The backpack had limits, which I’d partially explored the day before. Luckily, the penalty for attempting to violate those limits seemed to just be that I would get back a note, in my handwriting, on a piece of legal paper. I’d collected a small stack of them thus far. Though the backpack didn’t give me much in the way of general rules, it did give me a lot of specific ones, and from those, I could work backward to get the general rules on my own. In brief, the backpack was pretty free with information — I could pull books from it at will — but was fairly stingy on giving out things that had more direct utility, especially electronics or weapons, and my guess was that there was also a limit on value, given that I couldn’t pull out a gold bar or a bag full of diamonds. Amusingly, I could pull out a stack of hundred dollar bills, which were worthless on Aerb given that the backing of the United States government meant nothing.
Amaryllis took a stack of books with palpable excitement, most of them overviews of Earth history and technology. It wasn’t quite an offline version of Wikipedia, which I don’t think she really understood the glory of, but we’d been able to draw out thick reference materials, including books on circuitry and computer programming. To my surprise, she also asked me for a holy book from my people, and I had reluctantly provided her with an annotated Bible, with instruction not to read it until her other homework was done (she rolled her eyes at me, but as she turned away I saw a little smile).
Valencia went with her, carrying a very different stack of books, some taken from storage in Fenn’s glove, some taken from the backpack. I was mildly surprised that she knew how to read without the assistance of a chewed up devil, but it was apparently among the suite of skills that Fallatehr had seen fit to have his minions teach her, though they’d only taught her Anglish, nothing else. The books Amaryllis and I selected were partly to give her some culture, and partly to give her some socialization. It wasn’t ideal to have her learn from reading, but it was a far better plan than having her learn by trying to piece together how devils mimicked and manipulated humans, and we couldn’t spend literally our entire day trying to teach her things.
My contribution was to give her the first two Harry Potter books, on the theory that she might find some helpful parallels. Arthur (as Uther) had written his own versions of them, which I’d skimmed through, but I disagreed with some of the choices made in adaptation; he wrote Hermione as too much of a Mary Sue, and Ron as too much of a dimwit sidekick, and in the final book, Harold Plotter and the Hallowed Deaths, Harry died as part of his sacrifice. I won’t go so far as to call it bad fanfic, but it did somewhat rankle me that Arthur had rewritten the series to better suit his own tastes. Most of the works he’d copied were faithful to the original, or at least as much as could be expected given that they were written from memory and needed to be translated to a Middle Ages culture, but these showed deliberate changes that were reflections of his complaints and comments on the series I’d heard from him. Trying to psychoanalyze his actions on Aerb was nearly impossible given how removed I was from him. He’d been ‘writing’ the Harold Plotter novels around the start of what Amaryllis had termed the Roaming Era. It made me vaguely upset, not just the defilement of a series I had grown up on, but what it might say about Arthur. So long as I had the Earth originals written by Rowling, I would rather Valencia read them instead.
(You know what didn’t work? Trying to get books that hadn’t existed when I left Earth. I thought it was definitely within the Dungeon Master’s power to create a copy of The Winds of Winter or The Doors of Stone, but the backpack gave me back a note that said it couldn’t or wouldn’t. That also extended to technical books from after 2017.)
Books aside, the most useful things to come out of the backpack were plastics and medical supplies. We stored a fair amount of those in Fenn’s glove, and then made up a first aid kit, just in case we had need of it. My primary concern there was Valencia; the marzipan fairies didn’t work on her, nor did bone magic, which meant that we didn’t have a way to keep her in good health if something were to happen to her.
And then there were the perks, creature comforts from home that I could share with the group, candy, pop, and fiction. I pulled out a Blu-ray of Star Wars: A New Hope, then stared at it in disappointment, because I had no way to play it. Even if I could have created a television from scratch (not all that hard, I didn’t think, especially with some reference books), and a Blu-ray player (virtually impossible given the lack of microprocessors), I’d have had to rewrite the entire Blu-ray codec from scratch, unless I could find a dead-trees copy of it. I actually still thought that it was doable, but would take years on end, enormous resources, and Engineering that had been pushed up as high as it would go.
