I wasn’t planning to be in the same place as Bethel. I didn’t want to be around her, and there was really no compelling reason for us to be in the same place at the same time. I tried, briefly, to think about how she felt, what emotions were stirred up inside her by briefly renewed contact with the team, but I couldn’t summon up enough empathy to get any kind of insight.
I had put a ton of work into our plans, leveling almost all of my non-combat skills up to their caps, and getting new virtues in the process. There was something that felt honest about what I was doing, even if the game system allowed me to cheat. I was building something, crafting a way forward for the people of the NLEZ, helping to mend the enormous societal trauma that they had faced from the moment they’d been born to undead mothers. Grak had talked about the way wards sometimes felt alienating to him, a product created without a clear connection to its ultimate goal, but I was feeling nothing like that when working on the systems we were going to put in place. I wasn’t even sure why I felt so good about it, but I did. When the team was done (or as done as we could be given that some work would be finished within the time-dilated facility, and other parts would need more information or iteration), we had a thick stack of papers that outlined every way in which the NLEZ would be taken over, stripped of zombies, and then slowly bled of its population, all while making sure that everyone would have the necessary food and water.
There had been additional work needed for the second generation of tuung, since this go-around was going to be somewhere in the range of a hundred thousand of them, a full city that would run for a significant amount of time before they came out into the real world. Stored time in the time chamber was effectively a non-issue, given that time had been accruing while Bethel had held the bottle, the room designated as the time chamber being fucking massive. There needed to be systems in place though, water, air, electricity, and waste, though much of our problems could be completely solved through a combination of entadic effects, and I helped work on a lot of those problems. There were still concerns about housing for the tuung, what the classrooms would look like, how they would be shuttled from one place to the next, what kinds of personnel it would take, the kinds of ratios we would run, and while I had virtually nothing to do with the adaptation of lesson plans and the writing of material for dissemination, I could help with the engineering, logistics, and numbers.
“Can we talk privately?” I asked Liam, the day before Bethel was due to arrive. “Just for a moment.”
“Of course,” he said with a nod.
I liked Liam. He was one of the tuung that I had worked with the most closely, which was partly due to him being fairly important. He was one of the few that had been mentioned frequently in the books that Cypress had written. He was straightforward and to the point, diligent and studious, always with facts and figures on hand. The tuung had been raised that way, but at least so far as I could tell, not all of them hewed so close to the archetype. My interaction with Elizabeth, days earlier, had given me an inkling that there was a fair amount of tuung society that I wasn’t seeing. Most of those I came in contact with were elites, either members of fireteams guarding party members or clones, or the ones who had been selected or promoted to various committees. I was meeting bodyguards and politicians, not janitors and porters, though those certainly had their place in this crafted society.
“What did you want to discuss?” he asked.
“Figure there are a hundred thousand people in the second generation,” I said. “What happens to those that are below average?
“We follow the Lake Wobegon model,” he replied. His lips curled slightly in the tuung version of a smile.
“Uh,” I said. “I’m not familiar.”
His face fell, just a bit. “You never read the Lake Wobegon tales?” he asked. “I was under the impression they were from your Earth.”
“Ah,” I said. “But the gist of it is … ?”
“Everyone is above average,” he said.
“Huh,” I replied. “And how is that managed?” I asked. I was getting a nervous feeling.
“Adequate nutrition and education are the primary components,” he replied. “It is my understanding that in Anglecynn, as well as your Earth, children are often left to starve, and even if nutrition is taken care of, their schooling and attainment is dependent on the wealth of their parents.”
“But with a hundred thousand tuung, you’re bound to have people who are at the bottom of the bell curve,” I said. Liam was obviously somewhere near the top. “What happens to them?”
“They take lesser roles,” replied Liam. “If there are persistent problems, we offer aid and advice, or medical intervention if that’s required. You’ve seen the hospitals that will be a part of this scheme.”
“I’m asking more like, will they be happy?” I asked. “Will they have some control of their own life, or just be consigned to menial work?” I didn’t think there was anything wrong with being a janitor, per se, but I could see where it would weigh on you to be doing that vital function when others in your cohort were going into battle, or solving huge production line problems, or engaging in diplomacy.
“Your frame is wrong,” replied Liam. “That’s not our understanding of our place in the world, on several counts. No work is ‘menial’, work is either necessary or unnecessary, and everyone does as much as they can. If you are within a command structure, you follow orders, and if you are in mutual cooperation, you attempt to maximize your impact. No one has control; that is not the frame. Your decision on what to do is predicated on your understanding of the situation. There is no element of choice, only an understanding of conditions.”
I tried to think about that. It was clear that I was going to have to read, at a minimum, a half dozen books to really ‘get’ the tuung and the culture that Amaryllis had invented, and I had only read two, both introductory ones. Of course, aside from reading a lot of ‘the canon’, I would also have to do some immersion, because culture wasn’t just the books that people took as sacred, it was what they took from those books, and the rites and rituals that they built up around those. You could go into any church in the Midwest and read the Bible and a hymnal book, but that wouldn’t tell you much about Christianity in practice. (I was making progress in my reading of the Bible, but a lot of it was just not all that relevant, including a bunch of outdated rules and lists of lineage that made my eyes glaze over.)
“I want the tuung to have a feeling of power,” I said. “I want them to understand that their life is under their own control.”
“We are not so individual,” replied Liam. “That way of thinking is antithetical to us. We studied both Anglecynn and America, Juniper. We understand the way that you think. It’s just not the way that we think. It’s a cultural aspect that we’ve examined and rejected.”
