“Babble stones,” I said, after Zona had gone silent. “Hold one in your hand, and anything you say comes out as gibberish to anyone listening. But if someone holds a matching one, your gibberish will be perfectly comprehensible. Not terribly powerful, but there are a few use cases.”
“You have them?” asked Zona, as though waking from a daze.
“No,” I said. I hadn’t actually known they existed on Aerb. “I don’t even know where we’d go to find them.” I scratched my chin. “It’s hard to know what to make of what you’re telling us,” I said. “There’s obviously a question of bias, and of accuracy, and … it’s not that I don’t believe you, but I might be missing the context under which his actions make sense. Especially if there were conversations that you weren’t privy to.”
“What more is there to explain?” asked Zona. “I told him that I didn’t want more, because there were too many sensations that came with the entads, too much information that I found confusing. The Butterfly Knife was able to sense velocity as part of its basic function, and when it had been its own thing, it was automatic with the combination of the will of its owner and sufficient movement. As part of me, that awareness of movement became part of my sensorium.”
“Huh,” said Fenn. “Juniper, can I borrow the Anyblade?”
“Why?” I asked.
“I don’t have a weapon, everything I own is in the glove, and I want to make butterflies,” said Fenn.
I handed her the Anyblade from my finger, forming it into a thin longsword as I did so. Fenn wouldn’t be able to shape it, since it was invested in me by way of Amaryllis, and we couldn’t change that investment without her, but it served well enough for Fenn to swipe it through the air a few times, leaving butterflies in its wake. I didn’t miss the way Zona was studiously not paying any attention to the weapon.
“So if he knew that it was hard on you, why’d he do it?” I asked.
“He wasn’t thoughtless,” said Zona. “He was trying to engineer me, to add entads such that the problem would be alleviated, while at the same time ensuring that he didn’t give me too much power. To his credit, he spoke with me at length, attempting to explain that it was for the good. It was not to his credit that he refused my repeated requests that he stop.”
Fenn swished the sword through the air again, but this time no butterflies came out behind it. “Aw, what gives?” she asked. She had a veritable cloud of butterflies around her, dispersing with every passing second.
“It was starting to bore me,” said Zona.
“You have it under control now?” I asked. “You can shut off particular effects, or limit your senses to what’s manageable?”
“Yes,” replied Zona. “To the extent that the component entads can act on a person, they can act on me. Uther had a diadem in his possession that he eventually added in order to see if it would grant me the singular focus that it applied to its wearer. That was only after eight others had been added in the course of testing my response. I was quite distraught.”
“Ah,” I said. “Sorry. That … doesn’t sound like him, as I knew him.” I didn’t trust her account, not without the proper context. I wasn’t sure whether or not Arthur would have considered a sentient magic item to have moral worth. He had when we’d played our games, but it was anyone’s guess whether that belief had survived his journey here.
I was trying to think about ways to reframe the stories she was telling from Arthur’s perspective, assuming that she was telling me something close to the truth. I didn’t like her description of Arthur taking advantage of someone who was mentally impaired, and it did seem like he should have done more to make up for that hardship, given that he had all the economic might of a kingdom. But maybe that was just a sense of fairness at play, wanting to make sure that it was the same for everyone, that he wasn’t generous to the person right in front of him at the expense of those he never met. He’d talked about that before, I was pretty sure, how you shouldn’t give to charities just because someone comes up to you with a sob story.
“You want a survey of our stuff, so you can take some of it,” said Fenn. “Is there some quid pro quo there? Or maybe a gifting economy thing? Maybe we get a full list of your abilities? Because if the bodies we passed on the way in are any indication, you don’t have many limits.”
“I have fewer items than you’d think, and more limits than you might imagine,” said Zona. “I kept imagining myself cursed, because the right entads never came along as part of the raiding parties.”
“And what would the right items look like?” I asked.
“Heavy telekinesis,” said Zona. “Long-distance movement. The ability to shrink, or otherwise adjust my shape, possibly enough that I could disguise myself as one of the mortal species.” She nodded toward the Anyblade. “Something like that would have immense utility to me.”
I felt my stomach flip at that. The Anyblade had been with me for a long time, long enough that I felt like I had a connection to it. It wasn’t the most powerful magic item we had, and not, by my reckoning, in the top three, but it was mine, and had a wide range of potential utility. “We’ll make a survey of what we have and see whether it’s still your top choice,” I said. “It’s got some sentimental value, and without it, I’ll need another weapon to bond to.”
