A lot of what I told Zona was background information on Earth, which she was only passingly familiar with by way of published writing on the dream-skewered. If you wanted to paint a picture of Arthur, you had to have the context of the world he’d grown up in, with comparatively endless information available at all times, the fact that we had voting and representatives instead of kings, the spectre of distant threats like terrorism and far-off wars broadcast home, and our absolute safety and security in comparison to Aerb, a world filled with numerous horrors and wild imbalances of power.
(I like explaining things. You’ve probably already figured that out about me.)
Arthur’s brother was nine years older than him, and I was never quite sure which of them was the mistake, if either was. It seemed like a long gap between children, enough that in a lot of ways, Arthur was effectively an only child. Arthur’s father was an engineer, and his mother worked part-time at a store that sold wool, which she did mostly to fill her days, since it wasn’t like they needed the money. He didn’t talk about his family that much, except to say that his brother was fairly distant and his mother was on medication for depression and anxiety. Arthur’s father was an old-school geek, with a small library of fantasy and science fiction, but most of it was ancient and yellowed — and, honestly, kind of trash, the pulpy kind of stuff that had mostly gone out of fashion.
When I talked about Arthur, I tried to stress that he’d been more or less normal. He was smarter than average, and active in more clubs and activities than most, but he wasn’t exactly popular, probably because he liked to talk at length about things he’d been reading about, or because he liked to argue just for the sake of it. He wasn’t very athletic at all, and a little bit overweight, which maybe didn’t help how the other kids felt about him. After he died, of course, no one had a word to say about any of that, and people he’d complained about were suddenly, unaccountably, presenting themselves as his friends.
He was, maybe, a little bit awkward sometimes, though I never really noticed it when he was with our group, probably because I’d adapted to it. We would have a group project for school together, and he would talk loudly with a big smile on his face about how he’d united Europe in a videogame he was playing, while the people listening to him were completely uninterested. I always envied that a little bit, even if it made me cringe; I cared too much about what other people thought, and tended to say nothing rather than say the wrong thing.
I talked about our tabletop games, and the ways that he liked to play them, which was always about story and character more than it was about rules and results. Some of that required background that Zona didn’t have, but I tried my best to get straight to the point. My ‘what is a tabletop roleplaying game’ speech had gone through a few iterations by this point, and I knew enough about Aerb to be able to draw parallels with their cultural traditions.
I talked about Arthur and Tiff.
“Okay, so figure there are a hundred fifty students in our class, plus the same a grade up and down,” said Arthur. We were walking home from school, with a stop at the gas station on the way for chips and pop. “But give the grades above and below us a penalty, because we don’t have classes with those girls, which means propinquity isn’t in effect. Figure maybe a hundred fifty legitimately dateable girls in the dating pool, more or less. That’s a rough guess.”
“Right,” I said. “Okay.”
“Half of them are below average,” said Arthur. “But there are lots of different metrics you can use, and they’ll be below average in different ways. Take Heidi, right? Super hot, dumb as a brick. So if half are below average on intelligence, and half are below average in looks, then that’s something like a quarter that are above average in both.”
“Um, no,” I said. “I mean, I don’t think so. Looks and intelligence are correlated, for health if no other reason, but socioeconomics too, probably.” That was around the time I’d first discovered the word ‘socioeconomics’, and I used it a lot, probably more than I should have.
“Sure, sure,” said Arthur. “Were you the one I was talking to about the Flynn effect?”
“Doesn’t sound familiar,” I said.
“Well, whatever,” Arthur continued. “We’re just getting rough numbers. If we accept a quarter of a hundred fifty, that’s thirty-seven, but that’s the pool that are just above average on the first two metrics.”
“I’m not sure how important looks are,” I said.
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Would you date Kimber?”
I frowned. “She’s nice,” I said. “Smart. Smarter than I am, probably. I went over to hang out with her brother once and she’d made macaroons, which was pretty awesome.”
“You’re dodging the question,” said Arthur, rolling his eyes again. “I think it’s fine to just say, ‘no, she doesn’t do it for me’, I’m sure lots of girls would say that about me, I’m not going to be salty about it. Call that metric three, maybe, and even if it were just fifty-fifty that cuts the pool down to eighteen. But, in point of fact, there are a lot of metrics to consider, and even if some of them are correlated, the actual pool of worthwhile girls in our school is in the low single digits, at least as far as I can see.”
“Huh,” I said. I wasn’t so sure I agreed with that, but maybe it was just that I’d never had a real girlfriend (not that he had either). There were lots of girls in our grade that I was interested in, maybe because I had a tendency to let my imagination run away with the idea of a relationship.
