“Uther had a lot of love interests who died?” I asked. “I mean, he had love interests … in addition to his wife?”
“Which version of history do you want?” asked Amaryllis.
“I want the truth,” I replied.
“I don’t know the truth,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper, you have to understand that this was all five hundred years ago, and he was a very private man. Even if he wasn’t, the fact that he was such a central figure in the founding of the First Empire, not to mention the dynastic head of what would become the Lost King’s Court, not to mention that he founded two of the athenaeums — he was really, really important, and his role in history very quickly became a matter of politics. The historicity is complicated.”
“What are my options, as far as versions go?” I asked. What I really wanted was a clear, concise explanation of why Fenn was upset so I could go comfort her and explain that everything was going to be alright.
“There are two extremes, one where Uther is a saint, the other where his terminal flaw was a love of women,” said Amaryllis. “There’s a temptation to say that the truth lies somewhere in between, but I think that’s something weak-minded people say when faced with two options they can’t distinguish between. For the most part, the history books sweep it all under the rug as unimportant.”
“Fine, give me the version where he’s a saint,” I said. Arthur hadn’t been a perfect person, I wasn’t so blinded by his passing as to believe that, but Amaryllis seemed to be implying that some people saw Uther as one of those politicians constantly embroiled in sex scandals, and that really seemed out of character for him.
“His marriage to Zona was a political one,” Amaryllis began.
“There was one before that,” said Solace.
Amaryllis frowned at her. “No,” she said, but it was almost a question.
“There was,” shrugged Solace. “Or at least, that was what I always heard. If you’ve heard differently, then perhaps I’m wrong. In my life I’ve spoken to a number of people who knew him, but perhaps we should trust the histories that you’ve read.”
“I’ve met three of the gods in the flesh,” said Amaryllis. She didn’t try to keep the defensiveness from her voice. “I’ve known plenty of people who met him.”
“And they don’t mention Morana?” asked Solace.
“Oh,” said Amaryllis. She furrowed her brow slightly. “She wasn’t … “ She turned to me. “Morana was a spy for the Dark King, one that Uther turned to his side. The Dark King killed her not long before he met with Uther in single combat for the final time. But Uther and Morana never –” she looked at Solace, “I hadn’t heard the theory that they were intimate.”
“And then after that, Zona was a political marriage,” I said, prompting her to continue. I wanted to leave the house and go find Fenn, but Fenn must have known at least part of this story, and if she was upset about it and what it might mean for our own future, then I didn’t want to force her to tell me this story.
“Zona Delzora was the Queen of the Zorish Isles,” said Amaryllis. “They had been part of Anglecynn for hundreds of years, but declared independence when the Dark King swept in, and made a series of treaties with him as he tried to quell the rebellions. The Zorish Isles presented barriers to trade for Anglecynn — this was before bulk teleportation — but they had also been destabilized by the Dark King’s passing. Joining two countries in personal union is never a simple thing, but it was the most elegant solution to their problems for a number of reasons.”
“And then they fell in love,” I said, because obviously that was how that story went.
“They were both private people,” said Amaryllis. “There are too many stories about them that are pure fabrication.”
“He resisted her,” said Grak. “She wanted to seal their marriage with a pregnancy. He refused because he did not love her. It took time for them to love each other. That story was told to me when I was promised for pair-bonding. I don’t know whether it is true.”
I felt a chill at that. It wasn’t just Amaryllis who had that burden placed on her, it was Grak too, and where she would undoubtedly have gone through with a political marriage, Grak had left his clan behind rather than accept one.
“Well, the way I was told it, he was distraught over Morana,” said Solace, “Zona loved him from almost the moment that she first heard of he was going against the Dark King. It was politically convenient, but she was also infatuated with him, and he resisted her because he hadn’t gotten over Morana.”
“There are too many stories,” said Amaryllis with a frown. “We can just leave it at there being too many stories. It’s important, insofar as it informs who he was and what we can take from the narrative theory, but we do not know. Putting forward more possibilities is not helpful.”