“You’re blade-bound?” asked Zona.
“Yeah,” I said. The bait had worked, and gotten us on a different topic of conversation, but I wasn’t sure how much I wanted to share about the game aspect of things. It seemed easier and simpler to pretend that it was all deep, eldritch magic. “Long story. When I said multidisciplinary, I really meant it.”
“Like him,” said Zona.
I nodded. “A lot like him. It’s one of the reasons that we’re trying to find him. And given what you told me … there are some questions that I’ll want to ask him.”
She gestured to herself. “And this? You wanted to know why and how I took this form?”
I nodded, though I wasn’t really sure that I wanted to hear. I tried to reassure myself that it was just one version of events from a less-than-reliable narrator, but so far as I could tell, Zona hadn’t lied to us yet, only threatened us or, before we’d properly met, taken some hostile action that she’d reversed. I listened closely, trying to find the seams where a misunderstanding or a lie could be hiding.
<How are you feeling?> Uther asked the house. It had been a long few days for the two of them. He was the only one living in the house; Vervain had left for somewhere else, Alcida had taken Montran to the nearest village, Everett, Forty-Two, and Dolmada were exploring the rim of the Boundless Pit and making contact with the tuung that lived beneath the immense waterfall, and Raven had set up their magical tent a few hundred yards away from the house, where she was ‘on call’.
<Fine,> replied the house. <Fine,> it repeated, knowing that the answer wasn’t quite correct, but not quite having the breadth of experience, knowledge, or introspection to give a better answer.
<Good,> replied Uther. He sat in the room he’d designated for a study, with books all around him, and a cat sitting on every one of them that was opened, save for those cats he’d moved to sit in his lap. He was looking through the books as he spoke. <I’ve decided that I’m going on a quest to the bottom of the Boundless Pit.>
<Oh?> asked Kuum Doona. <It is very deep.>
<Deep, but unlikely to be infinite,> replied Uther. <With the right combination of entads, I should be able to make almost three thousand miles in a day.>
<I see,> replied Kuum Doona.
<I’ll be going alone, without the others,> said Uther. <They all need a break from the adventuring life, and this should allow them a few weeks of rest and relaxation while I’m occupied with affairs that don’t require them. You seem to need some time to adjust, and I don’t want to leave you alone, but I also don’t want to leave you vulnerable to my enemies. We can try adding more –>
<No,> said Kuum Doona. <Please.>
<The diadem helped, didn’t it?> asked Uther.
<Yes,> replied Kuum Doona. <If I use it to focus on only one aspect at a time it isn’t as bad.>
“Hrm,” said Uther. <You will need to learn how to use many aspects at once,> he said. <If this place is to be a defensible fortress, it needs to be able to manifest every offensive and defensive magic at once.>
<I do not want to be defensible,> said Kuum Doona.
<No?> asked Uther. <You want people to be able to break down your doors and loot you? You may not care about the riches I store here, but they would take the door knobs, or cut you for wood. You wouldn’t want that, would you?>
<I am a house,> replied Kuum Doona. <For living in.>
Uther kept looking at his book, not deigning to respond to that. There was silence in the study, and within the house as a whole, which stretched on for long enough that Kuum Doona turned its attention elsewhere, changing the focus of the diadem’s power from conversation with the King of Anglecynn to some simple games that it had been taught, games like combining its magical effects.
The house had five pounds of telekinetic force at its disposal, and Uther had showed it how, in combination with the effect of transferring momentum, it could leverage that into greater force. Five pounds of force could turn a crank that gradually lifted up several hundreds of pounds of weights, which could then be released. That momentum could in turn be transferred to other tasks, allowing the house to accomplish things that wouldn’t be possible with five pounds of force alone.
There were other exercises, like trying to control the cats created by the power of the Tome of Cat Summoning, but it was one of the more unruly powers that had been added to the house, and the cats it spawned had a mind of their own. Kuum Doona took on the properties of the entads it ingested, but the results were sometimes idiosyncratic, especially when the entads in question had peculiar effects. Uther seemed to think that every power could be brought to heel. There were some effects that were involuntary, triggering whenever the condition was met, and he believed that they could be activated or deactivated with conscious control. Kuum Doona had some small amount of luck with the butterflies, though not with the cats.
