“He made a deal with fucking Doris Finch,” said Amaryllis, as soon as I was out of the bottle.
I stared at her; her hair was different, cut short, almost to the scalp, and no longer the red it had been, but brown instead. She was in her full armor, minus the helmet, and it gave her a look that was boyish (but like an extremely attractive boy, enough that it started to awaken confusing feelings in me).
“The shirt says ‘Incognito’,” said Fenn. “But you can’t see it, because someone is a spoilsport.”
“I’m staying armored until he’s dead,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t seem to be in the mood for humor. “We all are,” she nodded to Fenn.
Fenn was wearing her own leather armor, I noticed, and she held out her hand to me. I caught the things she threw to me one by one, first a plain white shirt, then the tights I wore to keep my armor from chafing, then the armor itself. I put those on as quickly as I could.
“The city guard is after us,” said Amaryllis as I dressed. “Not surprising, given the general mayhem. I don’t know what the long-term consequences might be, but ‘not good’ would be a fair place to start. Larkspur might have sold them a story, or got away before it could be linked to him, or maybe he just decided to cut his losses and run, but I know which scenario is worse for us, and that’s the one we have to assume.”
“And we can’t just leave?” I asked. “Teleport out?”
“Yes, we can,” said Amaryllis. She fidgeted slightly. “I’m not worried about the city guard that much, not when we have ready access to disguises and they have poor intel on us, even if Larkspur is the one informing them. We can use the bottle as a way to change up our numbers at will, which means that they’re looking for four or five people when we can stuff everyone into extradimensional space to hide our numbers. I’m not even worried about Larkspur, given that we know what he’s doing and can keep evading Doris. Nothing has changed, except the depths to which he’s sunk.”
“Sorry, who is Doris?” I asked.
“An enpersoned exclusion zone, apparently,” said Fenn. “One of those we’re going to murder.”
Quest Accepted: Murder in Duplicate – As soon as it was discovered by a precocious young girl, the ability for a person to duplicate themselves was excluded to a thousand square miles and that single person. Doris Finch lives her life in duplicate; to complete the exclusion, it will be necessary to kill every single one of her. (0/9,513,912)
“Okay, got a quest for that,” I said with a wince. I wondered whether that would count toward the Hitler achievement for killing six million people. “And I would assume that dealing with her is about as ill-advised as dealing with any of the other horrors?” (I didn’t say, ‘But isn’t she just a normal person, aside from the fact that there are nine and a half million of her?’ because I wasn’t an unimaginative idiot.)
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “Not just because she constantly stabs people in the back, not just because the Republic of Doris Finch is congenitally unstable, but because it’s one of those things that the functional core of the Empire of Common Cause has the means and motive to deal with. The bans against working with her aren’t one of those idiotic things that atrophy the rule of law because member nations put them down on paper and then never look twice at them. If we could prove that he’d entered into an agreement with any of the Dorises, that would be enough to get him executed and have sanctions levied against Anglecynn to boot.”
“But we’re going to kill him instead,” said Fenn with a vicious grin. “His meatshield is gone, that means he’s approximately one arrow away from death, and you had better believe that I’m on board with any plan that involves us gunning for him. I almost got hit by one of my own arrows. No one hits me with my own arrows.”
“And he’s tracking us with some kind of … probabilistic thing?” I asked.
“Doris is,” nodded Amaryllis. “I would guess that they have remote communication through an entad to enable it. And if that’s what’s happening, then he’s leaking highly classified information back to her, which again, any sensible government would lock him away for, if not kill him outright. We should be safe, so long as there’s not a high probability that we’re in any one specific location.”
I wanted to chide Amaryllis for not having told us about this before, but despite the fact that she didn’t like the name ‘encyclopedia girl’ I knew that there was an extreme amount of information locked away in her head, and I had decided that I was going to give her the benefit of the doubt when it came to things that she hadn’t thought were relevant. She had already given me the crash course on Aerb, and so far as I could see, exclusion zones weren’t likely to be relevant unless we were actually going near one (though perhaps this was evidence that I should have pressed for yet more infodumps, or prioritized reading through The Exclusionary Principle above my other reading and training).
