Worth the Candle, Ch 54: Looper

It did feel kind of weird to take a vacation, mostly because none of us had jobs. Actually, Grak had a job, which was as group warder, but for this one week the work he did was keeping the bottle warded against intruders, which was none too arduous. Solace had a vocation, which was as druid to the Six-Eyed Doe, and she was still doing that; so far as I could see, it involved a lot of walking the domain, changing various things in small ways, usually with the magic that came to her by way of the locus. But that left Amaryllis, Fenn, and myself with only our personal ambitions, and that, of course, led to some discussion.

“How was speaking to the flowers?” Fenn asked me as I came back from the nominal garden. She had come out to greet us with a smile on her face, which meant that she must have been keeping an eye out for when we’d get back. She had been smiling a lot these last few days, giddy, infectious smiles, not just when she saw me, but also when she was talking with the others, or helping prepare food, or bathing in the stream.

“It went well,” I said. “I am not, as yet, a master flower mage.”

“Well boo to that,” said Fenn. She reached forward and took my hand, then led me off away from the house. Solace gave me a smile and a raised eyebrow, and I could tell that all my protestations about ‘taking it slow’ had been understood as blatant lies.

It was weird, officially being in a relationship with Fenn. Weird in a good way. She hadn’t changed at all, except for a wild improvement in her already pretty chipper mood, but somehow the simple knowledge that we were together made her look so much more attractive than I had already found her. I watched her a lot, and caught her watching me, and we would sometimes just smile at each other like we were mentally impaired. I’d often thought that love, especially new love, was simply, literally, that: mental impairment caused by a flood of hormones and neurotransmitters within the brain. I still did think that, but I was in love, so didn’t really care, and I figured that at least during downtime, I could spare a few points of MEN if it meant being happy.

She led me to a part of the field beside the tree where a blanket had been laid down by some eager half-elf feeling a great anticipation at my return. She was wearing a bright yellow sundress, no doubt stolen from a store somewhere, which revealed her long legs, and her arms, which were scarred in intricately curling patterns.

“I would have been such a help with flower magic,” said Fenn as she flopped down onto the blanket. That too, was likely stolen from somewhere, because what Solace had made available in the main house were mostly furs, and not ones that had seen much working. “Helpful like you wouldn’t even believe.”

I laid down next to her and looked her over, which made her do a small shimmy on the blanket for me, and from there we were kissing each other, which went on for quite a while.

“Can I ask a question?” asked Fenn. As part of that process of getting to know each other on a physical level, I was starting to understand her cues, and from the way she was kissing me, she was telling me to slow down and talk, which I did, a little reluctantly.

“One kiss for one question,” I said.

“Do I have to give you a kiss, or do you have to give me one?” asked Fenn.

I paused at that, looking her over, with my eyes lingering on her lips. “Is there a difference?”

“Oh, you would know if I kissed you,” said Fenn. “So far I’ve just been letting you kiss me. Me kissing you? Totally different experience, very much different, but I would be willing to give you a single one of my extra-special kisses if you would entertain my question.”

“Okay,” I said. “But I will be judging you harshly.” Her tone was light, but I was starting to be able to tell when her nonchalance was forced — a sense I’d been honing even before we’d started dating, not that we had, as yet, gone on a date.

“Do you ever think about stopping?” asked Fenn.

“Ah,” I said, pulling back from her slightly. We were being serious, it seemed. “Meaning, instead of your dream of a big old castle, humble servants to wait on you hand and foot –”

“They would be oiled, muscular men,” Fenn corrected me.

I frowned at that. “And where am I, when you’re with these men?”

“Oh, you would be available,” she said. “Presumably you would be doing your own thing some of the time, in that version of my future.”

“But there’s another version now?” I asked.

“I was asking you the question,” said Fenn. Her eyes kept taking in different parts of my face as she watched me.

“Right,” I said. I looked down at my deformed hand. I was pretty sure that it would have hurt, if it weren’t so numb. “Assuming that I get my soul fixed, and that fixes my hand and ribs?”

“Yes,” nodded Fenn. “Do you ever think about getting to a stable point and simply stopping?”

“I hadn’t, actually,” I said. “Can I do that now?”

“Out loud,” said Fenn. She shifted so that she was sitting up, cross-legged in front of me.

“I’m not great out loud,” I said, shifting my position to match hers.

“Don’t care,” said Fenn.