<I’m working on a story,> said Uther. Kuum Doona stopped moving the weights around and shifted focus to conversation. It didn’t understand why Uther spoke into its mind, when he could just as easily have spoken out loud.
<A story?> asked Kuum Doona.
<It’s a story about a man for whom nothing matters,> he said. <His actions, for good or ill, have no lasting consequences. What do you suppose he does?>
<I don’t know,> replied Kuum Doona. It had a hard enough time predicting what real people would do.
<What do you think I would do, if my actions had no lasting consequences?> asked Uther.
<I don’t know,> replied Kuum Doona.
<Think about it and give me a guess,> replied Uther.
Kuum Doona thought about it. <You would return to your family,> replied Kuum Doona.
<And why do you think that?> asked Uther.
<Vervain said it,> replied Kuum Doona.
“Hrm,” muttered Uther. <But if my wife would never change, and my children would never grow up? If they wouldn’t remember what I had done the day before, for good or ill?>
<I don’t know,> replied Kuum Doona. Uther returned to his book with his brow furrowed, and Kuum Doona thought about the question. It had been instructed not to speak with Uther unless they were having a conversation, and didn’t quite know whether the conversation was over or not. <You would read books,> replied Kuum Doona, at last. <I see you reading books a lot.>
Uther lifted his head slightly to consider that. <And when I ran out of books to read, what would I do then?> he asked.
Kuum Doona wanted to say that it didn’t know, but stayed silent and thought about it first. <You would write more books.>
<For my own enjoyment?> asked Uther. <Perhaps. And when I ran out of books to write?>
<Would you?> asked Kuum Doona. It didn’t know enough about books to say whether that was possible.
<I don’t know,> replied Uther. After he gave that answer, he didn’t return to his book, and instead stared off into the distance, not focused on anything in particular, for long enough that Kuum Doona grew bored and refocused on its exercises.
The next morning, Uther Penndraig stepped over the side of the Boundless Pit and began his descent.
“I don’t like what you’re doing,” said Raven. She had her arms crossed over her chest and was frowning at Uther as he sat in his study. He was back from his first expedition into the Pit, and had said enough within the hearing of Kuum Doona that it knew there would be a second expedition, and possibly a third. He and his archivist sat together in the room he’d taken for his study.
“It’s safe enough,” said Uther.
“How fast are you falling?” asked Raven. “Can you be sure that you’d be able to stop in time if you saw something ahead of you?”
“Terminal velocity is around one hundred and twenty miles per hour,” said Uther. “I can see a mile out. I would have thirty seconds to activate the armor, that’s more than enough. You can be assured that I’m not going to die because I ran into something that lives down there.”
“You’re using warder’s sight,” frowned Raven. She was short, and to Kuum Doona’s senses, appeared almost as a child, though not dressed up as one. Kuum Doona had never seen a child, but somehow knew what one looked like anyhow, part of the large repository of background knowledge that came from no place in particular. Uther thought that it might have been from Soskanna. “What if there’s something non-magical?” Raven continued.
“Something hovering in the middle of the Boundless Pit, thousands of miles down, that exudes no latent, passive, or active magic?” asked Uther. He shook his head. “I would be hard-pressed to believe it.”
“I don’t understand what the point is,” said Raven.
“That’s a rather different argument, isn’t it?” asked Uther. “You don’t like it, you don’t think it’s safe, and you don’t understand it. You’re not usually so scattershot.”
Raven frowned. “You shouldn’t have introduced me to the concept of deflection if you were going to make it a common practice,” she said. “Usually I can understand what’s driving you to take risks, but in this case there doesn’t seem to be a problem that only the great Uther Penndraig can solve. There’s no one in need, and nothing in particular that seems like it’s tugging on your peculiar interests.”
“I’ve taken a fancy to the Pit,” said Uther. “That’s all you need to know.”
“And the house?” asked Raven.
“It can hear us,” said Uther.
“I’m aware,” said Raven. She shifted slightly, looking at the walls. “Babble stones?”
“No,” said Uther. “I’m trying to teach it. For that, it should listen.”
Raven pursed her lips. “And again I come to the question of what’s possessing you to –”
“Don’t use that word,” said Uther. His voice was loud and his tone was sharp.
“My apologies,” said Raven. “It was an unfortunate turn of phrase. I wanted to know why you were trying to teach the house, what the, ah — what’s the word you’re so fond of?”
“Endgame,” said Uther.