“What do you think it was?” I asked. She had compared herself to Zona; I wanted to know what she thought that comparison meant.
“I have no idea,” said Amaryllis, folding her arms across her chest.
“Most probable?” I asked.
She watched me for a moment. “Fine,” she said. “If, if, he was from the same culture as you, I would say that the most likely explanation is that he had some discomfort with the idea of an arranged marriage without any element of love. That might explain why he was derelict in his duty.”
“By not inseminating her right away,” said Grak with a nod.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “One of the things that the stories have in common is that it took some time for them to consummate the marriage, so that part, at least, seems like it would be true. If Zona was typical of her status and culture, she would have been ready and willing to receive him.”
“But they were in love, eventually?” I asked. “And she survived into old age?”
“She died at fifty, a few years after Uther disappeared,” said Amaryllis. “If she hadn’t, Anglecynn probably wouldn’t have gotten so close to civil war. But for most of her life, she was sickly.” She pursed her lips. “You want to go after Fenn, is that why you’re jumping ahead?”
I nodded. “Not that I don’t find this interesting, but I want you to get to the point. Why does she think that she might die?”
“Whatever happened between Uther and Zona, she gave him two sons and a daughter, all in fairly quick succession,” said Amaryllis. “This was during the period when the First Empire had been founded but not all of the eventual member polities had joined. A year after Dahlia was born, the ice wizards invaded, and Zona was kidnapped. Uther brought her back, but they didn’t have terribly much time together before the Apocalypse Demon arrived and began controlling her mind from afar. It was the Wandering Blight that cost her half her body, everything below her rib cage. She was kept alive in torment by powerful healing magics for a full month before Uther managed to manipulate himself into a forge frenzy — no, I don’t know how, he only did it once — and crafted her six mechanical legs that numbed her to the pain and allowed her mobility. Still, from that point on she was thin and frail, despite his best efforts.”
“Shit,” I said. I could see how that would map to a narrative. Each major conflict he faced imperiled his wife in some way, just to add some interpersonal drama to the proceedings. And from what Amaryllis was saying, if the narrative theory was true, and his life was shaped the way it was for an overarching reason, then this was the best case scenario for Fenn.
“In the story of Uther as saint,” Amaryllis continued, “This is the part where his wife begins bringing nubile young women in to give him sexual satisfaction. He refuses, because he loves her, and … it’s presented as a farce, usually, with all sorts of naked women stepping out from behind the curtains to ambush him at inappropriate times.” I could tell that she didn’t find that funny, but I heard a faint chuckle from Solace. I knew that Fenn would probably find it funny too, if not for the possibility that it would end up paralleling our own lives.
“And eventually he relented,” I said.
“He had an assistant,” said Amaryllis. “She was strong and capable, one of the first computers, gifted with an organizing efficiency that many powerful men would kill to have by their side. She traveled with Uther when he left to seek out adventures. Three months in, she was skinned alive by a dragon. Any romance between them is purely speculative, but it was the start of a trend.”
“Morana was the start of the trend,” said Solace, shaking her head.
“But there is a trend?” I asked. “A trend of more than three, if we’re counting what happened to his wife?”
“Twenty,” said Amaryllis. “That’s approximate. He was a private person, it’s not always clear what his relationship to those women was, but it was clear enough that people talked.”
“And horrible things happened to all of them?” I asked. “Twenty women, that’s about one a year from age thirty-five to fifty-five, he had to have seen the pattern. Other people had to have seen the pattern, I — I don’t understand why anyone past the tenth would have gotten within a hundred feet of him.”
“Communications then weren’t what they are now,” said Amaryllis. “There was no international radio network, no teleportation network, none of the mechanisms that we use to make the Empire of Common Cause a cohesive political entity. The First Empire fell apart for a reason. It probably would have even if Uther hadn’t been irreplaceable. And as for the women, there were many theories as to what, exactly, was going on. It was common enough to say that there was no need for a deeper explanation; Uther traveled the world, seeking out its most dangerous possible places, and the fact that people died around him was a natural consequence of that.”
