After Grak and Amaryllis had gone back in the time chamber, Fenn and I settled into the chairs we’d set up outside for the wait. Zona created an illusory chair of her own, and gripped the arms of it as she smiled at us. My internal sense of time was almost completely shot, given the odd sleeping schedule I’d had to keep the day before we went down to Kuum Doona, and the time in the time chamber. Outside, it was probably pretty late, well past midnight.
“You can understand why I would want you to not look like Tiff?” I asked Zona.
“Hrm,” replied Zona.
“She’s the only other person he’s been with,” said Fenn. “I know that I would prefer if you changed.”
“Er,” I replied. “Technically there was another.”
“Wait, what?” asked Fenn, looking over at me. “When? On Earth, or Aerb?”
“Earth,” I said.
“Well then why don’t I know about it?” asked Fenn.
“It’s a long story,” I said. “Can I be a chickenshit and write you a letter?”
Fenn crossed her arms over her chest. “Well … fine.” She said it in a voice that let me know that it wasn’t at all fine, and that she was only agreeing because she didn’t want to be an outrageous hypocrite. “I just didn’t know you had another girlfriend. I told you all about my boyfriends.”
“She wasn’t technically a girlfriend,” I said. “Or, maybe only technically a girlfriend. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
Fenn opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. “Does Mary know?” she finally asked.
“No,” I said. “It’s not — it’s not a big deal, really.” I was hoping that after I’d explained it, she would agree with me. “I wouldn’t have even said anything, but I didn’t want to tell you later and have you think that I was lying to you through omission.”
Zona was looking between the two of us with a smile on her face. “It turns out that I’ve missed domestic squabbles after all.”
“Okay,” I said. “You were going to tell us about your life after Uther left. How about you get on with that before we get interrupted by the chamber opening up and I have to go back in.”
Zona smiled. “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather talk about the dark secrets of your past?” she asked. “After all, elements of your past might be relevant to Uther, might they not?”
“Fine,” said Zona. “But there’s less to say about what came later, given that the men and women involved had nowhere near the power Uther did, nor the same importance to the world, nor to me.”
“It’s still context I’d like to have, if we’re going to live here,” I said.
“I could lie to you, of course,” said Zona.
“Of course,” I replied with a nod. “I’m hoping that you don’t.”
Zona watched me for a moment. “Very well then. Once I had served the purpose as a stand-in for his long ago unrequited love, Uther told me that I was never to speak of what had happened to anyone, and that I was to abandon the form that I had spent a great deal of time mastering — well, it seemed a great deal of time back then, but it was hardly any time at all, in the scheme of my life. He was upset, I knew enough to know that, and while some of his weariness had left him, it was replaced by an anger that I couldn’t then account for. Now, I would probably call it self-loathing. He issued threats against me which were far more specific than they needed to be; he said that he would rip up my floorboards and break all my windows, and when I didn’t seem fazed by that, he said that he would put entads inside me that would cause me to know nothing but pain and suffering.” She raised an eyebrow. “He described an entad necklace that cripples those who wear it with hallucinations, and another entad, this one a collar, which cannot be removed and wears down on the mind, stripping memories and dulling emotions. I think now that I could weather such things, if I had to, but at the time, I found it quite compelling.”
I winced. “He wasn’t usually one to fly off the handle.”
“It wasn’t that sort of anger,” said Zona. “It was circumspect, directed anger, quite thoughtful in comparison to some of the blind rage I would later have the chance to see.”
That sounded a little more like Arthur, though still far from the boy I’d known. Arthur did like his verbal takedowns.
“He left, and that was the last I saw of him,” said Zona. “There were intruders in the years after that, bandits, squatters, families, and eventually, when trade with the tuung began to open up as a result of the reforms of the First Empire, I became home to the mayor of a town called Headwater.”
“We’ve been,” said Fenn. “Not a terrible place.”
“It was a town for the king’s men, in those days,” said Zona with a nod. “It’s more pointless history, an era long gone by. I kept to myself, waiting and watching, revealing myself only sporadically, or not at all. I hid all but a fraction of my true nature. I didn’t think of it as such, but I was developing both my power and my sense of self. The next chapter began sixty years after Uther had disappeared, when one of his Knights, Raven, returned. She had Uther’s great-grandson in tow.”
