Worth the Candle, Ch 76: Date Night

Fenn was dressed to the nines, in a black dress that hugged her figure and revealed her legs, back, and intricately scarred arms in a way that got my heart pounding. She was wearing a pair of black heels, and dazzling earrings that drew attention to her pointed ears. I hadn’t been completely clear on the ins and outs of women’s fashion on Earth, and knew even less about it on Aerb, but whatever bra she was wearing, it was doing wonders for her. It was also the first time I’d ever seen her wear makeup. Her hair though —

“You have long hair,” I said. When we’d first met her hair had been on the shorter side, barely long enough that she could put it in a ponytail, and while it had grown out some over the course of our time together, it was now hanging down in blonde ringlets down to the small of her back.

“Oh fuck off,” said Fenn. “That’s all you have to say?”

“You look gorgeous,” I replied. “You were already gorgeous, but now you’re the prettiest version of you that I could possibly imagine. Which is not to say that I don’t think that you’re pretty when you’re sleeping beside me in a tank top and underwear, or naked, or — that’s not helping me, is it?” She shook her head, which made her earrings sparkle in the sunlight, but she was smiling at me. “I only want to say that you’re beautiful, and I’m lucky to have you.”

“Aw, you’re not so bad yourself,” she replied, looking me up and down. “You clean up well.”

“See, I feel like if I said that, you would have taken it as an insult,” I said with a smile. I held out my hand. “Shall we?”

You know, now that I think about it, I wasn’t really completely clear on men’s fashion either. For me, it was gym shorts and t-shirt in the summer, and a hoodie with jeans in the winter, with a bit of a mix-and-match in-between. A few days ago, I’d taken a wallet full of obols from our safehouse and gone out into Cranberry Bay for new clothes, not the off-the-rack stuff that could be found in almost any clothing store, but three expensive outfits fitted to my exact proportions by an expert (an experience that I think I would place between getting a haircut and getting my teeth cleaned, on the stranger-invading-my-personal-space scale). The one that I wore was a black that matched Fenn’s dress, a jacket with buttons offset to one side, a collar that seemed like it was trying to hide my neck, and foot-long coattails. I’d mostly stayed silent at the tailor and let Amaryllis do the talking, but I was under the impression that this was a bastardized version of some culture’s formal dress that had spread like wildfire through the Empire of Common Cause.

Our destination was a restaurant that Amaryllis had picked out, Cupona, and if I’d done a good job of internalizing how expensive things were, I might have objected when I learned how much a meal there cost. We were still living off the gold we’d taken from Aumann’s, most of which had been converted over to cash, and though we’d been burning through it by establishing our safehouses, it still didn’t feel like we were anywhere near having to worry about it. We were, for tonight, treating ourselves, because it was our long-awaited First Date.

(Following the events of our brief stay in Parsmont, Amaryllis had formally declared herself as accountant and quartermaster, a position that she took to with the fervor of someone trying to make up for past mistakes. I’d gotten her after-action report, and tried my best to convince her that she was, basically, not a person that anyone should ever want to fuck with, but her response to that had been to pretend that she was feeling better, a facade that she didn’t put nearly enough effort into — telling her that seemed like it would be counterproductive though.)

“Okay, a few requests,” said Fenn after we were seated. “Number one: no talking shop.”

“What, exactly, is ‘shop’?” I asked. “We’re unemployed.”

Fenn gave me a casual shrug. She really did look beautiful tonight; the dress helped to accentuate the curling whorls of the scars on her arms; the straps must have been tailored just for the effect. She was showing a lot of skin. “Let’s say no talking about things like narrative, character sheets, training, logistics, money, planning, or anything directly related to operations of what would be our business, if it were a business.”

“But we can talk about our business partners?” I asked.

“Oh, yes, that, certainly,” said Fenn with a grin. A waiter, dressed in a muted brown uniform, stopped by to gently place two fluted glasses on our table, each filled with a milky purple liquid. “I mean, those are the only people that we really have in common, and I don’t want to take everything off the table.” She punctuated her sentence by grabbing one of the glasses and sipping at it. “Number two: no references to ye olde Earth.”

“But –” I began.

“Just the references,” said Fenn. “I normally find it has some charm, but tonight I’d like to get through a conversation without feeling like you’re having a laugh at my expense because I don’t know about my base.”

“Your base?” I asked, feeling confused and wondering whether she was pulling my leg.

“Something about how all my bases belong to you?” asked Fenn, with a furrowed brow.

“All your base are belong to us?” I asked, trying to keep myself from smiling. “I don’t even remember saying that.”

“We’d just finished the first safehouse, and you said it,” replied Fenn. She was watching me as she drank her purple milk. “And it was cute! But, also, I sometimes think that you do that for your own benefit, and while you might find it fun, it sort of pushes me away a little bit.” She frowned slightly. “The third request was going to be that we can’t talk about our relationship, but now I can see that I’ve fucked that up a bit.”

Two plates were gently placed on our table, each with no more than two bites worth of food. Our waiter gave us an elaborate description that I only half-listened to — some small, delicate animal had been deboned, arranged on the plate, and then cooked with hot oils, after which extremely small finely-cut vegetables in a variety of colors had been arranged around it. We hadn’t ordered; this was the sort of place where you ate what the chef made for you.

“Sorry,” I said. “I don’t mean to exclude you, or make you feel like I wish you were from Earth.”

“No,” said Fenn. She took a delicate forkful of food. “I didn’t mean … I like when you explain Earth to me, not just because you obviously enjoy talking about it, but because you do a good job of making it interesting.”

“But?” I asked.

“Okay,” said Fenn. “Explain the base thing to me.” She ate her forkful of food, and closed her eyes to savor it.

“It’s … an ancient internet meme,” I said. “There was this early, 16-bit videogame that got a really bad translation, and people found it funny enough that it went viral.” I treaded carefully, trying to make sure that Fenn knew all those words and I wouldn’t have to go into a digression to explain any of it.

“See, that’s sort of what I’m talking about,” said Fenn. “I didn’t mean all of Earth, I like hearing about your friends and your life there, but the memes … more than the memes, the shared cultural heritage?” She paused. “I don’t want you to feel lonely. I mean, I know how it is, for me it was being with humans and thinking about elves, or the other way around, and knowing that it wasn’t something that would translate …” She trailed off and ate another bite.

“So you over-corrected?” I asked. “When I met you, you were really playing up the half-elf thing. Less, now.”

“Hrm,” said Fenn. She took a spoon and scooped up the remaining sauce off the plate.

While she was ruminating on that, our waiter came back and whisked the plates away (mine having been demolished while Fenn talked — it was salty, acidic, and crispy, but gone in a flash, and I was hungry), then returned moments later with a new plate, this one with carved vegetables sitting in a multi-colored puddle.