“He would have seen it,” I said. I started pacing, just to have somewhere to put my energy. “If our theory is that he started wandering the world in order to be away from his wife and children, then obviously he had to have seen it.”
“I do think that’s a natural consequence of this narrative theory and how he would have interpreted his own life,” Amaryllis agreed.
“Then how could he?” I snapped. “He’d have known after the, the fifth one surely, but he just — kept going in the knowledge that they would die?”
“Do you need to take a break?” asked Amaryllis.
I stopped and took a breath. “I don’t know,” I said. “I was hoping to figure out something to tell Fenn. Either a hole to poke in this theory, or a reassuring alternate explanation, or … something.”
“Does it need to be true?” asked Amaryllis.
And that actually gave me pause, because I guess on some level I was a stupid asshole that just wanted the problem to go away. There was probably a world where I said that no, it didn’t need to be true, so long as it was convincing. “Yes,” I said. “It needs to be true. Or, if not true, because we don’t know the truth, then something that might mean that my life here isn’t fucked.”
“She’s not your life,” said Amaryllis.
I turned away from her at that and started to walk out of the house, then turned back and took a deep breath, unclenching my fists and trying to relax my muscles. I tapped into blood magic to slow my heart rate, though I wasn’t sure that would actually do anything to get me in a better frame of mind. “I know that,” I said. “I know that this is bigger and more important than what’s going on between Fenn and me. I’m sorry for not approaching this rationally.”
Loyalty increased: Amaryllis lvl 13!
Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 6!
“No, I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “I shouldn’t have –”
“It’s okay,” I said. “I’d still like to hear the other explanations for what happened to these women. You said that some people didn’t see the need for a deeper explanation, but for the people who did, what did they come up with?”
“It’s a mixed bag,” said Amaryllis. “Some of it I’ve only read this morning and still need some time to process. If you take Uther as a more complicated person — I’m not saying anything about your friend, only about how people view a very opaque historical figure — then he and Zona had a loveless marriage, and his philandering predates her injuries, with all the stories about their love being akin to propaganda, or possibly literal propaganda. And if that’s the case, then perhaps the unifying force behind those deaths is Zona herself. I don’t personally believe it, but I need to do more research. I need to do a lot more research. It’s possible that the meme has no basis in reality.”
“Meme?” I asked.
“A meme is a concept or idea that spreads from person to person,” said Grak.
“No, I know what a meme is,” I said. “I just didn’t know that was a thing that you had on Aerb. Was the term … was the ‘meme’ meme introduced by Uther?”
Amaryllis nodded. “He believed that ideas were important and devoted a fair amount of his energy to spreading beneficial ones far and wide.”
“Hum,” said Solace. “Perhaps it would be better to say that he spread the ideas that he thought were beneficial far and wide.”
Amaryllis seemed like she was about to say something, but perhaps the subtext of what Solace had said became clear to her, because she stayed quiet. The subtext wasn’t clear to me, but at a guess, I’d have said that you didn’t get a Second Empire without a First Empire, and some of the beneficial memes that I would have tried to spread were things like global (hexal) connectedness, cooperation against greater threats, systemization of information and knowledge, economic interlocking, and the ordering of society. If Arthur had kicked this world into the Enlightenment, or at least laid the groundwork for it, then I could see how a druid would feel the stirrings of rebellion against that.
“What do you need from me, to get answers?” I asked. “Are there resources that I can devote to helping you, brainpower I can add, something to help speed up you trying to, first, figure out whether there’s actually anything to this narrative theory, and second, the bounds of it, and third, what I’m supposed to do about it?”
“Grak and I have been working on it this morning,” said Amaryllis. “None of it was ready. You can go tell Fenn that. I might have made her worry for nothing. And even if Uther was onto something in how he spoke of narratives, even if you’re a mirror to him, then that doesn’t mean that the rules are the same. She might have more in common with the Knights than with the lovers. So far as I know, for Uther they never coincided, but we can’t be sure who was or wasn’t linked to him like we are to you. Grak and I will work on it more.”
