Worth the Candle, Ch 90: Head of House

Zona stepped forward and inspected the hourglass. The sand in it had begun to move, swirling around at the top, but not yet descending through the neck. “She reminds me of him,” said Zona. She turned toward me. “Headstrong. Fearless.”

There were a lot of words I might have used to describe Arthur, but ‘fearless’ was not one of them. Of course, it wasn’t a word that I would have used to describe myself either, but I was sure that from certain outside viewpoints, that was how people might have talked about me. Some of it was the sheer durability that magic offered me, and some of it was the tint of unreality that still sometimes seemed to hang over everything like a fog. A part of it was just that I’d been through a lot, and had a better bearing on what I could and could not handle.

“You wanted to know about him?” asked Zona. “There are certainly things that I can tell you. We have a fair amount of time to talk, while we wait.”

“I had other questions,” said Grak.

Zona raised an eyebrow, and looked to me for a response.

“Pressing questions?” I asked.

“More pressing than the fate of a man who has been missing for five hundred years,” said Grak.

I held my tongue and waved for him to continue. Fenn came to stand closer to me, and laced her fingers through mine. Her fingers were slender, callused from using her bow, and now familiar. I knew she didn’t really understand what Arthur had meant to me, but at least I could count on her for support.

“Warders are always troublesome,” said Zona with a sigh. “Have you guessed at what you spoke of before?”

“You mean the unifying theme?” asked Grak. Zona nodded. “No,” he replied. “I am missing something there. No, I wanted to ask about the manipulation of the wards.”

“Yes?” asked Zona.

“You said that you had an ability to alter them,” said Grak.

“Yes,” replied Zona.

Grak shifted. He didn’t seem terribly skilled at this sort of dialogue. “How?” he finally asked. “It is theoretically impossible for an entad.”

“Are the theories still so woefully inaccurate?” asked Zona. She wore a wry smile, the kind that people use as a more polite way of laughing in someone’s face.

Grak let out a long breath through his wide nostrils as he watched her. “You do not have a soul,” he said.

“One does not need a soul,” replied Zona.

“For concordance one does,” replied Grak. “There must be something spent to create a ward.”

“In theory, yes,” replied Zona, still smiling.

“You do not have the implements,” said Grak.

“If you mean a monocle and a wand, I have both,” said Zona. “Several of each, as it happens.”

“Is this actually important?” asked Fenn. “Because if it is, you can go on, but I’ve got my own questions.” I looked at her, and saw discontent written on her face. I was worried about where her line of questioning was going to go. I’d been pretty free with information, but I really didn’t want the topic of Zona’s look-alike to come up, and I was pretty sure that was where Fenn was heading.

“It is important,” said Grak. “It concerns our safety.”

“I have stood, uncontested, for centuries,” said Zona.

“Breached, a number of times,” said Grak.

“By my own will,” replied Zona.

“Why?” asked Grak.

“Not actually sport?” asked Fenn.

“Information,” said Zona. Her face twisted into a pronounced frown as she said the word. “Do you really intend to live here? Even with all you’ve seen? Even with the state of me? Even though I was planning on killing you, and made some effort toward that end?”

“We have a quest,” said Fenn.

“From whom?” asked Zona. She looked between us for a moment. “Ah, the Dungeon Master, naturally.”

“Naturally,” I said. “And yes, we had intended to make this our base of operations. Amaryllis still does, apparently. Normally this is the sort of thing we’d take a vote on. Right now I’m not sure how that vote would shake out. If you weren’t hunting people for sport, I’d like to know, because as it stands, I’m on the side of wanting to get out of here after an equitable exchange of resources.”

Zona watched me. “Why does my form bother you?” she asked.

“That’s a long story,” I said. “Maybe one that you’d find illuminating. You’re changing the subject though.”