“This course is corpsefruit and smoked bloodwood shoots on a bed of young –”

“You know,” said Fenn. “I really am enjoying myself here, and I don’t mean to be rude, but is there any way that we could eat without these interruptions? Just the food.”

“Of course, ma’am,” said the waiter with a quick bow, leaving almost immediately afterward. We’d paid in advance of the meal, including what I gathered was a rather generous tip; we’d been placed in a section of the restaurant away from everyone else, which I told myself was because of that, rather than because Fenn was a half-elf.

“Still thinking?” I asked before eating some of the unappetizingly-named corpsefruit. It was sweeter than I’d expected.

“Kind of,” replied Fenn. “This food is just shockingly good. Hard to believe that we switch between portable soup and something like this.” She speared a bloodwood shoot and watched as it bled, then gave it a twirl on her fork once. “I mean, you’re right about the whole half-elf thing, it’s easier to just be blunt about it, or joke, or just annoy people who are already going to be annoyed, but I don’t like the comparison.”

“No?” I asked.

“There’s a difference between saying, ‘hey, I’m different’, and the culture gap, you know?” asked Fenn.

“Yeah,” I replied. I held up my hands in defeat. “Consider it off the table.”

“I feel it with the others, too,” said Fenn, once another course had been delivered to us, this one a tiny collection of three different grilled meats. “These divides.”

“I still don’t really understand dwarves,” I said. “I mean I do understand the structure of their society and have some grasp on how that shapes them, I don’t want to say that I was the one to create them, but–”

“But you created them,” said Fenn with a smile. “So modest.”

“In my mind, dwarven culture was built around this sort of alternate form of farming,” I said. “I knew a lot of farmers growing up, and in my mind, it sort of mapped to that, with the parthenogenetic bloodlines added on. I mean, I think as I originally had it, there were two different strands of dwarf, the Mendi and the Taldi, one that did the pair-bonding thing and the other that stuck to the single-parent thing — sorry, this is probably boring.”

“You’re talking about the literal creation of the world,” said Fenn, leaning forward slightly. “I think you sometimes forget how special you are. I mean, you’re not a god, but I can point at random things and ask you why they are the way they are, and actually get an answer. Plus that god thing doesn’t seem like it’s totally out of reach. You could be talking to me about frogs and I’d be loving it.”

“You’d be making me blush, but I can control my bloodflow,” I replied. “But I am serious, the gap between Grak and I just seems so huge that there’s no way that I’m going to overcome it.”

“Bigger than you and the locus?” asked Fenn.

“Point taken,” I said. “You know, sometimes I wish that our party were just,” the Spice Girls, “more archetypally arranged, it seems like we’ve got a ridiculous, erratic spread both in terms of personality and utility.”

“We’ll probably have to talk about Val at some point,” said Fenn. With our plates cleaned between conversation, another course came to us, small, translucent balls of red, purple, and orange. “She’s fucking nuts.”

I winced. “I’ve been trying to keep my distance. I feel so bad for her, but I really don’t want her to think that I’m … more than I am, to her. More than I want to be.”

“She kissed Mary, I don’t know if you heard that,” said Fenn. She was trying not to show it, but the smile she was hiding reached her eyes.

“Seriously?” I asked. “Why?”

“Mary was making some attempts at socialization,” said Fenn. She’d stopped trying to hide her amusement. “Val’s all over the place, depending on whether or not she’s got a guest inside her, and even then.”

“That euphemism is terrible,” I said.

“I try,” said Fenn. “Anyway, Mary took it into her head that Val was going to need a crash course in how to be human, or at least a more normal varietal of the mortal species, because Mary’s got a bug up her butt about being ‘productive’, and the chance that Val could screw things up out in the real world is pretty high, especially if her connection gets cut off or she chomps too hard on her guest. So the lesson, such as it was, was about physical boundaries, and I guess our Mary said something to the effect that a kiss needs to be done chastely if in greeting, and anything more gets reserved for only those you really love.” Fenn took a spoonful of the orbs and gestured with her other hand, a ‘yadda yadda yadda’ type of signal.

“Huh,” I said.

“Right?” asked Fenn. I was pretty sure that she wasn’t thinking what I was thinking. “Anyway, they kissed for a few seconds — yeah, I asked about that, apparently Mary thought that saying ‘kiss people you love’ and then pushing Val away right after that might not be the best thing for the little woobie.”

“Using your definition for woobie, or mine?” I asked. A ravenous creature mimicking a pitiful cry for help, or a broken innocent who needed protection?

“Either,” said Fenn. “Mary’s grown a bit of a soft spot for her, which makes sense given that she’s not really threatening to slit our throats in the night or turn us against each other, or at least not in the same way she was before.” She kept the undercurrent of hostility from her voice, but not from her face, though it was nothing but a twitch of her eyebrows.

“Everything okay?” I asked.

“So, after they kissed, Amaryllis explained that wasn’t really appropriate, and went through this whole explanation about romantic love, what that was like, which Val only really had exposure to through her guests, and that’s not the kind of education that we’d want her to have, right? And her response to this whole lesson, was to say, ‘Oh, so I should only kiss Juniper?’”

“Ah,” I said with a sigh. “No, Amaryllis didn’t tell me any of that — probably so that we could have this conversation. You understand that’s not — she’s not appealing to me?”

“No?” asked Fenn. “She sees you as her savior and hangs on your every word. All you’d have to do, if you wanted her, is to say the word. You probably wouldn’t even have to do that, if she got it in her head that she could please you that way. A pretty girl, slipping into your bed naked because she’s so eager to indulge you?”

“I mean, when you put it like that …” I said with a smile that Fenn didn’t return. “I think you’re overstating her, uh, obsession with me.”

“Maybe,” said Fenn. Another plate came in front of us, and I was starting to get annoyed with how little food was on each of them, no matter that each one was a masterwork. “See, this is why I didn’t want to talk about us, I figured I’d just come off looking like I thought the world was out to get me.” She pierced a little wonton-style thing with her fork. “Though, I do have to say, you have five companions now, and four and a half of them are women, at least three of which are into you, which does not at all seem like coincidence.”

The three would be Fenn, Valencia, and Amaryllis. I’d really been hoping that that last complication would have evaporated by now, but I wasn’t about to challenge Fenn on it, especially because it was a subject that Amaryllis and I studiously avoided. Four and a half women though?

“Are you counting the locus or Grak as the half woman?” I asked. “Or both of them as three quarters?”

“I was thinking Grak,” said Fenn with a shrug. “The locus presents as female.”

I reached across the table and took her hand. “Fenn, under no circumstances will I ever even consider having sex with a giant six-eyed deer.”

