“Well that was fucking horrifying,” said Fenn as we walked through the plaza outside the tower.
“What part?” I asked, raising an eyebrow. I’d basically been threatened with death, but the Abswifth had seemed reasonable enough. “Did he say something to you while I was under? Actually, we should probably hold off until we’re somewhere private, if he was to be believed about lip readers and eavesdroppers.”
Fenn frowned, looking at the gates, and the crowds beyond them. “We’re leaving Parsmont?” she asked. “This whole adventure has put us well behind schedule. Mary’s probably worried sick.”
“We’re leaving,” I nodded, glancing at the black tower, not all that far away from us. “I’m worried that the other shoe is going to drop before we do, but we’ll try our best to escape. We’re going to have to abandon the car, since they had eyes on us from the moment we came to town, and they had the better part of three hours–”
“Four hours,” said Fenn.
“More than enough time to do whatever they wanted with the car,” I said. “I don’t really know the state of surveillance devices in this neck of the woods, but I’m not going to bet against them being small enough to hide in the car, or on our ability to find them, considering that I know nothing about cars.”
“I might have something at the end of my sleeve,” said Fenn, wiggling her gloved fingers.
Guards opened the gates for us, and then it was an uncomfortable press of people, many of them asking questions. I answered the first of those questions with, “No comment” and then that became my litany as Fenn and I moved away from the tower. Only a few of them followed us, and even then, not for too long, though we had our pictures taken a few more times, which I didn’t enjoy in the slightest. Eventually they lost interest, and we slipped into side alleys a few times, trying to make sure that we didn’t have a tail, though that wasn’t an area of expertise for either of us.
“So what’s the plan?” I asked Fenn as soon as we thought we were clear. She’d changed hats, and pulled out light coats for both of us to wear, changing our appearance just enough that we might seem like different people on casual observation.
“Oh no,” said Fenn. “Don’t you put planning on me, you’re the one that’s got all the planning duties in this relationship, I’m just along for the ride, and to shoot things when they bother you.”
“I meant, what did you have in your glove that we could use instead of a car?” I asked as we approached the outskirts of the city, where the roads were wider. We had at least half an hour to get back to where Mary and Grak were going to be waiting for us, if they were still there. I wasn’t sure whether she would stay put or move, once we failed to show up. The plan was for our trip into Parsmont to not take longer than three hours, including the travel time, meaning that by the time we reached them, we’d be a few hours overdue. Amaryllis had a streak of pragmatic paranoia to her, but I didn’t actually know what her response would be.
Fenn held out her hand, fingers spread, and a very familiar-looking motorcycle appeared in front of us, its tank made of glass and full of souls.
“XC-class soulcycle?” I asked, staring at it.
“That’s what Mary said,” replied Fenn. “I stole it back in Cranberry Bay, Mary bypassed the ignition when we were still in the bottle.”
“Huh,” I said. “Just the one?” I resisted the urge to ask her how long she’d been sitting on this particular asset, which might have come out as accusatory. Unspoken plans, made without me.
“Crime of opportunity,” replied Fenn, seeming to misunderstand the nature of my question. “We’ve got the money to buy more of them, if we really wanted to burn the resources.”
“No, it’s fine,” I replied. “We can’t pick up Mary and Grak in that thing, but they’ll have, ah, other means of conveyance, if they’re where we left them.”
“Except she won’t want to use it, because it’s our ‘most valuable asset’,” replied Fenn, hopping onto the soulcycle. “You’re fine with my driving?”
“Lead the way,” I replied, slipping into the seat behind her and wrapping my arms around her waist.
The soulcycle that Amaryllis and I had gone through the Risen Lands with had seven souls in the tank, and didn’t move all that fast. This one was full-up, and Fenn was pushing it nearly to its limits, weaving in and out of traffic. She might have stolen the soulcycle for us, but she hadn’t stolen helmets, or if she had, she hadn’t offered them up. We slipped through traffic, sometimes splitting lanes, until I finally tapped her on the shoulder when we were still a few miles from the woods we’d dropped Amaryllis and Grak off at.
“What’s up?” she asked as she pulled over to the shoulder. I got off the soulcycle, and she followed suit, stretching out in a way that I found unexpectedly alluring.