“I’m saying, basically, that you’ve got a bunch of metrics, right? And that low-single-digit pool is just for the girls who are above average in all categories, none of them are likely to be truly spectacular.” He heaved a sigh. “But Tiff is, in so, so many of them.”
I stayed silent. I knew he liked her, because he’d mentioned it before, but I didn’t really have anything to add on the subject, and talking about romance had always made me feel a little weird and unsure. I was pretty sure that I was supposed to offer some words of support, or say that I was happy that he’d found someone he liked, but everything I could think of saying rang hollow. (This was before I’d developed my own feelings for her, back when she had first joined the group, and the only thing I’d felt around her was awkward and uncertain, not sure how to deal with a girl.)
“You two argue a lot,” I said. I kicked a rock off the sidewalk and into the grass. I wished he had someone else to talk to about this, but he was the person that I talked to about girls, on the very rare occasion that I had anything to report.
“She likes arguing,” said Arthur. “Some people get super defensive when you tell them they’re wrong, Tiff just gets excited about it, like she’s finally found someone who actually wants to engage.”
“Yeah, I guess,” I said. From where I was sitting, I wasn’t so sure. Sometimes she seemed animated, and yeah, it was like she’d found a kindred spirit, but sometimes she’d shut down and want to blow past whatever the topic of conversation was. I always tried to move things along when I saw that happening. Arthur had a tendency to get into it with people about the most inane stuff sometimes, so it wasn’t like I was doing her any special favors. I was very conscious of wanting to treat her exactly like one of the guys.
“Do you like her?” asked Arthur.
“I don’t really know her yet,” I said.
“Well, if we do start dating, we’ll all be hanging out a lot,” he said. “I don’t want to do what Trev did and disappear off the face of the Earth just because I’ve got a girlfriend.”
But that never did end up happening. Arthur had this theory that she needed time to warm to him before he asked her out, and there were always excuses for why doing it later would be better than doing it now. Eventually he seemed to just sort of accept that he wasn’t going to, though his crush never faded. I think maybe in his fantasy world, she would have been the one to make the first move, but Tiff wasn’t really like that.
“It sucks, because she’s perfect for me,” said Arthur with a sigh. He was laying on my bed while I took my turn playing Mario. “Like, she’s not perfect, but she’s perfect for me. Even all of the stuff we disagree on, she’s got sensible reasons for, and it’s like,” I saw him gesture vaguely from my peripheral vision, “Like the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts.” He paused. “There’s some kind of pun there. ‘Her hole is more than the sum of her parts’?”
We were sixteen, and Tiff had been with the group for quite some time, long enough to firmly establish her as a member. She was a friend, even outside the gaming table, and it was becoming increasingly common for us to spend time together away from the others. Arthur had a somewhat hectic schedule; an evening playing videogames together was a rarity, and to some extent, Tiff filled in my need for a best friend. Not replacing him, but definitely picking up some of the slack. I was hopelessly crushing on her.
“Too crude,” I said. I was blushing slightly, and grateful that Arthur wasn’t in a position to see. I tried to concentrate on the game.
“Yeah, too crude,” said Arthur. “Works best as an insult. You know, I wonder how brilliant people like Oscar Wilde and Winston Churchill really were. Like, did they prepare a bunch of stuff ahead of time, were they just really quick-witted, or is it that they were really good at thinking of comebacks in the shower? Because you have to imagine that a lot of their best anecdotes grew in the telling.” He let out a sigh as I wall-jumped up to grab a coin. “Anyway, I almost asked her out the other day.”
“Did you?” I asked, suddenly focused entirely on what he was saying.
“Yeah, I asked her whether she was planning on dating anyone in high school,” he said. “Because for her, it’s sort of like, why is she single if she doesn’t want to be? And so I asked, but she replied that she didn’t really believe in dating, and that she didn’t see herself as the dating type. It was absolutely crushing. My follow-up was going to be, ‘well how about dating me?’, but I didn’t think that she was going to just reject the institution of dating altogether. Our conversation sort of petered off after that.”
“Yeah,” I said. I felt relief mingled with distress. I cleared my throat. “I mean, she really doesn’t seem like the type to enjoy dating.”
“Yeah,” said Arthur. “It’s a patriarchal institution.” He gave a hollow little laugh.
“No,” I replied. “I don’t think it’s that, I think she just doesn’t like labels. Things are complex, as a general rule, people, institutions, interlocking systems, all that kind of thing, and labels are this ham-fisted way of making sense of it all.” I paused slightly. “I think that’s more or less verbatim what she’s said.”