“But you’re thinking of the logistics of it now, aren’t you?” asked Fenn, gently patting my hand.

“You know me too well,” I replied, pulling back. “I’m starting to agree that I should put the points into Social.”

“I am too,” said Fenn. “Not actually, if it’s just to stop you from putting your foot in your mouth. Can you imagine how dumb I’d feel if I died because I wanted you to have a bit more tact and grace around me?”

“Seems like we’re getting into shop talk,” I replied.

“You’re right,” said Fenn. “Tonight is a night to ourselves. Would you mind entertaining me with a game story?”

“Uh, sure,” I said. “I think you’ve heard all the best ones though. Unless I told you the asteroid story already?”

“Doesn’t sound familiar,” said Fenn. “You’re probably going to have to explain what an asteroid is though.”

So I told her the asteroid story (the short version: rock falls, everyone dies), and after that she told me about her first foray into the Risen Lands under the guidance of a mentor who she later had a falling out with, and we somehow managed to actually get our night back on track as the extravagant (but tiny) courses kept coming. It was pleasant, to be alone together, to take a break from the planning and preparations we’d been doing with the larger group, and we didn’t return to any discussion of the internal group politics either, which was a relief.

Movie marathons were something of a tradition for Arthur and me, going way back to before we’d even started playing tabletop games. Arthur had a deep and abiding love for series and sequels, but especially trilogies, and he often said that it was part of our cultural duty to see as many of the classics firsthand as possible, instead of just knowing about them through cultural osmosis, which gave you parodies of summaries of half-remembrances.

“I don’t know,” I said to Arthur during a lull in our Lord of the Rings extended edition marathon. “There are some ideas that seem like interesting premises, but actually aren’t.”

“Explain that one to me,” he said. “That’s like saying that someone looks beautiful, but actually isn’t, it’s a logical contradiction. I mean, maybe you can say that it’s an illusion or something.”

“Yes, right, that’s it exactly,” I said. “It’s an illusion. It’s looking at a pretty girl and then realizing on closer inspection that she’s a mirage.”

“Or has a lot of makeup on,” said Arthur.

“That’s,” I said, but my objection died on my lips as I realized that we’d probably end up talking about the socio-cultural role of makeup instead of the more interesting thing that I wanted to talk about. “Yeah, I guess. So you have ideas or premises that look interesting, but they actually aren’t once you start in on execution.”

“You’re just talking about a deep slash shallow distinction?” asked Arthur.

“Maybe?” I asked. “Well, maybe not, because there are different kinds of depth, and I’m not sure that we’re talking about the same thing here.”

“Okay,” said Arthur. “Taboo ‘deep’, taboo ‘shallow’.” That was, at the time, his new thing, declaring certain words taboo so that you had to more fully explain the concept you were pointing at. He’d told me once that all debates were ultimately debates about definition, but to me that sounded like one of those things that people say to be pithy rather than correct. “Actually, also taboo ‘interesting’.”

“Alright, but I need to think for a bit,” I said.

“That’s fine, we’re almost to Isengard,” replied Arthur.

So I sat there, half watching a movie that I’d seen three times before, and half thinking about how I wanted to frame things. My favorite part of watching movies with Arthur was that there was more time for silence and thought; I always felt like I was half a step behind him, if it was just the two of us talking.

“Okay,” I said, when the action was over. “I think it might be about minimal descriptive length.”

“MDL, sure,” said Arthur.

“For me, a good, compelling idea can be described in very few words, but the effects and results of that short description would have a very, very long MDL,” I said. “Or at least, that’s the starting point for describing what I guess I mean when I say that something can only seem interesting on the surface.”

“There’s a problem there,” said Arthur. “Which is that MDL is a wobbly term.”

“Yeah,” I said. I knew that was going to be a problem.

“I mean, you could rephrase it as the point of diminishing descriptive utility,” said Arthur. “I think that works a little better, like you can say that Merry is a male hobbit and that gets you a lot of conceptual power per word of description, but eventually you hit this point where you’re not talking about his hair, you’re talking about the individual placement of hair follicles. But then you have to take culture and cultural dictionaries into account, like ‘hobbit’, for example, where you’re packing a lot of description into a little term — that pun, Juniper, was just for you — and that’s just because someone has already done the hard definitional work for you.”

“Okay, sure,” I said. “So the problem I’m trying to get at is that there are some short, interesting elevator pitch type ideas that have a lot of consequences to them, but those consequences have a shorter descriptive length than you would think just looking at them. They might be evocative, but there’s no meat on the bones when you get down to it.”

“And you think that the Boundless Library is one of those ideas?” asked Arthur.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I mean, the core idea of a library filled with books that haven’t been written yet is a good one, but I sort of slipped sideways into this subplot about librarians, and if it’s just going to be about political infighting, what’s the point in including the library?”

“So it wasn’t a bad idea, it was bad execution,” said Arthur.

“Ouch,” I said. I’d always thought that ideas were basically worthless, when compared to execution. I wondered whether Arthur had remembered that; I’d always been the one to carelessly slight people, it wouldn’t have been like him to just outright hurt me like that, even if it was true.

“You told me that every session was a failure you could learn from,” he replied with a shrug, eyes still on the movie in front of us. “And to be clear, I didn’t hate it, it just didn’t have all that much to say. Like if you wanted it to be about fate, then make it about fate, or if you want it to be about, I don’t know, the difficulty in getting people that are nominally aligned with each other to actually work together, then it really needs to be about that. It wasn’t even that the librarians fighting with each other was bad, it was that they weren’t fighting about anything. There was this whole surface level thing about library classification schemes, but it wasn’t interesting, and that was just a proxy war that they didn’t care about, because they were factions competing to see who could get their guy to be head librarian. But the factions were just factions, people who hated each other for personal reasons, and we didn’t care about them either.”

(Arthur was the best. We sometimes played without him, and it was always a struggle for people to remember what had happened the time before, who their characters were, and what they were supposed to be doing. Arthur made notes, he kept to his characters, and more than that, he paid attention. He had an ability to absorb and digest plots and then spit them back out in a more refined form. Our art teacher had talked about how sculptors saw the piece within the marble, and to me it always felt like every game saw us both looking at the same piece of marble and him being able to see the shapes better.

That conversation, offhand on his part, showed a better understanding of that plot than I’d ever had, and while it felt almost venomous at the time to be told that I had spent dozens of hours of my time creating something boring, later on I could understand where he was coming from. It was maybe the closest that we ever came to having a fight, and the only reason that we didn’t was because Arthur was the best.)

“So what do you suggest?” I asked, my voice tight.