“I don’t get this,” said Fenn around a mouthful of McDonald’s hamburger, which I’d pulled, warm, from the backpack. She was in a state of partial undress; after the others had left, we’d had our fun, and now we were sitting around, clothed enough that if someone knocked on the door we would be able to get decent in a hurry. “Like, it’s fine for street food, but you’re saying that this is from a restaurant?” She pulled back the layers and peered inside. “One hundred billion served? It’s so … gross.”
“Mass produced,” I said. “I’m actually pretty surprised that’s not the case on Aerb, given that you have industrialization and better mass transportation than on Earth.” I was sitting in my lounge chair with one of the Culture novels in my hands, but I wasn’t getting terribly far in it. “Do you think there’s a niche available? Maybe I could invent fast food?”
“Our food is fast,” said Fenn. “A guy hands you a stick with meat that’s been sitting beneath the burners, how is that slow?”
“Maybe I’ll try to find a book on modern — Earth-modern — restaurant management,” I said, knowing that I almost certainly wasn’t going to do that. “Uther was the Poet King, but they shall call me the King of Burgers.”
Fenn touched the half-eaten hamburger with a gloved finger and ten seconds later, it disappeared into the vast void of her glove. “Can we get some real food to eat?”
“The backpack has plenty,” I said, gesturing toward it. It wasn’t keyed to me specifically, though I knew the most about what was actually available on Earth. It wasn’t finicky about getting things, but you had to exercise at least a little bit of precision when picturing what you wanted, even if it didn’t need to be exact. I glanced down at my book, then back up at her. “Oh, actually … hrm, takeout from The Great Wall would probably be too sugary for your tastes, but I do want you to try it at some point.”
“Let me rephrase,” said Fenn, making a moue. “I am bored, I want to explore the train, and I want you to come with me, because you are my wonderful boyfriend.”
I closed my book and gave her a somewhat forced smile. “Okay,” I said.
“Problem?” asked Fenn.
“No,” I said. “Just, after,” I gestured at my lower half, “I get kind of … clear-headed. Not antisocial, necessarily, but, ah, more prone to analysis, less prone to emotion.”
“Even with me?” asked Fenn.
She was making a sad, puppy dog face, exaggerated to the point of caricature, but I knew her well enough to know that was part of how she masked actual hurt, a ‘ha ha, think about how ridiculous it would be if I was actually hurt’ response. I wanted to explain to her that it wasn’t personal, I still loved her, it was just the biochemistry of my brain, but I knew from past experience that a digression into neurobiology wasn’t the correct response to an emotional reaction. I probably would have caught myself even if my two ‘floating’ points weren’t in SOC at the moment.
“Fenn, my love,” I said, standing up, “Let’s go explore this train together, arm in arm.”
She beamed a smile that sent relief and real happiness through me, and we finished getting dressed together with only a few mild interruptions. We didn’t quite walk arm-in-arm together, because the hallways weren’t wide enough to allow it, but I trailed a hand behind me, and she held on.
Most of the cars were filled with rooms that people had bought passage on, with cramped sleepers at the tail end of the train for people who couldn’t afford the luxury we were traveling in, and a single car devoted to rows of chairs and a few booths, which were for the people who were going to get off before nightfall. Our specific line had three stops to it, each at a major city along the way to the Boundless Pit.
When we got to one of the two dining cars, we stopped and found a table. The sun was starting to set behind part of the mountains that made up this section of the Lion’s Mane, and most of the people on the train had already eaten. It was just us, three of the tuung sitting at their own table, and a pair of men further down the car, who were in heated discussion. I say men, but they were normal only by the standards of Aerb, which meant that any single one of their clothes, facial hair, skin color, or accessories would have been enough to turn heads on Earth, and though I’d been putting real effort into studying The Book of Blood, I couldn’t be certain either of them were actually human.
“So, I’m dating a princess,” I said with a grin as we took our seats.
“Does that do it for you?” asked Fenn with a smile that called to mind the carnivorous nature of the elves.
I smiled back. “I’m sorry for finding it funny.”
“Well, so long as one of us does,” sighed Fenn. “Personally, I’ve always held a disdain for the noble class, not that the concept really applies to the elves as such, no matter what Val or Mary might tell you.”