“I’ve been thinking,” I said. “We’re late, and late enough that more time probably isn’t going to make the difference. I still have soul magic unlocked, which means that I should still be able to get into my soul, but the skill is at zero, which means that I’m a bit hampered. Here, now, while we have the time, I’d like to level it up a bit, and then check on Amaryllis so that I don’t have to find some excuse to do it if or when we meet up with her, because Grak still doesn’t know about the soul link.”
“I would have agreed with far fewer words on your part,” said Fenn. “Take whatever time you need, my big worry is running out of daylight, and I can just slap you if that starts to be an issue.”
“You’re so lovely,” I replied with a smile.
Fenn grinned at me. “You still owe me that date, don’t think that going up a terrifying white tower counts.”
“Terrifying?” I asked. “I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn, looking away. “I’ve been thinking about that, a bit, what you said earlier, the confusion on your face.” She swallowed. “From what I gathered, the tower made us good, didn’t it?”
“Kind of,” I shrugged. “Maybe it’s more like it nudged our thoughts in one direction.”
“I hated myself,” said Fenn, still looking away from me. “Not me as I was in the moment, up there in the tower with you, but the person I was in the past. I kept thinking about the person I’d been, things I’d stolen, people I’d killed, thoughts I’d had, and it just … filled me with this disgust and horror.” I slipped closer to her, and held her hand, which she responded to by stepping in toward me and giving me a kiss on the lips. “It was a real slap to the face, I’ll tell you that — when I was working my way through the justice system of Anglecynn, before I got sent to prison, I’d always felt this contempt for the way people looked at me, the pity of the judges, the condescension of the lawyers, even my own lawyer, the guards, the clerks, I’d always gotten some looks for being half-elf, I’ve been spat on more times than I can count–”
“Spat on?” I asked. “I’m going to claim some cultural ignorance here, but that seems — well, like people are fucking assholes.”
“Okay, spat on three times, I actually can count those, but spat at more than I can count, usually they’re just spitting toward the ground, it’s — not the point, at all,” she said. “The point is, going through the system, and being in jail, there was this specific way that people looked at me, like I was a bad person, and I thought they were just smelling their own farts, you know?”
I laughed at that, and she gave me a smile that faded quickly.
“Up there in that tower, I understood them. I empathized with them. I was them, I was like this outside observer looking back over my own life and thinking, ‘holy shit, I’m a bad person’. You were doing most of the talking, and I was trying to follow your lead, but once I started down memory lane it seemed like every stop I made I was just … evil.” She breathed a sigh. “And a part of me didn’t want to leave the tower, because I thought I would just return to being evil again, so I had to make up my mind then and there that I would commit myself to the path of good, instead of being evil, but it slipped away even as we were going down the elevator.”
“You’re not evil,” I said. “I’d call you chaotic neutral, maybe.”
“That’s a D&D thing?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I replied.
“Well,” said Fenn, plowing on. “The thing I was thinking about as we were driving was, you didn’t seem to feel the same way, and I realized that you’re probably just a better person than I am, with less to answer for.”
“I’ll be honest,” I replied.
“See?” interrupted Fenn. “Already showing that you’re good.”
I shook my head. “I just wasn’t really thinking about the past,” I replied. “I’ve got stuff to answer for, maybe not as serious as you do, but back on Earth, by the standards of the town I lived in, I … yeah, I was bad, especially after,” I licked my lips. “After Arthur. I was mean, I hurt people, not just in the way I destroyed all my friendships, but actually, physically hurt people because I thought it would feel good, and it did feel good.” I looked down at my hands, remembering how much my knuckles had hurt as I sat in the police station after having attacked Victor Clark. “But I didn’t think about any of that in the tower, which I think is why I didn’t experience what you did, and even if I had … I’m not really that person anymore. I mean even before I came to Aerb, I’d more or less hit rock bottom and was starting to claw my way back, like I’d gotten the evil out of my system, and that feeling of hating myself and feeling disgust at what I’d done, thinking it was evil — I’ve felt that way for a while, it wouldn’t have been new.”