“Alright,” I said. “Well, if by ‘stopping’ we mean abandoning every quest, saying goodbye to the party, probably not amicably given the things they all want to accomplish with our help … well, we’d have about six million obols worth of gold, depending on how we split things with Amaryllis, and I don’t know much about Aerbian market baskets or exchange rates, but I have to imagine that would provide us with a pretty decent, modest life together, especially since we could supplement the nest egg with actual work.”

“Together?” asked Fenn. Her pointed ears perked at that.

“Sorry,” I said. “We still need to schedule that date, and then see how things go from there.”

“Worst case scenario, I guess we can just be platonic friends who live together,” said Fenn.

“Could we still kiss, even if we were just platonic friends?” I asked. Wait, did Aerb have a Plato?

“Heck, we could probably figure out how to platonically have sex,” said Fenn, and an uncharacteristic blush came across her cheeks. Not embarrassment, or maybe some of that, but more the rising warmth of anticipation.

“A couple of platonic children?” I asked with a grin.

Fenn turned away, smile fading in an instant. “Quarter-elves.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I … I didn’t put points into my social abilities.”

“S’fine,” shrugged Fenn, turning back toward me. “It’s all fantasy anyway, right?”

“Do you really not want children?” I asked.

“I don’t think they would have it as bad as I did,” said Fenn. “There are better places than Rogbottom ever was, and I would keep them away from elves entirely, but … maybe, possibly, a hypothetical quarter-elf could hide who they were and pass for human. That comes down to variance. And even if they couldn’t hide it, maybe they would happen to fall in with some good people who didn’t really care one way or another. I don’t know. The world is garbage for a lot of other reasons. I never really wanted to bring a child into it.”

“Okay,” I said. “First thing I do, once I’ve ascended to godhood, I’m going to put my boot on the face of this world and say ‘hey, be nicer to half-elves’.”

“But to do that, you need to ascend to godhood,” said Fenn. “Hence, not stopping.”

I hesitated. “I’m not a hugely driven person,” I said. “I’m not like the heroes of stories who have this basic need to go out and right wrongs, or overturn an unjust society. I wasn’t like that back on Earth, and I don’t think that I’m going to be like that here.”

“And with that said,” muttered Fenn, not meeting my eyes.

“And with that said,” I continued, “I believe, in my heart of hearts, that Arthur is waiting for me at the end of this. I would go to any lengths to get him back. He was my best friend. I owe him that.” And as I said it, I began to feel guilty, because here I was, sitting on a blanket in the middle of a meadow with a pretty girl, as though I had forgotten all about that.

“Ah,” said Fenn. “So … no little cottage in the woods with your darling friend Fenn?” she asked.

“Yes, of course we’re going to have that,” I said. “There’s just a mountain of bullshit we need to get through first.”

“Alright,” said Fenn with a nod. “Not that I would have wanted to stop, necessarily, or that I wouldn’t have gotten bored of the contentment, but … it’s been on my mind.”

“And now I get a kiss, for having answered the question?” I asked. “A very special kiss, it was rumored?”

“Yes,” said Fenn. She hesitated slightly. “Last night, was everything … was there a reason that you were satisfied with just, being generous? Was it …”

“I got an achievement for it,” I said. “I mean, I wasn’t trying to get one, that wasn’t why I stopped, it just popped up, after you had finished. That kind of pissed me off, to have the game nose in.”

“Oh,” said Fenn, relaxing slightly. “And was I …” She paused, as though I could finish her sentence for her, which I couldn’t, at all. “Was I within your expectations?”

“I loved touching you,” I said. “I loved watching you as I touched you.” I didn’t fully understand what she was asking me, only that it was related to her hang-ups about sex. An affirmation of her as desirable, along with long nights of attentive lovemaking, seemed like the best way to deal with that. (So far as I could tell from touch alone, half-elven genital topology fell well outside the norms for humans, but it wasn’t any of the weirder scenarios I had been prepared to accept; it hardly seemed like a thing to get worked up over, unless you had a lifetime of people saying that it was.)

“Okay,” said Fenn, breathing out and relaxing. “Now, to properly receive my special kiss, you’re going to have to lay back and remove your pants.”

I was a simple man, and did what I was told.