“Alright,” I said, frowning. “How sure are you of that?”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“How sure are you that the feeling I’m describing isn’t shared by the tuung?” I asked. “You’re an apex citizen, most suited to the work. You don’t think that those in the lower half, tasked with less important work, feel a bit put out, or like they have no direction?”
“Juniper, we don’t have the time for this,” said Liam. “We have the time for a few conversations on the subject, but the second generation needs to be aging up as quickly as possible in order for us to solve the issues with Necrolaborem, and after that, shift our focus to industry.”
“You’re planning to be a part of the mentorship contingent?” I asked.
“If cleared by the committee, yes,” replied Liam.
“Then just keep what I’ve said in mind,” I said. “That’s all. You’re right that we’re under a crunch, but from my understanding, you’ll have time once you’re under dilation.”
“That’s true,” nodded Liam. “We have time for further plans while we wait for the eggs to hatch, and during those early years when not much is required in the way of education or socialization. We value the analysis and incorporation of other beliefs. Your input will be taken seriously.”
“Alright,” I said. “Thanks.” I was a bit worried that I was throwing a monkey wrench into Amaryllis’ plans, but she was the one who had put me on the second generation committee, presumably for a reason. Liam was right that I was talking to and about a culture that I didn’t fundamentally understand, but I was hopeful that what I was saying would stick with him, if only a bit. A whole lot of the tuung were going to be part of the second generation project, and I was hopeful that he would be able to seek out those who had other perspectives.
“Can I ask,” said Liam, as I was about to go, “Was any of what you spoke of influenced by your unique understanding of the future?”
I hesitated. He hadn’t been read in on the Infinite Library, at least to my knowledge, and I didn’t know whether he was talking in code, or whether he only had a bare inkling of what was going on. “It’s true that I have some insights,” I said. “But no, the advice comes from my personal understanding of the world. Though — I can’t tell you what the future brings, because I don’t know that, but I do know a bit about what might have been, and the need for independence was manifest there.” The tuung had broken from Amaryllis in the Cypress timeline, and it hadn’t been quite clear from what Cypress had written in her books what the root cause of the issue was, aside from a general desire for autonomy and self-determination. It had always been planned that we wouldn’t rule the tuung in perpetuity: there was a reason we styled ourselves as an advisory council.
“Thank you,” he said, giving a little bow.
When the time came for Bethel to come to Necrolaborem, I left for Poran, ensuring that I wouldn’t have to see or speak with her, or even have the knowledge that we could perceive each other. Valencia had endorsed this behavior, so I didn’t feel too bad about it, but it was entirely possible that Valencia had endorsed the behavior because she didn’t want me to feel bad about it.
I was getting better at flying, though I was capped on Gold Magic. Most of it was just making my body as aerodynamic as possible, which let me increase my speed. I wanted to fly higher, where the air was thinner and there would be less friction, but I wanted to do my best to not get a dragon called down on me, even if I thought there was a good chance that I would be able to win that kind of fight. It had been a few days, but we’d heard nothing official from the Draconic Confederacy, and our contact within it, Sweet William, had given the opinion that nothing formal would come from the deaths of two of their members. As outcomes went, it was one of the better ones, since it meant that I probably wasn’t going to get in another tussle with a dragon.
I touched down in the domain of the locus and was greeted by the six-eyed doe almost as soon as my feet were on the ground.
“Hey there,” I said, patting her head as she bowed down to poke me in the chest with her nose. “Miss me?”
The doe gave what looked like a nod.
“Well, I missed you too,” I said. “I’ve been having a longing for the old days lately. No offense to Raven or Val, but sometimes it feels like we hit our peak early on, back when we weren’t in charge of any institutions, and no one cared about our existence.” The doe flopped down, and I went to her side, continuing to pet her. “You were a good home. A welcoming place for us to stay and recuperate. Not that you’re not that now, but everyone knows you exist, and Solace is trying to bring in new druids, and it’s all different in a way that’s hard to describe but that I don’t particularly like. I wanted you to be wild and free.”
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 21!
That was a surprise. Usually I needed more, some kind of understanding of the doe, some acknowledgment of that side of me that was locus-like, but this was just simple empathy and mutual feeling.
“How are things with Solace?” I asked.
The doe snorted.
“Yeah,” I said. “I saw how you see her, and — you know that she’s doing everything in her power to get you back to who you were before the Second Empire came in and ruined everything, right?”
There was no response to that, only closed eyes and soft fur beneath my fingertips.
“I can see how it would rankle,” I said. “You go through this trauma, and you adapt to it, change from it, and then when it’s over, not that it’s ever really over, people are trying to hammer you back into shape. They want you to return to who and what you were before, as though that’s what you should want, or do want, even though everything has changed, and you’ve changed.”
I was speaking as though it was a metaphor for something in my own life, though what, I wasn’t sure. There were a lot of obvious parallels to be drawn, like to the way things had been different for me after Arthur’s death, or after Fenn’s, or after being raped by Bethel. The levels and kinds of pressure to return to normal were different, the situations similar only in strokes so broad that they couldn’t actually paint a picture.
“So,” I said. “Let’s say that I’m right. What does your future look like, to you? What is the next step, if we don’t accept that you’re just going to die shortly after Solace?”
The doe had no particular response. It reminded me of talking to my cat, who was much more interested in being petted than listening to what I had to say.