That left nothing for me to do. “You want to cut me out of the loop?” I asked.
“It’s too personal for you,” said Grak. “You can’t look at it with clear eyes.”
“That’s probably true,” I said. Not just because of Fenn, but Arthur too. “The risk you run is that you present a case for me and I instantly shoot a hole in it, because I’m the only one capable of seeing that hole. And beyond that … I wouldn’t expect this place to have stories in the same sense that plays and books do, because the trappings, at least so far, are all from tabletop games, and stories work differently there. It’s less clean. I’ll help and try to stay rational about it.”
“This was supposed to be time off,” said Solace in a mild tone. “It’s good for the body, mind, and soul to be carefree, when there’s any allowance for it.”
“I’m not sure there is,” said Amaryllis. “If the narrative theory is true, or at least has a grain of truth, then we have a limit on how long we can sit in one place. Figuring out that limit would be important.”
“Ah, well,” said Solace, “I’m sure we think very differently about understanding.”
“I’m going to go find Fenn,” I said to Amaryllis. “Let me know when you have something.”
There weren’t that many places to go within the bottle; from the tree house in the center, it was a half mile to every edge, though the house was slightly off-center. The first thing I looked for was the giant deer, which wasn’t too hard to spot, and as I moved closer to it, I saw Fenn, in her yellow sundress and black glove, holding her bow and looking up, with the doe sleeping quietly beside her.
“Hey,” I waved to her as I got closer.
“Hey,” she said, eyes toward the sky. “Wanna see something neat?”
“Sure,” I replied.
Fenn raised the bow above her head, materialized an arrow in her gloved hand, then fired it straight up. “Okay,” she said, tossing the bow to the ground and drawing out an apple from Sable. “Watch and be amazed.” She licked her lips as she looked up in the air and held the apple out in front of her.
“Fenn, is this safe?” I asked, panic rising slightly.
She gave the apple a small toss and withdrew her hand just as the arrow came silently dropping down. It pierced through the apple in mid-air and then drove into the ground with the apple caught on the fletching.
“Ta da!” she said.
“That was actually really impressive,” I said, moving closer to her. It was actually so impressive that I didn’t think it was within the realm of possibility for a human.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do that a month ago,” said Fenn, looking at the pierced apple. “I’ve gotten better without much in the way of practice. And my luck has gotten a lot stronger than it was too, which should be impossible without at least a hundred years under my belt.” She turned to me. “So those are the upsides.”
“Not including my amazing company?” I asked.
“Well, that too,” said Fenn. She held up her hand. “I’ve got a nifty glove, and there was that armor I had for a bit before I was literally cut into two pieces and spilled the majority of my blood on the forest floor.” She gave me a nonchalant shrug. “Oh, plus I’ve gotten to kill a lot of assholes lately.”
“You take pleasure from that?” I asked.
“I figure if you’re going to do it, then you might as well enjoy it,” said Fenn. “I’ve spent most of my adult life killing the undead, it makes it easy to just think of people as bodies, not actual living, breathing creatures with their own hopes and dreams. And even then, it’s been a lot of assholes. Asshole hopes, asshole dreams.”
“I get their names,” I said, pointing to my eyes. “Most of the time, anyway. I don’t really know how the game decides between what’s a named and non-named character, but –”
“Can you not call it a game?” asked Fenn. She took off her glove and tossed it to the ground.
“Sorry,” I said. “The … interface?”
“No, something better than that,” said Fenn. “How about washater, does that work for you?”
“More elfish?” I asked.
“It means something like game or system,” said Fenn. “A set of artificial rules. How have you not learned Elfish yet?” Wah-sha-tehr, a set of rules, five words of Elfish down, thousands to go, plus a whole new set of rules. Yay.