“Obviously we can’t play it again, obviously you can’t run it again, so …” he shrugged, still watching the TV. “Honestly, I would have made it more about the library, like there’s one faction that thinks the library should be sorted on the basis of people, and a different faction that thinks it should be about objective, people-less truth. Or, they’re all books that have yet to be written, so there are activist librarians trying to correct history, which changes the library, or conservative librarians who want as little change as possible because they’re worried that knock-on effects of change are going to make the future worse, and then maybe a few people in that camp who just don’t see it as their place. Those are things that I think we’d find interesting, because Reimer would probably call one of them dumb, and Tom would maybe try for reconciliation, and Tiff and I would get into some big fight about objective truth or whether conservatism makes sense as a political philosophy, or something like that.”

“And that’s your idea of fun?” I asked, still feeling a little wounded. “Everyone at the table getting in a fight?”

“Yeah,” said Arthur. He finally tore his eyes from the screen. “I kind of think that it’s what we’ve been missing lately. We all know each other, and our characters, and so the infighting and cross-purposes have more weight than anything else would. I don’t know, call me a drama queen, but it’s what I’ve been craving.”

After our dinner, we had box seats at a large playhouse, which wasn’t too different from the few professional productions I had seen back home aside from the microphone system, which wasn’t lavalier mics, but instead a bulky apparatus that sat nearly-hidden at the front of the stage, and was transmitted out to the audience in less-than-crystal-clear quality through enormous speakers. If I’d known ahead of time, I might have tried to get a smaller, more intimate place, but this theater did have something going for it aside from being close to the restaurant; it was showing an Uther Penndraig classic.

The Star War was the original trilogy of Star Wars, condensed down into a little over four hours, with two intermissions between what had originally been spaces between films. The programs notes we’d been given indicated that sometimes the three acts were performed separately, either on consecutive nights or in different seasons, but the Oxycoccus Orpheum seemed to take some pride in the longform production. It was Star Wars, as written from the recollections of Arthur, then filtered through nearly five hundred years of culture.

When Fenn went to the bathroom during the first intermission, I eavesdropped on a man giving his analysis of The Star War to a group of his friends. He was tall and nicely dressed, like I was, and spoke in a similar accent to Amaryllis, precise and clear.

“At the time of the first empire, people saw it as a warning,” he said. “The Lost King was giving a lesson to the people of Aerb, as he often did, and that lesson was that empires rot from the head, that powers can corrupt if allowed to, and that in that event, it’s the responsibility of even the lowliest among us to rise up.”

“But Luke is Darth Vader’s son, is he not?” asked a woman in the group. “He’s hardly the lowest of the corrupt empire, given the heirloom passed down to him and the magic of his bloodline.”

“Though it’s hard to peer into the mind of the Lost King, perhaps that was a message meant for his children,” said the man. “He was saying to them, perhaps, that he might become the evil that they would one day have to defeat, or pull back from the brink. It’s not clear whether Uther is better seen as Darth Vader or Emperor Reagan, though it might be that he’s both sides of the same coin.”

Emperor Reagan? I looked down at my program notes, but there he was simply listed as ‘the Emperor’. I smiled though, because that looked like another thumbprint of Arthur’s. The whole SDI connection was dumb, but it was dumb in a way that I liked, and in the context of what Fenn and I had been talking about earlier, it seemed like the sort of thing that I would have done, in his position. A reference, inserted for the sake of being a reference, and that because it was a connection to a shared cultural heritage that no one around him would understand. It made me happy, but also lonely.

“Status?” asked Fenn when she returned from her trip to the bathroom.

“You could just ask how I’m doing,” I said. “Good, I guess, just … a little nostalgic for home, more than I thought I would be.”

“No baddies though?” asked Fenn. “Scenario zero?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, still no sign that we’re, ah, back on the clock,” I replied. Our big fear for date night was that something would happen because of the whims of the game, but so far nothing had come of it. Amaryllis had our itinerary, and had said she would stay a block away, well within range if there was some kind of major altercation or disaster. Valencia and Grak were both back at the safehouse, hiding behind a whole host of wards and on high alert. I’d been trying my best not to let any of that undercut my enjoyment of a night alone with Fenn.

“Did you want to get out of here?” asked Fenn. “I know we’ve got two-thirds left to go, but I’ve seen it all before, you’ve seen it all before, and if it’s getting to you, the point of this evening certainly wasn’t to bum you out.”

“I’ll be fine,” I said. It was thoughtlessly kind of her to offer, as though this weren’t a special evening for the both of us. I reached forward and took her hand in mine. The point of the evening, I thought to myself. That dress really was doing wonders for her, and I had always been a fan of extravagantly long hair. She had done all this for me. I leaned in and gave her a long, slow kiss. “So long as I’m with you.”

“People are looking,” muttered Fenn. She was breathing harder than usual, and while she might have been worried about the attention she was getting, her eyes were on me. She was right though; people were looking, including the tall guy who had been talking about Emperor Reagan.

“Fuck ‘em,” I said. I took her arm in mine and led us back to the box seats for the rest of the show, which, after some time to adjust, became the right sort of nostalgic for me.

It was late when the play let out, which was no surprise given four hours of runtime and two intermissions. Night had fallen over Cranberry Bay, and a chill had come with it. There were fewer, dimmer streetlights than I was used to, but the number of people out made it seem safer and more lively. Fenn and I walked arm-in-arm, taking a long, scenic route to our hotel, six blocks that would take us through a stretch of park.

“Do you want my jacket?” I asked as I felt her shivering against me.

“Yes, please,” she said. “I felt quite sexy earlier in the night, and now I’m cold and my feet are killing me, which doesn’t seem particularly alluring.” She took the jacket and wrapped it around her, leaving me in a white buttoned-down shirt, then reached down and pulled off her shoes to walk barefoot.

“Not sure that’s advisable on these city streets,” I said.

“Oh, light of my life, we are no mere mortals to worry about such things,” she said with a laugh. “I’ll have dirty feet by the time we get to the hotel, but I was planning on a shower before anyway.”

Before. Solace had given her herbs that would prevent pregnancy, but she’d said that they would take a few weeks to work. It had been a few weeks now, and though we hadn’t actually talked about it, I was fairly certain that it was on our minds. And, on reflection, she had said what she’d said to make it clear that tonight was going to be the night.

We made our way through the park, lit by starlight and the glow of the city that surrounded it, neither of us talking much. I was enjoying the silence, and thinking about whether I should pick her up and carry her, when I spotted a small bit of movement behind a tree a hundred feet ahead of us.

“Someone’s hiding up ahead,” I murmured to Fenn, trying to act as though I was whispering a sweet nothing in her ear.

She let out a pleasant laugh that rang like a bell, and whispered back, “Six of them.”