“What is your endgame here?” asked Raven. “You’ve been taken by a mood, lately, but you rarely indulge yourself unless there’s a goal in sight, even one that might look hidden to everyone else.”
Uther looked off into the distance. “It’s about seeking answers, I suppose,” he finally said. “Finding out what the purpose of it all is. Tell me, in your immense archives, is there any indication that someone has found the answer to that?”
“No,” said Raven. “I would have mentioned it, if there were. There are many who have claimed to, but no claims that could be substantiated. Perhaps someone did, and they’re indistinguishable from a madman or a charlatan.”
“That’s an answer exactly as I would expect,” said Uther with a sigh. He turned to look down at a stack of papers on his desk. “I’m working on a story, but having some trouble. It’s about a man who finds himself trapped, unable to make lasting change on the world. What would you do, in such a situation?” Raven didn’t answer immediately, so Uther went on. “You can’t change what people will do, how they’ll react to situations, or whether they live or die. Conversations held in the morning will have faded from memory by nightfall. It’s a curse that no action on your part can seem to end. And the world simply stays static, not changing or reacting, except in small ways that are undone the next day.”
“Is that how you feel?” asked Raven, her voice soft. “I know that we’ve all been through a lot, especially you, but the real, lasting good we’ve done for Aerb is something that anyone should aspire to. The Empire, the reforms, even if I accepted this notion that there would always be another threat rearing its head, I would say that in the meantime, so long as we can hold those threats at bay, the world is getting better.”
“I do appreciate your attempts at giving me encouragement,” said Uther. “But it’s just a story, nothing more, nothing less. The original ending, the one I had in mind, was that it was only after he becomes good that his actions have any consequence again, not just good, but outwardly perfect and selfless. But it seems to me that if he really believed that his actions had no meaning, that wouldn’t be a conclusion that he would come to, and further, that it might be interesting to see what his reaction would be when his outward attempts at doing good, even knowing that it wouldn’t last, don’t bear fruit.”
“I see,” said Raven. “Or rather, I don’t. It seems quite unconventional, even by your standards. And you’re having trouble with what this man would do, given that nothing he does matters? Or at least, given that he thinks that nothing he does matters?”
“Hedonism, villainy, self-destruction,” said Uther with a wave of his hand. “If I’m being honest, I could write it using the rest of the afternoon, but it’s that turn back toward the light that I’m having trouble with. He knew that nothing he did would have any lasting impact, so he raped a woman, and,” Uther shrugged. “He becomes irredeemable in the eyes of the audience.”
“So have him not do that?” asked Raven.
“Perhaps better that he kills instead of rapes,” said Uther. “But if he was in despair, for hundreds of years while the world stayed exactly the same around him, thinking that nothing he did would have any effect at all, and nothing would change for all his efforts, I have to imagine he would try something heinous, just to see whether that was the thing that would lift his curse. And from there, where does he go? What redemption is possible for him, even if he does decide to go back to being good?”
“I don’t know,” said Raven. “You’re sure this isn’t you, projecting your own problems into your work?” She laid a hand on his arm. “Uther, I’m not sure that being alone in the darkness for days at a time is good for your well-being.”
“If there’s any danger, it’s that being alone in the seemingly endless dark is a symptom, rather than a cause,” said Uther. “But I’m confident that I’ll make it to the bottom of the mystery, pun intended, and this chapter of my life will come to a close.”
Uther’s first trip into the Pit had lasted a day before he’d come back through a portal. His second trip had been longer, more than four days, long enough that his companions came by to speak with the house and ask it questions the house couldn’t answer about when he would be back and what he’d said. After Uther had returned from the second trip, he’d announced a third and final one, this one as deep a delve as he could make, not stopping until he’d found an answer to the mystery. His companions had asked him not to, a few of them saying that there was simply no point in what he was doing, or more selfishly, that they would be bored while he was gone. He had left anyway.
While he was away, Kuum Doona practiced. He had endowed it with the ability to create an illusion, light and sound in the air, within a movable ten foot cube, and instructed the house that it was to practice taking the form of a person, specifically, himself, the better to serve as a decoy or diversion. The entad that granted the power of illusion had also granted some understanding of the play of light and sound, and the natural movement of cloth and hair, the slight translucence of skin, the wrinkles on the face, and a thousand other things that threatened to overwhelm Kuum Doona’s simple mind. It was getting better though, improving with every passing day, in part because there was little to do besides run through the practices that Uther had set out for it.