“And the things you’ve done on Aerb?” asked Fenn. “Aumann and his people? Hell, we killed Fireteam Blackheart together, you dropped half of them down an elevator shaft, and even before you got to Silmar City, you and Amaryllis left a trail of bodies. It was kill or be killed, I get that, but …” She stopped. “I’m not saying that you’re a bad person.” She looked toward the sun and frowned. “I’m sorry, I don’t want you to feel like I’m attacking you, but I just don’t really get how to reconcile our different experiences of the tower. And we don’t really have time for that.”
“You’re right, I need to be grinding Essentialism back up,” I replied. “But … I think I know the answer to why our experiences were different.”
“Because I’m evil?” asked Fenn with a forced laugh.
“The interesting thing about the Tower of Good wasn’t that it made us think good thoughts or whatever, it was that it attached lines of thought to them,” I replied. “I wasn’t just thinking that I shouldn’t lie, I was thinking about the reasons behind it, which were different from what I would have come up with on my own. It wasn’t just morals, it was some kind of moral framework, including at least some small amount of reasoning behind it.”
Fenn frowned. “So the difference between us–”
“I’m a utilitarian,” I replied. “Moral philosophy isn’t my forte, but Arthur liked the subject enough that he set himself to playing devil’s advocate–”
“Playing what?” asked Fenn, her frown deepening.
“Fucking idioms,” I replied. “He liked to argue, maybe more than he ever liked anything else in his life, and that was one of the best things about him, in part because he could come up with some really, really entertaining arguments that he would put a lot of thought into. A lot of the time he argued from a position that he didn’t really agree with — he thought that was best practice if you wanted to actually understand the world — and, anyway, he was always pitting himself against me, trying to get me to declare a moral position that he could attack against.” Looking back, it was probably more fun for him than for me, but part of being a friend was working to indulge each other’s eccentricities.
“So you’re saying that you’ve thought a lot about good and evil,” said Fenn, still frowning.
“I’m saying … nothing that the tower was telling me was really new,” I replied. “I’m not a great utilitarian, and maybe I would even say I’m a bad one, but I’ve at least grappled with the questions for long enough to know that’s the thing that makes the most sense to me. So this other way of seeing things comes into my head, temporarily replacing what was there, and there was a dissonance. But for you …” I shrugged. I didn’t want to blame her for being apathetic about right and wrong, but it seemed to me that the tower would get more powerful if it applied its effect against someone who was untested.
“I didn’t have defenses against it,” replied Fenn with a nod, her frown finally vanishing. “Huh.”
“Just a theory,” I replied.
“Yeah, but it makes sense,” she replied. She squared her shoulders. “Okay, that makes me feel a lot better. Go inside your soul and relearn the lessons, then let’s get on the road.”
And that was where I ran into problems.
“It’s been half an hour,” said Fenn, glancing at the sun. “Feels like longer. We might have to just say fuck it and try to get you to reacquire it later on.”
“I should be able to do it,” I replied. “The skill is unlocked and sitting at 0, the character sheet confirms that, unlocked should mean that I’m able to go into my soul and start the leveling process.” I frowned at my hands, which weren’t really part of the process of soul-diving, but definitely were available to frown at. “Do you have pencil and paper in your glove?”
Fenn rolled her eyes, because of course she had pencil and paper in there. She had them in my hands in a hurry, and I bent down next to the soulcycle so that I would have a hard surface.
“Whatcha doing?” asked Fenn.
“Drawing,” I replied, glancing at her briefly for reference. Curve of the throat going to the chin, curve of the chin going to the lips, her nose, cheeks, eyes, quick dots for freckles, hair longer than when we first met, noticeably so — I stepped back and held up the drawing, looking at it. It was flawed and done in a hurry, with poor materials, but it did look like her, at least a little bit.
“You’re testing your skill,” said Fenn. “Trying to see what’s left when a skill says that it’s been reduced to zero?”
“Yeah,” I replied, frowning at the picture of Fenn. “And obviously I still do have some faculty with it … I was going to say that I retained all the ability I had on Earth, but I was never that great at drawing people. I thought this was going to turn out terribly.”
“And you didn’t think to ask whether I was any good at art?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow.
It took a moment for what she was saying to sink in, and when it did, I slapped my forehead. “Symbiosis,” I said. “I’m an idiot.”
“It’s not something I’ve really brought up,” said Fenn. “Training under the elves, not terribly pleasant.”
