaryllis, I probably wouldn’t turn into Amaryllis, I would probably turn into a different human, if I changed at all, because human-me is just me. And if I turned into an Ell … well, I’m not sure whether or how Ell biology works if they don’t have their magic, or whether that would interfere, because it seems like it would add on an extra DOR, if not more. And I imagine that Ell-me would just be me, at least in appearance.”
There had probably been a hundred discussions of degrees of reasonableness among the Aerb group, and a part of me wished that I could have been a fly on the wall, or somehow gobbled up all of Aerb Juniper’s memories, if merging with him wouldn’t have watered down my own identity, or hurt him, if he still existed in some fashion. We’d talked about degrees of reasonableness with the Aerb version of Reimer, but fuck if I would fully trust him to give an unbiased interpretation of how it had actually functioned, because he’d always had his own understandings of the rules that often went counter to my own, and not just when he was trying to do a Candle of Invocation infinite wish loop.
The Amulet of Five Spirits was already stacked with the best non-magical animals that could be found on Aerb, as you might expect of an entad that had been in the family for a long time and thought on deeply by specialists. There were people whose entire graduate and post-graduate educations were focused on entad exploitation. The amulet had been filled with as wide a variety as possible, each of them S-tier at what they did, a screamingly fast predatory bird, an insect that could survive just about anything, the fastest fish that could survive in both freshwater and seawater, a fucking enormous big cat that could have killed a sabertooth with a single swipe of his paw, and a small, furry animal that could go into an extreme hibernation mode at a moment’s notice that allowed it to survive without oxygen, water, or food for up to six months. Each had their own purpose, and I had to ditch one of them in order to acquire Grak: I picked the bug to replace, as its particular brand of survivability had a bit too much overlap with what I already had.
And though it wasn’t very much of a surprise to me, I was still pleased that I was able to acquire a dwarf form from Grak. I changed to it almost as soon as the acquisition was finished, and felt myself shrink down and thicken very slightly, stretching my t-shirt a bit at the chest. I had the extremely disconcerting feeling of my penis shriveling up to nothing and some unpleasant changes to my butthole, which was now a cloaca.
“I think if I’m going to use this on a regular basis,” I said, my voice a touch lower, “I’m going to need entad clothes that change form with me.” My pants were too tight, except in the place that mattered.
“We’ll have to make a list of mortal species that are most worthwhile,” said Amaryllis. “And weigh that against the utility of animals. It would obviously be wonderful for the purposes of espionage.”
“Huh,” I said. I reverted to human form, thankful to have my penis back, and handed the amulet to Amaryllis. “There’s a chance that acquisition is the hard part, and once it’s acquired, anyone can use it. Worth a shot. We all know espionage isn’t my area of expertise.”
“It doesn’t work,” said Amaryllis, after a moment. “I can feel that it’s there, but it’s not letting me change. One moment, let me make sure that I can use the others.” She paused. “Stripping down.”
Raven and Grak were polite about it, turning away just a bit, and after a moment, I did the same, catching just a glimpse of her shirt coming up and revealing her stomach. I had been trying to figure out some argument for why it would have been appropriate for me to ogle her, but nothing had come to mind. We were married, sure, but it was a sham, and not one that required us to put up a show for Grak and Raven. I’d seen Amaryllis naked before, I liked seeing her naked, obviously, but we were in this uncomfortable place where the rules were unclear. Not unpleasantly uncomfortable, but a kind of tension, a frisson.
I did glance back at her, as she was in the middle of undressing, and caught her eye. She must have been watching me, because she was looking at me even before I was looking at her. All I got was a quick, impish grin from her, and then she turned into a great big bird with black feathers. My heart was hammering in my chest. She let out a loud caw, then flapped her wings and took off, making a circuit around the ballroom. The bird was some kind of terrifying fantasy falcon, and looked a bit like a stealth bomber, helped by the fact that it was jet black and incredibly fast.
I watched her with a kind of wonder, not just at the display of magic, but because I was starting to admit to myself that I really was in love with her.