Three weeks passed with Uther gone. His companions stopped by the house every once in a while, to see if it had word from him, but they did not stay or engage in conversation, nor did they speak amongst themselves in places where Kuum Doona could hear or see.
One day, Kuum Doona decided to go through the books and papers that Uther had left behind. It had progressed enough that it wasn’t so reliant on the ability to focus, and could allow its thoughts to wander away from whatever task it had set for itself. Uther controlled the house, and dictated which items would go inside the closet to get merged with Kuum Doona forever. He was still a mystery, not just because it was hard to predict what other people would do in the best of circumstances, but because he made some effort to keep secrets.
His papers were largely useless. Kuum Doona found the story he was working on, called “Groundhog’s Day,” though the title didn’t appear set in stone. It had an ending written for it, then partially crossed out, where the weather predictor fell in love and lifted the curse upon him. Kuum Doona didn’t understand why this story was important to Uther, if it was, nor why he thought the ending wasn’t as it should be.
Nothing he’d written down seemed important. It was art, by and large, partially finished plays, novels, poems, and stories, and scattered through those, a number of pictures that Uther had drawn in pen. Kuum Doona read through the papers, though much of it lacked the context to make it understandable, and there were half-finished thoughts everywhere it looked. Kuum Doona focused on the pictures Uther had drawn, and tried to work them into its exercises in creating realistic illusions. It was difficult work, creating the illusion, then looking at the illusion as though from the perspective of an outside observer, then trying to make the illusion move. It required an entirely different level of focus and skill that Kuum Doona had difficulty with, even using the power of single-mindedness that the diadem had granted it.
There was a recurring girl in Uther’s pictures, teenaged and lithe. Kuum Doona took her image and practiced with it, going through with the difficult task of translating the static, representative lines in two dimensions into a moving three dimensional image. As Kuum Doona put its full focus into the task, the task became easier, until eventually it hit walls in what it could figure out on its own. The girl in the pictures was only rarely smiling. She looked off into the distance in most of them, or stretched her muscles while frowning slightly, or walked while not quite facing toward the viewer. Kuum Doona made its guesses about how she would smile, given the muscles that lay beneath faces, the arrangement of fat and skin, and with some copying from people the house had seen smiling.
Uther returned after a month in the Pit. His portal opened in the study, blasting wind, and he collapsed to one knee as soon as he was through it. He was bloodied and gasping for air, but eventually found his feet. Kuum Doona wished that he hadn’t returned; it waited, not making itself known, hoping that the erstwhile king would have forgotten about it. He didn’t make a sound as he moved through the house, dragging his feet, but to Kuum Doona’s dismay, he made his way to the closet where he’d placed a dozen entads already. His necklace held miniature objects, dozens of them tied there with thread, and he plucked a blanket off, which returned to its full size in his hand. He threw it carelessly into the closet and trudged off to the room he’d declared as his bedroom, then laid down on the bed and went to sleep without uttering a single word.
Alcida arrived at the house as a bolt of lightning the next morning and checked in; when she heard that Uther was back, she rushed to his room and tried to wake him, but all her efforts were for nothing, and Kuum Doona watched as the vitric woman couldn’t so much as move him. The blanket he’d added was an entad, naturally, and the effect seemed to be that he was immobile and protected while he slept. Kuum Doona thought that it could lift that protection, if it so chose, but it did not.
Alcida left, disappearing in a bolt of lightning that arced off into the distance. She returned not long after, another bolt of lightning at the front door, this time with two of the others, Everett and Dolmada. She left almost immediately after she’d dropped them off, and they made their way into the house, moving cautiously, until they reached Uther’s sleeping form.
“House?” called Everett, after clearing his throat.
“What can I do for you?” asked Kuum Doona. It appeared next to them, in the form it had been practicing. It was the first time that it had tried showing it to people, though it had been making attempts at presenting as humanoid in the course of its day-to-day exercises.
Everett gave a little yelp of surprise and looked her over. “The hells? You’re … the house?”
“Who are you supposed to look like?” asked Dolmada, looking the form of Kuum Doona up and down.
“I don’t know,” replied Kuum Doona. “Zona?”
“Nope,” said Everett. “She never looked like that, even when she was a teenager.”
“I don’t know,” repeated Kuum Doona. “He drew her.”