“I saw it when I looked at your soul,” I replied. “It wasn’t high enough that I really noted it, you’re good at a lot of things.”
“Why thank you,” said Fenn with a smile. “But whatever you were trying to figure out, I doubt the art thing is helpful.”
“No, it’s not,” I said with a sigh. “It’s like I can remember all the things that Fallatehr said to me about the soul, and I can remember working my way through it, but none of it actually makes sense to me anymore. It was a key that opened the door, and now that key doesn’t work anymore. I don’t even recognize it as a key. That … doesn’t make sense.”
“Fallatehr said that soul mages removed skills from people before they were put into prison, didn’t he?” asked Fenn. “Kind of makes sense that a blood mage couldn’t just think back to all the lessons they took in order to get their power back.”
“It doesn’t make sense though,” I replied. “Memory isn’t actually … Earth memory isn’t this static thing, each time you remember something, you’re remembering the remembrance of it, you’re taking the file out of the filing system and then Xeroxing it before putting it back, but with a Xerox — it’s a copying machine — a Xerox that’s imperfect in ways that corrupt sensibly, rather than insensibly.”
“Sure,” replied Fenn, with an arched eyebrow.
“So what’s stopping me from repeating Fallatehr’s lesson to you, and then having you repeat it back to me?” I asked.
“Wanna try it?” asked Fenn. “We’re so far behind schedule I think the biggest worry should be that Amaryllis is going to go back to the farmhouse, not that I think she would do that. I was around for a fair amount of discussion.”
So we tried that. I gave her the metaphor that Fallatehr had given me, of the soul as a comprehensive book, and she gave me that lesson back, tweaked slightly to her own understanding, and from her own worldview. She thought of the soul as artistry, perhaps because our previous conversation had called that to mind, and to her way of thinking, if you wanted to represent something, there were certain things that you had to have, and others that you could skip over, but it was fractal.
“So, like, the cheek,” said Fenn, pointing to her own cheek, then down at the paper. “What you have here is enough to show the cheek on the face, but it’s not enough to show the cheek by itself, because you’re missing features. Eventually you get down to a level where you’ve said all you needed to say, and the picture you’ve painted is indistinguishable from reality, even though it’s not actually as complex as reality.”
I frowned, because I wasn’t sure that she was actually saying the same thing as Fallatehr said, but his metaphor wasn’t perfect either, and I really wanted to have soul magic back again before we were face to face with the master soul mage.
“Try the meditation thing,” replied Fenn.
And incredibly, it worked. I was back within my soul in a matter of minutes, and when I went over to my skills, I could see Essentialism start silently ticking up again, just from being in my soul. Wary of getting caught by the soul trance twice, I tried to keep the need to leave in my head while going over to my values, adjusting the ‘Level Up’ value back down from where it had risen to, then left my soul once again.
“That shouldn’t have worked,” I said.
“But it did,” replied Fenn. “Isn’t that what’s important?”
“It implies some important things, I think,” I replied. “Reducing a skill doesn’t remove the memories of having learned and used that skill, but it does somehow affect the actual procedural memory, or … something. It’s fucked up. It also means that I can’t use the trick of becoming not a soul mage too many times, which was already a really lame superpower.”
“Superpower is like … the Flash or Spider-Man?” asked Fenn. She had, by necessity, become something of a scholar of pop culture.
“And I’m Captain Not-a-Soul-Mage, endowed with the awesome power of being able to not be a soul mage,” I replied, smiling to myself.
“You are so lucky you’re cute,” replied Fenn. “But if the soul powers are back, then we really should be going, because I’m sure our Mary is lonesome.”
The sun had nearly set, which meant that we were probably going to be driving toward her in the dark, and she would be expecting a car, not a soulcycle. “I didn’t check her, just came right back out, didn’t want to get stuck again,” I said.
“Check her,” replied Fenn. “No use taking chances. If you get stuck, we lose more time, but we’ve already fucked the schedule.”
I did as she said, diving back into my soul, tracing along the line toward Amaryllis, and glancing away from her body to make me feel better about the intrusive act of gazing on her soul. I looked at her values, going through the twenty highest and seeing that they were all as I remembered them, then pulling up a selection of keywords, the ones that I thought Fallatehr would probably use if he had been monkeying around. The big problem was that values seemed to be fractal, some of them containing the others, and if Fallatehr were clever, with enough time, he might be able to hide something somewhere.