“Okay,” I said. “So Larkspur has some way to see where we might be, or get a weighted map, or something like that? And the plan is that we use that to lure him somewhere and kill him?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis.
I looked around at the faces, trying to see if there was anyone else who disagreed. Solace looked calm and impassive, as though the idea of cold-blooded murder didn’t faze her, which it probably didn’t, and Grak looked as impenetrably stone-faced as ever. They’d had time to talk about this without me. The vote had already happened in my absence, and even if it wasn’t unanimous, it had already been decided.
“He said that the new council session starts in eight days,” I said, “Or maybe seven now. It’s true that he might get us put on a list or whatever, but he might have already done that. He’s an ass, and he’s trying to kill us, but he’s at the end of his rope. What does killing him actually get us? A lower chance that we end up on the wrong lists? A nebulous possibility that it will be easier for Amaryllis to return to power? At most, seven days where we don’t have to be on the run from him? Revenge?”
“You have a quest for it,” said Fenn. “He’s a threat to us, and after that fight in the street, we’ve lost most of our incentive to be subtle. Besides that, you didn’t level, because I would have noticed, which means you’re close to it. Larkspur is going to push you over the edge. Besides, he’s a total dick.”
I glanced at Solace.
“I’ve been told about your power,” said Solace, giving me a small bow. “I requested few details, in case I need to interact with it in some emergency.”
“Right,” I said with a frown. So everyone was on the other side, and wanted to kill Larkspur at least partially because it would help me level. Was I correcting too far in the direction of not wanting to be controlled by the desire to level up again? “Okay, then what’s the plan?”
“There are two things making our probability spread very wide right now in terms of location, and per the last intelligence reports I got, location was all that the Dorises could give for an entity,” said Amaryllis. She watched me. “This is one of those state secrets that I’m putting myself at risk by telling you, and you have to trust me that I would have done it before if I thought it was at all in play.”
I could feel the tension in the room rise a notch at that. The last thing I wanted was for the personal conflict between Amaryllis and I to spill out into the group. “I understand that,” I said. “It would have been better to know earlier rather than later, but I would have had to trust in your judgement in any case, and apparently he’s made a deal with the devil you thought he wouldn’t make.”
(How was she so attractive in brown, boyish hair? The only woman with hair like that I’d ever found attractive was Emma Watson, and while Emma Watson cutting her hair was an important moment in my young life, short hair wasn’t something that I’d ever thought I was attracted to. Was it just a blade-of-grass thing, where my brain had registered her as pretty enough times that it was starting to grow numb to the fact, and now I was faced with awe as the neural pathways tried to figure this new haircut out? Was my brain bringing her existing attractiveness to my attention over and over again because of the change?)
Amaryllis relaxed somewhat, losing some of the tension in her shoulders, and nodded. “The first factor is that we’ve randomized our movement through the city, which means that our probable location as seen by the Doris clones should cover a huge number of possibilities. The second factor is that we have a teleportation key we can use at any moment. That means that if something were to happen to us, we could simply leave, which is good for its own sake, but also spreads out our probable location even further.”
“What are the limits?” I asked.
“We don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t know how many entities can be tracked using this method, what’s needed to track them, or where these probabilities are actually derived from at a root level.” She sighed. “I really, really hate working on problems with such limited information. We don’t even know if Larkspur found you at the library using the strategic luck reserve or through this method, so we might not even have two examples to draw from.”
“We know that it’s imperfect,” I said. I rubbed at my left hand. “At a guess, highly imperfect. Larkspur went into a shop that we had been about to enter, and it must have been because Doris told him there was a good chance that we were in there already. Now obviously, we weren’t there. Doris wasn’t able to tell that we were trailing him, either. And given that he talked about triangulation, my guess is that they don’t actually have a map, they’re reading signals instead. If the probabilities displayed are affected by the probability reading, which I think they probably are, then it’s even worse.”
“All we need is to stay in one spot,” said Grak. “He will find us, and we will kill him.”