“Well, add that to the mystery pile,” said Dolmada. She gestured to the sleeping form of Uther. “Any idea what’s troubling him?”
“He’s paying down Kenner’s Eye,” said Everett. “That much is clear. A month awake means a week asleep, maybe more. There are some side effects, but nothing he can’t handle. The real question is why we can’t so much as move him.”
“There was an entad,” said Kuum Doona. “A blanket.”
“Oh,” said Everett. “Oh, he gave up the Blanket of Protection.” He leaned back slightly. “Well, then there’s no problem.”
“Except that our leader dropped down into a bottomless pit for a month, against the advice of pretty much everyone,” said Dolmada. “And when he got back, he didn’t see fit to tell anyone about it. He’s going mad, if he wasn’t there already. I overheard him talking to Vervain about how his life was like a story, it was honestly one of the most disturbing things I’d ever heard — and you know me.”
“The house is listening,” said Everett. He looked at Kuum Doona.
“Let it,” answered Dolmada. “What Uther is doing here is a whole different problem.”
“What does ‘Kansas’ mean, there on your shirt?” asked Everett, turning toward the illusion that Kuum Doona was projecting.
“I don’t know,” said Kuum Doona.
The others arrived, and the conversation became so fractured that it was hard for Kuum Doona to keep track of it all. Even with the demonstrable might of the six companions, there was nothing that they could really do to help Uther, since all he needed was to get some sleep, and anyway, he’d made it so that anyone who was asleep in the house would be wholly protected beyond their abilities. No one asked Kuum Doona whether it could lift the protection, and it didn’t offer to try.
Vervain was the last to arrive, not carried through lightning like the others, but appearing in a swirl of black petals at the front door. When he strode into the room, the conversation stopped.
“Fool,” muttered Vervain as he looked over Uther’s form.
“Do you have any idea what he was trying to accomplish?” asked Everett.
“A month is a long time for the Secretary General to go missing,” said Raven. “People started asking questions in the first week, and they haven’t really stopped.”
“It used to take months for a letter to cross from one side of Aerb to another, if it completed the journey at all,” said Vervain. “How quickly we unlearn patience. They will keep.”
“And where have you been, o wise wizard?” asked Montran.
“Doing wizardly things,” replied Vervain with a frown. He reached down to the bed and poked Uther on the cheek; the flesh was rock hard and unyielding. “Sleeping off Kenner’s Eye, and the blanket given to the house?”
“We have three blankets,” said Alcida.
“You know which one I mean,” said Vervain with a wave of his hand. “Nothing to be done then. We’ll reconvene in a week. In the meantime, I will sleep beside his bed.”
“He wanted us out of the house, so he could claim it,” said Montran.
“It’s been claimed,” said Vervain. “The connection is strong, unbreakably so at this point, which leaves half of this quest complete. When he wakes, we might find that the other half has been completed as well. Make ready to travel, for the plates we’ve kept spinning have started to wobble, as Raven said.”
“You said they would keep,” said Raven.
“All the same,” replied Vervain. “Now go, leave us.”
The troupe left the room, filing out the door together, and emptied out of the house to go finish whatever affairs they had elsewhere. Kuum Doona stayed; it couldn’t project the image of its body out beyond the house, and could only give the impression of privacy, not the actuality.
“You read through his books, I see,” said Vervain, once they were alone.
“I did,” said Kuum Doona. “Have you?”
“Yes,” said Vervain. “Once, when there was some question as to whether he was really Uther. I was looking for a method of confirmation.”
Kuum Doona stayed silent. It wasn’t very good at conversation. It hadn’t had anyone to practice with.
“I’ll be interested to see what his reaction is, if he were to see you like that,” said Vervain, voice nearly at a whisper. “It might do him some good.”
Uther awoke a week after he’d gone to bed, just as predicted. Whether by chance or by design, Vervain was elsewhere in the house, leaving Kuum Doona as witness to the King of Anglecynn rubbing the sleep from his eyes and groaning as he stretched out. He ambled his way to the adjoining privy and relieved himself for what seemed like minutes, before finally coming out, dressed in only his trousers. He stopped when he saw the physical form of Kuum Doona, eyes momentarily going wide before he sat down in an armchair, seemingly at ease.
“You found my drawings,” he said. “The illusion is highly imperfect, but better than expected.”
“Where are the errors?” asked Kuum Doona.
“Maybe nothing that you would have known to correct,” said Uther. He paused. “I could help you make her more accurate, if you’ve chosen her as your avatar.”
