Worth the Candle, Ch 198: Prurient Interest

“Alright,” said Amaryllis, smiling at me. “We have a huge amount of time blocked off together, impeccable defenses, and no distractions or other threats to our lives. It’s time to talk about what we’re telling the marriage inspector.”

“Yay,” I said. We were together at one of the estates that had once belonged to Amaryllis, which had been returned to her possession and cleared out. The room we were in had been a bedroom (the mansion had been riddled with them), but the actual furniture was much lower class. Amaryllis hadn’t quite remade the time chamber she’d spent eight months in, but quite a bit of the stuff had been reused, including the loveseat that we’d used movie nights on. The actual time chamber had been modular, with things pulled out of storage when needed and then shoved back in, but this room was bigger, so a few of the configurations had been spread out.

Light from outside was partially blocked by two towers full of plants, which had been disconnected from their light sources. Our well-used table was put up against one wall, with the chairs we’d spent hours each in, and a book shelf had been imported from somewhere, then filled with, from what I could tell, mostly books that Amaryllis had devoured inside the time chamber. In the actual time chamber, she had mostly used Sable for book storage, unless she was cross-referencing, in which case everything was spread out and annotated.

“You never really struck me as sentimental,” I said, looking things over.

“Well, that’s something that we can talk about,” said Amaryllis. “We have six hours today, then another six hours tomorrow, with some breaks built in for sanity. We’ll talk about how we view each other, what we imagine a counterfactual relationship would be like, then all the facts and stories that are a part of that counterfactual.”

“Or we could skip it,” I said. “The marriage inspector doesn’t have a huge amount of pull, does he?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “But the office of marriage inspection leaks, and even if it didn’t, there’s a lot of benefit in producing our own leaks, which we would need some credible source for.”

“Okay,” I said with a shrug. “I’m going to warn you now that I don’t think I can give this my full attention for twelve hours.”

“Of course not,” nodded Amaryllis. “If I thought you could, I wouldn’t have scheduled so much time.”

“So,” I said. “You’re saying that you are sentimental?”

“I’m surprised you haven’t noticed,” said Amaryllis, looking around the room. “But sentimentality is just a matter of what feelings you feel. I don’t usually act sentimental, which is probably what stands out more in your mind. I take to favorites fairly quickly. I tend to think about the past in a rosy way, if I allow myself to. I hang onto things for as long as I can, even when they’re a little worn out, at least by inclination.”

I thought for a moment about that. I was reminded of the ‘Princess!’ shirt, which Amaryllis had worn enough that the pink had faded. “You always gave me the white mug,” I said.

“Because it wasn’t my favorite, blue was,” Amaryllis smiled. “But sure, I don’t indulge that sentimentality. If I feel torn up inside about some bit of nostalgia, that might get me killed, or someone else killed. So I do my best not to feel those feelings.”

“How are you doing with the Solace thing?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned at me. “Well, Solace isn’t a part of the official story, because no one besides Uniquities seems to have connected the dots. It’s really unlikely that we’re going to be asked about it. The marriage inspection should be a formality, I just want us to have our stories straight for it, especially because those will be the stories going forward.”

“No,” I said, furrowing my brows. “Cut it out with that shit. Stop brushing it off and talk to me. I’ve seen the way you look at her sometimes. You were the one who told me that I was the only real person that you could speak with about it.”

Amaryllis watched me with her mismatched eyes. I found the new look enthralling. It was harder to look away from her. “You’re right,” she said. She set her notes to one side and folded her hands in her lap, staring at them. “I thought that I was going to have a daughter. Not a real daughter, but at least an adopted one. An unconventional offspring.” She sighed. “I had always wanted children. I still do.” She looked at me. “When I find a suitable mate, obviously, someone who’s comfortable with the fact that I’m already married.” The corners of her mouth turned up, not quite a full smile.

“Don’t try to get out of this by flirting,” I said.

“Flirting?” asked Amaryllis, eyebrows raised. “Me? Wait, did you think I was suggesting that you be the father of my children? Just because we’re married and you’re my best friend?” She scoffed. “Someone thinks very highly of himself.” There was nothing coy about the way she was smiling at me anymore.