I felt a chill go down my spine at that. I was armed, naturally, given that the Anyblade could be disguised so effectively, but I had no armor on, nor any of my usual magic items like Ropey. Fenn wasn’t wearing Sable, in part because it would have clashed with her look, but also because we’d both wanted to not treat our date night as a carefully planned and potentially deadly mission. I felt a pang of regret at that now; I should have known that the game wouldn’t let something like this pass by without incident. The only question was how difficult of a fight we had ahead of us. Against a random mugger in the park, there was no question that either of us would have won, and even outnumbered six-to-two I thought that was the case, but there was no telling who these people were and how well trained they were.

I also had a wide variety of magic available to me, including a recently acquired sapphire of impeccable quality and size that allowed for the use of effective gem magic, all of which would allow for a great deal of lethality. I planned to use full force, given that I had no idea what we were actually up against.

The man I’d seen behind the tree slipped out when we were thirty feet away with a casual move that I found irritating. He was holding a dagger large enough that I wondered whether ‘dagger’ was even accurate, and he spun it around once as he stepped onto the path.

“Nice night?” he asked. It was just barely cold enough that I could see his breath. I came to a stop so as not to put myself any closer to him.

“Oh, it’s been great, so far,” said Fenn. I couldn’t tell whether or not her chipperness was forced. “Seventeen courses at Cupona, the entirety of The Star War saga at the Oxycoccus Orpheum, it’s been decadent even by our usual standards, and I can hardly think of a single thing that would make it better.”

“Well I hate to end your night on a sour note, but I’m going to need your money, your jewels, and any other valuables you’ve got on hand,” he replied. Fenn’s response had thrown him off; he’d had a grin, but it had left his face.

“Who do you work for?” I asked. The other men had started to make their way out of the woods. I wasn’t sure whether we’d been surrounded when I spotted the first man, but we were definitely surrounded now.

“I’m not interested in conversation,” said the man, tightening his grip on his dagger. I looked at his shoes, then at his hands, trying to figure out whether there were any clues. Nice shoes might have meant that he was a professional, but they were, like his shirt, vest, and pants, nothing too out of the ordinary for the lower classes in the Empire, clothes that had probably been made using a power loom and shipped via teleportation.

“You don’t need six men for a mugging,” I said. “You want me to believe that a whole gang was just waiting here, hoping that someone with money would come by?”

“They might have been waiting for The Star War to let out, actually,” said Fenn. I heard a clatter as she dropped her heels to the ground, and watched, tense, as she took a few steps forward.

“Jewels, cash, now,” said the man. He’d been casually holding the dagger before, but he’d changed his stance slightly when she came close, one foot a bit forward, angling his body. He spat to the side. “Fucking half-breed.”

“Honey, I think that these men might legitimately be meaning to rob us,” said Fenn with a laugh. She clapped her hands with a giddiness that I’d rarely seen from her.

“Don’t take this so lightly,” I said.

“No, you’re right,” said Fenn. “This dress was expensive, I don’t want to get blood on it.” She cocked her head to the side. “Should I take the dress off and fight in my underwear, or what do you think is the best way to go?”

“Fenn,” I said, trying to keep some warning in my voice. She didn’t change her position or respond, so I turned my attention to the guy with the dagger. The others were closing in on us (two with guns, I was displeased to note), but he was their leader. I reached into my pocket. “I have two thousand obols on me,” I said. “Is that enough for us to be on our way?”

“Your girl has a real mouth on her,” said guy with the dagger. “Her earrings too.” He paused, looking me over. “And that ring of yours.”

“Oh fuck off, I paid for these earrings,” said Fenn. “I actually paid for them, that was a big step for me.” She undid the buttons on my jacket and let it fall to the ground.

“Fenn,” I said again.

“Oh,” she said, turning back toward me, “I guess I have an ethics question.”

“The fuck?” asked the guy with the dagger.

“I thought you didn’t want me teaching you how to be good?” I asked. Despite the two guns pointed at me, I was starting to relax. Professionals would have gone after us when they had the element of surprise, assuming that they wanted to kill us.

“Well Mary and Val aren’t here — that was a fucking joke, I’m not taking lessons from Val, don’t look so aghast,” said Fenn. “Is it better to kill these guys, or should I just be trying to disable them?”

“They had their chance,” said the guy with the dagger. He stepped forward and stabbed at Fenn without waiting for a response from the others. He aimed at her side, just below her ribs; she caught his wrist without even looking his way.

I formed the Anyblade into a dagger just in time to parry the first shot fired at me, and from there I was on the move, Anyblade twirling around me as I moved to the closest of our assailants. Fenn had some kind of witty rejoinder that I couldn’t quite hear because my ears were ringing, but I saw her headbutt the man whose wrist she was holding, and after that I was too consumed with my own half of the fighting.

It had been a little more than a week since I’d killed Fallatehr, but there was no appreciable rust on my combat abilities, nor did I think that “use it or lose it” actually applied to me. I spun as I extended the Anyblade to its full, polearm length, dashed and lunged toward the nearest guy, who was still in the midst of raising his gun. The use of blood magic to augment my movement was automatic now, the use of bone magic nearly-so, and what Fenn had said about perhaps not killing them reached my brain just in time for me to reshape the head of the polearm into something more like a hammer than a blade. I heard a sharp crack of bone as the polearm hit the guy just above his ear, but that was at least less lethal than cutting halfway through his skull.

I parried away another bullet, acting entirely on instinct, trusting the blade to find its position. The man who’d fired it was tracking me, but I was burning bones for Speed, and he seemed like he was practically moving in slow motion. My swinging polearm struck his wrist, cracking bone and making his third shot go far to the side, and by the time he’d fallen over, I’d moved close in toward one of the others. This one had a knife, a slender one, but I simply reached past it before he could properly react and punched him straight in the throat. As he jerked backward I grabbed his knife-hand, and wrenched it sideways to dislodge the weapon, which I snatched from mid-air.

(By my count, there were 74 bones of the 206 in my body that were safe to burn using bone magic, which left all those without left-right symmetry, or those whose symmetry I needed in order to make the repair. Moving at the speed I did wasn’t cheap, in terms of burning through bones, but a rapid response to the threat seemed like it was warranted.)

I turned to go to Fenn’s rescue, only to find that she had finished at more-or-less the same time I had. The man who’d originally approached us was screaming in pain on the ground, a second man was trying to scoot backward across the park grass with a broken leg, and the third had two arrows in his chest and was quickly painting the ground red with his blood. Fenn was wearing Sable, and had her artillery bow in hand.

“Gun,” she said, voice loud over the screaming and the ringing in my ear from three gunshots, but before I could properly react, she’d raised her bow and shot an arrow that whistled by within six inches of me — I consciously stilled my instinct to parry it at the last second. I heard a double-thump from behind me, and turned to see the guy whose wrist I’d broken crying out in pain. His other wrist was pinned to the dirt with an arrow, the hand a foot away from where the gun had landed. “He was going for the gun,” said Fenn.