“I don’t know if it’s possible to untie you from this place,” I said. “I mean, I know it’s probably possible if you have the power of a god, but … I was trying to envision some future for you that’s just completely unlike anything a locus has been before. There’s some inherent commonality between loci, at least from what I’ve heard from people, and that might be what you’re chafing under. It’s a hard square to circle.” I sighed. “You know, I was going to say something dumb, like maybe that commonality represents something that’s definitively, categorically true about a locus, but it’s really not. Like, elves show up in a lot of fantasy worlds, including this one, but you couldn’t point to that omnipresence of elves and say that they gave you real and true information about what a fantasy world was, or that they represent any kind of constant. At best, they represent something common to humanity, or how human brains work, but you’d have to do some kind of cross-cultural comparison to make sure that it wasn’t just a strong meme. So maybe all the understanding of what it means to be a locus, the tradition of inducting druids, that kind of thing, is all just optional.”
Loyalty Increased: Six-Eyed Doe lvl 22!
And that was a surprise again. I didn’t know whether the message was an indication that I was fundamentally right, or whether it was just a line of thinking that the locus enjoyed, or if it represented a change in how the locus thought of me, but it had come hot on the heels of the previous loyalty increase, and presumably that meant something.
“Do you want to go somewhere?” I asked. “You can come with me, we know that you can, so I was just wondering whether there was anywhere you wanted to be. Maybe, if it wouldn’t be too painful, the site of your old domain, where you lived before the bottle? It wouldn’t be hard for me to find, I don’t think, and as I am now, I can fly really fast.”
The locus flicked an ear in response.
I used the crown to look through its eyes, and saw us together as a doe and buck, with her laying down, resting, and myself curled up next to her with my neck across her back. There was something affectionate and familiar about it, in a way that made me a bit heartsick. When Tiff and I had been dating, we had sometimes laid together like that, and if I was more awake than she was, I would talk on, getting nothing more than delayed nods or murmurs of assent from her as my mind wandered on and sleep eluded me.
It was possible that the locus was just enjoying being petted, happy with being talked to but not particularly caring what noises I was making with my mouth.
I went silent for a bit, and then just lay there.
I must have dozed off, because I was awoken by Amaryllis, who had sat down next to me. I was in my armor, so I wouldn’t have guessed that it was terribly comfortable, but she was curled up next to me, with her back against the locus, like mine was. She was a clone, naturally, since I’d left the original back in Necrolaborem. She wasn’t sleeping, but she was definitely resting.
“I’m synced,” she said once I began to stir. “I did it right after you left, so there shouldn’t be discontinuity.”
“Good,” I said. “You’re very considerate.”
“Yes, well,” replied Amaryllis. “There will be some burdens to bear in the coming days, I’m just trying to do my part.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m prepared for it. It’s necessary. I am capable of doing the necessary thing, you know.”
“Being capable doesn’t mean that it’s without costs,” said Amaryllis. “Sometimes it hurts to do something that you know is the right thing to do.”
“Hmm,” I replied. “I don’t really want to talk about it, if that’s alright with you. We could talk about the next steps, but I’m frankly pretty sick of the call of the gold, and too much is contingent on how long I can ride it.” I had hit up a few places that Raven had marked, sites of old caches of items, which seemed to appease the call of the gold, at least so far. It would take some time for those items to go to auction and see material gains that could be translated into actual gold, but at least at this stage, the call of the gold showed some patience. Even Aumann, who had been a gold mage for quite some time, hadn’t been compelled to sell off his factories and enterprises for more gold, and we were hopeful that we wouldn’t have to liquidate the money-makers. “Going after Fel Seed with gold magic is attractive for obvious reasons, especially if we can blitz the dimensional tunnel, but Fel Seed cheats, so I think there’s a good chance he would have some kind of counter for passing through his territory at twice the speed of sound.”
“The next step is clearing exclusions,” said Amaryllis. “Unfortunately, there’s not that much of a point in doing most of them, except in terms of extrinsic rewards. You could likely kill Rove, but no one lives in that exclusion zone anymore, and the best we could say was that you would be bringing him to justice. There’s no bounty on his head, no reward to be gained from his death, not unless you count whatever the game is using in place of experience points, if anything. People would be able to reclaim the land, but that’s not worth much.”
“It might be, to them,” I replied.
“The villages there are gone,” said Amaryllis. “The land is all that remains. There’s no heritage to restore, and it’s been long enough that I doubt most of the people who escaped would care to go back.”
“Okay,” I said. “But Rove isn’t the only one of the Thirteen Horrors that I could potentially take on. Before he went wherever he was going, Uther cleared as much off his plate as he could, wrapping things up as best he knew how. Seems like that might be something I would want to mimic.”
“I’m not actually sure that it would matter,” said Amaryllis. She had a kind of far-off look in her eyes. “I’ve been reading a lot.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked. “About?”
“It’s entirely possible that Perisev was right,” said Amaryllis. “I was convinced by narrative arguments, focused on cycles and degenerate cycles, and — what she said, about what kind of story she thought you were in, was something that had occurred to me, obviously it did, but I’ve been coming to accept that it’s very possible that we’re in the kind of story that exists only to comment on and subvert other stories.”
“Uh,” I said. “First off, I don’t agree, I think we’re in a tabletop game, which tries to be a story, but sometimes fails because the players don’t do what the DM expected, and the rules aren’t always clear or well-written, or not conducive to story beats, or something like that. But second, would it really be cause for despair if this were a postmodern story?”
“How does a postmodern story end?” asked Amaryllis.
“Dunno,” I replied. “I haven’t read enough of them, I guess.”