“How did I end up married to such an unbelievable weasel?” I asked, because I could already feel myself being diverted by the energy she was injecting into the conversation. “I ask one serious question, and you’re like a slippery social ninja. Please speak to me. Think about it like this, if you turn me away, you’re training me to let things fester.”

“I just don’t want to talk about it,” said Amaryllis, not quite letting up with her charm offensive. “There’s nothing to say. I wanted a daughter, I thought she would be a daughter, and she wasn’t, she was just … Solace. Aside from the time we spent together before she got aged up, I went through eight months of pregnancy and then — I was going to say it was like giving your child up for adoption when you didn’t want to do that, but it was worse than that, because this child that I’d built up in my head wasn’t even real, the real child was a full grown woman who, at best, is suffering through some level of cognitive and hormonal impairment, and doesn’t view me as a mother at all. It sucks, but there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.”

“We could talk about it,” I said. “Like we’re doing now.”

“That’s true,” said Amaryllis. She sat in silence with me for a little bit. “I think it’s one of those places where there’s an ethical case for soul magic.”

“But … you haven’t?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “No, I promised that I would get consent from the Council, but to do that would mean laying everything out, and I took what I view as the lesser of two evils.”

“You wouldn’t just … do it?” I asked.

“I made a promise,” said Amaryllis. “If I went back on my promise, you would know when I made a second promise that it would need to be taken with a grain of salt.”

“I went back on my promise,” I said. “With the Bethel thing. It was spirit, not soul, but —”

“I take your promises with a grain of salt,” said Amaryllis, wincing slightly. “I don’t mean that to be a slight, but between the Council, and especially between the two of us, I don’t ever want to be anything but honest. If you make a promise to me, I’ll quietly assign some slim probability that you only mean it in the moment, and when push comes to shove, you’ll back out. Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “It gives me incentive to change. So long as we’re in agreement that sometimes the universe sets you up to break your promises.”

“Absolutely,” said Amaryllis with a nod. “Thank you for pressing me about Solace.”

“I just want you to be happy,” I said. “Really, there are thirty of you now, so it’s about thirty times more important.”

“I’ll try to lean on you a little bit more,” said Amaryllis, leaning to the side and bumping her arm against mine for emphasis. “It’s mostly those little moments, being reminded that nothing was what I had hoped it would be like.” She sighed. “When she was just born, she would sleep all the time, her whole body laying across my chest. I loved that. Here was this little creature that I had made, sleeping away on top of me like she didn’t have a care in the world. I allowed myself to be sentimental about it. I would just … revel in it, watching her while my mind drifted.” Her eyes were slightly watery, and she bit the inside of her lip.

“Hey,” I said, putting my arm around her. “If that’s what you want, then someday it’s going to be real.”

“I want to wait,” said Amaryllis, leaning into me. “I wouldn’t want to bring a child into the world as it is now. It would be cruel. So, we’re going to have to win first.”

“Yeah,” I said. “And then I’ll help you find a suitable father.”

Amaryllis gave me a slap on the chest, but stayed there for a moment, nestled against me.

“You know,” she finally said. “They’re not really clones. They’re all just me. I haven’t used the other options yet, outside of testing, I just integrate every single time, so every clone out there has a more or less up-to-date compiled experience of what every other clone is doing, with a lag time of about a day. It’s like living my life at a rate of thirty days per day.”

“I can’t decide whether that sounds nice or horrible,” I said.

“It’s mostly nice,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sometimes social with myself, and learning very fast how to make things run even smoother, because when I integrate, I get both sides of any conversation. But I miss you, because I see so little of you.”

“Huh,” I said. It felt nice to hear her say that.

“Unfortunately, we can’t just cuddle up,” said Amaryllis, moving away from me. “Because you’re not getting out of prepping for the marriage inspector that easily.”

I groaned. “Alright, let’s do this then.”