I went back to the house some time later, while Fenn went to go ride the Six-Eyed Doe, a fairly common occurrence. Everyone seemed to like the magical deer a lot better than I did, and I couldn’t really figure out why that was. I knew my problems with it, like the fact that it could only really express vague emotions, or the way it seemed to be watching me far too often, or the fact that I didn’t really like deer as a species (though it was obviously only deer-shaped). What I couldn’t really figure out was why anyone else liked it.

I wondered how much of it was just a matter of shared culture that I was manifestly blind to, or the cultural weight of the Second Empire and their extermination campaign. I grappled with figuring out an Earth metaphor that might apply. It might be like the dodo being rediscovered, and the attention that would be lavished on it by people who saw it as a symbol of the horrors of exploitative colonialism. Or maybe it would be the same way that American culture had treated Native Americans, as though they were this font of intense spiritual wisdom rather than primarily being displaced people with a culture that had been frayed at the edges. Or maybe it was like seeing a number tattooed on an old woman’s arm and having this moment of shocked realization at what must have happened to her.

Even Grak seemed to like the Six-Eyed Doe; he went for walks with it, and reached up on his tiptoes to pat its flank. I was pretty sure that the dwarves, with their underground clans, had basically squat to do with the Second Empire or any shared cultural responsibility for what had happened to the loci, but there he was, bonding with it.

This wasn’t entirely academic. The historical records showed Uther Penndraig having seven companion-analogues, his Knights of the Square Table (I groaned whenever I thought about that name). However many companions were available to me, the Six-Eyed Doe was taking up one of those spots. More than that, I didn’t know what kinds of impacts increasing its loyalty might have, or whether taking it out of the bottle and introducing it to the world might require a stronger bond between the two of us. I could at least find some common ground with Solace, but with the magical deer? At best, I could practice meditation and feeling a sense of awe, or helping out to make sure that the bottled domain stayed in balance, but that seemed like a very slow path to building rapport.

(Amaryllis, Fenn, and Grak all got a paragraph-length character biography within the game’s “Companions” screen, which I was pretty sure happened on hitting Loyalty lvl 2. I’d closed my eyes and paged through after my little experiment in experiencing awe and wonder, only to find that instead of text, the Six-Eyed Doe had a picture that expanded outside the box it was meant to be set within. This was the first time that the game interface had shown me anything other than text, symbols, or lines to make boxes.

The picture had various scenes, devoid of any clear chronology and bleeding into each other where they met. When I looked at it, the view zoomed in, leaving the rest of the game interface behind and filling my vision with only the pictorial story of the Six-Eyed Doe. Most of it signified little to me, because it was focused on rivers and forests, with the occasional animal. I focused in on people, where I could find them, and ended up looking at a full-on orgy with writhing, naked bodies of a hundred different species. To one side of it, up and to the right, armored men were coming in and slaughtering the people, but toward the bottom there were a handful of pregnant women sitting around, and beneath them various women giving birth, with naked children walking away through the woods, and some donning leather armor of their own to fight off the attackers.

This was the story of the locus, as told by some insane artist who had the ability to paint photorealistically at a yottapixel scale but lacked any idea of how to tell a coherent narrative. It took me some time to find the bottle, which sat all by itself, away from everyone. There was no attempt at being literal; it was only barely big enough to contain Solace, who sat with legs folded and her staff across her lap. It was such a small thing, in comparison to the rest, and that was probably the point.)

The house at the center of the bottle was made from a massive tree, which seemed to have grown with an interior space suited for humanoid habitation all on its own. None of the wood had been cut or broken away, it just followed its own organic flow that happened to make openings for windows, entryways that approximated doors, a few flat surfaces that could be used as tables, and roots that happened to run parallel for a place to sit. Scattered through the large, curved room in the center were various alcoves, some only reachable by climbing, where the beds were. I use the term ‘bed’ loosely, because apparently ‘textiles’ were not a watchword of the druidic grove, and of course they had nothing like box springs.

We had, of late, taken over the floor space. A large, ornate desk lifted from the study of Weik Handum (by Fenn, naturally) sat there, clashing with the rest of the naturalistic furniture. This was where Amaryllis sat, with papers in ordered piles in front of her and a book open in front of her. She was making notes, with Grak beside her, looking on. I could hear Solace in the area of the big curved room that served as a kitchen, but she was just out of sight.

“What book is that?” I asked.

Amaryllis set down her pencil and turned to me. “I really don’t want to bring you back down to earth, but would it be possible for us to set some ground rules?”