“The story circle begins in a place of comfort, there’s an inciting incident, the hero picks up a mentor and/or some companions, goes through a number of trials, journeys through the underworld, then comes back out, wins the day, and returns home, having changed,” said Amaryllis. “I know that you know this, give me just a bit of patience.”
“Sorry, my darling wife, go ahead,” I said. I was enjoying being with her, as I often did, and could have listened to her talk about nearly anything, even politics.
“In a postmodern story, you’re allowed and expected to break things,” said Amaryllis. “You see and critique the story circle. If you think about it in the right way, it might even have applied to Uther, the way in which he stalled out on endlessly repeating narratives over the course of what would have had to be a whole bookshelf of novels. But do you see the problem with that, from my perspective?”
“I might not win the day,” I replied. “I could die and lose. I’ve been saying and believing that for pretty much my entire time on Aerb.”
“You’re thinking of it differently than I am,” said Amaryllis. “You’re thinking of failure as a thing that might happen to you, if you don’t do well enough, or worse, if you have a series of bad rolls. I’m thinking of failure as though it might be the whole point.”
“In which case there would be nothing that we could do,” I said. “So why worry about it? As a train of thought, it seems even more useless than narrative thinking.”
“I can understand that point of view,” Amaryllis replied. “And we’re obviously not going to be putting in place any plans that depend on your death in one way or another.”
“Good,” I said. “I mean, I wouldn’t mind dying, if it were for a good reason.”
“I know,” replied Amaryllis. “And I appreciate that about you.”
“Look, don’t worry,” I said. “Whatever is happening up two or three levels above the actual object level, just forget about it. Easier said than done, I know, but if you can’t predict what kind of meta structure exists, or whether multiple ones exist, or what has precedence, then the best you can do is to focus on what’s right in front of you.”
Amaryllis let out a breath. “Thank you,” she said.
“For what?” I asked.
“I think this might be the first time you’ve ever talked me around to being reasonable,” she said.
I smiled at her. “Well that’s a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one. Also, completely not true. This is the third or fourth time, by my count.”
“Are you counting the time you let me beat you up?” asked Amaryllis.
“I’m not not counting it,” I replied. “Come on, just give me a little bit of credit? I could use it.”
“Of course,” replied Amaryllis. She turned to the side and kissed me. “Sorry, I was just poking fun.”
“Well, whatever gets you in a better mood,” I said.
“And you?” she asked. “So far as I know, you’re not on the clock right now. Anything I can do for you?” She had an eyebrow slightly raised, and there was something in the way she was looking at me that seemed particularly lewd. I was getting better at not overthinking things with her, of accepting our relationship for what it was, but I still paused for a moment as I let the usual thoughts flow through me.
I was changing my mind, slowly. We still hadn’t had sex (not sex sex), primarily because she hadn’t pushed it and I hadn’t brought it up. Every time things got sexual though, it was less surprising than the time before, less worry on my part about whether it was okay. Still great, but more routine. Maybe her intent was to wear me down, or maybe that was just what was naturally happening, but it was feeling less like a problem to be solved, and more like a comfortable part of our relationship.
“Can we find some place more private?” I asked, looking back at the locus, which I was still resting against.
“Of course,” replied Amaryllis. She glanced at the doe. “You know the locus doesn’t care, right?”
“I know,” I said. “The locus has probably seen more sex than any other entity on the planet.”
“Not a planet,” said Amaryllis.
“On the plane,” I corrected.
“And I don’t care either,” said Amaryllis. “Do you?”
“Er,” I said. “You know, I’ve lately been trying out different frames on things, trying to shed all the dumb and bad parts of my generically Midwestern upbringing. So, yeah, there’s a part of me that’s a little bit uncomfortable about just doing it outside, but that part is dumb and bad, so why listen to it? I should just do the thing and hope that the old ways of thinking erode away when there’s continued evidence that no, it’s not the end of the world.”
“I think it’s all the flying,” said Amaryllis. “It’s made you more contemplative.”
“Sure,” I replied.
“Did you want a blowjob or not?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
I hadn’t seen Solace in the last few days, not since before all the crap with the dragons. I had known that she’d been injured in the fight with Perisev, but had rushed off to the dragon corpses before I’d had a chance to see her, and after that, had spent barely any time in Poran. I’d had things to think about, and hadn’t inquired into the details of the injury, because I’d been told that Solace would be alright.
It was quite a surprise to see that she was walking with a cane, her skin still scarred from dragonfire. She was wearing a cloak, but the damage was clear on the left side of her face, which had a melted look, reminiscent of photos of acid attacks I’d seen online and only half-remembered. Her left leg was incredibly skinny, the muscle having been melted away, leaving only skin wrapped around bone. It must have been functional though, because she was using a cane, not a crutch.
“Juniper,” she said, voice weak. “You grace the domain with your presence? To what do I owe the honor?”
I stared at her for a moment. “There’s some stuff happening in the NLEZ that I don’t want to be a part of,” I replied. “How have you been?” She gave no immediate answer. “I’m sorry, I didn’t think — when I was told that you would be fine, I’d thought that meant you would make a full recovery.”
“You’re wondering how it is that I haven’t healed myself,” said Solace. There was something of an old woman to the way she moved around the tree house, but her body was that of a teenager, at least so far as I could tell with a crantek. There was something profoundly sad about the combination of youth and injury.
“I was,” I said. “Either it’s something about dragonfire that you can’t fix, or … a statement, of some kind?”
“A statement,” nodded Solace. “But not a statement of my own.”