Amaryllis cleared her throat, looking down at her notes. “I wanted to get the toughest thing out of the way first, which is what we do about Fenn.”

“Do about her?” I asked, giving her a questioning look.

“It’s a matter of how much backdating we’re doing,” said Amaryllis.

“Heh,” I said. She gave me a questioning look. “Backdating,” I said.

“Oh, that’s horrible,” said Amaryllis, wrinkling her nose. “That’s barely even a play on words.”

“Right, sorry,” I said. “But you were saying that we need some kind of explanation in terms of timeline? And … that Fenn presents a problem to that?”

“A bit of one,” Amaryllis nodded. “This is all a story, one that’s meant for both the marriage inspector and the general public. The timeline is at least partially known. The options for what we say about Fenn … it’s unpalatable, but the story and timeline would both work better if you’d never had a relationship with her.” She was watching me.

“She gets written out,” I said. “Ick.”

“It’s spitting on her memory,” Amaryllis replied. “It’s pretending that she was just the plucky comic relief and not something more. I don’t like it, but I wouldn’t suggest it if I didn’t think it was a better lie.”

“You know if she ever comes back to life, she’s going to be extremely pissed off?” I asked.

“If I could bring her back to life by manufacturing enough dramatic tension, I would,” said Amaryllis. “But she had made her peace with oblivion and what it meant not to exist. It was why she said that she wanted us to use her body in whatever way we saw fit. Once you’re gone, you’re gone. I don’t think that she’d be happy about it, no, but it would be pretty hypocritical of her.”

“Alright,” I said. “So we’re just … pretending that she didn’t exist.”

“To the outside world,” said Amaryllis. “And she would have existed, just not been romantically involved with you. Is that a lie you think you could tell? It’s a lie that we’re telling the outside world, not the one we’re telling ourselves.”

“Sure,” I said. I tapped my fingers on my leg. “That leaves open the possibility that things with us started … when, in the timeline?”

“Almost immediately,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a pretty classic trope of romance in a time of extreme threats.”

“Seems like we should stick to the truth as much as we can,” I said.

“Meaning?” asked Amaryllis.

“I mean …” I wasn’t sure how to phrase it. “The reality is that you didn’t like me very much, right off the bat.” The reality is that you then did your best to fall in love with me, because you thought that would work to your benefit, and then it worked a little too well, until you used soul magic to temporarily fix the problem, which seems like it might be unfixed now, if I’m not shit at reading signals, which I am.

“And you’re worried that it will be hard to keep our stories straight?” asked Amaryllis. “Most of what you say to the outside world will be filtered through me. We’ll probably do one or two interviews for the radio, but I’ll make sure those are pre-recorded, and screen what gets asked and what gets said.”

I was pretty sure she got what I was saying and was brushing off the question of her actual affections for me, past and present. “Well, I’m fine with it then,” I said. “There will be a parallel timeline to memorize, but the stakes are low, and we have lots of time at the moment.”

“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Now, I have a list of questions that the marriage inspector is likely to ask, and we should think through the answers to those questions, ideally together.”

“You don’t have answers prepared?” I asked.

“The answers are lies, but they should be true to who you are,” said Amaryllis. “I know you pretty well, but especially where it comes to romance, I’m doubtful of my ability to generate answers that are both plausible to outside observers and that resonate with you. And they’ll resonate more if you’re the one to think them up.” She looked down at her notes. “To start with, when would our first date have been?”

I thought a bit about that. “Fitting it into the timeline, it would make the most sense after the unicorn thing, if you mean ‘date’ in the sense of an explicit romantic evening.”

“Alright,” said Amaryllis. “First kiss?”

“Under the influence of the unicorn blood,” I said. “Then ‘for real’ after we had both recovered. Maybe with an awkward conversation in there.”

“What kind of awkward conversation?” asked Amaryllis, frowning. “I would apologize for kissing you, trying to keep some decorum and professionalism in our relationship, and then you would kiss me?”

“Something like that,” I said.

“It can’t just be ‘something like that’,” said Amaryllis. “It needs to be, if not an exact script, then an agreed upon narrative that can survive scrutiny. Would you mind acting it out?”