“Well, no,” I said. “He might not be able to see into the future, but he might still be able to see into alternate presents, ish, and if Doris can track him, then that means he can gather information about things that he never actually did.” I saw Amaryllis raise an eyebrow. “Stop me if someone has already brought this up.” Amaryllis shook her head. “Okay, so right now we’re moving around the city, picking our next location by way of dice or something, right?”
“A deck of cards,” said Amaryllis, “Keyed to a map of city blocks where we might reasonably hide, which, given the ability to transform into birds and land on rooftops, is most of them.”
“Okay,” I said. “So if we stopped moving entirely, and just stayed in this hotel room –”
“It’s a bedroom,” said Grak. “We looked at rooms for rent in the papers and snuck in. There are wards against sound, before you ask.”
“Huh,” I said, looking around. I guess we were fugitives from the law, after all. “Well if we just stayed here, and committed to staying here, then Larkspur would eventually find us, right?”
“Right,” said Amaryllis.
“And then we would kill him,” said Fenn. “Grak would set up all manner of wards, I would find some place to snipe from, and that’s before he even got to you, Amaryllis, and the last druid in the world.”
“More likely, he would send the city guard after us instead,” said Amaryllis. “And we would leave without ever seeing his face.”
“Well, what I was thinking is that he wouldn’t even have to do that,” I said. “If he can track himself, then he can flip a coin about whether or not to send the city guard. If the coin comes up heads, or er, circles, then he stays back and does nothing, or if it comes up torches, then he sends the city guard. And then, if he does send the city guard, he goes to one of three prearranged locations to indicate whether it was a success, failure, or neutral, or whatever bits of information he wants to transmit to his alternate present, where he’s tracking himself trying to figure out the plan.”
“Which means he still fails half the time,” said Amaryllis. She frowned. “Unless he sent them out after flipping torches twice in a row, and so on down that line of thinking, but that depends on how well Doris can see probability, which is unknown.”
“We could leave the city,” said Fenn. “That means he wouldn’t be able to leverage the city guard against us. We’re only staying here so we can use the teleportation key to leave at a moment’s notice, right? And so we don’t tip that we actually do have it, which Larkspur seems on the fence about? For all he knows, we scurried away from the fight just after he turned tail and ran.”
“We need to pick a killing field,” said Grak.
“Right,” I replied. “But it still has to be a killing field that he won’t know is a killing field, if he’s smart about things and only tries any given strategy half the time. I don’t want to continually set things up and have him be a no-show, only for him to screw off back to Anglecynn where he’ll keep causing problems. We already have to worry about his sister.”
“Hyacinth Prentiss,” said Amaryllis. “She’s his cousin-wife, not sister, they wed after his arranged marriage to me fell through. She was always more cautious, and you’re correct that she’s going to be a threat, though not nearly in the same way as him, especially not if we kill him. Killing him weakens her position immeasurably.”
That bit about an arranged marriage was news to me, but it probably wasn’t the time to dig into that, and I knew Amaryllis would say that even if I wanted to press the issue.
“Okay,” I said. “So we need to set up a trap that doesn’t look like a trap to his borrowed probability vision, which we don’t actually know the details of. And on top of that, the last twelve hours have presumably been spent moving around a lot and trying to maximize the spread of probability, which means that any deviation from that is going to draw his attention. Plus he and the Republic of Doris can both safely assume that we know something about the power and are taking active measures to avoid it, right?”
“I thought it was an acceptable trade-off,” said Amaryllis. “We’re safe from him so long as we keep on the move, and the only thing that moving is really costing us is sleep.” She yawned, and I could momentarily see the lack of sleep before her willful energy returned. “Granted, we can’t put that off forever, but we can sleep in shifts as we keep moving, if need be.”
“Okay,” I said. “I think I have a plan, unless there’s a concrete plan beyond luring him and killing him that no one has told me?” Amaryllis shook her head. “We can make twenty miles in an hour if we’re swallows. The land around Boastre Vino is largely uncultivated, and we can use the deck of cards to decide on a random angle away from here. We fly twenty miles using the random angle, then land there and prepare for Larkspur. From his perspective, it should look like we’re running away using some method of probability masking, right?”