“I didn’t figure you for having political opinions,” I said. A waiter stopped by and took our orders, which was always an experience on Aerb, where I only vaguely knew the names of things and the list of ingredients used in the description was of little help. “Have we ever talked politics before?”
“Not if I could possibly have helped it,” said Fenn. “What’s that phrase you use sometimes? ‘Blah, blah, blah, politics’?”
“That was Reimer’s phrase,” I replied with a frown.
“Which one was he again?” asked Fenn.
“Kind of a dick,” I said. “He wore hats a lot — baseball caps — baseball is a game where you hit a ball with a bat and run around in circles — had, I don’t know, glasses, blonde hair … he liked rules, especially if he could use those rules to break something.”
“Yeah,” said Fenn. She leaned back in her seat a bit. “I think he’s my favorite of the Earth characters.”
“Ugh,” I replied, making a face. “How does it feel to have terrible taste? Also, they’re not characters.”
Fenn waved a hand. “Well I’ve never met them, and I’m not likely to — Arthur excepted, calm down — so they might as well be characters, right? And in the stories that you tell, Reimer is always the guy trying to do stuff. Plus he’s a rebel, which I like.”
I actually laughed at that. “He was not a rebel. He was a straight-A student. And in-game he wasn’t a rebel, he was a murderhobo, with very few exceptions. He didn’t treat the people like they were real, he treated them like they were all my finger puppets.”
“He liked hats, I like hats,” said Fenn. “Case closed.”
“I feel like this is the fifth time you’ve dropped a hint that you want me to buy you a hat,” I said, looking at her unadorned head.
“You’ve only gotten five of the hints, eh?” she smiled. “You’re really going to have to step up your playing.”
“Playing?” I asked, confused.
Fenn sighed. “Just insert whatever the appropriate Earth slang was.” She perked up. “Oh, do you have a dictionary of Earth slang in that backpack?”
“Uh, probably,” I said. “I’m really not sure that we should just be randomly grabbing Earth information out of it.”
“You want to hoard all the weird idioms and obscure references for yourself,” said Fenn with a nod. “You want to,” she leaned forward, “Bogart them, huh?” A wide smile spread across her face.
I grinned at her. “You are just ridiculously proud of remembering that, aren’t you?”
“I am,” said Fenn. She stretched out in her seat, raising her arms up and interlocking her fingers. I tried to remember whether I’d told her that was the most attractive innocuous thing a girl could do, because I was pretty sure the cat-like stretch was intentional and for my benefit. “And if you get us a working tellervision, maybe we can curl up and watch Cabbablanca together.”
I laughed at that one, loud enough that the two guys at the end of the car momentarily stopped to look at us. “I love you,” I said.
“Is that not a thing on Earth?” asked Fenn, the very picture of innocent confusion. “Cabbablanca and chill?”
“I sometimes, unaccountably, forget how great you are,” I told her. “Can you say you love me too?”
“Oh, well, it seems a bit soon in our relationship for that,” said Fenn with a smile. “You know what they say, why buy the cow if you can get it to say ‘I love you’ for free, right? I’ve got to play my cards close to my chest.”
Whatever response I might have tried to make was cut short when one of the two men at the far end of the dining car got up and approached us. Fenn had her back to them, and as her eyes tracked my own, she pulled out a small, compact mirror from her purse to look at what I was looking at before collapsing it and putting it back in her purse.
“Are either of you, by chance, bone magi?” he asked, looking between the two of us. His skin had a slightly green cast to it, enough that I thought he probably wasn’t human. Strips of azure fabric were woven into his black hair, stuck in place by bronze rings, which gave an effect something like a turban. His tunic and breeches were the same color, and as my eyes traveled down, I could see both a sheathed dagger and a gun with a gnarled wooden grip at his hip. I couldn’t place his species, but thought that perhaps he was a half-breed like Fenn, though a half-breed of what and what I couldn’t say.
“We both are, as it happens, on a trip out from the athenaeum, as I’m sure a few on this train are,” said Fenn. “He’s the better of us, by far,” she nodded toward me. “We have bones, if you have coin.”
“We were about to eat,” I said, trying to sound both apologetic and firm.