“I answered,” said Zona. “Information. There were elements of sport, naturally, a desire to inflict my awesome power upon people who had come to do me harm, or at the very least, to steal from me. I won’t pretend that I didn’t find that aspect of it enjoyable. It was retribution, revenge. But there were other reasons as well, and one of those reasons was so that I could gather information. Usually I would leave one alive, or two if I could separate them without too much trouble, then appear before them and make them answer my questions about the state of the world. That became less important once I acquired a radio from one of the raiding parties, but I’m old-fashioned, and still like to hear straight from the horse’s mouth from time to time.”

“So you … kept people alive, tortured them, for information?” I asked.

“I suppose that doesn’t make you feel any better about living inside me?” asked Zona.

“It helps,” said Fenn. “You’re callous and cruel, but you’re not mindless about it. I thought maybe this was all a setup for some kind of horrorshow, like we’d open the time chamber back up and Mary would be flayed against a wall, and you’d start cackling.”

“Oh, certainly I’ve done things like that,” said Zona. “A door slams shut, trapping one member of a party away from the others, and I go to work making a display of their death to whatever extent I’m able, so that when the main group comes to the rescue of their fellow, he’s a macabre display of arteries and organs. You’ll have to clean up a few of those, they’re scattered around the rooms, which is another point in favor of my having permanent residents again, I suppose.”

I felt a chill go down my spine. Zona was, for most intents and purposes, a haunted house, a malevolent intelligence that had killed maybe as many as hundreds of people. I didn’t think that she was a threat to us, at least at the present moment, but I couldn’t see wanting to stay here. If it was true that she couldn’t see inside the time chamber, maybe I was going to have to figure out a way I could get in there and have a private conversation with Amaryllis.

“Have I answered your questions, dwarf?” asked Zona.

“No,” said Grak. “Many questions remain.”

Zona nodded. “All the same, this line of conversation begins to bore me, and there are certain topics which, I’m sure you’ve noticed, I wish to avoid.” She turned to Fenn. “But you don’t want to delve into the esoterica of warding, do you?”

“No,” said Fenn. I squeezed her hand, trying to warn her away from talking about Tiff, but she squeezed my hand back, either misunderstanding, or rejecting my request. She looked over at me. “Joon, ask her, or I will.”

Zona looked at me, waiting.

I let out a sigh. “Do you know whose form you’re wearing?” I asked.

Zona didn’t respond. She had gone still, not just deathly still, but frozen in place, like a movie had been paused. No breath, no pulse, no minute movements of the clothes.

“I’m … something of a scholar when it comes to the Lost King,” I said. “I know Uther Penndraig better than most people do. The resemblance … I don’t know if you pulled it from his mind, or his dreams, or his memories, but –”

“His drawings,” said Zona, coming back into motion.

“Ah, right,” I replied. “I’d forgotten he was an artist.”

“Unusual, for a scholar to forget a detail like that,” said Zona. She was staring at me with a piercing intensity that was unlike any expression Tiff had ever worn, even at her most worked up. “You’re dream-skewered.”

“Uther was too,” I said. “And I knew him, back on Earth.”

Zona went still again, not moving so much as a hair. This continued for long enough that Fenn and I shared a glance.

“Did you break our house on our first day here?” asked Fenn.

“You were going to say it if I didn’t,” I said.

“Not the whole bit, just, she’s Tiff, right?” asked Fenn. “We come nine frickin’ miles down into the Boundless Pit, walk past death, destruction, and mystery, and who else could it be but your ex-girlfriend?”

“Yeah,” I said with a sigh.

“She’s not like I thought she’d be,” said Fenn. “Physically, I mean. I thought she’d be more … Amaryllis Penndraig. Prettier.”

“She was …” I tried to think about how to put it diplomatically. “She was pretty by the standards of our high school, which had a graduating class of about a hundred fifty people. So, maybe in the top quarter of a cohort of seventy-five girls? Whereas Amaryllis is –” I stopped, realizing what I was about to say before I said it, but not early enough that my train of thought wasn’t left hanging in the air for anyone to see. Fenn didn’t look upset, only exasperated. “Amaryllis is tailored to my tastes, probably deliberately tailored, just like you are.”