“You want to roleplay?” I asked.

Amaryllis nodded. “If that’s okay. Then, when you’re pressed on it, you can remember this conversation, and it will almost be like it actually happened.”

“Alright,” I said. “Sure.”

She set her notes down and stood up, facing away from me, then took a step away from the small couch and paused for a moment before turning around. She had completely changed her expression, and was looking at me with slightly downcast eyes and a quiet professionalism. When she spoke, her voice was smooth and calm.

“Grak told me that I kissed you while I was under the influence of the unicorn blood,” said Amaryllis. “I wanted to apologize for that. Obviously neither of us were in our right minds.”

I hesitated, then got to my feet. It felt weird to be the only one sitting. “No, it’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t get the wrong idea. We can continue on as we were. I know that the unicorn blood sometimes makes people say or do things that they don’t normally do.”

Amaryllis bowed her head a bit, looking at the floor, and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “Actually, just so you know, it’s not exactly that, it’s that it lowers inhibitions.”

I looked at her, then took a half step closer to her. Her body moved back slightly, almost involuntarily, but she didn’t move her feet, and after a moment, she returned to where she was, like I was a breeze that had momentarily blown her backward. She was watching me, her eyes moving quickly from one part of my face to the other. “Meaning what?” I asked. “That the only reason you haven’t kissed me before is your inhibitions?”

“It might be something like that,” she said, turning her head away from me to look at nothing in particular. She was breathing a little faster than normal, with her lips slightly parted. “Of course, I don’t think that inhibitions are necessarily a bad thing, sometimes they stop us from doing things that might not be advisable for one reason or another, and I would —”

I stepped forward, closing the distance between us, and when she turned to look at me again, I kissed her, which she met by melting into me, her hand slipping up to rest against my chest. We stayed like that for quite a while, kissing, and I tried to keep in mind what that other version of her had told me as her lips touched mine.

When she finally pulled away, she looked up at me with wide eyes. “I was going to say,” she said. “That there are lots of reasons that we shouldn’t be kissing each other.”

“Whatever they are, we can deal with them,” I said. “Together.”

Amaryllis nodded, then went back to the couch and picked up her notes, staring at them for a moment before looking up at me. “That was surprisingly smooth.”

I sat back down beside her. “It’s not hard to be smooth when you know that there’s no failure condition,” I said. “Was it too smooth?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “I think it plays well. Just —” she shook her head. “It wasn’t what I expected from you.”

“In a good way?” I asked.

She stared at her notes for a bit, then met my eyes. “Yes.”

“Good,” I said. “What’s next?”

Amaryllis looked at her notes for a bit, just staring at them without speaking, then cleared her throat. “What was our first date?” she asked.

“We never had time for them,” I said. “If you just mean romantic evenings with just the two of us instead of anything more complicated than that, then I guess it would have been in the bottle, following recovery.”

“For which we’ll have to fabricate some details,” said Amaryllis. She seemed to be finding her footing again. “Nothing special, just a meal shared together. Rabbit and roots? Better to be something that we both like and we both know.”

“Sure,” I said. “And after that, we settled together on a blanket to look up at the stars through the curve of the bottle to talk about —” I stopped, realizing that I was unintentionally plagiarizing from my relationship with Tiff.

“Children,” Amaryllis replied. “And the mistakes of our parents.”

“Works for me,” I said. “The mistakes of yours being … ?” She looked at me, waiting and not providing an answer. “You never knew your father, and that’s obviously not something that you want for your own children. Your mother loved you, but didn’t show it much, and that love took a back seat, because it had to.”

“That’s good,” said Amaryllis.

“Is it true?” I asked.

“True enough,” she replied. “I don’t know what unforced errors either of them made, and as to their values … I just wasn’t old enough. My father held off having children for as long as he could, which might be part of what deprived me of having a father. Even if he had lived, he wouldn’t have been likely to see me to adulthood. And they had a loveless, mercenary marriage, which I don’t want my own children to experience. I used to believe that people didn’t actually love each other.”