“Nonsense,” Fenn smiled at me. “Part of the joy of train travel is meeting new and interesting people, all of us stuck together for an extended duration, that’s why we’re here, rather than with our noses stuck in books back in the cabin.” She turned back to the man who’d asked the question. “What is it you’d like?”
He reached into the folds of his tunic and pulled out a tiny skull, which he placed upon the table, next to a small basket of untouched bread. The skull couldn’t have been much bigger than a plum.
“This lizard was a bound familiar,” said the man, nodding to the skull. “We want to know whether he was happy.”
“Um,” I said. I looked to the other man, down at the end of the dining car. He was partially twisted around in his seat to watch us, and nodded to me when he saw me looking. He was bald and had lips so red that I thought he was probably wearing garish makeup. “For what purpose?”
“To settle a bet,” replied the man, looking slightly perturbed at my question. When I made no move to touch the skull, he continued on. “Between the two of us we have a strong difference in opinion about whether bound familiars are happy servants or moved as puppets under unhappy compulsion.”
“Huh,” I said. “That’s actually a really interesting question.” ‘Bound familiars’ weren’t what I’d hoped they were when I first heard of them; they were merely animals that followed some basic commands, induced to that state through a rather expensive and time-consuming spell. I hadn’t really seen the point to them, aside from the fact that they were kind of cool, but the problem was they were still pets, and you had to deal with food, water, waste, and general health. I reached out and laid a finger on top of the lizard skull. “You know that if I do this, there’s some risk to the skull, it will be burned for the purposes of bone magic, and I might not get an answer back?”
He nodded, making a few of the rings in his hair move around.
I’d never actually pulled memories before. Bormann had described it as being difficult and practically worthless, but I was a better bone mage than she was now, and though Fallatehr had described the memories within the soul as being very difficult to work with or make sense of, I had some hope that the two skills would have at least a little bit of harmony with each other.
I pulled from the skull, targeting the KNO layer of the bone, going as slow as I possibly could. From what I knew of knowledge tapping, the gradual pull meant that the memories would come out impressionistic and disconnected from one another, which was exactly what I wanted, since all I really needed was to know whether or not this lizard had a happy life as a familiar. I could feel the memories landing one by one, and what Bormann had said had been right, they were fragmentary glimpses of the lizard’s life.
“He seems … dutiful, I guess,” I replied, narrating as the flashes of memory came to me. “Not terribly much emotion, but what’s there is, I guess I would say, satisfaction at a job well done? Not really affection, so much as there’s any real emotion or cognition at all. He’s the closest to happy when he’s just finished doing a thing for …” The face was distorted in the memories, but it was a recurring figure that I could identify by the strips of cloth that tied down his hair. “You?” I asked.
“Yes,” nodded the man. I’d caught enough distorted images from the lizard’s point of view to see a cramped room where papers were being filed or sorted, and more than a few where he was writing in books or reading those papers.
“As far as the question goes, I don’t think it’s puppetry,” I said, taking my finger off the skull. I’d been delicate enough to leave it largely undamaged; it had generated only enough smoke to leave a faint scent in the air, and the only mark on it was a smudge where my finger had been. “Happiness is … I think it would be more accurate to say that he enjoyed accomplishing things.”
The man gave me a short bow, plucked the skull off the table, and slipped it back into his robes. When his hand came back out, it was holding a handful of coins, which he placed in a neat stack on the table.
“Very generous of you,” said Fenn with a nod, which was good, because I had no idea what you were supposed to charge for a service like that.
“Thank you for your service,” he said, giving another short bow. He returned back to his end of the dining car, his mood somewhat softened, but as soon as he sat down, the conversation started up again, seeming just as argumentative as before. I caught the tuung staring at me; one of them had left, leaving only two, and when I caught their eyes, they began misting themselves and talking in a language I didn’t know (assumedly it was Tuung).
Our food arrived shortly afterward, either through cosmic manipulation to create convenient timing, or because the waiter had been watching from a distance and hadn’t wanted to interrupt.
“I’m not sure why you said yes,” I said to Fenn. She had something that looked an awful lot like a burger, though the meat was a lacquered red and the bun reminded me more of an English muffin than a traditional burger bun. My own selection had come as four different bowls, one which had something like a tortilla, another with a steaming meat, the third with finely diced vegetables, and the fourth filled with hot water and two folded towels that were partially submerged in it. I had no idea how to eat it.