“Uh,” I said. “About … what?”

“When I went out to get some water for Solace, I saw you and Fenn,” said Amaryllis. Saw us doing what, she didn’t say, but I wasn’t so tone deaf I didn’t understand her meaning.

“Ah,” I said. “I’d thought we were, um, far enough away.”

“You were not,” said Grak. He sniffed. “I put up a ward against sound around your alcove. Be warned it will fail as soon as the bottle moves.”

“Sorry,” I said, feeling my cheeks go red.

“Well I thought it was wonderful,” said Solace, coming in from the kitchen with a smile. “This place has been devoid of the sounds of pleasure for too long.”

And then I was really blushing, because it was one thing to get caught out, twice, in an embarrassing way, but it was another to get appreciation from a third party. I would have called Solace a creep for listening in, but it was really my fault. I could have asked Grak for some privacy wards, and I hadn’t, mostly because I had still had it in my head that Fenn and I were taking things slow, which the last half hour had shown me was not entirely accurate.

“I … would really rather not talk about any of this,” I said. “We’ll try to be more considerate of the close quarters.”

“That’s all I ask,” Amaryllis said. “I really don’t want to put a damper on,” there was a very slight hitch in her voice, which I might have imagined, “your happiness.”

“So what’s the book?” I asked, eager to change the subject.

“It’s a reprint of On the Nature of Narrative, by Uther Penndraig,” said Amaryllis.

I frowned slightly. “Let me guess, part of Fenn’s expansive collection?”

“Grak and I went into town,” said Amaryllis.

I stared at her, then looked to Grak, and finally to Solace. “This isn’t what we agreed on,” I said. “Using the teleportation key –”

“We didn’t,” said Amaryllis. “Last time we moved the bottle, I put us within a two mile walk of an unremarkable mid-sized city without a touchstone.” She bit her lip slightly. “And you’re right, I should have told you, but I was feeling claustrophobic and needed to get some fresh air.”

“Sorry, you’re going to chastise me for being inconsiderate when you left without telling me?” I asked. “Pot, kettle, et cetera. You put your life in danger, which means all of our lives.”

“The noise of your sex made this place feel too small,” said Grak.

“Nice and cozy, I thought,” said Solace with a shrug.

I was blushing again, but didn’t really have a good response, because me protesting that we hadn’t actually had sex seemed like it wasn’t all that great of a defense. Amaryllis had said that she was happy for us but a little forlorn, and … well, yes, we were being really really insensitive about that.

“Sorry,” I said again.

“I’m sorry too,” sighed Amaryllis.

“Sorry about what?” Fenn asked as she came in through the door. She was looking a little wind-swept; the locus could run incredibly fast, faster than even its long legs would have dictated. The smile she gave me was radiant, like she had just stepped off a plane to greet me at the gate after weeks apart.

“The noise, last night,” I said.

I could see Fenn blush at that. She was very pretty when she blushed, and it called to mind the color in her cheeks when she was kissing me. “Well, I blame Juniper,” said Fenn.

“Urk,” I said, grabbing at my chest. “Betrayed by my most loyal companion.”

“Uther had an obsession with narrative,” said Amaryllis, a little too loudly and quickly. She had moved back over to the table and was looking at the book. “It doesn’t show in his body of work, but if we assume that most of those novels and plays are plagiarized from or inspired by Earth, then we can still fall back on his non-fiction, which probably pulls from the ideas of Earth as well, but still contains his own framing of those ideas.”

“Amaryllis is searching for meaning in our journey,” said Grak.

“Yes, but, no. Uther searched for meaning in his journey,” said Amaryllis, “His personal life story mapped fairly well to the model of universal narrative he constructed, which his modern editor thinks is just an aspect of Uther’s mythmaking, or maybe that Uther’s works reflected who he was as a person and his own personal journey informed those works. Reading this, it’s pretty clear to me that Uther wasn’t just talking in the abstract, he was grappling with something.”

“So it’s a clue?” I asked.

“Not everything is a clue,” said Fenn and Grak in tandem. She moved forward to give him a high five, and he grudgingly returned it. I was starting to get the feeling that Fenn was just more popular than I was.

“Yes, I think it’s a clue,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think that we’ll be able to predict too much by fitting our adventures to any kind of narrative structure, though I’ve started on the process, but I do think it might provide insight into how Uther thought, and from there, maybe into where he went.” She flipped a few pages back in the book, and gestured for me to come closer.