“So, it was a melancholy night under the stars?” I asked.

“A bit,” replied Amaryllis. “The conversation wandered, as they do. You don’t actually pick a topic and then stay with it.” She tapped her pencil against her notes. “Did you kiss me?” she asked.

“Yeah, just a few minutes ago,” I said.

She rolled her eyes, which was about what I deserved.

“Are you going to try to make a timetable for major milestones?” I asked. “Is that where we’re heading?”

“It’s the kind of thing that we’ll be asked about,” said Amaryllis. “Some amount of discrepancy is expected, because memories aren’t perfect, and beyond that, people want to paint themselves in the best light, but yes, we’ll want to stay consistent on sexual history.”

“So,” I said. “In this counterfactual history … what, are we just two horny teenagers?”

“Hrm,” said Amaryllis. “No. I’m reticent, not just because of conceptions about honor and the risk of pregnancy, but worry about what it would mean for the future and how it would reflect on me. There are some natural points of friction in our relationship as well, but not necessarily to the level that they would play into decisions about how things would progress between us.”

“Those concerns being … mostly about class?” I asked.

“And about you being the most powerful man in the world, or likely to become that man,” said Amaryllis. “I would have looked at the history of Zona with a raised eyebrow, and at my own position as one of your Knights, and thought that maybe the feelings I had for you were ill-advised.”

“Which would mean that you might pump the brakes,” I nodded.

“But it’s a romance, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “The point is to introduce some tension into proceedings, and yes, that serves to slow it down, but it’s also to increase the level of desire from the participants.”

“Ah,” I said. “So we’re making out, but while we’re doing that, we’re talking about how we really shouldn’t?” I asked. When I thought about it, I supposed there was some of that with Fenn, though in the end … I won’t say that the relationship was a bad idea, but the obvious problems did come to a head in various ways.

“And you would have your own reasons for being reticent,” said Amaryllis. “Class would be one of them, obviously, my family another, the political reality a third, though you can obviously say whatever fits best for you.” She tapped her notes with her pencil again. “We need to have the uncomfortable talk about sex.”

“Will they really ask about that?” I asked. “Wait, I already know the answer, Anglecynn is shitty and backward, so yes.”

“We need dates and descriptions,” said Amaryllis. “If you’d like, I can go off in a corner and write up a script to give to you, and we can skip the conversation altogether.”

“I’m not that squeamish,” I said. It was a little bewildering that she thought I might be. “Are you?”

“No,” said Amaryllis, laughing a bit. “Of course not. It’s just sex. I’m inexperienced, to put it lightly, but I looked at enough pornography to desensitize myself.”

“But … why?” I asked. I was trying to picture it, and it seemed incongruous.

“I was trying to prepare for my wedding night,” said Amaryllis. “I didn’t want to be off-balance the first time I saw an erect penis. I wanted to understand the mechanical reality of it.” Amaryllis, studying, trying to get an A+ on the test.

“And … you would have been twelve,” I said. “Blegh.”

“Oh?” asked Amaryllis, giving me a prod with her finger. “And how old were you when you first saw porn?”

“That’s completely different and you know it,” I said. “Besides, we had the internet, it was hard not to see porn. You would be looking for something completely unrelated, and then bam, hardcore porn right there in your young, naive face. And when you go searching for it, my god, there you are, with every single perversion possible laid out right in front of you.”

“Nothing like Aerb though,” said Amaryllis. “I mean, you only had humans, and I know certain elements of your fantasies made it through to here. On top of that, I’m well-appraised of state-of-the-art computer graphics. So I know you didn’t have everything.”

“Well,” I replied. “Close enough. I can’t believe you’re getting competitive over this.”

Amaryllis paused. “But it’s a little bit endearing, right?” she asked.

“It is,” I said, giving her a smile.

She grinned. “We’re off track,” she said. “When would we have had sex?”

“After we were married,” I said. “You’re a good Christian woman, aren’t you?”