“Why not?” asked Fenn. She took a bite of her hamburger and talked around it. “It’s the truth, more or less. It’s misleading truth, maybe, but I don’t know that I’m responsible for what other people read into what I say.”
“Uh, you definitely are,” I said. I looked down at my plates, trying to decide how to proceed.
“But you’d have lied?” asked Fenn. “I’m sorry, and what are you doing with your meal?”
I’d laid out the tortilla-thing (thicker and heavier than a tortilla, more like a flatbread but with some give to it) and was using a spoon to get meat and vegetables onto it, intending to roll it up and eat it like a wrap. “Just show me the right way to do it,” I said with a sigh. She reached across, took a piece of the flatbread, tore it in half, and used it like finger-tongs to pick up a pinch of veggies and a piece of meat. She plopped the whole thing into her mouth, and looked at me with wry amusement.
“My way would have worked,” I said. I followed her lead though. Each bite was like a little mini-sandwich. “And yeah, I would have lied, but mostly because we can’t afford to be caught at this stage, and exposing ourselves as bone mages –”
“Magi,” said Fenn.
“– on a train that probably has more than a few of them is a risk that it’s kind of pointless to take,” I said. “Someone starts asking questions about what year we were in, or who we studied under, and those aren’t questions that we can answer, because we didn’t actually attend the athenaeum.”
“So?” asked Fenn. She took another bite from her burger.
“So … I guess I don’t know the legal landscape well enough to say,” I replied. “We’re currently traveling through the Monarchical Democracy of Esplandian –”
“Nope,” said Fenn. “We passed the border while we were,” she made a gesture, thumb and index finger making a circle, other index finger moving in and out of it. “We’re in Drabian now, though we’ll be through by the time we go to sleep.”
“Well, then I really don’t know the legal landscape,” I said. “The athenaeums have a stranglehold on their respective magics, which extends to teaching, publications, and actual practice, but on Earth you wouldn’t get in trouble for having medical skills, you’d get in trouble for claiming you were a doctor, which would be fraud, or attempting to practice medicine, which would be a felony without a license.”
“So we’ve come to the conclusion that I was right all along?” asked Fenn with a raised eyebrow. “I love it when that happens.”
“Well, I’ve got no idea,” I said. “I’m going to shut up and eat my food.”
The problem with telling the truth was that the truth was fucking weird and I was both powerful enough that I would draw the attention of powerful people, and weak enough that those powerful people could coerce, threaten, or kill me, or the people I cared about. The problem with Fenn’s lie was that it pointed back toward the truth in a few ways, while my lie was just a dead-end. It would have been perfectly plausible for us not to be bone mages, even if it was somewhat likely given our point of origin. That would have been the end of the conversation.
And then I would have missed out on looking through the lizard’s memories, and the chance to help settle a minor question that the two men were still in heated discussion about, and the world would have been a little less interesting.
“The necromancer reels back from your attack and drops his evil tome, then begs for his life!” I yelled. I’d been young, ten years old, early days as far as the D&D group went, so imagine me as played by a child actor who doesn’t quite look the same as the Juniper you know and love.
“I wanna hear it,” said Greg with a grin. It had been his axe that had dealt the mortal wound.
“‘Please!’” I cried. I leaned across the table, clasping my hands together. “‘Please, oh powerful warrior, spare my life, I’ll reform, repent, do anything that you want!’”
His grin turned into a smile. “I pick my axe up over my head and throw it right into his fa–”
“Wait,” said Ricky. “Anything?”
“‘Anything!’” I said.
Ricky reached out his hand to me. “Join us.”
“He’s a necromancer,” said Arthur, with an aggrieved sigh.
“Correction,” grinned Greg. “He’s our necromancer. We fought through a bunch of skeletons and zombies trying to get here, those could be our skeletons and zombies. He could do necromancy for us.”
“Why would we need anyone to do necromancy?” asked Arthur.
“Are you saying all this in front of him?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Ricky. “Come on, do the thing.”
“I’m not going to beg for however long this takes,” I replied. “He’ll just be looking between you while you talk, I guess.”