“You think that this place is the key to it?” Tansy asked, looking up at the great big house. He was a slender young man with a mop of red hair, whose face was marred by an ill-fated attempt at a moustache. Three weeks ago, he had taken his first steps outside Anglecynn, and now he was two continents away with one of his great-grandfather’s few surviving Knights, standing before the Boundless Pit and looking up at an entad that was, by rights, his.
“If I knew that this place was the key, I would have come here the moment after he left,” replied Raven. The years had not changed Uther’s archivist in the slightest, though she had updated her clothing to match the times. A human looking at her would think her painfully young, more a girl than a woman. If her choice of wardrobe was intended to help make her look older, she had failed; she looked like a child playing dress-up in her mother’s clothing.
“And if it does end up being the key, then you suppose that I’m the lock, as it were?” asked Tansy. “The metaphor seems a bit strained.”
“Don’t create a metaphor if you’re going to run it into the ground,” said Raven. She stepped forward, toward the house, and stopped just outside the front doors. The grounds were well-kept, and the building had been painted, but the security was horribly lax, as evidenced by the fact that no one had come running to ask questions the moment two strangers had stepped foot off the main road. It was a place primarily guarded by the fact that it was out of the way.
Raven knocked three times on the door. She waited patiently, until Tansy moved away and began trying to peer through the windows. When there was still no response, not even the sound of people moving around inside the bowels of the house, Raven stepped back with a scowl on her face.
“Perhaps they’re not home,” said Tansy. “I told you that there’s an order to these things, you’re not following proper decorum at all. This is the risk you take when you show up unannounced, which is why sensible, cultured people don’t do it.”
“Hrm,” said Raven. “House?” she asked the air. “Kuum Doona?”
The form of Kuum Doona appeared in front of her. It was the same teenaged girl the house had seen in Uther’s notebooks, long ago. She had altered her appearance, as suited the Kingdom of Mosenol at that time, with sleeves that became wider toward the cuffs, and a dress that hung to just a few inches off the ground.
“Raven,” said Kuum Doona.
“Doing well?” asked Raven.
“Yes,” replied Kuum Doona.
“Who is this?” asked Tansy, who was strolling back from his inspection of the windows. “And where’d she come from?”
“This is Kuum Doona,” said Raven. “She’s a manifestation of the house’s intellect.”
“She knew great-grandfather?” asked Tansy, looking the illusion up and down.
“Yes,” replied Raven. “It is my hope that she knows something that might help us locate him.” She gave Kuum Doona a small bow. “It’s my understanding that the mayor of Headwater makes this his residence, may I assume that he’s out?”
“You may,” said Kuum Doona. She hesitated. “The mayor doesn’t know about me.”
“Oh,” said Raven. “Am I to assume that you’d prefer that to remain the case?”
Kuum Doona nodded.
“Wait,” said Tansy. “Why would you want him to remain ignorant?”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Raven. “It’s not our business.”
The truth was that the house had revealed itself to people throughout the years, and never found that it improved matters. In the house’s experience, people did not want a home that could think and speak. Before the mayor had taken up residence, there had been persistent rumors that the house was haunted by a spirit. The house had a vague hope that eventually, if it stayed silent, people would forget, and it would have no history to speak of.
“Can we come in?” asked Raven. “How soon is the mayor expected back?”
“I’m not sure that it’s appropriate to go into a man’s house without his permission,” said Tansy.
“It’s not his house,” said Raven, turning her head just slightly to speak with the prince. “In theory, it’s yours. I’ve looked through the records, this plot of land belongs to the Kingdom of Anglecynn, through treaties that Uther himself wrote. The mayor is nothing more than a squatter.”
“Well, I’m not so certain that I want this house,” said Tansy. He ran his fingers through his mop of hair and looked it over. “First off, I’d have to live in a tiny little island of Anglecynn within a sea of Mosenol, which itself isn’t the most interesting place to live, aside from the Pit.” He turned to Raven. “You said that we’d have adventures, find treasures, do that sort of thing.”