“The locus,” I said, frowning a bit. “Dare I ask why?”
Solace looked away for a moment, and I shot a look at Amaryllis, who was standing there without much expression on her face. I was tempted to shoot her a few sharp words in Gimb, but I could already guess why she hadn’t told me, and further, why she hadn’t warned me. For the first, she wouldn’t have wanted to bother me with something I clearly didn’t want to deal with, and for the second, it was a bit of rebuke.
“Just as a cleric is not a perfect representative of their god, so too with druids,” sighed Solace. “I am being punished with this maiming. That’s clear enough, given that my powers are otherwise intact.”
“Hrm,” I said. “But they’re not your powers, are they?”
Solace stared at me for a moment, one eye drooping a bit. “What insights do you have?” she asked.
“None,” I replied. “Just some thinking that I was doing while next to the locus about her essential nature, and how even the rules we think might exist for her are inventions of the people who interact with her. I was thinking that the paradigm you want to return to, that of an expansive domain filled with druids, might not actually be what the locus wants, not anymore.”
“And where does this insight come from?” asked Solace.
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling defensive. “I was just … thinking things. Thinking about trauma and moving on from it, and how that can be hard. How you have trouble getting back to the same exact shape you were in before, how that’s not really necessary, even if it might feel that way. That’s all.”
“And then what?” asked Solace. “I’m the last druid. When I die, there will be no more. The locus has only this limited domain, with only the raw natural processes that work on it. At the end of the current path lies death, for me, and for the locus.”
“Maybe,” I replied. “Maybe it’s just going to become something unique, and different, and new. You have to admit that it would be on brand.”
“It would,” said Solace. She leaned against her cane. “I can’t even say that you’re wrong, that’s the frustrating part.”
“And it would be hard to act on,” said Amaryllis, finally injecting her own opinion into the conversation. “The best we could do would be to let the locus do as it pleases while leaving options open to it, which is exactly what we’re doing now.”
“Respectfully, no,” I said, looking at Solace. “You act as the guardian of the locus. When the two of you were on the ship, you were trying to push the locus to come back here, and my guess is that you were also trying to make sure that the locus wouldn’t go in the first place. And honestly, you’re in charge of the domain, you’re putting yourself in place to decide who does and doesn’t get in, what happens on the land, that kind of thing.”
“And I should stop?” asked Solace. There was a bit of an edge to her voice.
“The domain would be overrun,” said Amaryllis. “There has to be someone who stops tourists from stepping foot in the domain, and businessmen who want to make money, and parents who want cures for the deadly illnesses that are resistant to all other healing and will claim their children before adulthood. It absolutely is not feasible for the domain to be open to all. Besides, most of the enforcement is being handled through the Republic of Miunun, and secondarily, through the Conservation Bureau.”
“So you’re saying that I don’t have a point?” I asked. “Or do you think that I’m correctly understanding the nature of the locus, but that the locus is incompatible with a wider world that’s as interconnected as Aerb is?”
“You might be right,” said Solace. “It’s possible. It is.” She looked off to the side, frowning. “I’ll need to think about it.”
I glanced at Amaryllis, who had her arms folded in front of her.
“Let me know if there’s anything that I can help with,” I said. “Amaryllis and I will be around.”
“Of course,” replied Solace, not really focused on me anymore.
We left the tree house and got far enough away to talk, though of course I could have muted us, or we could have switched over to Gimb.
“I’m not sure that was the best way to approach that,” said Amaryllis. “Solace hasn’t been well, as you could obviously see.”
“I know,” I replied. “I’m not blind. The subtext, or subtexts, of that injury was also not lost on me.”
“And yet you proceeded,” replied Amaryllis.
“It’s not clear to me that the locus can explain what it wants,” I said. “And it’s actually not clear that it knows what it wants, if I’m allowed to project my own problems and insecurities onto it.”
“I really wish that you wouldn’t,” she said. “Especially not when Solace is in a vulnerable place.”
“I told you how the locus sees her,” I sighed. “I don’t know if that’s information that Solace needs, but it seems to me that their relationship isn’t quite what it should be, right? And if you wanted to be delicate about it, then,” I shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. There was time for you to bring it up with her. Correct me if I’m wrong, but you have multiple instances here that are devoted purely to Solace and the locus, right?”
“We do,” said Amaryllis. “I didn’t think you’d go in so hard, otherwise I would have done work on those particular aspects. But it should also be clear that there are certain things that I see as my job, and other things that simply aren’t.”
“Oh,” I said, as realization dawned on me. “Holy shit, you’re avoiding doing plot relevant things with the clones.”
“That’s not quite it,” replied Amaryllis. “Things have been rocky between Solace and myself, and yes, this seemed like one of those situations where it was better to have you deal with talking to her on your own. The bigger problem was that you felt like you had some grand revelation and didn’t elect to share that with me before speaking to Solace. I could have helped.”
“Well,” I said. “I don’t actually know whether I’ve had a grand revelation or not, I might just be talking out my ass, or confusing things that feel right for things that are actually true. So no, I probably shouldn’t have said any of that to Solace unless I had something more firm, but … you know, it seems like how the locus exists, and waiting, gathering more evidence, being really optimal about things, that’s just … I don’t know. Sorry, I have this specific mindset that I try to get in when I’m in this place, a way of being that I’m hopeful is in sync with the locus. Sometimes it feels like it’s working, sometimes it’s just me basically talking to myself about injecting some artistry into worldbuilding, but — sorry.”