“Probably,” said Amaryllis. I wondered if that was a joke, but she didn’t smile.
“We set a trap wherever we land,” said Grak with a nod of understanding. “That makes things more difficult for me.”
“Is this guy really dumb enough to go after us with just him and the devil girl?” asked Fenn.
“I would think you wouldn’t be one to talk about mixed parentage like that,” said Amaryllis with a frown. Fenn frowned back in a mocking reflection. “But to answer your question, I don’t know. I didn’t imagine that he would make a deal with Doris either, but it would appear he has. If I were him, I would cut my losses and run, but he’s already overcommitted this far. Men like the one we killed last night, trained, loyal men, are a valuable resource, one that he couldn’t possibly have tapped dry as yet, but one that he’d have to think carefully about. If he thinks he has us, he might bring in more, but … I don’t know for certain.”
“This doesn’t inspire confidence,” said Solace.
“I was thinking the same thing,” I replied.
“Juniper, I understand why you did it, and I even agree with it, based on what Fenn said, but the reality we’re facing down is that we had a full-on battle with Larkspur in the middle of a populated city street,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know how he dealt with what happened at Bone and Flesh, but here, now, he has an opportunity to paint us as violent criminals. He could spin some story about being in Boastre Vino as part of his classified duties as FSD, collect eyewitness accounts, either legitimate or paid for, set up his brute as a martyr, and make the story as public as possible. It would bring scrutiny on him, possibly more than he could bear, but he could do it in order to fuck us. If we don’t offer up a target to him, and relatively soon, then the chance that he fucks us like that gets a lot higher.”
And if he continued his deal with Doris, whatever that was, it was entirely possible that we wouldn’t be able to stick around anywhere for longer than a day or so. That would mean that training at the athenaeums was flatly out for me, far into the foreseeable future. It would mean that we’d have to fly to any place that we hadn’t already been, and sneaking our way into the imperial teleportation network would almost certainly be a no-go. Hyacinth, his cousin-wife (blegh), would be her own issue, but she wasn’t loaded for bear against us, and I’d already seen her bow out of the chase as being not worth the effort. Larkspur was a danger to us because he was unpredictable, and if we let go of this chance and stuck to hiding, there was a really good possibility that he was going to crop up in the future. And if he did, then he was going to be in a better position.
Besides that, I was going to level up if we killed him.
“Fuck,” I said. “Okay.”
There were sixty cards in an Aerbian deck; the four suits were tines, flowers, cups, and bones, and the eight extra cards were four women (virgin, matron, whore, crone) and four men (fop, scholar, joker, brute). I had originally started dividing the arc in increments of fifty-two before getting a look at the deck and realizing that we were fortunate enough to be able to divide the entire half-circle of land cleanly by the number of cards.
After we’d talked it over some more, everyone disappeared into the bottle to get some rest, then Solace came back out again. A small light had gone on within the bottle, hovering just off-center and slowly rotating.
“Artificial sun?” I asked as she stowed the bottle in her cloak. I was out because I was well-rested and combat-capable, and she was out because she had to be. The lack of sleep didn’t seem to be affecting her.
“Something like that,” Solace agreed.
“I might have found that helpful,” I said with a shrug.
“Yes, you might have,” Solace nodded. “Did you speak with the locus?”
“A bit,” I admitted. “You gave me some time with her?” That wasn’t quite an accusation, but I had my suspicions. The timing seemed awfully convenient.
“Yes,” said Solace, inclining her head a fraction. “You call it a she?”
“I try not to,” I said. “But it is a doe, not a stag.”
Solace nodded. “Words don’t matter much. It’s only convention.”
I opened my mouth to launch into an argument about that, because of course words mattered, because of course convention mattered, but I held my tongue, because most people didn’t find arguments like that endearing, and Solace had four hundred years of being like this, which meant I was really unlikely to change her mind.