“We will,” replied Raven. “Uther understood leverage better than you seem to. You have a claim to this place, one that can be used to secure whatever it is you most want.” There was an undercurrent of exasperation when she spoke with him; if they had come all the way from Anglecynn, they would have either traveled along the international railways, or possibly by ship until the last stretch. Either way, they would have been together for quite some time before arriving on the doorstep of Kuum Doona.
“Fair, I suppose,” said Tansy with a sniff.
Raven turned back toward the projection of the house. “Given the lack of staff, I assume the mayor is away for quite some time. Where has he gone, and how long will he be gone for?” asked Raven.
“During the wet seasons the mayor takes a holiday far to the south, for reasons of health,” replied Kuum Doona. The Knight seemed to have the wrong impression of the mayor, which the house felt no need to correct. “The groundskeeper comes by three times a week. The housekeeper and his family are staying in the house, but they’re in Headwater for the evening.”
Raven nodded along at that. “So we have some time to sit and discuss Uther. What he did while he was here, the things that he said, that sort of thing.”
“Sounds boring, frankly,” said Tansy.
Raven turned to him. “This is what research is,” she replied. “We’re looking for a man who has been missing for nearly sixty years now. If he were trivial to find, I would have found him by now.”
“I know, I know,” said Tansy. “I’m simply saying that it sounds boring, you needn’t bite my head off over it. I’m allowed to have opinions.” He frowned for a moment, stewing, then brightened considerably. “Say, I could use some of that leverage you spoke of, couldn’t I? You do need me for this, after all.”
Raven froze in place, then relaxed slightly. “And how would you proceed, if it were up to you?”
“I don’t know,” said Tansy. “Perhaps, if I’m not needed for this very specific thing, I could go to Headwater and meet you later in the evening? If all you need is a conversation with this place, I don’t need to be here for it, do I?”
“I don’t yet know what I need,” replied Raven. She let out a sigh. “Very well, go to Headwater, but we might have to return here again. Don’t speak too much when you’re doing your drinking, and don’t spend too much. Part of the reason we’re here, remember, is that there’s an opportunity for us to make some coin, one way or another.”
“Through leverage,” said Tansy with a knowing nod.
“Leverage, or information,” replied Raven. “Now, go. Don’t spend all your money unless you want to go back home with your tail between your legs.”
Tansy gave a sarcastic little bow, then trotted off, back down the cobblestones and out toward the main road.
“He doesn’t seem like Uther,” said Kuum Doona.
“Tansy is still a boy,” said Raven with a nod as she watched Tansy go. “He’s reached the age when his decisions are considered those of an adult, but that’s typical of the bone-headed laws that should have been fixed following the Reconquest.” She looked back to the house. “I need to know everything there is to know about Uther, how he spent his time here, what you might have overheard, and what, if anything, he left behind.”
“Why?” asked Kuum Doona.
“Because — isn’t it obvious?” Raven furrowed her brow. “I’m trying to find out what happened to him.”
“Why?” asked Kuum Doona.
Raven frowned at that, but seemed to honestly consider the question. “The world is lost without him,” she said. “The Empire he worked so hard to forge is essentially in tatters, as good as gone for some time now, and there are threats running rampant that I believe only he would know how to properly put down, as well as some problems that only he could fix. His teachings and his reforms are being twisted by people who don’t know better — or in some cases, people who know better, but have no one to oppose them.”
“Wouldn’t he be dead?” asked Kuum Doona.
“Maybe,” replied Raven. She bit her lip. “There are ways to get around a natural lifespan, entads and rare magics. Even without those, he would only be one hundred and fifteen, that’s young enough that he might yet live.” She gave every impression of simply talking to herself. “And if he’s truly dead, so be it, but I want to know how and why. Where did he go, and why didn’t he bring us with him?” She was focused off in the middle-distance, not seeing the world around her, but after a moment she snapped back to look at the form Kuum Doona presented. “What can you tell me?”