“So it’s not that she can’t see herself dating, it’s that she can’t see herself ‘dating’?” asked Arthur. I could see the air quotes out of the corner of my eye.
“I don’t know,” I said, because I really didn’t.
“Well come on, help me figure out an approach,” said Arthur. “You know her pretty well, what would work on her?”
I didn’t like how he phrased that. “Here, I’m garbage right now, take your turn.” I tossed him the controller and sat in the chair by my desk.
Arthur picked up the controller and began playing, and for a moment I had hope that the conversation was over. It seemed like we had such a limited amount of time together, with all the clubs he was in, and I didn’t want to spend it talking about Tiff. I wanted him to monologue about the monomyth in Disney movies, or three act structure, or hell, even something I found comparatively boring like geopolitics.
“Thoughts?” he asked.
“About what?” I asked.
“Tiff,” he replied. “What she’d go for?”
“I’m not,” I began, then stopped. “That’s not really the sort of thing we talk about, when it’s just her and I. Her and me? Me and her. However that goes.” There was silence for a bit as I chewed on my words. “We talk about the same sort of stuff that you and I talk about, I guess. Stuff she heard on NPR, history — politics, some, but I’m not really into that, and I think a lot of the election stuff just makes her angry.” I shrugged. “I don’t think she’s ever once talked about what kind of boys she likes.”
“Well, if she does, let me know,” said Arthur. “And maybe ask her, if you can figure out a way to do it?”
I said that I would, and then never did, until eventually Tiff and I were, for a certain sense of the word, ‘dating’.
“Anyway, I ended up with her,” I said. “More or less behind his back, because neither of us wanted to hurt him, or cause any drama, and … then he died in a car accident, which was about nine months before I got to Aerb — uh, which was about two months ago, or three months, subjectively, if you include the time chamber.”
“You have provided much information, most of it worthless to me,” said Zona.
“Maybe,” I said. “I think it gives some context to who he was when he came here. That’s got to be the starting point for understanding who he became. He was from a land of relative peace and plenty, where violence was pretty much a last resort, and even if it hadn’t been a last resort, he wasn’t much of a fighter. So when he got to Aerb, that helps explain why he ran off with a theater troupe instead of fighting the Dark King, right?”
“If you accept that theory. You maintain that the dream-skewer happened when he was on the farm?” asked Zona.
“Probably,” I said. “It’s … well, there’s a whole other thing to unpack, which we can get to in due time, but the most concrete evidence I’ve got is that I know the lost play from Earth. I have a copy of The Fellowship of the Ring, though it was a book, not a play. If you read it, it would be pretty clear why any work based on that one would be looked down on by the Dark King.”
“You have eidetic memory?” asked Zona.
“What — oh, because how else could I have a copy of the book?” I asked. I hesitated slightly. “We have an entad that can pull things from Earth.”
“Hrm,” said Zona.
“It’ll be on the manifest,” I said. “I think it’s one of the few things that we can’t live without, though maybe I’m just biased because we use it a lot in the time chamber.”
“I had wondered,” said Zona. She tapped a finger against her chin. “I find your story lacking in explanatory power. If he was a soft and fat teenager, not so different from average, how did his translation to Aerb allow him to become the father of the modern eras?”
“Well, that’s the other thing to unpack,” I said. I did my best to ignore ‘soft and fat’, which hadn’t been my words. “Uther was like me, endowed with powers by the entity that we’ve been calling the Dungeon Master. He learned faster than he had any right to, and his companions weren’t just idly collected, they were drawn to him, or artfully placed in his path. And … I don’t think that the others were dream-skewered, but a lot of them were based on characters that my friends had created. I’ve looked at their histories though, and nothing in particular stands out to me as being suspicious, insofar as the skewer is concerned.”
“And your companions are like his?” asked Zona.
“No,” I said. “I mean, none of them are reminiscent of characters created by my friends, but yes, I think it’s somewhat safe to say that we have a cosmically important link with each other.” I hesitated again. “You might be one of my companions, I guess I should get that out of the way.”
“A knight, in service to you?” asked Zona. She pursed her lips. “That’s an offer I’d be inclined to pass on.”
“No one is in service to me,” I said. I glanced at Grak. “Technically, Grak is getting paid a salary, which is ostensibly the only reason that he’s here, but the others aren’t in any kind of service or contractual relationship with me or Amaryllis. Mostly, I would call us friends.” Though it was a close thing, in a few cases. “Even if you’re not a companion in the cosmic sense, our plan is to live here, which means that you’ll be playing an integral part in our business.”
“You have misgivings,” said Zona.