“It’s fine, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “If you owe anyone an apology, which I don’t think you do, then it would be to Solace. And if you’re right, then it’s just a matter of how the message was delivered, not the content.”
“Okay,” I said. “Sorry again, for bungling it.”
“I don’t think it was bungled. Sorry, I’m trying to see things from your perspective,” said Amaryllis. “You were taking the locus’ side of things, at least as you saw it. That’s good. I know that as companions go, the locus hasn’t always been easy, especially given how separated the locus is from the rest of us, and how hard the locus is to understand. I’ll content myself with believing that you’re starting to get what the locus means to us.” Us, in this context, meaning the people of Aerb, of which I was clearly not a member.
“I’m not,” I said. “Really, really not. The modern world putting so much importance on the loci, on the druids, still makes very little sense to me, or only about as much sense as any bit of cultural ephemera. It’s probably one of those things that I could read about in a book, or ask Raven about, I guess.”
“I looked up the answer,” said Amaryllis. “If you’re curious.”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, to the extent there is an answer.” I was a bit surprised that she’d put it like that.
“It’s a disappointing answer,” Amaryllis replied. “The answer is propaganda. This was shortly after the fall of the Second Empire, when the remnants of their faction were being pulled out by the counter-imperial forces all over Aerb like so many rotten teeth. The counter-imperialists didn’t have much in the way of cultural power, especially since a lot of them wanted to reclaim their kingdoms, though reclaim is a strong word given that the Second Empire stuck around long enough that whole generations had passed. They were grasping at straws, looking for symbols, tools that they could use to make sure that the cultural war would be won, and stay won. Soul magic was a representation of everything that was vile about the Second Empire, though I don’t think that actually gets to the heart of it. Soul magic probably only serves as an obvious symbol that anyone looking to resurrect the Second Empire would avoid. But the counter-imperialists needed a face of goodness as well, some symbol of righteousness to go with their symbol of evil. There were lots to choose from, heroes and victims, but the loci were good because they were neutral entities, not affiliated with any polity or faction. Some of this was utilitarian effort at swaying public opinion, some of it was just people who genuinely believed that the Second Empire had been evil, attempting to put that evil in their own terms. The counter-imperialists put out books, created artworks, made plays, all kinds of things.”
“And now everyone treats the locus like it’s a victim,” I said.
“The locus is a victim,” said Amaryllis.
“But it’s not only a victim,” I replied. “It’s not how it would define itself, if it were given to definitions. That’s just … part of what I’m talking about. I’ve been dealing with this gold magic stuff, basically being made to run errands. The entity wants me to watch out for you because it thinks that you’re going to steal from me, and when people see me, they see a gold mage, which is ridiculous, because I’m willing to drop it basically at a moment’s notice.” I sighed. “Maybe I have been spending too much time in the air, thinking to myself, because it feels like there are all these threads that I can only make sense of by weaving them together.”
“Such as?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “The tuung, for example. They have their own culture, which you designed, and their own place in the world, which is largely defined for them, —”
“That’s not quite right,” said Amaryllis. “Their place in the world is defined by the needs that they can fulfill, following a principle of greatest utility, and with a strong caution against working themselves to the bone or thinking in the short term.”
“Distinction noted,” I said. “But in terms of how they think of themselves, their role in the world? Compare that to those people at Perisev’s place, the actors, librarians, and staff. Or compare to the people in Blue’s hellhole, who have been subjected to their own engineered culture. Or Grak, who is pretty clearly suffering under the burden of being our warder in a way that I don’t think he would if he were just doing contract warding work in a big city somewhere.”
“Grak would likely be depressed either way, because Grak is a depressive,” said Amaryllis.
“Seems harsh,” I said.
“It’s fundamental to understanding him, I think,” replied Amaryllis. “Grak tends toward depression, so the state you’ll commonly find him in is basically that.”
“And what, it’s just impossible for him to be happy?” I asked.
“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all,” replied Amaryllis. “Sorry, I know you’re fond of him, I should have chosen my words more carefully.” She took a breath, thinking for a moment. “Being happy, for Grak, is a matter of attempting not to regress to the mean. It requires constant attention from himself and help from the people around him. Beyond that, physical exercise and a proper diet. And yes, it would also help to not have enormous amounts of pressure and stress placed on him, like, for example, being at least partially responsible for millions of lives in a situation that on the surface resembles the one that damned his childhood friends and family to the hells. It would also probably help to not have one of his closest friends using gold magic, which is historically reviled by his people.”
“I guess,” I said. “But Grak’s issues aside, you understand what I’m pointing at? The different ways that people make a compromise between what they want to do and what they’re compelled to do? And I’m just trying to make sense of it, especially in the context of myself, and Uther.”
“The compulsion to narrative?” asked Amaryllis.
“For him, sure,” I said. “But obviously while he had his narrative obsession, that wasn’t all there was to him. He devoted himself to making the world a better place, in a lot of ways. I wonder how much of that he had a thirst for, and how much was just done because it had to be done, or because he thought it had to be done.” I was silent for a moment, staring off into the distance. It was making me sad, and I could feel my eyes wet with the start of tears. I really had been spending too much time in the air. “I just want to talk to him.”
“I know,” said Amaryllis. She came close to me and touched my arm a bit before leaning against me. “We need to be cautious about running headlong towards where we think he is.”
“You don’t think we’ll find the Long Stairs in Fel Seed’s exclusion zone?” I asked. “You don’t think that we’ll find Uther somewhere down there?”
“I don’t know, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “You know where my head is at. I don’t think it will be straightforward. I think there’s a twist coming, and I don’t know what it will be, but my gut feeling is that I won’t like it.”