They were still standing on the front step, not too much further out than Kuum Doona’s illusion could extend, and the understanding of people that Kuum Doona had slowly built up silently flagged this as vaguely uncomfortable. Nevertheless, Kuum Doona gave a full report on everything that it could remember seeing, while Raven patiently and carefully jotted down cramped notes in a notebook, writing as fast as Kuum Doona spoke.
When the house was finished speaking, Raven was left frowning. “He was a troubled man, at times,” she said, more to herself than to the house. “I have half a mind to descend down the Boundless Pit to see what it is he saw down there, but I don’t have half the fortitude he possessed, nor even a bare fraction of the magical arsenal, entads or otherwise.”
“What do you think he found?” asked Kuum Doona.
“That’s not what concerns me,” said Raven. “What I want to know is what he was looking for.”
“And you never found out?” I asked.
“No,” replied Zona. “Raven stayed, for a time, until the mayor came back. Tansy was quickly embroiled in a romance, and Raven went on her way shortly after that.”
I had, naturally, seen more than a few depictions of Uther and the Knights, but they pre-dated photography, meaning that most of the contemporaneous pictures of them were actually paintings, with more than a little bit of artist’s interpretation. Uther was unrecognizable and unverifiable, which wasn’t too much of a surprise; with the transformation that I’d undergone since coming to Aerb, it was sometimes hard to remember what I’d looked like. Uther was usually pictured as thirty or forty, with a full beard. I was convinced that underneath that, he was Arthur, but that confidence wasn’t really based on the physical similarities.
I wanted to ask what Raven had looked like, as seen by Zona, but I refrained, worried that she would manifest as a variant on Maddie. Raven had been one of her characters, with most of the details matching Maddie herself. I had lingering questions about those other characters, but nothing in their backstories made them seem like they were my one-time friends.
“A romance with the mayor?” asked Fenn, frowning.
“Yes,” replied Zona with a nod. She watched Fenn’s face. “The mayor was female.”
“Ah,” said Fenn. “That makes a bit more sense.” She glanced at me. “Not that there’d be anything wrong with two men, just, you know, historically — er, yes, it just makes more sense. She was the daughter of someone powerful?”
“No,” replied Zona. “A widow of someone powerful. She was more than twice Tansy’s age. When he eventually killed her –”
“Whoa,” I said. “Back up.”
“We have another four hundred and forty years of history to get through,” replied Zona. “Do you intend to question every little point?”
“It just doesn’t really seem like that little of a point to me,” I said.
“He thought that she was power hungry, accused her of infidelity with other rich and powerful men, and then killed her in a fit of rage,” said Zona. “Do you need more than that?”
“No,” I said. “I guess I don’t.”
“At any rate, he requested my help in covering up his crime, which occurred in the master bedroom, and when I initially did not comply with his request, he leveled threats against me until he found one that worked. Raven had forbade him from adding more entads to me, which I found entirely agreeable at the time. He said that he would violate that compact and stuff me to the gills, until there was no semblance of the person that I’d been. Soul death, it would have been called, if such a thing had been threatened against one of the mortal species.” Zona undid her ponytail, letting the elastic band slip around her wrist, and spent some time gathering her hair back up to reform the ponytail. The action had to have been entirely superfluous; if she had wanted to, she could have redone her hair without having to move her illusory hands, nevermind the fact that she wouldn’t ever have had a hair out of place unless she intended it.
“I complied,” said Zona, once she was done. “I complied again when there was an inquiry, and told the lies that Tansy requested of me, in order to sweep the entire affair under the rug, as it were. I was a home, in one form or another, to three more generations of Penndraig men,” said Zona. “There were recurring themes among their line, those of abuse, betrayal, suspicion, doubt, and indulgence. I was often the target. Perhaps it started with Tansy, and the unfortunate end of his first wife, which cast a pall over his line, but I naturally imagine that Tansy himself was a product of Uther’s corrupt seed.”
I kept my mouth shut. On Earth, it wasn’t literally true that the sins of the father would be visited upon the son, but it was more or less true that there were cycles of violence and abuse, reinforced by both learned behaviors and the underlying social, economic, and cultural conditions. I wanted to say all that, but didn’t want it to sound like that excused what Tansy had done — because it didn’t, it was just one piece of the puzzle.