(It seemed a little unfair to me that Amaryllis hadn’t gotten any less pretty, now that I was with Fenn. I don’t want there to be any mistake about it, I was basically all-in on this new relationship, but Amaryllis was still stunningly gorgeous, and my heart beat just a little bit faster when I stood next to her. I wished there was some attraction switch I could turn off in my brain, but there wasn’t.)

“Here,” she said, pointing to the page. “It’s a circle. The hero starts at the top, in a place of comfort, then gets the call to adventure, –”

“Right,” I said. “This is cribbed from Joseph Campbell, Hero of a Thousand Faces, it doesn’t look anything different from what’s in there.” I had only read it because Arthur had insisted. This was more proof that Uther and Arthur were the same person, not that I needed it.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “So this is just more plagiarism? Words he repeated but which held no significance?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I’ll add it to my reading list, I guess, but … “ I traced my finger around the circle, which I was well-familiar with, because Arthur had been familiar with it. His biography had even mentioned the Refusal of the Call. Going around, Vervain was supposedly his Mentor, the Crossing of the Threshold would have been … what, trying to seize the sword from the stone the first time? I would need to read both books in order to figure it out. “What does your provisional map look like?”

“For him, or for us?” asked Amaryllis.

I looked over her notes, which were done in her meticulous handwriting, with my character sheet sitting there among the other papers.

“For him,” I said. “I don’t understand the story map, given that he lived on Aerb for so long. Traditionally, the end of the story would be when he defeats the Dark King and takes power in Anglecynn.”

Amaryllis shook her head. “He talks about both cycles of repetition and nested cycles,” she said. She flipped forward another few pages, to show another diagram. This one had lots of circles on it, some in chains and others as circles within circles. “He says, basically, that narrative is infinitely extensible, that any conflict and its resolution can be mapped as being a number of smaller conflicts and smaller resolutions, some of which are taking place concurrently. If you really wanted to, you could write a sequel to any story, so long as someone is left alive, because the hero’s journey starts in a place of comfort and returns to it with something having changed, and then you’re all set up for the next journey to begin.”

“That sounds almost nihilistic, if we take the context as Uther talking about his own life,” I said. “The story never ends, because there’s always more, barring death.”

“That’s life,” said Amaryllis. “He makes that explicit in a few places, the endings of stories are, in his view, just a contrivance, or a contract between author and audience about where to stop the continual cycles. If you were looking at his life, and trying to map it all out in accordance with these ‘journeys’, then I think that the cleavage points of circles are pretty clear.”

“He thought that our brains were wired for stories,” I said. “Arthur did.” It was easier to say his name now, because he was real in this world, somewhere, or at least had been. “Given that wiring, people see stories in things that aren’t stories all the time,” I continued. “The brain gets set up for stories, and fits anything close enough into that story shape.”

“You’re saying that not everything is a story?” asked Amaryllis. Fenn smiled and raised her hand for a high five, which Amaryllis left hanging.

“I’m saying,” I stopped and paused to think about it as Fenn high-fived herself. “I don’t know. If Arthur found it compelling, then he’s probably worth listening to, because he was the one who told me that about brains, and he would have done his best not to fall into that trap.”

“Tell him the theory,” said Grak.

Amaryllis frowned at him, but turned back to me and started in. “Let’s pretend that you’re Uther Penndraig,” she said. “You believe that life is a series of narratives, not in the sense that you can map narrative patterns onto life events, but maybe … there’s some controlling entity that’s responsible for spinning up a new tale. You’re part of a game, possibly, but it’s a game that’s trying to display these circles. How do you test it?”

“It depends on the genre,” I replied. “You said yourself that life never really ends, there’s always another struggle, another conflict. Unless you’re a god, you can’t really bring a final close to any of it, you can only have … breaks, I guess, or downtime. Places where the tension eases.”

“If we chart Penndraig’s life as a series of journeys, calls to adventure, metaphorical deaths and rebirths, then returns to comfort and a new normalcy, we can define a few large ones,” said Amaryllis. “And as a matter of fact, there are often dramatizations of those journeys. Penndraig against the Dark King ends with him restored to the throne. Meeting of the Seventeen Swords goes from the time he becomes king to just after the First Empire finally finds its footing. After that, there’s the Invasion of the Ice Wizards, then the Apocalypse Demon, then the Wandering Blight — those are the major ones, from what we’ll call the Foundational Era, when threats started coming out of the woodwork to stop him.”