If it were me, I would probably have tried to jigger it so that lots of component Juniper-parts were highly valued, while trying to leave the actual “Juniper” value low, depending on how that worked. There were also controls on the values that could probably be tinkered with, trying to overload one of the numbers in order to cause behaviors that you wouldn’t expect unless you were an expert. Maybe at the height of the Second Empire, when there was a cabal of soul mages, they had established patterns of detection, subversion, counter-subversion, etc., but I was ignorant of what those patterns might be.
It wouldn’t be impossible to partially reconstruct them from scratch though, given that I had access to no less than three souls, but there were issues with that, both ethical and practical. If I tried to figure everything out without actually modifying anything, it might take a really long time to reach any proper conclusion, but —
I felt a slap on my cheek pulled myself out right away, my sword expanding from its ring form to make a blade almost as a matter of habit before I looked at Fenn, who didn’t seem even remotely distressed.
“You were taking a really fucking long time,” she said.
“Sorry,” I said, rubbing my face. “Just a little bit more, slap me if it’s longer than, say, ten minutes.”
“Looking forward to it,” she replied.
So I dove back in, tracing my way to Amaryllis again, this time trying harder to be aware of the muted outside world. I made the rest of my scan, re-confirming her skills, then moving on to social modeling, where I could see her ideas about people. Fallatehr was there, the same as he was in my own soul, a little micro-soul, a model within a model. It was, in part, data about people, but it was also a measure of the prominence of that data, a picture of the way you thought about other people. For Amaryllis, Fallatehr’s potential to betray us loomed large, larger than I would have thought from talking to her, with his skill in essentialism the second most important thing about him, at least from her perspective. She didn’t appear to like him, and even her respect for him was pretty meager. None of that looked like tampering to me.
I was tempted to go looking deeper. There was a social model of me, visible in my periphery, but while there was an argument to be made that Fallatehr might have altered her perception of me, if he’d somehow gotten his hands on her, there was a stronger argument that soul magic didn’t give me the right to go snooping around, especially since there was no turnabout on her part, no ability to read my diary in the way that I would be reading hers. I already felt like reading her like this was an uncomfortably personal affair.
“She’s clean,” I said as I pulled out. “I take that as a good sign.”
Amaryllis was more or less where we’d left her, and less pissed off than I had thought she would be, which is to say that she was still visibly upset. She came out of the woods when we brought the soulcycle to a stop. Now that the sun had fallen, we were pretty conspicuously the only thing on the road.
“You’re late,” she said, looking down at the soulcycle. “Enemy action?”
“Yes,” I replied. I looked from her to Grak. “Things went well on your end?”
“Well enough,” grunted Grak. “The bottle is secure and well-lit. That’s a stop-gap measure.”
“What happened to you?” asked Amaryllis, looking at the soulcycle again with a frown.
“We got picked up by the Abswifth, who wanted to have a talk with us about … me being a soul mage, I guess,” I replied. “We went up the Tower of Probity, suffered through some mildly unpleasant mental fuckery that I wasn’t informed existed on Aerb, and then I removed my ability to do soul magic so that he could pretend that I was innocent.” I turned to Fenn. “I think that’s more or less it.”
“Where’s the car?” asked Amaryllis.
“Back in Parsmont, for the time being,” replied Fenn. “They could have put a bomb in it while we were indisposed.”
“Or a listening device, or tracking spell, or any number of things we couldn’t have checked,” I added with a shrug. “I’ll volunteer for a stint in the glove if we need to make our getaway by soulcycle, but I’m of the opinion that we could just teleport a few continents away.”
Amaryllis stared at me. “You think it was Fallatehr?” she finally asked.
“It had to have been,” I replied. “He was pretty fucking blatant about it. I’d call it cheeky, but I didn’t find it endearing. This was part of some plan of his, I’m not really sure what, but I don’t intend to find out if I can help it.”
“We can’t just leave him here,” said Amaryllis. She glanced over at Grak, then back to me. “You understand that he’s a powerful, illegal, soul mage who knows our names? That was part of the deal we made with him, so that we would have less of an incentive to defect.”
“Defection has occurred,” I replied with a shrug.