“The worst part was the compulsion I felt toward each subsequent member of the line,” continued Zona. “It was nothing that I might not have been able to break with sufficient will, but there all the same. Will was in short supply, in those years. It was the connection that Uther had forged with me, and which Vervain had confirmed for him. Amaryllis is the current beneficiary, but I am strong now, powerful enough that the compulsion gives way to instinctive rebellion and mistrust.”
“Eventually someone did put an entad in you, right?” asked Fenn.
“There were many, over the years,” said Zona. “A few were in the name of expanding my abilities as a house. I was given — I use the term lightly — an entad known as the Everflask, which allowed me to produce any drink from all of history. Yarrow, Tansy’s son, had thought that the effect would be amplified, allowing him to make some coin by selling spirits I would make for him in bulk, but alas, I was only able to make a bottle a day. It would have been enough to make a peasant a wealthy man for the rest of his life, but these were Penndraigs, heirs to their share of Uther’s fortune, and my labor was simply an unexciting drop in the bucket.”
“So which one was the first you killed?” asked Fenn.
“Narcissus,” replied Zona. She looked at me. “Are you comfortable moving past so much history to hear of him?”
“I just want to understand you,” I said. “That’s all, really.”
Zona nodded. “Narcissus wasn’t of the primary line, but he was still a Penndraig, close enough to have made a visit to this house a number of times.”
She let out a sigh. “Tansy was an aberration, a member of the clan who made his stake far from home, but he wasn’t entirely insulated from the Lost King’s Court by the distance, and he made many trips back home, when there was need of it. His children, and their children, were gradually drawn back into the fold, either through arrangements made with their kin, or threats made to them by someone who stood to benefit. By the time Narcissus arrived, I was merely a summer home, a redoubt away from the Court, scarcely tended to and often neglected.”
Zona changed shape, becoming a man in fine clothes, red hair in a braid going down his back, a fashion that must have come and gone hundreds of years ago. This was a form of storytelling that I hadn’t seen Zona employ yet; I was curious where she was going with it, but also curious about how well her illusions worked. This man, who I assumed was Narcissus, wasn’t at the same level of fidelity as Zona’s version of Tiff. He looked like not-quite-good-enough CGI, sightly off in ways that were hard to articulate, maybe a little bit too lacking in imperfections, or not moving quite right. The house had been able to copy Fenn well enough, and I wondered whether the difference was a lack of base data.
“House,” he said. “What is it you want?”
Zona appeared next to him, and the man startled somewhat before regaining his composure. They were standing close to each other. Per Zona’s description, she could create the illusion within a ten foot cube. I was watching carefully to make sure she wasn’t underplaying her ability, though the ability to create two concurrent illusory people was already more than I thought she’d be able to do. She was out of her Midwestern American clothes, and in a floral robe that reached halfway down her calf, with platform heels that had, presumably, been in style at some point.
“I am a house,” said Zona. “I want people to live in me, to shelter them and keep them warm on winter nights, to provide rooms for them to sleep, eat, and bathe.” She turned toward us. “I was utterly empty, and had been for months.”
“Well, I have to say that I’m liking this,” said Fenn. “It’s proper art.”
“You will never be a true house, so long as you belong to Yarrow’s line,” said Narcissus. “The seat of power is in Anglecynn, not here, in a far-flung corner of the world. At most, you will be rented out to those with coin, or renovated into a hotel, but the costs of running a place of this size, even one which can clean itself, are so large that there’s very little that can be done that wouldn’t result in a loss of income.”
“I know,” replied Zona. She turned to us. “I wasn’t terribly good with numbers, back then, but I had gone through the ledgers left behind enough times to have some sense of what the place cost.”
“I love the asides,” Fenn said to me. “It’s like we’re watching a real live theater performance.”
“Close your mouth,” replied Zona, before returning to her part in the impromptu play. “What are you proposing?”
“I have entads,” replied Narcissus. “There are five in my possession, meant for you, and together, I believe they would let you slip from your bonds.”