There’s that word again. “A bit,” I said. “I can see your good qualities, the patience, intelligence, knowledge, tenacity, overwhelming firepower, heaping amounts of mundane utility, et cetera, but I worry that you never really had a chance to, um, socialize with people, to learn how to have a functional relationship with people living inside you.”
“You know nothing of me,” said Zona.
“Well, am I wrong?” I asked. “After Uther left, he barred anyone from living here, right? And I don’t know quite what transpired between then and now, but among the tuung and the people of Headwater, you have a reputation as a house that people don’t ever leave, which is fearsome, but –”
“I have lived, in a fashion, for five hundred years,” said Zona. “How old are you?”
“Uh, I think eighteen,” I said. I’d done a count of days while I was in the chamber, and found out that I’d missed my birthday. I wasn’t sure whether the body I was in would have the same birth date, though in a certain sense it obviously wouldn’t, because they didn’t use the Gregorian calendar on Aerb.
“When you have lived five times as long as you have now, you will have lived one fifth as long as I have,” said Zona. “He was not the only person to inhabit this house. I did not turn to murder from the outset, as soon as he had turned his back on me.”
“But you did, eventually, turn to murder,” I said. I hesitated. “We’re a democracy, more or less, and the way things are looking right now, I think I’d get voted down anyway if I voted against staying here, but I do want to know more about you, even if we’re not cosmically linked.”
“How would you know, if we were so linked?” asked Zona.
“Um,” I said. “Normally the Dungeon Master would just tell me, but we’re having a bit of a thing with that right now.”
Zona nodded. She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped and looked back at the time chamber. “Later,” she said. “They’re done.”
It hadn’t felt like forty-five minutes, but I’d been talking for most of the time. I stepped toward the doors, ready for Fenn to wrap me in a bear hug.
Instead, the doors opened up to Amaryllis, covered in blood, holding a dagger in one hand with a far-off look on her face. Behind her, slumped against the bed, was Fenn, with blood pooled beneath her and slashes across her chest, arms and stomach.
“I couldn’t take it,” said Amaryllis with a shaky voice. “I shouldn’t have thought that I could take it.”
I rolled my eyes. “I don’t find this funny.”
Amaryllis dropped the act and turned to her left, looking at a part of the room that I couldn’t see. “He didn’t believe it for even a second,” said Amaryllis.
Fenn stepped out into view, frowning at me, as the image of her corpse disappeared. The blood that soaked Amaryllis’ clothes stayed there, and she set the knife down beside her.
“You could have played along,” said Fenn as she walked toward me. She smiled slightly. “We had a bet going.” She wrapped me in a hug and squeezed tight, pulling me into a deep kiss as she did so. “Missed you.”
“Missed you too,” I said. “How much did you lose?”
“She owes me thirteen million obols,” said Amaryllis.
“You’re going to have to be the one who pays for things for a bit,” said Fenn with a smile. “And we should probably hold off on getting married so you don’t have to be responsible for my debts.”
“I’m sure she won’t hold you to the bet,” I said.
“I will,” said Amaryllis. “And it wasn’t only one bet, we made one hundred and sixty-seven separate bets.”
“I won most of them,” said Fenn, still holding me in a hug. She kissed me on the neck. “But she won all the big ones.”
I looked at Amaryllis, who was still covered in blood. The fake corpse was courtesy of the house, I was pretty sure, probably set up before Fenn had even gotten into the chamber, but the blood was either stage blood or real, there to sell the illusion, since the house was (per its own accounting) confined to illusions within a ten-foot wide cube. That would also explain why Zona had moved back slightly, outside my vision; she couldn’t be in two places at once.
“So are you just going to be covered in blood during your break?” I asked Amaryllis.
“I am,” Amaryllis nodded. She walked over to where the tape recorder was sitting and swapped out the tapes. “Anything of consequence?” she asked me.
“You’ll mostly be listening to me talking,” I said with a shrug. “Stuff about Arthur.”
“Arthur and the cosmic order,” said Zona with a nod. I was starting to get over how much she looked like Tiff, partly because of how clearly I could see the imperfections in the illusions. More and more, those didn’t so much seem like imperfections as they did expressions of who Zona was. It was also partly just having had the time to sort it out, during the long month in the chamber.
“Some time alone?” Fenn asked, leaning into me.
“Absolutely,” I replied. We walked together down the hallway, to the place I was starting to think of as our private place. “How is she?”
“Good,” said Fenn. “Great, actually, we had a wonderful time together.”
“Did you?” I asked.