“Huh,” I said. “Were they all external threats that came to meet him?”

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “And if we accept the world as artifice, as being as fantastically centered around him as you think it is around you — not that you’re necessarily wrong — then what defines the next era?”

I thought about that for a bit. “He couldn’t stay in his castle, with his wife and his children,” I said. “He couldn’t run the Empire he’d built. It depends on genre, and on the –” Dungeon Master “– person controlling the narrative, but if the world is going to keep giving you explicit conflicts, a new call to adventure whenever you rest on your laurels, then staying in the castle only means that the new threat or conflict has to be one that seeks you out.” I had only skimmed the remainder of the biography, but I knew enough about how he had shaped Aerb to know what came next. Besides, if you were thinking in terms of narratives, then it was pretty obvious. “Sitting on the throne means that you’re on the defense, forced into action when adventure comes calling,” I said. “If you think there’s going to be a new plot no matter what you do, then the smart thing would be to be proactive and seek that plot out, so that your family and kingdom can get on without being at risk from the outside.”

“The Roaming Era,” said Amaryllis. “After seven years of facing down threats, he picked up his sword, put on his armor, and went back out into the world to right every wrong that he could find.”

“And there were no more external threats?” I asked. “After three major attacks against his home, or kingdom, or empire, there was nothing that he had to come racing back for, something that only he could handle?”

“None,” nodded Amaryllis. “There are alternate explanations, of course, especially given how tight-lipped he was about his motives. I haven’t been able to find anything in his writing that would confirm that he went wandering in order to make the world stop throwing its own threats at him. It is, on the face of it, simply insane to think that the world would work like that. But –”

“But it might?” asked Fenn. “That’s what we’re saying, that we might live in a world where we have to go out and pick fights because otherwise the fights will keep coming to us?”

“That’s why we assassinated Larkspur,” said Grak.

“Assassination is a strong word,” said Amaryllis with a frown in his direction. “And he did come to us.”

“But you’re saying that we’re going to have to keep fighting forever?” asked Fenn.

“No,” said Amaryllis. She locked eyes with me. “I’m saying that Juniper might.” She shrugged. “If the hypothesis is correct, anyway. If Juniper’s ultimate aim is to find out what happened to the Lost King, for ill or good, then the only reason I think narrative is a promising line of inquiry is that I don’t think anyone else has tried following it before. That said, there are hundreds of theories about what happened to Uther, and I’m going to have to dig into them just to get a sense of what evidence everyone else has. We’re in a good position. If we assume that Uther Penndraig was dream-skewered, and more than that, a member of Juniper’s Dungeons & Dragons group, then that gives us an insight into him that no one else has.”

“If he really was Arthur, then he spent about forty years on Aerb,” I said. “I knew him as a teenager. All of his formative experiences were here, all the development of his ideas, he had a wife and children, loyal companions for, again, nearly forty years.”

“Even if that’s true, you also made this world,” said Amaryllis. There was something hard in her eyes.

“Not really,” I said, wincing. “I would say that it cribs from a lot of the worlds I made, but it’s … it’s an amalgam, a synthesis of those ideas, I didn’t make Aerb, I made a bunch of prototypes. And some of the ideas aren’t even mine, they’re just … ideas that I might have had. Or places where I cribbed from someone else.”

“You don’t think that you’re the closest thing to Uther Penndraig in this world?” asked Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “I am.” I doubted that I would ever be Arthur’s equal here, but unless any of the other members of the group reared their heads, then “teenager from our Bumblefuck, Kansas D&D group” was about as small of a subset as you could get.

“And what you would do, if you were trapped in this cycle like he was?” asked Amaryllis.

“I guess I would do what he did,” I said. “I would be proactive. I would go out conquering and slaying evils, and if I had to do it indefinitely, then so be it.”

“Each time winning by the skin of your lips?” asked Fenn.

“Skin of your teeth,” I replied.

“Teeth don’t have skin,” said Fenn with a frown.

“Yeah, look, it’s like a biblical thing or something,” I said, trying to move on. We seemed to get tripped on this kind of thing constantly, which was part of why I kept feeling like my list of things to know was growing out of control.

“What’s a biblical?” asked Grak with a frown of his own.