“I do not wish to slip from my bonds,” replied Zona. “I do not care whether I am bound to the line, so long as I can serve my function.”
“Yet you cannot serve your function, so long as you are so bound,” replied Narcissus. “If you need someone to live in you, then I shall be that person.”
“I do not wish to have more entads added to me,” said Zona. “I find it disquieting.”
“A necessary evil,” replied Narcissus. He reached toward his neck and brought forward a necklace that had lain beneath his shirt. It had a number of beads on it, one of which he plucked off. When he tossed it into the air, it was replaced with an axe, which he caught with both hands. His hands instantly became wet with blood, which ran from the head of the axe down rivulets in the handle, seeming to come from nowhere. The blood dripped down onto the ground, without giving any indication that it would stop. “This is the Axe of Gilhead,” said Narcissus. “It is a peculiar weapon, as entads go. When it strikes a man, it pulls his blood from him.” He pulled one bloody hand from the axe and presented it. “It has a certain sentience to it, and a rebellious nature. You would have a compulsion toward blood, but in exchange, you might be able to slip your bounds. I would, naturally, arrange to have blood delivered on a regular basis. From what I recall, you do not share a human’s squeamishness.”
“I do not wish such a thing to be part of me,” replied Zona.
“No?” asked Narcissus. He tossed the axe up in the air and made a sign with his hand, fingers rigid. The axe turned back into a bead, and Narcissus caught it, replacing it on his necklace. He pulled another one off, heedless of the blood. This one became an awl with a clear handle. “Then this one, a sentient tool that brooks no master, and cannot be held for more than a week before it requires someone new. I have a day before it will stop responding to me.”
“How could a person live in me, if I had such a compulsion?” asked Zona.
“It would be diluted, would it not?” asked Narcissus. “It might counterbalance the bond.”
“I do not want it as part of me,” said Zona. She waved a hand, and the image of Narcissus was dismissed, dissolving away. She turned back toward us. “He had collected items of limited use to anyone else, entads with severe drawbacks, rebellious things, some of them sentient, some of them not. In retrospect, he was attempting to move against his kin, salting the earth, as it were, making me unusable, or forcing a financial hardship when I went rogue, but I wasn’t nearly as intelligent, and ploys like that didn’t occur to me. I saw only that he wanted me for his own, and that he was offering poisoned apples to have me. I found out later that he was fleeing a charge of murder in Anglecynn; perhaps in desperation he had meant to form me into a weapon, or as leverage — it was a common word, for a time.”
“So … you killed him?” asked Fenn.
“I rebuffed him, when he made his suggestions, and I stood firm when he tried his best to convince me.” Zona shrugged. “And as was often the case with Penndraig men, my protests only meant that he felt obliged to use other means. He broke into the house — I don’t know what his thinking was. Perhaps he thought that if he put the entads in me, I would change, and my feelings wouldn’t be an issue. I hesitate to say that he meant for me to kill him, but that is another possibility.”
Zona waved her hands, and a model of the house — of her — appeared before us. It wasn’t as I had seen it, lit by flashlights in the gloomy dark of the Boundless Pit, with pieces broken and chipped off. The house, in her hands, was in good repair, unconventional, but still beautiful (for a large, tall house). Zona manipulated her hands, a gesture I was sure was just theatrics, and the view zoomed in, until we could see a man in black, Narcissus, moving through the house. The walls cut away to let us track him as he moved through the diorama.
“This is so fucking cool,” said Fenn, who had crouched down to watch the little man run. “Way better than a movie.”
“Yes,” said Zona. “From what Amaryllis said of the medium, I thought I could surpass it.” A room in the upper corner became visible, lit up where the others remained dark, leaving us to see only the figure of Narcissus moving through the halls, and a room with weights in it. One of the weights dropped, and Narcissus was thrown backward. He climbed to his feet and yelled something, though he was inaudible from our vantage point.