“You are speaking too freely,” said Grak.

Fenn looked over at Grak, then at Zona. She reached forward and snapped her fingers a few times in front of Zona’s still face, then poked her once in the shoulder. The finger went straight through.

“It’s okay,” said Fenn. “Joon broke her.” She turned back to me. “You really think Mary’s the prettiest woman in the world?”

“No,” I said with a sigh. “I think that –”

“We have more important things to discuss,” said Grak.

“Yeah, you’re right,” I said. “Any insights into exactly what we’re dealing with here?”

(I was going to say that Amaryllis was exactly tailored to my tastes, and my tastes were sufficiently generic that she’d beat out a lot of other women because of that, especially since a lot of it was just physical fitness, youth, and health, which cut out maybe ninety-nine percent of the competition from the word go. Beauty was subjective enough that there wasn’t really such a thing as the prettiest woman in the world (though maybe you could figure it out through pairwise rankings, if you had that kind of data to work with, but that came down to voting systems, and different processes would give different results). I did think that Amaryllis was pretty, pretty enough to stop me in my tracks sometimes, but I’d come around on Fenn’s particular charms, and whatever the chemical goop in my brain was doing, it was making her more attractive to me. You know how they say that some children have faces that only a mother could love? That was a real thing, parents getting blinded to what their children looked like because of the hormones and internal, mysterious brain processing.

That was the kind of thing that read as romantic to me, but probably wouldn’t have come out right, or been taken in the spirit in which it was intended.)

“Have you heard the phrase meta-entad?” asked Grak.

“No,” I replied. “But from the word, it would be a magic item that chiefly affects other magic items?”

Grak nodded. “They’re almost always powerful. It would explain several points which have been confusing me.”

“Like why she’d want our stuff, and what happened to the things that were supposed to be here,” said Fenn. “Also the mutilated corpses. The guy in the lobby was missing his torso because she cut a breastplate off him.”

It fit, from what I could see. Exactly what she was doing with the entads was anyone’s guess, but the grab-bag of powers she seemed to have available to her suddenly made sense. The question of central theme was also solved in a single stroke; there was no theme, but there was a meta-theme.

“Huh,” I said. I was trying to think right, and while I was better than I’d been when we first walked in, I still wasn’t my usual self, not as sharp as I normally was. I was going to need some rest, sooner rather than later. “Okay,” I said. “That’s actually really helpful to know.”

“It’s a theory,” said Grak.

“Well, sure,” I said with a gesture in his direction. When my hand fell, I let it touch the top of the rope that was wrapped around my waist. I tried to think back. Had Ropey moved at all since we’d come into Kuum Doona? He’d saved my life on the ship, but after that … I didn’t think we’d revealed him. Naturally if Zona could see magic like a warder, she’d know that the rope was magical, but I wasn’t sure that a warder’s analysis of magic was good enough that she’d be able to know specifically what kind of magic. Grak could make some guesses, but not outright crack the code. “My guess is the process is unrecoverable, which means that it’s hard to test, but I kind of wonder what would happen if we had a sentient magic item to give to her.”

“It is hard to say,” replied Grak with a subtle nod in my direction. “Amaryllis did not believe this place was any more intelligent than a dog. An increase in intellect could explain the discrepancy. We do not know enough to say.”

“But if all that is true, why was it not in the family ledgers?” asked Fenn with a frown. “She said that her great-grandfather didn’t know much more than she did. So where does the false story come from?” She looked at Zona, still frozen in place. “And why does she look like your ex-girlfriend? And what got her so pissed off at Uther?” She snapped her fingers in front of Zona a few times. “I’m ready for her to wake back up.”

But she stayed like she was for another few minutes while we twiddled our thumbs, waiting for Amaryllis’ first round in the time chamber to be done. I was thankful that it was controlled from the inside, as otherwise Zona being incapacitated (or distracted) might mean that I’d have to figure out how to control it on the fly. As it was, we were just waiting, with enough time left that I was bored, but not enough time that I could really do anything productive, especially not when the glove and most of our equipment were inside the time chamber. There was also Zona to worry about; the avatar wasn’t moving, but that didn’t mean we could speak freely, especially because it was conceivable that it was a ploy.