The plan was that the two of us would stay on watch for the next hour, then draw a random card from the deck to figure out what direction we were heading. Solace and I would fly for about an hour, then land at the nearest defensible spot, where she would pull everyone out of the bottle and I would guard against attack. In the meantime, everyone else would be getting at least a little rest. It would have been better to have everyone at full strength and fully rested, but we were worried that if we didn’t give him the opportunity soon, Larkspur would simply give up (if he hadn’t already).
The thought that this entire thing might be for nothing, that he might already be back in Anglecynn, was weighing on me. According to everything I knew about narrative logic, he would show up at the field of battle as soon as he saw the probability we were anywhere else narrowing down. Trying to understand the world of Aerb through the lens of narrative was a fool’s quest though, because the Dungeon Master knew where I was looking and what I was thinking, and if a player ever tried something on the theory that ‘that’s how it works in stories’ then it was your duty as DM to slap them down so hard they didn’t try garbage like that in the future.
And if he did go after us … well, what did he know about us, and what did that say about our odds of success? Amaryllis seemed confident that he didn’t know we had a druid, because everything that Solace had done was more easy to attribute to various unknown entads than to a druid that had been in hiding for hundreds of years (“think horses, not zebras”). If he had after-action reports of any kind from Barren Jewel, he might know that we were working with a warder, or at least had been, and the same went for if it had been him at Weik Handum rather than people Aumann had sent out, or some unknown third party. He knew about and had seen Fenn, and he had a fairly good read on me, though perhaps he would assume I was out of the battle given the injury he’d given me.
From Larkspur’s perspective, he was looking at a group of four to five people with powerful magic items and rudimentary magic skills, one of them, maybe, a warder. I didn’t know whether he was the type to overestimate or underestimate, but my guess was that he would underestimate us, because that’s what he’d done with me at the library. His search method using probabilistic magic also seemed (to me) to be somewhat sloppy, or at least premised on the ability to resolve conflicts from a position of superiority. Unfortunately, it was possible that after underestimating us twice, he would wise up the third time, and even if he didn’t stop his habit of thinking he had the upper hand, he would still have to raise the assumed lower bound of our capabilities.
I was looking at too many unknowns. Donald Rumsfeld got flak for having said that there were known unknowns and unknown unknowns, but I had always thought that was an amazing insight into information and planning. We could, at least to some extent, plan against strategies and powers that Larkspur might have available to him, like if he brought in a gold mage, or a pustule mage, and we could alter what we did in accordance with the probabilities that we assigned to each possibility, mostly based on what Amaryllis knew about Larkspur. But we couldn’t possibly plan against the things we had no idea even existed.
That was what worried me. I thought there was a reasonable chance that Larkspur would use his probability triangulation method, however that worked, to see that we were leaving Boastre Vino, and from the spread I was hoping the deck of cards would give our probability, I hoped it would look like we were trying to make a getaway and then camping in the wilderness. Maybe he would come out to play … but if he did?
“What’s on your mind?” asked Solace.
“I don’t know what this battle is going to look like,” I said. “We’re hoping that our ability to wing it is better than their ability to wing it, or that our preparation outweighs their caution, and I just … I still don’t like it. There’s too much variability.”
“Yes,” nodded Solace. “The unknown can be difficult.”
“Yet that’s sort of your thing?” I asked. “Dealing with the unknown and winning despite not being able to probe deeper into it?”
Solace shrugged. “That’s one way to be a druid,” she said. “Things are easier, if you don’t know all the reasons that something can’t work, so some druids prefer — preferred, sorry — to simply take everything as it comes, working on instinct and intuition.”
“And … you’re not like that?” I asked.
“It’s fuzzy, being a druid,” said Solace. She sat on the bed, which had no sheets or pillows, and folded her hands. “But at a certain level, you need to win every single battle you fight, and instinct and intuition alone aren’t enough, not if you fight hundreds of battles. Ignorance is not the great druidic virtue, nor is faith.” She gave a small laugh, and touched her light green fingers to her dark green lips. “It’s funny, but I want so much for you to understand.”
“Oh?” I asked.