“Where were you hiding Sable?” I asked. The dress she had on was the kind where pockets were out of the question.

“If the night had kept going how I’d wanted it to, you would have found it,” said Fenn with an exaggerated wink. She turned back toward the group’s leader and said, “Stop screaming, I didn’t kill you.” To my surprise, he listened, and reduced his sounds to a wet, choking whimper.

I looked around us. Four were down with injuries, some worse than others, but two were more worrisome, the one I’d smashed in the head, and the one with two arrows in him. “Come on,” I said to Fenn. “We should heal them.”

“Seriously?” asked Fenn. “I didn’t shoot to kill, I’d have thought that was already more than — if you fucking go for that gun one more time I will chop off your dick.” That last part was directed at the guy behind me, who, against all wisdom, had pulled the arrow from the ground and was reaching for the gun again with the arrow still embedded in his wrist.

It was around that time that a figure in armor came sprinting our way — not the police, with a ridiculous response time, but Amaryllis in her immobility plate, moving faster than she had any right to.

“What happened?” she asked, pulling her helmet off and looking around at the carnage.

“We think they were just muggers,” I replied as I went over to one I was pretty sure was bleeding out.

“Look!” said Fenn. I caught her twirling in her dress from the corner of my eye. “Not a drop of blood!”

“Who the fuck are you people?” said one of the thugs from the ground.

“We’re the Critter Crew,” said Fenn. “I am Vulpes the Vixen, sexy seductress, that’s Yellow Canary, who fights with the power of song, and our dashing leader is –” She raised her bow and loosed another arrow at the guy who had gone for his gun, hitting him in the shoulder. “Is Blue Hound, the gallant hero.”

“Why are you healing them?” asked Amaryllis.

“I don’t want to kill anyone if I don’t have to,” I replied as I laid hands on the man that was bleeding out. He’d lost a lot of blood, and that was something that I couldn’t fix, but I’d nevertheless yanked out both arrows and begun to burn through my bones to close the wounds.

“We have three or four minutes before the police show up,” said Amaryllis. “We should kill them all. Fenn can have the bodies vanished in a little more than a minute.”

“I really don’t want to do that,” I said. It’s not what Batman would do.

“They saw your faces and abilities,” said Amaryllis. “The enemy will find out.”

“Which enemy?” I asked.

“Any of them,” replied Amaryllis.

“I won’t say a f-fucking w-word,” said the leader from the ground. Based on the way that he was gasping, I guessed that Fenn had hit him hard in the stomach or chest.

“Who hired you?” I said, stepping away from the pale body of the man I’d healed to my satisfaction. There was still a chance that he wasn’t going to make it, but I’d done as much as I could short of a blood transfusion.

“No one!” he shouted.

Fenn stepped over to him and placed a foot on his shoulder, pushing him down. She’d put her heels back on, I’d noticed. With a long sigh, she popped two arrows out of Sable in quick succession and drew them back, all resting on the string of the bow.

“Tell me who hired you and you’ll walk away from tonight with just debilitating injuries,” she said. “Lie again and not only will I kill you, I’ll hand your soul over to my pet demon.”

“I f-f-fucking swear on my mother’s life no one h-h-hired us, we w-w-ere waiting for easy m-marks, no guards,” he stammered out.

Fenn loosed her arrows. For a moment I thought that she’d shot him in the throat, but they’d both struck dirt, one on either side of his throat. He must have thought that he’d been shot too, because I saw steam rising from his crotch; he’d pissed himself.

“You weren’t hired, but someone suggested that you be here,” said Fenn. Another arrow popped out of her glove and she drew it back with a single smooth motion. Despite myself, and despite the sounds of pain and anguish from the men around me, I found myself admiring the definition of her muscles as she held the bow taut.

“No one,” he said. “No one.” He was practically in tears.

Fenn turned to the side. “I believe him, personally,” said Fenn. She hadn’t let up any of the tension in the bow though. “Mary?”

“Joon’s call,” she said.

“We let them live,” I said, my voice firm. “And probably get the fuck out of here before the police show up. We’ll take the guns. And if these men talk, to the police or anyone else, I’ll indulge my desire for grievous violence and extreme retribution.” That was more for their benefit than Fenn’s.

“Alright, fair enough, just one thing,” said Fenn. She popped her bow and arrow back into her glove, then began walking over to the man who’d twice now gone for his gun. He was laying on the ground with two arrows in his left arm and at least a few broken bones in his right wrist.

“Fenn, no,” I said.

“Look, if you say that you’re going to cut a man’s dick off if he does something, and then he does that thing and you don’t cut his dick off, then who’s ever going to take you seriously again?” asked Fenn. A ornate dagger appeared in her gloved hand.

“We don’t have time,” said Amaryllis.

“Fine,” grumbled Fenn. “Look, guy, whoever you are, I’m going to cut off your dick, it’s just not going to be tonight, okay?”

We moved quickly as we left, and Fenn guided us off the main path to behind a few bushes just before a car went barrelling past with flashing blue and white lights. Her sense of luck had definitely gotten stronger than when we’d first met, and it had been strong enough to be noteworthy back then. Amaryllis made to stand up, but Fenn shook her head and mouthed ‘one more’. After the oscillating blue and white lights passed by a second time, we stood up and were on our way.

“Would you really have cut off that guy’s dick?” I asked as we moved.

“Your dick is the only one I want to touch,” said Fenn. “I knew you’d stop me. Good for intimidation though.”

“We need to get back to the safehouse, then leave Cranberry Bay behind,” said Amaryllis. “We can’t risk them talking to the police, or the police being on the lookout for us.”

“It’s date night,” said Fenn. “We’ve got a penthouse suite that we paid a lot of money for.”

“Too risky,” said Amaryllis. We were keeping to her pace. Fenn had gone barefoot again, and was moving along the grass as though her feet were made for it. Amaryllis, by contrast, was wearing full plate, and while that kind of armor was surprisingly moveable (and hers was magical) it wasn’t effortless to move in.

“Are you honestly worried that the police are going to go to every hotel in the city looking for us in the middle of the night based on the accounts of those men?” asked Fenn.

“That’s exactly what I’m worried about,” said Amaryllis.

“It’ll be fine,” I said. “Tonight is our night together.”

“Joon,” began Amaryllis.

“We’ll tip the doorman generously, and if he sells us out, there’s no way that the rank-and-file police are prepared for us,” I replied. We exited out of the park and onto the main road, where only a few cars were going by. It was only another block to our hotel.