When the time chamber was done spinning up (or whatever it needed to do to get up to speed), the grains of sand began to fall, slow enough that my eyes could track them individually. It wasn’t terribly interesting to watch, but I gave it a once over, mostly in the interests of gathering whatever information there was to gather. The hourglass seemed to serve as both a meter of time remaining and the state of the chamber. It was as the grains of sand began to fall more slowly that Zona returned.

“He was dream-skewered,” said Zona. She was standing in front of me, not having bothered to pretend that she needed to cross the intervening distance to get from one place to another. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does,” I said. “You listened to him speak, you probably read the stories if you didn’t hear them firsthand, there was always something otherworldly about him.”

“I don’t mean that,” said Zona. “The evidence backs it up, the conclusion is inescapable once you’re looking for it, but … the dream-skewered aren’t special, they don’t have any unique aptitudes. This was his home for the better part of a year, I saw him with his closest friends and confidants. His Knights. They never mentioned it. He never spoke of it. We were … we were close, this is,” she gestured toward her form, Tiff. “You knew her.”

“I did,” I said with a nod. “And I would be willing to tell you about her, if you’d like, and about him, as I knew him.”

“If I told you what I knew in exchange,” nodded Zona.

“No,” I said. “Not in exchange. There’s a … do you know the phrase ‘gift economy’?”

“Of course,” said Zona.

“I’d like for us to have that,” I said. “We do things for each other because that’s how we choose to interact with each other, rather than because there are explicit agreements that we’re at risk of violating. Uther meant something to you, even if you ended up hating him, or if your relationship status was just ‘it’s complicated’.”

“Juniper already talks about them constantly anyway,” said Fenn. I gave her a betrayed look. “And I do like that,” Fenn continued. “Just saying.”

The door of the time chamber creaked open, revealing Amaryllis. She had changed, in the month she’d been in there, forty-five minutes or so for us. Her hair had grown out and the dye had faded, leaving it a somewhat unattractive muddle of color, red at the roots, light brown further down, all of it tied back in a ponytail. She was back in her pink “Princess!” shirt, now somewhat worse for the wear, faded and worn in. She gave us all a warm smile, which wasn’t dampened by the scowl that Zona directed her way.

The chamber behind her was no longer clean and bare, but it wasn’t really messy either. There was a desk that I was pretty sure had been stolen from Weik Handum, which was covered in books and papers set in neat stacks. Most of the books had a half-dozen colorful bookmarks in them. The bed was along another wall, a simple, small thing that I thought Fenn might have stolen from one of the hotels we’d stayed at, neatly made and pressed clean. There was a kitchen area, which I hadn’t expected; Amaryllis had the backpack, which had as much food as she could possibly want, and I had been assuming that she would feed herself with takeout or fast food. But no, there was a small, single-burner stove set on top of a small table, with a sink beside it that was fed from a jug of water overhead, and drained into a different jug beneath. There were plants as well, I was interested to note, sitting under grow lights and stacked up on racks to the ceiling. I couldn’t see what she’d been using for showers or waste elimination, but with the glove, there wasn’t really a reason to keep the room in the same configuration all the time. The chamber looked small, with all her stuff in it, claustrophobically so.

“I’ve been waiting for this all week,” said Amaryllis with a sigh. She walked forward and gave Fenn a hug, then Grak, and then me. Was this the first time we’d ever hugged? I thought it might have been.

“Well, you didn’t go insane,” said Zona with a glance around the time chamber.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “You could have warned me about the cats.”

“Ah,” said Zona. “As it happens, I didn’t know they went in there.”

“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “A benefit, actually.”

“Cats?” I asked.