“And the damage he might cause?” asked Grak.
I frowned, trying to think back to the numbers on the values I’d seen in my head, trying to map how long it would take for ‘Level Up’ to reassert itself back at the top. A week? Two? Nothing had changed as far as the Grak situation was concerned. Valencia’s second warning about him had made it more likely that he was compromised, but I didn’t trust her very much, especially not given the fact she’d been speaking to me with a devil’s skills in deception.
“You still don’t trust me,” he said. He stepped back slightly. “That is probably wise on your part, given your information. What I say has merit though.”
“We broke him out, we’re somewhat responsible for him,” I said with a sigh. “‘Somewhat’ being the operative word there. And Valencia is still back there, and–” I wasn’t sure what she’d have gotten up to since I’d left, but I hoped that she was okay. The new version of her scared me, a little bit, but we couldn’t leave her. “Shit. Thoughts on how we approach this?” I paused. “Guns blazing?”
“No,” replied Amaryllis. “We still need him, especially if you don’t have access to your soul magic anymore.” She hesitated, then glanced at Grak, before looking back at me. “It’s gone completely?”
“Yes,” I replied. “For now.” The lie came out quickly and easily, which I guessed had to have been from half of Fenn’s considerable ability in the skill transferring over to me. I almost fucked it up by pausing, so that I could get my bearings and figure out why I’d lied on instinct, but I continued on without stumbling, and without looking at Fenn to see her reaction. “We can find a better teacher than Fallatehr though, one that can get me what I need without us having to watch our backs the entire time.” I looked at Grak. “Our ability to enforce trust is limited, that’s a handicap whether or not he’s actually up to something. That’s especially true now that I’m back to square one.”
(Why the lie? It was easy to construct a reason, working backwards; Grak was a potential channel of information to Fallatehr, and if I could give Grak the wrong information, then Fallatehr would get the wrong information, and that might allow me to first confirm whether or not Grak had been turned against me, and second, give us some advantage in a confrontation with Fallatehr.
… but that was post-facto reasoning, not why I’d did it in the moment. Was it something subconscious? Or that my augmented mind rolled a high number somewhere and fed me the idea of lying? I tried not to stare at Amaryllis. I’d been lying to her, was that my original intent or a byproduct of keeping information from Grak?
The problem was, I was really good at creating good-sounding justifications for my actions. It was half of what I’d spent my time doing after Arthur had died, and it had that same feel, of grasping for some way that the thing I’d done for unclear, probably emotional reasons was actually the best possible thing that I could have done in the circumstances.
Shrug away from Tiff when she’s searching for comfort? Well, Arthur was my best friend, and if she felt a fraction of what I was feeling, maybe that would help her understand the pain I was in. Attack a kid at school because they said that Arthur’s death was part of God’s plan? Well, play stupid games, win stupid prizes, people should be punished for saying things like that, for not having an ounce of empathy, for worshipping a god that inflicts pain and death on someone like Arthur as part of some fucked up, unknowable plan. Every friend I’d driven away, every mean thing I’d said, the Fel Seed Incident, Maddie, all of it, there was always a way for me to make myself into a rational actor. Looking back, one of the worst things about that period of my life was that I almost constantly felt like I was right, through all the pain and sorrow that I felt, and inflicted on others, as I flailed around like a wounded animal, I was able to justify it to myself as the only thing that could be done.
It wasn’t a welcome feeling to return to.)
“You’re insistent on the non-anima being part of the group?” asked Amaryllis.
“Her name is Valencia,” I replied with a frown. I couldn’t tell whether she was trying to make a point or had just defaulted to her standard way of thinking. I’d gotten myself scattered and off-balance, which made it harder to think about that kind of thing. “But no, I don’t think that it would be wise to leave her behind. She has utility.”
“Does she?” asked Amaryllis, shifting her position slightly.
“We can discuss it later,” I replied. “I’m pretty sure that we both know where the other stands.” I hadn’t told her about the game glitch, or the new powers that Valencia apparently possessed, but I wasn’t about to do that in front of Grak, not when it seemed like we were about to go back to Fallatehr. I was a bit worried about her making a rash decision based on incomplete information, but had some hope that we had some time.
“So we’re going back to the farmhouse?” asked Grak. “Will we pretend nothing happened?”