“I’m fairly sure that the idiom came from the mynah,” said Solace, “They do, in fact, have skin on their teeth, and are renowned for their ability to escape calamities.”

I rubbed my forehead. “Okay,” I said. “Fenn has a point.”

“About teeth?” asked Grak.

“If I were trapped in a cycle of endless conflicts and resolutions, and I didn’t know whether I was going to win every time, and I thought that maybe each battle might be my last, I wouldn’t want to continue on, I would want to stop and go live in a quaint cottage somewhere.” I glanced over at Fenn who was standing beside me, and she gave me a quick kiss on the lips. “Thanks,” I said.

I did my best to keep my heart rate down and not blush as I turned back to Amaryllis. “He was always more driven than me. He was in all the clubs, he was prepared for college, he read five times as many books as I did, he was prepared to defend every absurd thought that occurred to him — he was more of a fighter than I was. Non-literally, that is.”

(I was pretty sure that if I had died instead of him, the idea of committing suicide wouldn’t even have occurred to Arthur.)

“So, I think he would have lasted longer,” I continued. “But maybe he reached the end of his rope, in which case …” I looked down at the diagram, of circles within circles, and a long string of circles that represented sequels without end. “If it’s just an endless series of conflicts and resolutions, then there’s no escape, but maybe you could think of it all as being embedded in a single, enormous, forty-year story. In which case — when were the infernoscopes invented?”

“20 FE,” said Amaryllis.

“If he was trying to complete the loop on the in-world layer, then maybe he was trying to go into the hells and rescue his family there, or maybe banish the hells entirely,” I said. That didn’t quite feel right to me though. “If he were me, then maybe he would try to find the god of this place and have a talk, or a fight if he could manage it somehow.”

“Which of the gods?” asked Solace.

I shook my head. “I mean, something brought him here,” or recreated him here, “So, maybe, he went to go find that entity, whatever it was. I’m … not actually sure that logic extends properly though, because obviously if the world runs on narrative — no, if Uther’s life ran on narrative, then it seems like the person or thing that sucked him into this world would be outside of that narrative structure. It doesn’t quite make sense to try to close the loop that way.”

“We’re too deep in assumptions,” said Grak.

“I agree,” said Amaryllis. “We need more direct evidence that can point us in a helpful direction. Joon, I’d like for you to think on it more, and I’ll bring you whatever it is I can find.” She hesitated. “If you’re comfortable with that.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “You know your own history far better than I ever could.” It made me slightly uneasy to entrust this to her, but it was clear that the one book I had on Uther Penndraig barely scratched the surface, and I was pretty sure I knew the next turn that this conversation was going to take.

“So in other words,” said Fenn, “It’s reasonable to suspect that Juniper can’t sit around either? Otherwise we’re going to get visited by a demon bent on world destruction?”

“I’m building a timeline of what’s happened since Comfort,” said Amaryllis. “It’s not done yet. And Grak is right, we’re too far into assumptions. We don’t want to stand still anyway, that doesn’t further our mutual goals,” she glanced at Grak. “Grak is the exception, given his payment schedule.”

Grak shrugged.

“The more important part of charting what’s happened to Juniper is in mapping it to both what happened to Uther, how Uther thought about narrative, and how the logic of what’s come before applies to what might happen after,” Amaryllis continued. She glanced briefly at Fenn. “But it’s a work in progress, and I don’t feel comfortable using it to make predictions, as yet.”

“Do you think I’m going to die?” asked Fenn. I looked at Fenn and saw unexpected tension on her face, mixed with anger.

“There are too many variables,” said Amaryllis. “It’s too much guesswork.” Fenn continued to scowl at her. Amaryllis flipped through the book, until she got to a specific line, which she read out loud. “‘It is a universal truth that narrative hates stasis. Narrative is built around interlocking rings of conflict and resolution; to the extent that a narrative allows stasis, it is by recycling these rings of conflict, repeating that which should by rights have been resolved. Yet that can only continue for a certain amount of time, at which point the audience grows bored, and anyone who cares about narrative qua narrative will make a fundamental change at that point, often to the detriment of the protagonist.’”

“Okay,” said Fenn. “I’m officially not a fan of this theory.” She turned away from us and left the house, not quite stomping away.

“Alright,” I said with a nod to Amaryllis. “I guess you better tell me what happened with Uther’s wife.”

“It wasn’t his wife,” said Amaryllis. “It was all the others.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 54: Looper

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