“Cats,” replied Amaryllis. “Whenever you open up a book and read from it, a cat will appear, sitting on the pages.” She shrugged. “I met a lot of cats. A lot. Not really a problem, since you can move them to your lap.”

Tome of Cat Summoning. I remembered that one fairly well, though I seemed to remember cribbing it from somewhere. That was another point in favor of Grak’s theory. If the Tome of Cat Summoning had been translated into Aerb as an entad, and Zona had eaten it, that had some interesting implications for how her power actually worked. I’d have to talk about it with Grak later, if I got a chance to. I was assuming that everything we’d said while she was frozen had still been overheard, that was plain common sense, but there were limits to what I wanted to say in front of her.

“Well, I missed you,” said Fenn. “Longest forty-five minutes of my life.”

“Feeling alright?” asked Grak.

“Physically, fine,” said Amaryllis. “I probably wouldn’t even be able to tell I was pregnant at this point if I didn’t already know. Blood pressure is fine, heart rate is fine. I have a variety of deployable packages, it’s how I’m managing the internal space so the chamber can become different rooms. The medical package is fairly comprehensive, and everything I’ve been able to test has come back within normal parameters. I’d have come out if it hadn’t.”

“And emotionally?” I asked. “The isolation didn’t get to you?”

“I had the cats,” said Amaryllis. “They helped. Children’s books make kittens. And,” she glanced at Zona. “If I ever really needed conversation, there was Cyclamine.” It took a moment to remember who the name belonged to: her great-grandfather. “We’re sort of starting to understand each other, I think. But I’m glad for the reprieve, even if it’s not going to last long.” She glanced back at the time chamber, where she’d made her home for a month. A frown crossed her face before she turned back. “How have things been here? Keeping out of trouble?”

“They told me that Uther was dream-skewered,” said Zona.

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. I’d been worried that she’d be disappointed, or that we’d have another post-facto conversation about letting people in on things that weren’t common knowledge, but there was just that “ah”, as in, “ah, figured it would be something like that”.

“That’s it?” asked Fenn. “Not that I was hoping to piss you off, but, you know, pissing you off is one of life’s great pleasures.” She gave me a look. “Also, it was Juniper’s fault.”

“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “You forget that I had a month to think about things. I made a list of all the worst things you could possibly have said, and — I know that Juniper is quick to trust, he told me pretty much everything as soon as we met. This wasn’t anywhere near a worst-case scenario.”

“The worst case scenario would be that all of us were dead, right?” asked Fenn.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis, with a glance toward Zona. “No offense.”

“None taken,” said Zona. “It seems sensible to worry about. I’ve done it in the past.”

“Can you stop saying things like that?” asked Fenn.

“You put someone in the chamber and then killed their group?” I asked.

“Sometimes it was a long game,” said Zona. “Splitting people up, or waiting for them to do it on their own, making as visceral a presentation as I could for when they found the bodies.” She paused slightly, seeming to ignore our expressions (distaste, horror, calm analysis). “The killing was always the most difficult part of it, making sure that the body fell correctly, that the spray of blood wouldn’t give the game away until the perfect moment, that it would be artful.” She looked at Amaryllis. “I wasn’t going to do it, but if I had, the hard part would have been the time constraint, trying to get something in place for maximum effect before you came back out.”

“Well,” said Amaryllis. “We do appreciate that you didn’t do it.”

“Oh, I know that none of you will understand it,” said Zona. “There was an art to it, to creating the beautifully disturbing, in touching down to someone’s soul by breaking apart another person in front of them. It was grotesque and morbid, inhuman.”

“I understand it,” I said. Zona gave me a look. Doubt was the wrong word: that would imply that there was some uncertainty on her part. She flatly didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe me with all the conviction I’d ever seen on a person’s face. “Not the whole thing, not killing people like you did, even if they were invaders, even if you were within your rights –”

“Entads don’t have rights,” said Zona.

I turned to Amaryllis. “Is that true?”

“Legal frameworks are complicated,” replied Amaryllis.