“I keep my axe leveled at him,” said Greg. “‘No funny business.’”
“I’ll pick up his book and leaf through it,” said Ricky.
“I don’t get why we’d have a necromancer,” said Arthur. He had his arms folded across his chest. “We were sent to kill him.”
“Because it’s fun?” asked Greg. “Do you really want to just do the right thing all the time? We can do whatever we want. Something new? Like how many times have you ever seen adventurers have a necromancer friend?”
Even at ten, that was what got Arthur’s attention. “Joon, can I make some changes to my character?” he asked.
“What kind of changes?” I asked.
“Just background stuff,” said Arthur. “And my alignment. I can’t be lawful good if this is what we’re going to do.”
“Uh, sure,” I said. I looked between the three of them. We’d lost our fourth, Nate, two weeks prior, and I was really worried that D&D, the highlight of my week, was going to come to an end.
“We’re going to have to tell the duke something,” said Ricky with a frown. “Joon, were we supposed to bring back his head or what?”
“Yeah, his head,” I said, trying to think. “But as you say that, the necromancer, who is still on his knees, says that if you need heads, he has plenty of them, and if he has some time he can make one of the zombie heads look enough like his own.”
“Nice,” said Ricky.
“So what’s he going to need to work for us?” asked Greg.
“He –” I stopped, then started again. “He really just wants to work. The bodies that he’s been working with were mostly ones he dug up from graves, but I guess he’d work a lot better with fresh corpses.”
“I don’t really want to kill innocent people,” said Arthur, stopping in the middle of whatever he was writing.
“‘Innocent?’” I asked, trying to find the character voice again and failing, “‘No, there are bandits, the duke has a price out on their heads just like me, all you would have to do is bring the bodies here and I could work on them.’” I stopped, thinking that was it, then added. “‘And with fresh bodies, there’s so much more that I can do.’”
And somehow, the game came alive again. It took me a long time to try to figure out what had been going wrong, where I’d started to lose people, and eventually — years later, after I’d already internalized the lesson — I concluded that it was the element of buy-in and choice, and in following the path of fun. The party started doing things for the necromancer, stealing equipment, killing his rivals, bringing him bodies, and this was somehow better than taking very similar orders from the king. The novelty was part of it, but it was also the fact that I’d been willing to let them take the lead.
“Mary thinks that we’re the most important people in the world,” said Fenn.
“Oh?” I asked. “That … might be true.”
“We were talking about morality,” said Fenn. “My lessons on it, as such.”
“I have a bunch of books I could give you now,” I said. “A backpack full of them, in fact.”
“She was trying to talk me into stealing,” said Fenn. “She’s really a bad influence, you know that? I shudder to think how Valencia will turn out, with Mary as a mother-figure. And poor Solace too!”
“What did she want you to steal?” I asked, frowning. This was the first I’d heard of it.
“Nothing in particular,” said Fenn. “I think she just said that it was convenient that I took things, and helped us as a group in a lot of ways.”
“Okay,” I said slowly. I finished off the last of my food, and used the hot water for its apparently intended purpose of cleaning my fingers.
“She was saying, basically, that since we’re the most important people in the world, it’s all for the greater good,” said Fenn. “Like, if it’s a choice between the end of the world and stealing some plastic explosives, then you should pick stealing the plastic explosives, right?”
“Right,” I said slowly.
“So, basically, the livelihood of pretty much anyone that I could possibly steal from pales in comparison to the importance of getting you strong enough to grow past the powers of the gods,” said Fenn. “However that’s going to happen. And since we don’t know what the future is like, only that you’re important, we should do whatever we think will increase the chances of success.”
“Huh,” I said. “I think I came to the opposite conclusion using the same method.”
Fenn frowned. “Explain to me how that makes sense at all.”
“We’re not perfect beings,” I said.
“Speak for yourself,” smiled Fenn.
“We’re not, and trying to chart out an optimal path that perfectly maximizes the expected amount of good that we do is going to go wrong if we pretend that we’re perfect,” I said. “In a hypothetical optimal path to godhood — uber-godhood — we wouldn’t even be eating in the dining car, or talking to each other, we’d be staying in our room and probably reading through books, maybe trying to get my Engineering up. We probably wouldn’t have had sex.”