“Seems like it,” I replied. I looked over at the soulcycle. “We have two seats, I think that Amaryllis and I should take them,” I said. That would give me some time alone with her. “That would leave Grak and Fenn to travel by glove.”
“I second that motion,” replied Fenn. She gave a short laugh. “Nothing I like better than traveling in a glove, Joon knows that, just me and an oxygen tank, getting to know each other.” She held out her hand, and one of the diver’s masks we’d gotten from the clonal kit appeared in it. She tossed it to Grak, who caught it with a frown.
“I get no vote?” he asked.
“Nope,” replied Fenn. “Even if you did get a vote, it’s three against one. Or two against two, with Joon as the tie breaker.” She glanced at me. “How did you get to be tiebreaker anyway?”
“Wit and charm,” I replied. I couldn’t help but notice that Amaryllis made no comment on the topic of a vote, and I thought back to what Fenn had said when we were first starting out, that she was worried Amaryllis and I would form an ironclad voting bloc. It hadn’t turned out that way, but looking at the dynamics as they stood, the group was starting to seem off-balance. With Valencia in the mix, I worried that it would be even worse.
Grak dutifully put on the mask, then waited patiently while Fenn rested a hand on him, and then he was gone, inside the glove. Fenn took another mask and tank out and put it on. She gave me a short little curtsey and then disappeared, leaving the glove, Sable, to fall to the ground. I picked it up and handed it to Amaryllis, who hesitated for a second before putting it on.
“Was there something you wanted to talk about in private?” she asked.
“Valencia,” I said. “She passed the loyalty threshold while we were in the basement. From what we were able to piece together, she had a way to use the devil’s abilities without actually being puppeted by it. She seems … powerful, I guess. Able to read me disconcertingly well, able to lie with impunity and not get caught. Not that–” I hesitated, wary of putting my foot in my mouth. “One of the things that I saw in your soul was your collection of skills. You’re good at Lying, I know you know that, you know I know that, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I think Valencia’s better than you now, but I guess I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you stretch the art to its limits.”
“Or I did, and was so good that it passed you by,” said Amaryllis. “But you think she’s better?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t know the limits of her power, the costs, the drawbacks, whatever else, but I wanted to read you in on that. Given the doubt around Grak, I didn’t think it was prudent to stop everything and tell you, because if we sent him away, he would know that something was up.”
“I don’t like it,” she said. “I don’t like being left out of the loop.”
“I know,” I replied. “There are ways that I could have done it better, more carefully, maybe we could have coordinated things before I went down there so I’d have a way to channel back without that channel being information on its own. I don’t know. I know that Valencia’s been a bit of a sticking point for you.”
“She has,” nodded Amaryllis. “I am willing to give her a chance.”
“She said that Grak was compromised,” I said. “Once she seemed fully in control of herself, she said that was the version of her story that was the truth. I’m not ready to place so much trust in her that I’m willing to remove him from the team, and even if she’s right, there might be some value in feeding false information back to Grak in an attempt to trip Fallatehr up … I don’t know, it’s a mess.”
“You had cause to believe he was compromised and sent me off with him anyway?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow. She didn’t seem angry, just curious.
“I knew you could handle yourself,” I replied with a shrug. “I knew that you would be on guard either way, that you wouldn’t let yourself slip just because it was uncertainty rather than concrete evidence. You’re the most competent person I’ve ever met.”
“Thank you,” replied Amaryllis. She looked at the soulcycle. “Should we get going?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Just like the good old days.”
She raised an eyebrow at that.
“Did you think that it was narrative?” I asked, gesturing at the soulcycle. “When Fenn showed it to you — when I saw it, I thought it was a callback, rather than just chance, a lazy kind of nostalgia that I always liked to stick in my games. Kind of a, ‘hey, that thing from before’ type of deal.”
“You treat it all a little too flippantly sometimes,” said Amaryllis. She strode toward the soulcycle and examined it for a bit, then hopped on top of it and started it up. “Come on, let’s go.”
I climbed aboard and took the seat I’d had when we were driving through the Risen Lands, and in a way it really was like old times, driving down a stretch of road with little other traffic, just me and her.
When we got to the farmhouse, Fallatehr was waiting for us.