“So if I –” I stopped myself, having almost said Ropey’s name. I reached down and pulled out one end of the rope, which came away limply in my hand. “Here, if this entad were intelligent, if it were a thinking thing, you’re saying that there would be no legal repercussions for me injuring it?” I hoped that toed the line well enough, passing the right message on to Amaryllis. She gave no sign of recognition, though I wouldn’t have expected her to. I didn’t dare risk looking at Zona.

“It’s complicated, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. “The Empire of Common Cause operates under a legal framework that’s meant to govern interaction between polities, and which has slowly crept into everyday life — lots of parallels with your own United States, actually, minus the Civil War. The individual polities then have their own legal systems, some of which have been copied from others, some of which are descendants of different traditions, some of which have bits of law grafted on from others, it’s an absolute mess, worse than anything on Earth. And yes, in a lot of places, entads are property, period, even if they have a clearly identifiable will of their own that goes contrary to whatever owner they have. Sentient entads are rare though, truly independent ones even more so. The legal reforms needed to get all the mortal species on the same playing field were monumental as it was, and not even fully complete within the Empire. You’re talking about laws that would apply to, at most, dozens? There’s no incentive to get the wheels of legislature turning, very few advocates, it’s … complicated.”

“Do you remember monologuing about the politics of imperial law at the Kindly Bones?” I asked.

“Yes,” said Amaryllis, smile going a little wider. “And yes, it’s sort of the same thing.”

Back then, she had been talking in order to cover for me, to both get Bormann’s attention on a different topic, and to communicate to me that I should shut my mouth about things that might give me away. Here, she was using the comparison to say the same, not that I should shut up, necessarily, but that she understood what I was getting at, if maybe not the motive.

“Well, I couldn’t ask for a better exposition fairy,” I replied, as I tucked the limp rope back in place.

“You were saying how you understood me,” said Zona.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry we got derailed, I was saying … I know what it’s like to create things meant to hurt other people, to, I don’t know, engineer everything to so that there’s as negative an impact as possible. The grotesque, the macabre. It was fiction, but –”

“Fiction,” said Zona, dismissive, as though swatting away a fly.

“Yes,” I replied, swallowing. I was less sure of the comparison now than when I’d started, but she’d been speaking to something I thought I understood. “I’m talking about the desire to hurt people, not physically — I mean, that too — but to inflict things on them, to make something,” I shook my head. “Sorry, we can talk about this later, maybe, I’m not getting across what I wanted to.”

“Or you’re speaking nonsense,” said Zona. “Which do you think is more probable?”

Fel Seed, I wanted to say, but it would take too much to explain, because I’d have to give too much background, and obviously I hadn’t killed anyone with my D&D campaigns, or tortured anyone, all I’d really done was lash out at my friends. It wasn’t a competition, but even so, I couldn’t compete. All I’d really wanted to say was that I understood the impulse, and that it was a human one.

“You’re right,” I said. “I’m still shaking off the aftereffects of fighting the tuung, excuse me.”

“Juniper is the architect of Aerb,” said Fenn.

Amaryllis sighed.

“Architect?” asked Zona. “Meaning?”

“The dream that skewers,” said Amaryllis. “In Juniper’s dream of Earth, he was a prolific creator, responsible for making all the worst elements of our world.”

“Fiction,” said Zona, this time less certainly.

“Fiction,” nodded Amaryllis. “Of a sort. It’s allowed him to have knowledge here, in our world, that he shouldn’t have had.” She looked back toward the time chamber. “You can’t enter?”

“No,” said Zona. “I can sense you in there, moving too fast to follow, but if I tried to appear, you’d see nothing more than a still image. You were planning to speak to me privately?”

“It was the time more than the privacy,” said Amaryllis. “If Juniper wants to read you in on everything, it’s going to take … days, probably, days that I’ll have available to spend, if I could do it in his place.” She shrugged. “If it’s not possible, that’s not a problem, we intend to be here for the long haul, so long as you find that acceptable. I imagine you prefer the others anyway.”