“Hrm,” I said. “Thank you for everything, by the way. I feel like I don’t say that enough.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Amaryllis, still leaning against me. “We’ll make it through all of this, together. I hope.” The hedge felt unnecessary, but I knew Amaryllis well enough to know that she had a hard time giving out platitudes.
“I love you,” I said.
Amaryllis was silent for a moment. “You know, I was hoping that we could save it for some appropriately dramatic moment. Something with some narrative weight? Rather than just a quiet moment between the two of us when we’re not doing much of anything.”
“Alright,” I said. “I take it back.”
“You can’t just take it back,” said Amaryllis. “It’s been said, it’s out there.”
“No,” I replied. “It was all part of the ruse, the fake marriage. Obviously I don’t actually love you, that would be absurd, taking the game too far. I just said it because someone might somehow be listening in, despite the precautions and the fact that we’re on hallowed ground.”
“I love you too,” said Amaryllis.
“Oh,” I said. I felt a warmth rush through me on hearing that. “You know, it’s pretty dumb that I had even the slightest shred of doubt.”
“Well, no need to be full of yourself about it,” said Amaryllis. She kissed my arm, which she was holding (technically, my armor). “Are you curious when I undid the modifications?”
“A bit,” I said. “Right away, after you got the message from the Library?”
“Yeah,” she replied. “That obvious?”
“Hells no,” I said. “But there was a bit of subtext to the books that you wrote, times when it felt like you were talking directly to me, and not just in a literal way. Turns of phrase, I guess. It never really felt like you were different though, not really. I mean, different, kind of, in the sense that you were maybe a little bit more ready to touch me, or cuddle up on a couch together.”
“Can we talk about Fenn?” asked Amaryllis.
“Yeah?” I asked, stiffening slightly. “In the sense of … ?”
“I’m worried she’s going to come back,” said Amaryllis. “That’s the next obvious step, once things are stable between us. Or if we win, and you’re god at the end of this, then I guess you would bring her back, wouldn’t you?”
“You don’t consider her to actually be dead,” I said.
“I’d be a fool to,” replied Amaryllis. “Not that I’m calling you a fool.”
“This is a world where death is pretty much permanent,” I said. “I’ve made a lot of worlds, and people coming back from death … there are ways to make it work, but having death be cheap really alters things, and you can put in a bunch of exceptions where death is costly, or where death is sometimes for real, but Aerb pretty clearly went with a model where you can either die forever or live forever while being tortured in the hells. So no, I don’t think that Fenn is coming back.”
“Hypothetically, if she does, what are we going to do about it?” asked Amaryllis. “Assuming that it happens before godhood.”
“I don’t know, give her a hug, tell her we’re happy she’s returned?” I asked.
“And then say that we’re married?” asked Amaryllis.
“I get what you’re saying,” I replied. “I just … gaming out how to break an uncomfortable truth to someone is not really what I want to be doing right now. I don’t know if she’ll be pissed off, or if she is, whether it will be the kind of pissed off the fades quickly, or the kind that seems to last forever, and yeah, she might see it as a betrayal, but, I don’t know. I don’t know, okay?”
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “It’s probably an irrational fear of mine.”
“A fear?” I asked.
“Of her coming back,” said Amaryllis. “Of interpersonal drama that I’m perfectly well equipped to handle but somehow won’t. I pride myself in being level-headed, but sometimes that just pisses people off, and Fenn meant a lot to me. I think about her being angry at me, and how I would deal with that, but trying to map it out on my own is fruitless because I have to consider you as well, and how you would interact with her. It’s so much easier to navigate people when you only have to navigate one of them at a time, or when their interests are material instead of emotional. I dealt with people a lot when I was a princess. I do it more now that I’m effectively running multiple different polities. It’s so much easier to do when it’s not about the internal mental states.”
“You never really talk about it,” I said. “Just here and there, I guess. I don’t have a firm grasp on the meetings or anything like that.”
“It’s boring,” said Amaryllis. “Even I think it’s boring sometimes. There are hundreds of people that I need to keep track of and talk with, each with their own beliefs, values, and personalities, some who need management, others who I need to make deals with — a lot of it is just keeping people aligned, or negotiating deals. I won’t say that it’s easy, because it’s not, but people have their levers. If I’m doing things right, there should be no thrill or excitement, because everything goes according to my meticulous plans. Every once in a while, someone will know something they weren’t supposed to know, or they’ll reveal something that I didn’t know, but that’s rare.”
“Huh,” I said. “Even the tuung?”
“Especially the tuung,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think I ever told you this, but I have dossiers on all of them, looked over by Valencia, compiled by their teachers, and read through in their exhausting entirety by me during a three week stint in the time chamber when I did practically nothing else. They have their own needs, which need to be managed, but they have a culture that works well for that, one that I’m very proud of.”
Ask her about exclusion bounties.
I frowned. “Sorry for the interruption, but the call of the gold wants to know what you know about the exclusion bounties.”
“Ah,” said Amaryllis, backing away from me slightly. “I’ve been in negotiations with both Special Threats and Apportions about it. These things take time though. There are good reasons that there are no standing kill orders on any of the exclusions. If you dangle money in front of people, they’re liable to muck it up.”
Push her on that. Ask whether she has a rough estimate of income.
“These negotiations,” I said. “You’ve come up with some dollar amount though?”