“Our story is that we spent months together, just the two of us, in a time chamber,” said Amaryllis. “In all that time, we would never have given in?”

“Can’t we just tell the marriage inspector that you’re not interested in sex?” I asked. “I mean, we can lie and say that we’ve had sex, but is it really necessary for us to fabricate this entire alternate life where we were not only dating, but where you’re missing this part of you?”

“I don’t consider it a part of me,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not core to my identity in any way. It’s not how I think of myself. And so if this plays better, which it does, I don’t see it as a betrayal of who I am, it’s just business. I care what the outside world thinks about my personal life only because it impacts me. In an ideal world, none of it would matter, no laws or alliances would hinge on it. But we deal with the world we have, so.” She shrugged, leaving that sentence truncated.

“Let’s say that it took some time then,” I said, looking her over. I felt a little wrong trying to imagine it, though she was asking me to, and we were married, and I was pretty sure that if I made even the slightest argument in favor of us having sex at right that very moment, she would go along with it, and then … well, then things would be different. I could feel my pulse start to quicken. I was thinking about it too much. “Would you stop me?”

“Stop you from doing what?” she asked.

I leaned over and kissed her, and she kissed me back. It wasn’t quite the same as before, because I was feeling a bit of that frantic energy. My hands went down to her waist, and slipped beneath her shirt to touch her skin, then to pull her shirt up, which momentarily broke our kiss. I was watching her face before we came back together, and there was a seriousness to her expression, but she met me to resume our kissing.

Eventually, once I had removed her bra, I began kissing her neck, then her collarbone, and I felt her fingers grasping at my shirt, lifting it up off me too.

“I’m not going to stop you,” said Amaryllis. “If that’s what you’re waiting for.” Her eyes went down to my crotch, then back up to my face.

“It’s a bad idea,” I said, but my hands had gone to the button of my fly. I had my pants halfway off before I stopped what I was doing and looked at her. She was removing her own pants, and she’d gone faster than I had, leaving her just in her panties. Her body was perfection, slender and muscled, her skin pale. “You said that you wouldn’t stop me,” I said.

“I won’t,” she said, and she came over to tug at my pants to get them off. I ended up on the couch, facing her, my back pressed against the arm of it. She was up on the seat, steadying herself with one arm, her legs touching mine, not quite straddling my thigh.

“Wait,” I said, and she froze where she was, giving me an expectant look. “You don’t want this,” I said.

“Did I do something wrong? Say something?” she asked. “Juniper — some part of you wants this, and I’m not going to take an erection for consent, but — it might be better for you to just follow your instincts and work out the feelings later.”

“I’m right that you don’t want it,” I said. “I just, for a moment, deluded myself into using you.”

“Using me — Juniper,” she shook her head. “I want you to be happy,” she said. “I want you to feel pleasure, I want you to feel satisfied, you’re — you’re my best friend, my partner, my husband, and literally whatever you want me to do with my body for you, I will do it. And after we’re done, I’ll hold you, comfort you, and explain that I’m perfectly fine, that you didn’t do anything wrong, that I still think of you the same way as I did before. This isn’t something that you need to torture yourself over.”

“I can’t,” I said, cringing. “Sex means something to me, maybe that’s just fucked up Midwestern programming, or maybe it’s —” I stopped myself. I didn’t want to say Maddie’s name, not when we were both nearly naked, not like this, but that was almost certainly where it was coming from. I’d felt gross afterward, like I’d used her, and all the excuses about sex being purely a physical thing had evaporated away. “I just can’t.”

Amaryllis sat back a little. “You’re thinking about Maddie.”

“I am,” I said. I didn’t know how she knew. Maybe it was obvious. “And even if I could put it out of my head in the moment, I’m scared that when it was over I would keep drawing the comparison.” This wasn’t the time or place to be having this conversation. I didn’t want to have it with anyone, ever. “Maddie and I talked about it, before we did it, and I asked her, I made sure that she was sure, but the whole time, she wasn’t saying anything, she wasn’t doing anything, she was just waiting for it to end. And I probably would have felt like shit about it anyway, but that made it worse, because it was just —” my words were failing me. It was the way Maddie had been after, too, the way she’d seemed disappointed in what it was.