“I thought you might be upset,” said Kuum Doona.
“And yet you chose to present this way regardless,” said Uther with a sigh. He looked over Kuum Doona, head to toe and then back again. “No, I can’t say that I’m upset. It’s lacking in artistry, and yet … all from the pictures that I’ve drawn? We can make you so much more than you are, starting with the avatar. Come over here, show me how you move.”
This was how Uther Penndraig spent his first morning back in the world of waking. The blanket offered total immunity from harm, so long as the person under it was asleep, which alleviated such minor issues as bed sores, hunger, thirst, or any of the other reasons it was a terrible idea to sleep for a week straight without moving. He seemed at peace, content with the task he’d seen in front of him, that of teaching a sentient house how to move and act more like a human.
“You’re too graceful,” said Uther. “She could be graceful, at times, but often she wasn’t.”
“Who was she?” asked Kuum Doona, as it attempted to move the image of a girl with less grace, not jerky motions, but as though the product of someone who wasn’t concerned with how a lack of coordination appeared. It was extraordinarily difficult.
“She was no one,” said Uther. “A childhood friend.”
“You have many drawings of her,” said Kuum Doona. She walked back and forth across the bedroom, trying different methods of walking, changing her gait and watching Uther’s reaction.
“Only a friend,” said Uther with a sigh. “It’s only an old man wishing that things could be different. An old man, wanting to go back home.” He wasn’t old; he was in his early thirties, a perfect physical specimen, tall and muscular. His eyes were roaming the form she presented. “Can you do haptics?”
“I don’t know that word,” said Kuum Doona.
“I just invented it,” declared Uther with a smile. “You can apply force. Can you apply force in concert with the visual illusion?”
“That seems difficult to manage,” replied Kuum Doona, coming to a stop. “Controlling light and sound to make this girl is very hard when I’m also having to think about what I’m saying. I don’t know if I can do three difficult things at once like that.”
“Then don’t speak,” said Uther. “Come here, run a finger along my arm, don’t worry about words for the time being.”
It proceeded that way for a while, with Uther instructing the house in how its body should behave, in the intricacies of touch. There was something in his eyes that the house didn’t understand, as he looked on the form that she’d created from his books.
“Sorry,” I said. “Can I stop you there?” I was feeling slightly nauseous. I could see where this story was going, and really didn’t like it.
“You don’t want to hear the end?” asked Zona.
“I’m just … not feeling great,” I said. “Sorry, it’s not — he was a friend. Is a friend. There are extenuating circumstances.”
“Not sure why you’re so upset,” said Fenn. “We knew that he cheated on his wife, right? Or they were in an open relationship or something?”
“It’s not that,” I said. “It’s … how old was he, exactly? Thirty-three? And still hung up on her? And that’s not … it was you, an infantile creature that he was using, and –” I shook my head. My stomach was still churning. It felt like child abuse to me, somehow.
“I didn’t care, at the time,” said Zona. “What did nudity mean to me, when it was just an illusion that I was projecting?” She gestured to Tiff’s form. “This isn’t my body, my house is the body, if you’d like to stretch the analogy. Even after I was smart enough to understand, the sexual relations didn’t bother me. No, it was the obvious shame he felt, the threats he made afterward, the way he tossed me aside once I’d served his purposes.”
“And so he did,” I swallowed. “It was … he made you, ah.”
“To the extent I was able,” said Tiff — Zona. My heart sank. “Not that morning. It took him some time to build up to it. And once he had, that was apparently enough for him. He said to Vervain that he’d understood the lesson that the house and the pit were meant to teach him.”
I closed my eyes. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“I’m surprised you still wear that form, all things considered,” said Fenn.
“I practiced it and studied it,” said Zona. “After, he wanted me to change into someone else, a studious, well-mannered, sexless butler. I was to speak of the girl to no one; it might have been a black mark on the Poet King, and I now think that it was more that he didn’t want to face the shame and disappointment. Eventually, when it became clear that he wasn’t coming back, I went back to the girl, out of a child’s petty rebellion, and later, because of the vain hope that I might get answers.”
“Which only took five hundred years,” said Fenn. “So congrats, I guess.”
“I need some time,” I said. I sat down on the ground. “Just … some quiet, some time alone, without other things going on.”
The door to the time chamber creaked open a few seconds later, and I gave an internal groan.