Fenn frowned. “It seems like you’ve got to have some allowance for doing things that aren’t boring or altruistic.”
“Right,” I nodded. “That’s got to be built into the path you’re plotting for yourself, because if you just say, okay, I’m going to spend eight hours sleeping and sixteen hours working, you’re going to tank productivity, because there are all these systems involved in keeping ‘you’ operating, and a lot of them are mental systems, so if you press too hard, you’ll end up just not accomplishing the thing that you wanted to.” I paused. “But Mary doesn’t feel the same way?”
“I don’t think we’ve talked about it yet,” said Fenn. She was giving me a fond look. “Why didn’t I want to talk about this sort of thing with you again?”
“Because I’m kind of shit at it?” I asked. I laughed a little as I said it, but she didn’t seem to find it funny. “Back on Earth I was kind of a bag of dicks, and on Aerb my track record isn’t so great, even if we make some allowances for circumstances or personal imperfections. But more seriously, you didn’t want to talk about this kind of thing with me because you said, ah, that there were limits to how much a single person can be to you.”
“Not can,” said Fenn. “Should. As much as I feel a small spark of fondness for you –” I flicked her hand, which was resting on the table, and she grinned at me. “I don’t want to be a plant that you grew from a seed, resting all its weight against your trellis. Not just for fear of what would happen if you were ever gone, though obviously that’s a part of it.”
“Ah,” I looked down at the empty bowls in front of me.
“That wasn’t about you and Arthur,” said Fenn. She looked nervous, which was uncharacteristic for her. Usually it was easy to tell she was nervous because she would hide things with a joke.
“Yeah,” I said. I closed my eyes for a moment, trying to block out the rush of thoughts.
“What if it were him or me?” I imagined Fenn asking.
“He was my best friend,” I might start to say, but she would cut me off.
“You told me that I was your best friend,” she’d interject.
“You are,” I’d say. “But his life was cut so short –”
“When he became the Lost King, he was fifty-five,” she’d object. “And in his time on Aerb he lived more than most people do in a hundred lifetimes.”
“I didn’t say that I would choose him,” I’d say, and then I might start to cry, because I wasn’t sure that I would choose him, and what did that say about me? What kind of a shitty, horrible friend would I be if I said ‘oh, no, I think I’m going to go with the girl that I’ve known for a month’? Even if I loved her.
And I wanted to say that it was unfair of her to even ask me, but it was all in my head.
“How about light and airy?” Fenn asked instead. “If you were going to get a familiar, what kind would you want?”
“Something self-sufficient,” I answered. “Some kind of creature that could look after its own food, drink its own water, find its own place to sleep, and in general want me but not need me. A cat, maybe, but I would feel a little silly if I didn’t get some exotic variety.”
“I think I’d get a bird,” said Fenn. “I’ve always liked birds. Say, if this whole Solace thing pans out, maybe we can go flying again! And we could resurrect our Arches campaign, plus Val. Kind of ruins the division of suits thing though, since we’d have to double up somewhere.”
“You really want to play again?” I asked.
“Adnarim has a whole character arc left,” said Fenn. “Especially with her twin sister dead.”
“Okay,” I said. “It was really hard to tell how much people were actually having fun, and how much you were all humoring me.”
“Grak loved it,” said Fenn. “I’m surprised you didn’t pick up on it. Well, not surprised, exactly, but it seemed really obvious to me.”
“He seemed to like some of the character stuff,” I said. “Specifically his character. I don’t know, he’s hard to read.”
“I’ll give you that,” said Fenn. “But I know that he’d be up for it, and I know that I’m up for it, and Mary desperately needs to spend about a year unwinding. Actually now that I think about it, Solace is probably going to be a baby, or a toddler or something, which might make playing hard.”
“It depends on how much time is stored up in the time chamber,” I said. “In theory, there will be a lot, which means that we could possibly get her up to her teens. Old enough that she might be able to pass as an adult.”
“I’ll tell you this,” said Fenn. “I am not changing or washing dirty diapers.”
“Washing?” I asked, just before it clicked. “Ah, cloth diapers. On Earth we use disposable ones. I mean, in my part of the world we do. Did.”