“It was bad sex,” said Amaryllis. “I’ve heard that for women the first time can be awkward, weird, and maybe painful. And I know that you think that was the worst thing you ever did on Earth, but that’s all wrapped up in all this other stuff. I’m older than you, Juniper, by almost three years now. I don’t mean to slight her, but I’m more of an adult than most adults. I’m in full control of my own body, and you have very little power over me. If you think that you’ll regret it, then I don’t want to do it, and I’m not going to lie to you about what I imagine it will be like for me, but I think you’re letting a bad experience make too much of a mark on you.”

“I know,” I said. “I just … it’s a hang up.”

“So you’re turning me down?” asked Amaryllis.

“The whole time, you would just be waiting for it to be over,” I said.

“Or I would be enjoying pleasing you,” said Amaryllis. “If this is about how you feel, I’m fine with that, I accept that, but if you’re trying to make a logical argument, then I’m going to tear it down, because you don’t have a leg to stand on.”

“It’s just a feeling,” I said. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be sorry, it’s your choice,” said Amaryllis. She looked down at my underwear. I had, in this moment of panic and bad feelings, lost my erection. “I have a request.”

“Sure,” I replied. “We should probably get dressed though, if this is just a confusing and regrettable diversion.” My eyes kept going to her tits. She was beautiful, perfectly proportioned, and I wasn’t just saying that because she was also wonderful in so many other ways.

“I’d like to see your penis,” said Amaryllis. “We’re faking a sexual history together, and while I doubt that the marriage inspector will ask, it would be better for me to not have to guess. Ideally we would consummate this marriage, but failing that … I want to see it.”

I was watching Amaryllis. Her face was set and determined. She was still bare-chested.

“Sure,” I replied slowly.

Before I could do it myself, she reached forward and pulled my underwear down. Unsurprisingly, given that she was almost completely naked, the most beautiful woman in the world had just asked to see my penis, and she was touching my upper thighs, I had gotten hard again.

“I guess I don’t see what the fuss is about,” she said, staring at it. She was moving her head around to see it from different angles, as though one would suddenly appeal to her. “No offense.”

“None taken,” I said. “It’s very average.”

“Can I touch it?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said.

“Are you sure?” she asked.

“Yeah,” I said again.

Her hand was warm and soft.

“Do you think you’ll regret this?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “Kind of hard to concentrate though.”

“Hmm,” said Amaryllis. She was experimenting with me. “I don’t want to have sex with you, if you don’t want to have sex,” she said. “But part of the reason that we’re doing this is so that I can have some experience. Verisimilitude, right?” She was looking me straight in the eyes. “So I was wondering whether you would be alright with me getting the full sensory experience — if I could taste you.”

I stared at her. “Yes,” I said.

She moved her head forward, lowering it down, then looked at me. “It’s not like I like you or anything.”

“You tricked me,” I said, once she was finished. She was laying against me, still without clothes on, resting her head against my chest.

“Oh, certainly,” said Amaryllis. “That has got to be one of the top ten cons of all time. It took wits and wiles, truly, a heist where planning and preparation were my watchwords. Convincing you to accept a no-strings-attached blowjob is the kind of thing that will surely go in my memoirs. It’s a real feather in my cap.” She ran her fingers through the sparse hair on my chest. “How are you?”

“Good,” I said. My body was done tingling, and the moment of clarity was fading away. “Great, actually.”

“It wasn’t too much of an amateur effort?” asked Amaryllis.

“Not at all,” I said. I was turning the idea of what had just happened over in my head, and trying to see if there was some seam that I would eventually dig into, some way that my brain would decide this was a bad thing. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong with it. “And … how was that for you?”

She was silent for a bit, still touching my chest.

“Are you trying to find some way to tell the truth without causing offense?” I asked.