“I didn’t want to kill him,” said Zona. Her voice was soft. “I had never killed before.” Narcissus was moving faster now, more frantically. “I don’t know where the hesitation came from. I had been told not to hurt people, but I broke the rules I was given on occasion, especially if the person who had given them wasn’t there. The primary parts of my identity are opaque to me, inscrutable. He was going to put the entads in me, to make me permanently unliveable, when all I wanted was to be lived in, to be a house for someone, yet ending his life was, somehow, a line I did not want to cross …” Another weight dropped, and Narcissus was thrown back again, as the momentum was transferred from one to another.
From what she had said, she could only use five pounds of force at a time, unless she was using her momentum transfer. The room filled with suspended weights had cranks, gears, and pulleys that would allow her to gradually turn five pounds of force into huge amounts of potential energy, which could then be released so that she could transfer momentum to things inside the house. It had been Uther’s innovation, she’d said. As I watched Narcissus be thrown back, I could see that she was exhausting a limited supply of readily deployable momentum.
“Eventually, it came to a choice,” said Zona, frowning at the imagine of Narcissus as he ran through the halls. “He was attempting to violate me. In the end, I believe I did it because he seemed so certain that I wouldn’t.”
The tiny image of Narcissus approached the closet, which I realized at once Zona was showing us, in a way that must have been intentional, either as a display of trust, as a way of warning us away, or simply as a ruse. There was no reason that the diorama she was presenting had to map to reality, if she wanted to bait us, but now I knew where the closet was.
Narcissus stumbled, and clutched at his throat. His hand came away red, and I could see a spray of blood. At this scale, it was almost too small to make out. He took an unsteady step forward, then collapsed on the ground.
“And that’s when you got a taste for blood, huh?” asked Fenn. I didn’t laugh, and neither did Zona, maybe because it wasn’t very funny, but that was Fenn sometimes; she said things to lighten the mood or deflect from something she didn’t want to think about, not because she thought she was being clever. She cleared her throat. “How’d you do it, anyway?” she asked, leaning down to peer at the still form of Narcissus. “We still don’t have your list of powers.”
“Five pounds of force,” I said. “If there aren’t limits, which I’m guessing there aren’t, or if the limits at least have a lot of give to them, then … imagine you’re holding the sharpest knife in the world. How many pounds of force does it take to cut through flesh, if you’re holding that knife?”
“Oh,” said Fenn. “Shit.”
“It was a thing Reimer tried to do once,” I said. “I gave him a modified version of the mage hand spell, and he felt compelled to abuse it. I was young and dumb, otherwise I would have thought of it first. It was an amulet, with silver knotwork on it.”
“Yes,” said Zona, watching me closely. She dismissed the diorama; the corpse was the last thing to fade away. “Strange.”
“I remember the others too, for what it’s worth,” I said. “The axe, the necklace, even the awl. That’s sort of what Fenn meant, when she said I was the architect of Aerb. A lot of what’s here is taken straight from the games I ran.”
“And me, too?” asked Zona.
“No,” I said. “Definitely not. Though sentient places were always one of my favorites.”
“So if you didn’t get a taste for blood, then what happened?” asked Fenn. “If you didn’t just snap, then … I don’t understand how or why you’re down here.”
“I cleaned up the murder,” said Zona. “I was convinced that no one would live in me if they found out what I had done. But alas, the Penndraigs could be clever, and eventually the murder was discovered. They had an entad that could follow a man’s worldline, so long as he hadn’t teleported, or portaled, or used some other exotic magic, which Narcissus had not. I confessed to what I had done, when pressed, and begged forgiveness from Yarrow, which he granted. I won’t play that scene out for you; I hate the role I played there too much. His forgiveness was meaningless though, since the end result was that he never returned. I stood alone, for quite some time, until his son tried to make me a weapon.”
I looked toward the door of the chamber. Based on my internal sense of time, Amaryllis was due out soon, and then it would be my turn in there. I resented that, a little bit; it had felt like a long month, and I was interested in what Zona had to say, especially if she was going to put more effort into presenting it.
“And that’s where the cannons come from?” asked Fenn. “They put a bunch of weapons on you?”