“I tried learning Groglir with Grak. It didn’t really take in the way I hoped it would,” I said, “The, um, washater didn’t seem to want to grant me the ability to speak it after an hour or two, which means that either I didn’t get enough basic knowledge and practice in, or maybe … I don’t know, maybe it’s just not something that it’s ever going to help me with. D&D always fudged the concept of language. Most games do.”
“We should play some D&D,” said Fenn. “We’re taking some time off to recuperate, why not do a thing that you like doing? You said that it was best with one dungeon master and four people, better to do it now before we get another companion. And besides, Amaryllis has her head up her butt about narratives, but she’s going off of plays and stories. For all that you talk — incessantly talk — about games, we’ve never played one.”
“I … huh,” I said. “That actually makes a lot of sense. I knew I kept you around for a reason.”
“Oh, only a reason?” asked Fenn with a smile.
“Maybe if I dug deep I could list a few more,” I said. I shifted my weight and tried to formulate what I wanted to say next. “Did you want to talk about the downsides of being with me?”
“Not really,” said Fenn. “Our lovely locus helped me to calm down, and … you’re working on the problem, if there is one?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you have a quest?” she asked.
“I … no, I don’t,” I said.
I wasn’t even sure how that would work. Obviously if there was such a thing as a narrative, presumably being controlled by the Dungeon Master, then having a quest to defeat the force of that narrative would be a severe mixing of layers. Did that make four layers in total now? There was the reality of Aerb, the game layer that sat aside from it, and then the super-reality where all this was being simulated, or if it wasn’t actually a simulation, then the true reality that it was sitting on. I wasn’t sure that narrative had its own layer in all this; maybe it was better to think of it as an agent with multi-layer access, like the Dungeon Master. Or maybe narrative was just a manifestation of the Dungeon Master.
“Well, even if there’s no quest, I would prefer for this to be at the top of the queue,” said Fenn.
“Of course it is,” I said. “Fenn, if anything happened to you –”
“I said I didn’t want to talk about it,” replied Fenn with a frown.
“I don’t want to let it fester,” I said.
Fenn sighed. “If I spent time focusing on every shitty thing in my life, I wouldn’t have time to get anything done,” she said. “Maybe this is a problem, maybe it’s not, maybe you can do something about it, maybe you can’t. Maybe I’m doomed to die, or at least be horribly maimed. More than I already have been, anyway.” She glanced at her scars, and at the thin, faded red line that still marked where she’d been cut in half. “I trust you and the others to figure things out and tell me whatever is best for me. Well, I only mostly trust Amaryllis, as much as I might like her. But you’ll be there to supervise.”
“I did think the timing was suspect,” I said.
“You show a remarkable lack of tact last night, and then in the morning she has a new theory that means we can’t be together?” asked Fenn.
“Sorry, I showed a lack of tact?” I asked with a laugh.
“Well, it was really very rude of you,” said Fenn, smiling slightly. “But honestly, I don’t think that Mary often does things for herself, she said that she would slit my throat if she had to –” Fenn saw my expression, “Oh, no, it was a unicorn blood thing, she preceded that by saying that she liked me quite a lot, and after she said she was willing to kill me, she said that she hoped that she never had to, so I really thought it was sweet, in its own way.”
“I might have to talk with her about that,” I said.
“Please don’t,” said Fenn. “Is it any different from what you thought of her already?”
“I guess not,” I said. Amaryllis was stronger than me, in a scary sort of way; I wasn’t sure that I would ever be able to kill her, even if I thought that was the smart thing to do. The thought of it made me a little sick. In my mind’s eye, I stayed my hand.
Fenn stepped closer to me and gave me a slow kiss. “I think I’m done talking for a while. Can we forget everything, just for a bit?”
I took her hand into mine. She was close enough for me to smell her, a pleasant, earthy scent. “You think this is wise, given things being how they are?”
Fenn shrugged, then kissed me again. “I think that I’d like to not think about that.” She reached up and touched my neck with her slender fingers. “And if we’ve made a mistake, then I’m fine with making that same mistake a second or third time.”