Zona stared at her for a moment, then nodded. “You’re less eager for praise than your archetype.”

“Thank you,” said Amaryllis with a nod.

“Aww, are you two friends now?” asked Fenn. “What a difference a month makes, right?”

“I missed you,” Amaryllis said to Fenn. She looked back to the time chamber. “I told myself that I would make the check-up short though.”

“I don’t think a half hour is going to make the difference,” I said. “If you need … I don’t know, people, or maybe space.”

“With respect, I don’t think a half hour is going to make the difference for or against my sanity,” said Amaryllis. “What I really need is a few hours, maybe a whole day, a meal shared with people, listening to others talk, time for all the pent up thoughts to leak back out into the world — and we can’t be confident that we have the time for proper decompression, not if I do it nine times. And if Solace needs time to grow up, then we might be talking about dozens of days.”

“Come out early if you need to,” I said.

“The check-ins are meant for evaluation,” said Amaryllis. “Or at least, that’s what I’ve come to think about them in the month I was in, I suppose we didn’t really have a long conversation about it. If I’m acting weird, if you think I’m close to cracking, the three of you can tell me and make a new schedule, or figure out something else that you think would work for me, whether that’s a longer stay on the outside, or having one of you come in.” She glanced back at the time chamber. It was becoming something of a nervous tic. “It’s a small space though, and my self-evaluation is that between my cats and my great-grandfather, I’ve been getting enough socialization to get by.”

Grak was the first to move over and give her a hug, but she got one from Fenn shortly after that, and from me last, which felt awkward, especially because she seemed to linger for a moment after I’d stopped hugging her. She had never been big on touching; I had half a mind to look into her soul to make sure that it hadn’t been tampered with somehow, but that was just the socially inept part of me talking.

When she finally pulled back, she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye. “Sorry,” she said. “I guess the mood swings have made themselves known.”

“If you need more time,” began Grak.

“No,” said Amaryllis. She took a step back toward the time chamber’s open doors, and looked between us as though taking a mental snapshot. “See you all in another forty-five minutes.”

With that she went back in and closed the doors, leaving us to wait once again.

“Am I the only one thinking that there’s no way that she’s going to make it the full nine months, let alone however long it takes to get Solace up and running?” asked Fenn. “She’s going to snap.”

“She came out without her armor,” said Grak. “That was sloppy.”

“The armor wouldn’t have protected her from me,” said Zona.

“Your exact abilities are a mystery,” said Grak. “Amaryllis is one to take paranoid precautions.”

“Yeah,” I said. “She’d have considered the edge case where she needed to spring into battle the moment she opened up the door, and worn her armor.”

“She’ll crack like an egg,” said Fenn. “Now me, I’m fine with being alone, but that’s the difference between a fake princess and a real princess for you.” There was a little bit of edge to her tone that I couldn’t quite account for. I knew her well enough to be on guard when she was making too many jokes, but I wasn’t of the right mindset to figure her out.

“We should start making some contingency plans,” I said. “For if the time chamber doesn’t work out as planned.”

“If the pregnancy is what’s at issue, you could sedate her,” said Zona. “A human can survive that, if their other needs are attended to.”

“Welp, that’s a new nightmare to add to the pile,” said Fenn. “Sedated for the duration of a pregnancy? Are you trying to make me nauseous?” She stopped for a moment. “Wait, are you?”

Zona only smiled.

“We will discuss plans with Amaryllis if problems arise,” said Grak. “Or use the time chamber to work on a solution.”

“In the meantime, I’d like to hear more about Earth,” said Zona. “About Uther.”

“I’m kind of in the same boat,” I replied. “Wanting to know about Uther. The locus … that’s not really our purpose, as a group, it’s just — something that happened along the way. It’s important, yes, but it’s not what brought us together. If there’s an endpoint for us, a meaning, it’s in finding the Lost King.”

Zona looked at me, weighing me. “Alright, we have the time. Let me tell you about Uther Penndraig.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 90: Head of House

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