“You’re taking a risk,” said Amaryllis. “This whole night was a risk, but –”

“We’ll be fine,” I repeated. “Go back to the safehouse, hang tight, and either we’ll show up tomorrow morning, or we’ll get word to you. We’ve planned for that kind of thing.” We had established codes, newspapers to place classified ads in, and bars in several cities where the bartender had been paid cash to be our answering service. The ‘one phone call’ rule wasn’t very consistent on Aerb, nor were the justice systems in general, but if anything went wrong with the law in any of the places we were set up for, we did have some channels available to us.

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. Her sigh was visible in the chilly night. “Be safe. Have — have fun.”

By the time Fenn and I got to the hotel, we were back in high spirits. The fight had, in some ways, been a fun one, an absolute curbstomp that had the benefit of coming when I’d been half-expecting a serious disruption all night. Fenn seemed inordinately pleased by the idea that a gang of hardened criminals had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, and our conversation devolved into a recap of the events (which in some ways reminded me of reliving old adventures around the gaming table).

And once we went up to our lavish penthouse suite, we didn’t do much talking for the rest of the night.

Achievement Progress: A Key For Seven Locks (1/7)

I was still pissed off at the game when I woke up in the morning. The fight excepted — maybe even the fight included — we’d had a wonderful night together, and then the game had to intrude and insinuate that there was an achievement for having sex with all seven of my companions. To the best of my recollection, it was the first time that the game had ever even told me about achievement progress, rather than simply giving me the achievement when I met the requirements, and that made it feel like an extra special kick in the teeth, custom-delivered just for me.

I didn’t tell Fenn about it when it happened, and the longer I let it go, the less I thought I would. You would think that maybe I would have learned a lesson from what happened with Arthur and Tiff, and I’d thought that maybe I had learned a lesson about being open and honest with the people I cared about … but telling Fenn that the game really was setting me up with some kind of bizarre harem after what had been one of the best nights we’d spent together, undercutting that intimacy with an implicit threat from the game, after everything that she’d said about being worried — I kept spinning my wheels, running through the same thoughts, trying to figure out how I would break it to her, and waffling on whether or not I would. It would be the easiest secret in the world to keep. I had told her about the Petite Mort achievement, but that didn’t really affect our relationship in any meaningful way, and I had considered keeping silent about that too.

We put on fresh clothes, courtesy of the glove, and to my mild disappointment, Fenn took a scissors to her hair, cutting it off at shoulder-length.

“Hair that long is a liability in combat,” said Fenn. “I’m sorry, I love you, but I’m not going to risk my life to look cute.”

“You still look cute,” I said. “Pretty, gorgeous, alluring, I could go on.”

“Please do,” she said with a smile.

“Can I ask … this is the second time you’ve said ‘I love you’, but they were both ‘I love you, but’, and I don’t really, ah,” I paused. She was blushing slightly.

“Don’t really love me?” she asked.

“No, that’s not what I’m saying,” I replied. “You’re saying it like it’s a joke, or like you’d say that you love a sandwich, or like it’s just to soften the blow of calling me an ass. And I love you, but I wish that you would feel free to tell me that you love me without having to undercut it.”

“I love you too, but it feels like you were doing the same thing,” said Fenn with a grin.

“Oh, well I love you, but that was the point,” I replied. I was smiling, and that was helping to wash away any lingering unhappiness I’d been feeling from thinking about the game.

“Hrm,” said Fenn. She moved in close to me. “I love you.”

“But?” I asked.

She squeezed my butt.

“I love you too,” I replied.

Amaryllis, Grak, and Val were all waiting for us back at the safehouse. The Cranberry Bay safehouse had been bought furnished, and while it was on the small side given that we were expecting to eventually be a group of eight people (or seven, depending on what happened with the locus), it was more than big enough for our current purposes, which mostly revolved around having a place to eat, sleep, and teleport into or out of. A breakfast of eggs, pork belly, and cranberry toast was waiting for us, and I took a heaping plate of it for what was sure to be a long session talking shop. None of the food was cold, which meant that we hadn’t kept them waiting long.

“Cards on the table, I think that the locus should come first,” said Amaryllis. “It’s time sensitive.”

“How time sensitive?” I asked.

“It’s hard to see inside the bottle,” said Grak. “It’s hard to gauge. Some of the trees are dying.”

“Enough that you could see from outside?” I asked. I hadn’t been with when they’d made their last trip.

“Yes,” said Grak. “I don’t know whether the problem is sunlight, temperature, moisture, or air. Some of those we might be able to fix.”

“It’s one of our companions,” said Amaryllis. ‘Our’ companions, not ‘your’ companions. “Even if it weren’t, it’s the last of its kind, and even if it weren’t, it’s powerful. If we still had Solace, her power alone would justify making it a priority.”

“We don’t have Solace,” I said.

“We have her soul,” answered Amaryllis. “You have Soul Slip now. The trade is one-for-one, meaning that at the cost of draining one of the unused Armor skills, Bows, Horticulture, and possibly Gem Magic, you could push Essentialism up above 100. In theory, at least. That would either give you the ability to help the locus, give you the ability to resurrect Solace, or possibly both.”

“It would take a day to level those skills up to the soft cap,” I replied. “And even then, I’d get five minutes per point. I’d only be over 100 for about twenty minutes. It’s a gamble.”

“Yes,” nodded Amaryllis. “We’ve set up our safehouses, we’ve done some of the background work I felt was necessary, strengthened our protocols, procured equipment, and now we’re out of the things I think we can do without some kind of gamble.” She didn’t say the word ‘narrative’, because she knew that I didn’t like it, but I thought I had enough of a handle on her that I knew what she was thinking. No respite could last forever, and the longer we spent resting on our laurels, the better the chance that the Plot would find us.

“Tabling the Essentialism gambit for now, what are our other options?” I asked.

Amaryllis frowned. “Glassy Fields,” she replied. “We only have a fraction of the equipment that’s mine by claim-in-fact. Most of it will be held by various interested parties within Anglecynn, and while it’s possible that we could steal some of it, especially with Grak’s skillset, that risks setting off some alarm bells.” She pursed her lips. “Assuming that you care about not setting off alarm bells.”

“But the keep at Glassy Fields would be ours for the taking,” I said with a nod.

“We need armor for Val, Grak, and Fenn, and a weapon for Val,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t know what’s in Glassy Fields, given that no one’s been there for hundreds of years, but I’m hopeful.” She shrugged. “Kuum Doona in the Boundless Pit is another option, but I think that’s probably the more difficult of the two. We have quests for both.” ‘We’, not ‘you’.

“More difficult a prospect than Glassy Fields,” muttered Grak with a shake of his head.

“I don’t know,” I said.