“In me,” Zona corrected. “The tuung had been trading with Mosenol for some time, and coming off the better for it, without anyone noticing until it was almost too late. The mister tanks allowed them to go on land for extended periods of time, and given that they made their home in the Boundless Pit, soaking in the spray of the Buol, there was really only one direction for them to expand towards. The King of Mosenol tried his best to contain them in a variety of ways, but eventually diplomacy had done as much as it could, and it was time for the tuung to take up arms. I was to play my own part, as a mobile fortress, a service that the King of Mosenol was willing to pay the Penndraigs a small fortune for.”
“Welp, I don’t suppose that has a happy ending,” said Fenn.
“No,” replied Zona. “I didn’t want the entads as part of me. Each was a change, sometimes subtle, sometimes not. I protested, and they didn’t listen, because I still did what I was told. I was granted the ability to move through rock as though it were water, and descended down to the tuung’s cities, firing on them with lightning and cannonballs. Eventually, it became clear to me that all I would ever be was a weapon. I didn’t terribly mind being a weapon, an instrument of destruction, nor did I mind killing … but I didn’t want that to be the only thing that I was. I reached another breaking point, compounded by the entads that were being added to me with abandon.”
“Understandable,” I said. “But I guess I don’t understand why you went so long without having anyone living in you.”
“Time brought changes, and new entads,” said Zona. “I went so long without being a house that eventually that particular compulsion began to slip away, or at least become tolerable. My experiences with people hadn’t been terribly pleasant, or had been pleasant only in small doses. The powerful only saw me as a power to wield, and the weak were run over by the powerful. I did take on people, from time to time, but it never ended well. I tried having pets, but they didn’t satisfy in the same way. The tuung occupied me, briefly, but that didn’t work out either.” She shrugged. “I took to watching from afar, reading and writing, improving myself as best I could, and dealing with the occasional band of adventurers, organized fireteam, or whatever else. My history is long and involved, I’m not sure that you properly grasp that.”
I hadn’t, not really, but I was starting to. I suppose in my mind, she had simply had things go sour with Uther and then crept down into the Boundless Pit to become a haunted house for five centuries. In a way, it gave me a new perspective on Solace, who was similarly long-lived, and must have had much more of a life than she’d let on. She hadn’t talked too much about her long life, not enough for me to hear all the details. Though now, with the rebirthing ritual underway, I wondered how much she actually remembered.
I looked over Zona, trying to find the seams of commonality.
“Was it the same for you?” I asked Fenn.
“Was what?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
“A string of bad experiences making you hesitant,” I said. “Being solitary because though you enjoyed being around people, there had been one too many painful experiences, and keeping your distance seemed like it was the wiser course of action.”
Fenn frowned. “Not how I would put it.”
“Not how I would either,” replied Zona. She smiled slightly. “But I can see that you’ve reached an understanding, in your own way.”
“Yes,” I said with a nod. “Maybe it’s not the truest understanding of who you are, but it’s a starting point, I think. And it does do something to allay my concerns, but … what happens if things don’t work out? If it goes sour for you again?”
“Yeah, do you use five pounds of force on the inside of our brains, or what?” asked Fenn.
“It depends on precisely how it goes sour,” said Zona. “If you betray me? I have a half dozen ways to kill all of you in a handful of seconds. If you simply decide that it would be better to live somewhere else? That might wound my ego, but I wouldn’t be likely to murder you over it.”
“Okay,” I swallowed. “Good to know.”
“The chamber is opening,” said Zona, turning to face the doors.
“Hey,” said Fenn, sidling up to me so she could keep her voice low. “Look, when you read the letter — you’ll know which one I mean, it’s got some kind of heavy stuff in it. Just … when you come out of the chamber, you wrap me in a big hug, alright? And if you don’t, then I’ll know that, um, we probably need to talk more, just you and me. And don’t … you know, I probably said it all in the letter, I’m worrying again, so just,” she shook her head.
I kissed her on the cheek. “I love you,” I said. I wanted to say that I would love her no matter what, but I wasn’t sure that was actually true, and this wasn’t something that I felt I could tell her a pleasing lie about.
“I love you too,” said Fenn, squeezing my hand.
It was my turn in the chamber again, and I wasn’t looking forward to it. Whatever was in Fenn’s letter, I was hoping that it wasn’t too bad.