“You hate it,” said Solace. “You don’t understand druids and you don’t understand the locus, you have the mentality that spurred the Second Empire toward genocide, and yet … the Deep Searching brought me right to you. I want to repay your willingness to help by giving you that thing you desire, such as I’m able. I want you to know.”
“Well, I don’t feel like I’m closer,” I said. “Unless you’re saying that the great druidic virtue can only be defined by negation.”
“They say, sometimes, that for a druid to know will lock them away from their art forever,” said Solace. “It’s usually more about how the druid relates to the world, and how the world relates back to the druid. You told me that the airspeed velocity of a swallow was twenty-five miles an hour, and do you recall my response?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You said that wasn’t actually knowledge, it was just … a way for people to pin things down without actually conveying truth, or something like that.”
“Yes,” nodded Solace. “That is how I relate to the world. That is what a true druid is, at the core of their being. It doesn’t matter that you told me this thing you believe about swallows, because it’s only true within a framework that I have utterly rejected. That one is easy for me; others are less so. For all that Amaryllis rushes to defend me, she makes the same mistake that you do. She says, flatly, that I can turn the five of us into birds, and then she begins thinking of that as a tool within her toolbox, a cog within the clockwork of strategy.”
“And … it’s not?” I asked.
“It is,” said Solace. “In the same way that a swallow goes twenty-five miles per hour. It’s a lens through which we might view the world, one that lies far on the side of desiring to place everything within systems and order, removed from the wonder and mystery of actually turning into a bird.”
“Ah,” I said. “I … kind of get it. Maybe. And it’s bidirectional? It’s not just what you personally think about your art, it’s what others think too? How neatly they’ve done the work of fitting a square peg into a round hole?”
Solace nodded. “It’s fuzzy. Everything about being a druid is fuzzy. But yes, when the Second Empire’s efforts at bringing order were met with revolt from the loci, they did try other methods, like keeping the druids ignorant of their plots and plans, or doing tests with unwitting druids. That didn’t work either.”
“Huh,” I said. “Is this something that we need to be worried about? You said that I couldn’t hurt the locus by thinking the wrong things, but … that doesn’t seem to be quite true.”
“A druid and a locus are different,” said Solace. “I practice the art of druidic magic, but the locus is that magic. For myself, it’s not the seeking of truth so much as the rigidity of thought that might put me at risk, but I’ve been doing this for four hundred years, and thought alone is an irritant, not a true threat.” She looked me over. “I think that’s enough. You understand at least some of what I’m trying to convey.”
“So what’s the great druidic virtue then?” I asked. “Doublethink?”
“Hrm,” said Solace with a small smile. “We would say saxud, but that would be a good translation. It’s not enough, on its own, I don’t believe that druidic magic could work if it were so simple, but it’s the element we lean upon most often.” I opened my mouth to ask another question, but she held up a hand. “I would request that you stay your tongue, unless you think it’s of dire importance.”
“It’s a matter of history,” I said. “Nothing to do with your art.” Solace nodded for me to proceed. “I’m not sure I understand what the Second Empire did, or how they did it. Did they analyze the loci to death, and if that’s what it was, how did yours survive that?”
“Oh,” said Solace, eyes widening slightly. “No, they infringed on the druids through their actions, their attempts at treaties, their science, but that was nothing that we couldn’t have endured. No, they saw land worth taking, and something standing in their way that couldn’t be captured or turned to productivity, and their extermination campaign began in earnest after that. They were unrepentantly evil.”
We were quiet after that, as Solace looked out the open window and I fidgeted with the Anyblade. I didn’t quite believe her version of events with regards to the Second Empire. It was possible that Aerbian history had this period where Pure Evil was in charge, but my guess was that it was more just people being people, which meant people being shitty to each other. Druids were probably a scapegoat for some larger problem, or a distraction meant to take eyes away from poor policy, or a rallying cry that resonated with people in a way that a complex issue might not.
I did have to wonder how much the upcoming battle, if there was one, would depend on Solace. She was the ace in the hole, the black swan that Larkspur would (should) have no possible method of accurately guessing we had on our side. I was hoping that she would show her true worth.