“There are other options,” said Amaryllis. “Speculation and Scrutiny is one of them, but I’m worried that they’ll expect you there. We could go find a god and start that quest chain, but there are many unknowns there that I’m quite uncomfortable with, we’d be letting the game lead us by the nose. I can see by your expression that those don’t meet with your approval though, so why don’t we cut to the chase and you can tell me what you’d like to do?” She crossed her arms over her chest.

“I want to find Arthur,” I replied.

Amaryllis softened slightly. “Joon, I know you do–”

“We’ve gotten off-track,” I said. “It’s been one thing after another, ever since — fuck, since Barren Jewel, which was a month ago, when we were just going to Caer Laga to get what was stashed there. I’m not going to say that everything that happened after that didn’t have a purpose, or that it was unnecessary, but the last time I let material goods dictate things, the actual result wasn’t all that great for me.”

“Would you say the same for saving companions?” asked Grak.

I made a sour face at that. “I don’t want to get on a reactive treadmill,” I said.

“Treadmill?” asked Val.

“It’s a thing you run in place on,” I explained. “I was saying that there’s a possibility that we just react to one thing, then to another, over and over, never actually striking out on our own.”

Loyalty increased: Valencia the Red, lvl 17!

That was one of the reasons that I’d been trying to keep my distance from Valencia. Her loyalty went up on a hair trigger, and while having her loyalty high was a good thing from a game-mechanical standpoint, I was really worried that she was developing an emotionally unhealthy attachment to me, not to mention that lvl 20 might progress her powers while she was still grappling with the ones that she’d been given at lvl 10. There were, for the time being, moments when she was pure Valencia, which I thought were probably good for her, and good for our attempts at socializing her.

“Why would you want to run in one place?” asked Grak with a furrowed brow.

“To harness the power of an animal,” answered Amaryllis, before I had the chance. She turned to me. “You want to find your friend Arthur, who we believe to have probably been my ancestor, Uther Penndraig,” she said. I thought that was largely for Valencia’s benefit; she’d been debriefed after informing us that the devils and demons died as she used them up (ate them, in her words). “Glassy Fields or Speculation and Scrutiny are probably our best avenues.”

“I don’t think they are,” I said. “I want to find Arthur the same way that Larkspur found us. Doris Finch.”

“We are not making a deal with Doris fucking Finch,” said Amaryllis.

“I wasn’t proposing that we do,” I replied. “We get to the exclusion zone, grab one of her from the periphery of her territory, and then tie her down so that I can soulfuck her.”

“Like Fallatehr,” said Val.

“It’s distasteful –” I began.

“It’s illegal,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s immoral,” said Fenn.

“It’s the kind of illegal that will get the hammers of the gods brought down on you,” said Amaryllis.

“It’s the kind of immoral that gives me the heebie jeebies,” said Fenn.

“We freed Fallatehr from his prison,” I said. “You can’t tell me that’s more illegal. And I’m already a soul mage, as is Fenn, and it’s my understanding that Valencia would be killed on sight if anyone knew that she was a non-anima.”

“The Doris Finch exclusion zone is closely watched,” said Amaryllis. “It’s all the risk of freeing Fallatehr with none of the potential upside. The Finches are all different from each other, the odds that you would get one that would tell you anything useful, particularly regarding her probabilistic magic, is remote. We would have to go straight into the city center, and you have to believe me when I say that’s not something that we want to do while not looking like Doris Finch.”

“Technically,” I began, then paused. Technically we could disguise ourselves as Doris Finches, because I could copy over her entire body, just like Fallatehr did. That would leave the question of our original bodies, which we obviously wouldn’t want to abandon, but if we had enough of the Dorises, we could essentially use them as hold variables so that we could swap back.

“Technically?” asked Fenn.

The problem was, that plan started to sound more evil the more I thought about it, and beyond that, more complex than I wanted to count on. “Just thinking,” I said with a sigh. “Amaryllis, your objections have merit, Fenn, your objections have merit, Valencia, I should have considered your feelings more before making that suggestion.”

Loyalty increased: Grak lvl 9!

“What’s the plan then?” asked Amaryllis. She shifted in her seat. “Can we take it to a vote?”

“Sure,” I said. “Smith-invariant instant-runoff voting fine?”

“Something you named after yourself?” asked Fenn with a laugh.

“No relation,” I replied. “He was a professor of mathematics, but Smith-invariant comes from the Smith set, which is the smallest non-empty set of candidates where each candidate within the set wins a pairwise competition with each member outside the set. And then you do instant-runoff voting within the Smith set. And from the looks, I’m guessing that this marvelous system of voting is somehow not one that ever made it to Aerb, despite it featuring in no less than eight different tabletop settings I designed.”

“Why don’t we just vote normally?” asked Grak.

“How much time do you have?” I asked.

“If I understand this scheme right, the results of Smith-invariant IRV should be equivalent to the results of a plain vote, assuming that everyone votes for their actual first choice rather than voting strategically, and also assuming that there exists a strict majority winner of three votes?” asked Amaryllis.

“Locus should get a vote,” said Fenn. Amaryllis glared at her. “What, it’s true! One companion, one vote, Juniper gets to veto because he’s special.”

“The locus can’t vote,” I said. “It can’t make its wishes known, and we can’t reasonably put thoughts or desires into its mouth. I’m not sure you could describe it as having compatible thoughts.”

“You said that we were tabling it, not that you weren’t going to do it,” said Amaryllis. “You want to put the Essentialism gambit as part of the voting?”

“I’m worried that it’s going to lead to something bigger,” I replied. “I’ll crest 100 with Essentialism, then that will lead down some other path that we have to go on, and Arthur will just,” stay dead. I swallowed instead of saying that. “I know that there’s some kind of cultural thing about the locus that I’m not getting, I know that, I just … I’m worried that everything will get put on hold again if I make the locus my first priority.”

Amaryllis frowned. “Essentialism, Glassy Fields, Kuum Doona, Speculation and Scrutiny, have I missed any that anyone was planning to vote for?” Silence greeted that. “I vote to help the locus.”

“I vote the same,” said Grak.

“Kuum Doona,” I said.

“Kuum Doona,” said Fenn.

This was why you did Smith-invariant IRV, and why you did a blind vote where no one knew how anyone else was voting. I wouldn’t have said Kuum Doona so quickly, but I knew that Fenn would probably follow my lead, and so needed to get my choice out first so that she’d have something to follow. And now, given that we’d made that choice, and Amaryllis and Grak had made their choice, maybe the group preference was actually for Glassy Fields (which I could easily have been swayed toward), but we wouldn’t be going there. Either way, given that it was two against two, the only way that the vote wouldn’t go my way was if Val voted against me, and that —

“I want to save the locus,” said Val.


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Worth the Candle, Ch 76: Date Night

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