“Elves just hold their young over the toilet,” said Fenn. “But elves only poop like once a week anyway, and the babies come out the size of my palm,” she held up her hand to demonstrate, and stared at it for a moment, frowning slightly. “Half a pound, at most, not like the monsters that come out of human women.” She shook her head. “I’m really hoping that’s not a decision that Mary ends up regretting.”
“I think she’ll do fine,” I said. “We’ve got the best healing that money can buy, and it’s not like Solace is going to be a real baby anyway.”
“Do you know that because of magic, or are you just hoping?” asked Fenn.
“We have the time chamber anyway,” I replied. “Even if she does end up being an actual baby.”
“Yeah, but you’ve still got to be in it,” said Fenn. She paused. “We’re not pre-emptively talking about abandoning Mary in the time chamber, are we?
Before I could share my thoughts on that, the train car’s door opened, and one of the tuung — the one that had left earlier, I thought — came walking over to me. He strode on long, powerful legs, stepping so that the heel of his foot didn’t touch the ground. His pants were skin-tight and rather damp, and his shoes had individual parts for each of his three toes, acting more like a glove than a shoe. There was something of a tree-frog about the tuung, though they weren’t Animalia, and among my cultural notes on Aerb was the reminder that very few of the mortal species liked being confused with the Animalia.
“Emomain has invitation for you,” he said, laying a letter with a wax seal on the table. He retreated back toward his companions without waiting for a response.
I looked to Fenn, shrugged, then picked up the letter.
Dear Sir and Madam,
I am Princess Emomain, fifth daughter of Esunouninuol, current monarch of the Boundless Pit. I am aboard the Lion’s Tail on my return trip to the Boundless Pit, following ten years of intensive study at the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh, where I specialized in medical procedures which are either necessary due to ethical concerns about the use of magics, or due to the impossibility of using magic for whatever reason.
When I return to my ancestral home, I am likely to be sorely lacking in the multicultural companionship that I had grown accustomed to in Cranberry Bay, and during the two days of travel it will take to get to Headwater and the Boundless Pit, I’ve decided that I shall have one last hurrah. To that end, I have been inviting interesting people to come visit my car, where I am traveling in style with plenty in the way of refreshments which continue the multicultural theme.
Would you be interested in joining me? All of my guards and servants have been directed to usher suitable passengers toward my private car.
I handed the letter over to Fenn, and let her read it while I collected my thoughts.
“Quest?” she asked, when she’d finished. She was keeping her voice low; the tuung had been talking among themselves at the next table, but they’d apparently been eavesdropping, at least enough that they’d heard us talking to the man whose familiar I’d inspected.
“No quest,” I said.
“Huh,” said Fenn. She looked down at her empty plate. “I could do with a dessert though.”
“Fenn, we ah,” I looked over at the tuung and tried to determine whether they were listening in. Had they heard the whole conversation about us not actually having attended the athenaeum? I’d had them in my eyeline, but hadn’t been paying them much attention. “I’m worried that it will expose us.”
“Again, so?” asked Fenn.
“We’re talking about royalty of the place that we’re visiting really soon,” I said.
“Point taken,” Fenn said with a frown. “But she must have sent out plenty of these invitations, and we can just change our story, right?” She was still keeping her voice low. I needed to get some translation tattoos for the both of us so we could speak in a mutual language that was unintelligible to others. That was a thing on Aerb, but it was pricey, especially since it meant getting them done custom rather than off-the-shelf translation tattoos that would let you speak one of the standard languages.
“Are you asking what I would do if all the other junk wasn’t a factor?” I asked. “Or what I want to do, given that it is?”
“On the face of it, a tuung princess, even a middling one, would be a good ally,” said Fenn. “Note: ally, not companion, which might be more problematic for us. The place we’re going is three miles down the Boundless Pit, and I’d been under the impression that would mean a little bit of archery, but if we can avoid that, all the better. I’d rather not kill people if they’re just defending their sovereignty.”
“Okay,” I said. “You’re right. It’s a potential diplomatic door we can open.” Except I would be surprised if it were that simple. “Mary and Val are on the way.”
Fenn rolled her eyes. “I love her, but I’m worried that she’s going to talk us to death about it.”