“I am,” she said. And then she was quiet for a bit longer, just touching me, which she seemed to enjoy. “I feel like your ideal version of me would be telling you something very different from what I’m about to tell you. It’s difficult, because I know just what she would say. There are levers that could be pulled, and they’re easy to see. It’s one of those situations where telling a lie would be so much easier, and I would just deal with my own, less enthusiastic feelings, because it’s a trade that I would happily make. It’s just … I’m not sure that it’s a trade you would make.”

My heart sank a little. “That bad?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Not at all. I knew what to expect. The sensory experience was new, and that was at least a bit interesting. But I could tell within the first twenty seconds that it wasn’t for me. I’m perfectly willing to do it again, I am, but if I’m being honest, it was just … manual labor for me, I guess. I liked making you happy. I liked taking care of you. I’d even like for this to be a permanent arrangement. But it wasn’t what you wanted it to be, for me.”

“Alright,” I said. “I guess I’ll accept that.” I let out a breath and touched her on the back. “Can I ask what the offense version was?”

“It was like licking someone’s elbow for a bit, then having them sneeze in your mouth,” she said. “Though that’s not quite it, because sneezing carries some negative connotations due to germs. I really don’t think there’s an equivalent. Normally you don’t inject bodily fluids into another person.”

“Well that’s brutal,” I said. “But … I don’t know. I’m glad we didn’t have sex, but I’m also glad that we did that.”

“And you would be fine with it being the new normal between us?” asked Amaryllis.

I thought about it, not just the appealing aspect, but everything else as well. “I have a condition,” I said.

“You have a condition you’re going to give me, so that I can keep giving you blowjobs?” asked Amaryllis.

“Well, it sounds ridiculous when you put it like that,” I replied. “But my condition is, if not some quid pro quo, because I wouldn’t want it to be transactional, then … I’d like to do something for you. Something that I’m not super into, maybe? Something that I wouldn’t do except to please you.”

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “That’s actually thoughtful of you. But I can’t think of — wait, have you read the Bible?”

I froze where I was. Of all the things that I’d thought she might say, that wasn’t one of them. “I read it a bit,” I said.

“Did you actually read it, or did you just set out to read it, get bored a few books in, skim some more, look things up, and then say that you’d read it, which no one was going to be able to call you on?” asked Amaryllis.

“The latter,” I replied. “And if that’s what you want, then that’s what I’ll do. I’m a little bit weirded out by your being Christian.”

“I’m not,” said Amaryllis. “My god isn’t the Christian one. But the Bible has helped me to understand monotheism, and I go back to it from time to time.”

“I can’t promise that I’ll get the same things out of it,” I said.

“It would be nice if you did, but that won’t break my heart,” said Amaryllis. She leaned over and kissed me on my chest, with no pretense that this was for any other reason than because she wanted to.

We still had to do all of the marriage inspector stuff. It was pretense, but it wasn’t that much pretense that it could be completely blown off, and some of what we were writing down — especially the less salacious stuff — would become the basis for a planned PR offensive. There was a lot of hammering down dates, and on top of that, a fair bit of rehearsal and rote memorization. I was worried that I was starting to know the fake history better than the real one.

The meeting with the marriage inspector took quite a bit of time. I was interviewed first, then Amaryllis, and then the two of us together. The questions were just about as invasive as I had thought they would be, but Amaryllis and I had prepared for them. We lied a lot. My only note of actual concern was the entad he had on his desk the whole time, a metronome whose function was unclear and whose speed seemed to raise and lower. To his credit, he was unflappable and professional, right up until the very end, when I stopped my heart, bringing the entad metronome to a standstill. I had mostly done it on a whim, but when I explained that I had just been testing to see whether that was what the entad did, the marriage inspector seemed rattled.

We didn’t actually consummate the marriage. Amaryllis wasn’t pushing for it, probably because she was worried about a misstep, or reminding me too much of Bethel. And I wasn’t pushing it either, because it felt like a line that couldn’t be uncrossed. It gave some element of unsteadiness to our relationship, the whole thing did, but it was a good type of unsteadiness.

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Worth the Candle, Ch 198: Prurient Interest

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