Fenn nodded vigorously. “I missed you terribly, but the letters helped, and I was breezing my way through Earth culture, which was a bit like talking to you. I feel like I had a million things that I wanted to tell you, but I didn’t make a list, and now it’s all a blank. Oh! I read a lot of manga!” She raised her arms up high, as though she could barely contain herself. “I’m a weeb!” she leaned in close to me. “Did I use that word right?”
I kissed her, and she backed up a bit, looking pleased. “How the hells do you know what a weeb is?” I asked.
“You mentioned it once, when you were talking about swords,” said Fenn with a smile. “So I looked it up. There’s this web page, called Urban Dictionary, which was a lot of help in figuring out Earth things.”
“It’s a website, not a webpage,” I said. “And, I’m sorry, but you spent your time in the chamber looking at print-outs from Urban Dictionary?”
“Calm down, I did other stuff too,” said Fenn. “You know the Urban Dictionary?”
“I — yeah,” I said. “Sorry, can you paint me a picture of your time in there? Because I feel like it was vastly different from my own.”
“Amaryllis had her schedule, and I mostly did my own thing,” said Fenn. “I worked on getting a bit better of a handle on soul magic, with some help, watched a lot of movies once I figured the projector out, tried and failed to get an archery range going, played around with the backpack, read a lot of manga, and some American manga — oh, I’m ready to run my own game of Arches!”
“You’re … going to DM?” I asked.
“Sure,” said Fenn with a nod. She was watching me. “See, Amaryllis said that it was sort of your thing, and I said that people took turns, but apparently she knows you better.” Fenn clucked her tongue. “Well, whatever, I have a campaign ready to go. I thought it would be a way for us to bond, if I had some experience from your spot on the table.”
“Sure,” I said. “I didn’t mean to — I’m sure you’ll do great, it just caught me off-guard.”
“Mary and I ran a few games together, with her controlling all the characters, but it wasn’t really the same,” said Fenn. “Fun, but not the same, since even when she was trying to, she couldn’t really make it like there were different people pulling things in their own directions.”
“Huh,” I said. “And did you talk about the soul stuff with her?”
“A bit,” nodded Fenn.
I waited, until it was clear that she needed some prompting. “And?”
Fenn winced. “I’m on her side, a little bit. I haven’t done it myself, because I wanted to talk to you first, but I’ve really been thinking that it might be for the best to get rid of some attachments that aren’t doing me any good. Nothing concrete, just kind of waffling.”
“Jesus Christ,” I muttered.
“Oh, we also did some Bible study,” said Fenn. “I think we kind of made a mess of it though.”
“No, I mean,” I paused. “You’re not talking about me, and our relationship, right?”
“No, never,” said Fenn, kissing me. “Other stuff. I wasn’t saying that we should have the conversation right now, we’ve got, what, an hour until you’re back in with Mary? I didn’t think that was enough time for us to really talk about all the stuff we’d need to talk about.” She hesitated. “I wrote you a letter, it’s probably better if you read that. I’m allowed to be a chickenshit and say things in letters, right?”
“I — yeah,” I said. “Is this … Nellan?”
Fenn swallowed and nodded. “It’s the letter numbered fifteen, I’d understand if you wanted to jump ahead on that one. I was just — well, you’ll read it in the letter, I guess.”
“Okay,” I said. “I saw the name in your soul, during the Fallatehr thing, and I didn’t want to press you on it, in case it was something important, which it would pretty much have to be if it loomed so large.”
“Once I could see in my own soul, I figured as much,” said Fenn. “You’re really too good to me, did you know that?”
I shrugged. “Doesn’t feel like it, sometimes. I wish things with Amaryllis had gone differently, or that … that there wasn’t any question, I guess.”
“S’fine,” said Fenn. “Oh, I did get her to promise that she wouldn’t change anything else in her soul until we called a meeting of the Council of Arches. Same for me, if I decide, you know, that there are things I’d rather not care about. That’s our new name, by the way. Council of Arches. Do you like it?”
“Council sounds a little ominous,” I said. “I guess I don’t dislike it.”
“Well, good, because Mary agreed that it was a good name, and we need one on our letterhead and business cards, when we get them.” Fenn sniffed at me. “I missed your smell.”
“I missed yours too,” I said.
“And obviously I’m not going to change anything until after I talk to you, and after you’ve read the letter, and after you’re totally fine with it,” said Fenn. “I kind of feel like I’ve already told you, since I wrote it all out.”
I stayed silent at that, since I didn’t want to give a false assurance that I really would be fine with whatever she’d spent the past two months hiding from me, something so important that it was engraved at the top of her soul.
“Come on,” said Fenn. “Let’s get back, it’s been a month since I’ve talked with the house, I kind of missed it.”