“Obol amount, yes,” said Amaryllis. She was watching me, and a lot of the earlier warmth had evaporated. “The problem is that the financial value of ending some of these exclusions is, as in the case of Necrolaborem, actually negative. Exclusion zones have a way of making the land worthless. Very few of them have infrastructure, and in a few cases, they’ve already been cleared out. Most of the value to the empire is in the form of public relations, rather than any concrete monetary incentive. The incentives are a bit higher for polities that neighbor an exclusion, but negotiating with those would require additional legwork on my part. Legwork that I’m happy to do, but if we’re trying to extract money from exclusion slaying, it will, again, take time.”
“I think it’s looking for a precise obol figure,” I said. “What’s the value of the ones that I could, in theory, kill with only a few moments’ notice? That means Rove, the fleshsmiths, the Guardian, possibly whatever’s happening on the pink spot on Celestar, and maybe Pai Shep.” Everyone else ran the risk of me getting stuck, them no-selling me, or me outright losing.
“The best offer for Rove was a hundred thousand obols,” said Amaryllis. “That’s a pittance, I’m sure you’ll agree, but his exclusion is effectively a wasteland, and at least some of the stipulation of that offer is that we would come in and have first pick of whatever valuables he’d left in his wake. The empire has no interest in getting into the salvage business, apparently.”
“And the others?” I asked, not wanting to get another prompt from the call of the gold.
“Low sums, if at all,” replied Amaryllis. “Pai Shep is straight out, they don’t actually want him gone. Most of the people he killed have been dead for so long that no one really cares about them anymore, and he sends out produce, seemingly of his own volition, to the edge of the exclusion.”
“Shit, people don’t actually eat that stuff, do they?” I asked.
“Of course they do, Juniper, they’re people,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s free food at festival time. The empire allows it because they’re dependent on the kingdoms in question to lease land for monitoring, and the kingdoms allow it because it helps people believe that the exclusion zone isn’t a problem.”
“Which it’s arguably not,” I said. “The only reason that it qualifies as a major exclusion is that he kills anyone who crosses the border, and there are all kinds of nations that already do that.”
“I know you’re being hyperbolic, but it’s important to me that I clarify that’s not the policy of any polity, imperial or otherwise,” said Amaryllis.
Tell her to give you direct numbers that she knows.
“Alright, I don’t personally think you’re deflecting, but the gold entity would like some numbers, right now,” I said.
“Twelve million obols for the fleshsmiths, if they’re killed to the last, or otherwise deprived of their magic, five million for the Guardian, but I’m not actually sure you can beat him,” said Amaryllis. “Twenty million for destroying whatever destroyed Celestar, but you would have to bring back proof, and payment wouldn’t be through the Empire, it would be through the elves. I’m not confident that we would be able to actually get payment. Is that enough?”
“No complaints so far,” I said. “I think that was just fact finding on the entity’s part. You don’t think that I could take the Guardian?”
“I’m doubtful,” said Amaryllis.
“But he’s mostly an unknown, right?” I asked.
“That’s why I’m doubtful,” said Amaryllis. “It should go without saying, but it’s nothing against you.”
“Of course,” I replied. I waited for a moment. “I was really thinking that I would get a mission to go kill all the fleshsmiths.”
“You already have a quest,” said Amaryllis. “And if the entity knows everything that you know, then it knows that it probably won’t be as easy as nuking their city center. In fact, if it knows what you know and is particularly clever, then it knows that its best bet is to ensure that you keep doing more or less what you’re doing so that you can become a god and satisfy its needs in perpetuity. That probably personifies it too much though.”
“If it were capable of that kind of long-term planning and plan execution, I doubt that gold mages would look like they do,” I said. “They get pushed and pushed and pushed, until finally they either die trying to meet some objective, or give up entirely. That’s the same fate I’m going to reach, but I’m much more on the side of giving up entirely.”
“So you say,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s a whole lot of money to give up, just so you know.”
“It’s a quest-in-waiting,” I replied. “So the store is on Celestar, so what? Like we couldn’t figure out a way there given a cram session?”
“Still,” replied Amaryllis.
“I do think that we should be pushing harder, while I have the power,” I said. “This is literally a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I feel like I’ve mostly been on standby, or running petty errands, or telling you to liquidate assets and transform them into gold. I mean … why shouldn’t I clear out the fleshsmiths of Pendleham? If nothing else, they have a lot of conceptual overlap for Fel Seed, so it would be a good trial run.”
“They’re still people,” said Amaryllis. “You’d be fine dropping down in there and blowing everything to pieces? Even with the thought that they might, in some way, represent a part of you?”
“Captain Blue-in-the-Bottle has thoroughly disabused me of the notion that everyone is worth saving. He’s worth saving for the greater good, but that’s it. That guy isn’t literally the worst, but he’s close.”
“So you would start killing, sight unseen, with no preamble?” asked Amaryllis.
I frowned. “Okay, you’re right.”
Kill them all, claim the reward.
“Fuck damn it,” I said. “I’m being told to. You’ll need to get cracking on completing those negotiations.”
“Are you actually going to do it?” asked Amaryllis.
“Looks like it, yeah,” I replied. “Might take Grak with me though, since I figure that’s the only way that I’ll actually get a chance to speak with anyone there, and if gold magic fails me, then that’s the only way that I’m getting out.”
“And your rest and relaxation is done here?” asked Amaryllis.
“Seems like it,” I said. “Get word to Grak, I’ll be in the air once I’ve had a chance to look at a map. We can use the Fourfold Flask to communicate and figure out a spot to pick him up at.”
“Sure,” replied Amaryllis.