“Well, that was fast,” said Amaryllis. I snapped awake and stared at her, standing over us, and realized that I was in bed with Fenn next to me (wearing no pants), resting her head on my chest. Amaryllis was still in her plate, looking tired but pleased with herself. I think ‘wry amusement’ just about covers the way she was looking at us.
“It’s not what you think,” I said, not making a move to get up. “Unless what you think is that I gave her a transfusion and then we took a nap together.”
“He really filled me up,” said Fenn, who rose and stretched. She turned back to look at me and smiled, and I couldn’t help but very briefly glance down at her naked butt. “Pervert!” she screamed, and leapt from the bed, covering her privates with one hand. She wasn’t even attempting to hide her smile. “Mary, you saw, he looked at my butt.”
Amaryllis held out her right hand, where she was wearing Sable, and materialized a pair of underwear, which Fenn swiftly took from her.
“Also the glove,” said Fenn as she slipped into the underwear. “A woman isn’t decent until her hand is covered by a magical glove with infinitely expansive extradimensional space.”
Amaryllis took off the glove and handed it to her, which Fenn took and put on with a look of utter triumph that turned to momentary confusion and then, quickly after that, a scowl. “Sorry, I should have specified that the glove be invested,” said Fenn.
“I have one condition,” said Amaryllis. “No more shirts.”
“Done,” said Fenn, far too quickly, and with too much of a smile on her face.
“No more shirts with writing,” said Amaryllis. “I still want shirts.”
“Okay, done,” said Fenn, again too quickly.
“Fenn,” said Amaryllis. “Do you think I find this funny?”
“You laughed that one time,” said Fenn, “And it’s fucking hilarious, so I don’t know, you tell me, do you think that I don’t think you find it funny?”
“That wasn’t a genuine laugh,” said Amaryllis with a not-quite stony face.
“Liar,” said Fenn. “And anyway, I agree to your terms, and like a true friend, I agreed to your amended terms, but everyone knows that even a true friend wouldn’t allow a second amendment to an oral contract.”
Amaryllis sighed, then touched Sable briefly, after which a Fenn’s smile widened. She hugged the glove to her chest, then gave it a kiss.
“I touched corpses with that,” said Amaryllis.
“I’ve touched corpses with it too,” said Fenn. “Any good loot?”
“No,” replied Amaryllis. “All of it was bound to Larkspur, now it will be bound to a different cousin. It’s good to have, and good to deprive them of, or possibly use in trade, but there’s nothing that we can actually use.”
“Are we still in the forest?” I asked. “What about the helicopter?”
“I took everything there was to take,” said Amaryllis. “All of the souls of the dead are in a bottle. As soon as the teleportation key allowed us to, I moved us. We’re on the foothills of the World Spine right now, and we should be miles away from anyone, which is the only thing that this place has to recommend it.”
“But I know how to fly a helicopter,” I said. Ish.
Amaryllis stared at me. “How were you proposing that we transport it?” she asked.
I opened my mouth at that, then closed it, because I actually had no idea, aside from ‘use bullshit druidic magic to get it into the bottle’. It was possible that we could take the helicopter apart and put the pieces into Sable, but that would have been a mammoth task for just two people. And we could go back for it, but I could already see all the objections piling up on that front, which were all the same reasons that we hadn’t gone back to the castle in Silmar City. And even if I could navigate my way around those objections, what the fuck were we going to actually do with a helicopter, magic or otherwise? (But it was obvious to me that if the Dungeon Master had a single dramatic bone in his body, I would fly a helicopter at some point, especially because this marked the second time that I had come close to a helicopter and then not been allowed to fly it.)
“Not everything is a clue,” said Fenn with pursed lips.
“But some things are definitely clues,” I said. “Some things have cosmic significance, for lack of a better word. And helicopters are one of them. They’re part of my backstory, again, for lack of a better word. I’m not saying that everything is going to have meaning in one way or another, I’m just saying that this probably is a clue, and if we don’t go back for the magic helicopter, or we can’t take it with us, then we should at least be on the lookout for other helicopters. Really, we should just go there and use bulk teleport to put it somewhere that we can get it again, if we need it. For both the helicopters, actually.”
“Even if we had the incantation --” Amaryllis began. A stack of papers appeared in Fenn’s hand. Amaryllis stared daggers at her. “Even if we had the necessary supplies --” Fenn tossed the papers onto the bed beside me and produced a small basket from the glove with a flourish. “Did you steal those?” asked Amaryllis.
“Stealing is such a strong word,” said Fenn. “It’s not incorrect, I’m just pointing out what a strong, brave woman I am.” She coughed politely into one hand. “You can, ah, ignore any stories about me getting bisected as obvious fabrications.”
Solace and Grak came into the main room of the house then, leaving it feeling slightly cramped. Grak gave me a low bow, and Solace gave me a happy smile.
“Can I ask who’s watching the bottle?” I asked.
“I put up what wards I could,” said Grak. “I need a week of rest if you want me to be useful on that front.”
“Are we safe?” I asked.
“No,” said Grak. “We won’t be safe until our enemies are dead.”
“He’s exaggerating,” said Solace.
“The primary worry, at this point, is that either Hyacinth or Doris will continue what Larkspur started,” said Amaryllis. “I don’t think either is very likely. It’s hard to parse what Hyacinth’s incentives are without a clear picture of what’s going on within Anglecynn, but from what we know she was done dealing with Doris, and she already thought Larkspur had spent too much time and effort on the project. We’ve added revenge to her incentives, but I don’t think that will change much. We still have to worry about her in the long run, but she’s not the Foreign Security Director, which means that she has considerably fewer levers to pull. I’m not entirely sure what her story is going to be about what happened to him, especially since we have the body, not them, but I really, really doubt that we’re in danger from her right now.”
Amaryllis shifted slightly, reaching to scratch at her neck where the armor met it. “Doris Finch can’t leave the exclusion zone. She has agents, but they’re not very good, because she doesn’t trust other people, not even herselves. My guess is that she knows that we have a teleportation key, either based on her deal with Larkspur or just from watching the reported probability of our movements. She’s dangerous, but in a different, more unpredictable way. I still think we’re safe here.”
She cracked her knuckles. “And that leaves everyone else. We don’t actually know how many people know that we have the key. The set of people who want me dead is very small, limited only to a select set of my cousins. No one else within this group has enemies that are a threat on the level we operate at. So from my way of thinking, our primary concern is whether or not there’s an intra-imperial alert out for us, and that, at least, is something that we can find out in relatively short order with little risk, because doing those things subtly is next to impossible.”
“So we rest here for a week, or rest while testing whether anyone is in pursuit, or rest while moving around?” I asked. “Then we can go back to Boastre Vino under disguise and see whether there’s a BOLO out for us?”
“A BOLO?” asked Amaryllis.
“Sorry, Earth slang, ‘be on the lookout’,” I said.
“‘Whether there’s a be on the lookout out for us?’” asked Grak. “Does that parse properly?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “It doesn’t matter. Are we agreed on resting for now?”
There was a round of assent at that. We’d all been through not-insignificant amounts of hell over the last few weeks, so it wasn’t particularly surprising that we would vote for a break. I remembered thinking, back when I was shooting at cans in the Risen Lands, that MMA fighters had about four ten-minute fights every year, spaced pretty evenly. In the past week, I’d had four fights to the death, with very little time to process it or do anything but move forward. I wasn’t exactly in the same position as someone who did blood sports as entertainment, and I didn’t need nearly the recovery time before I was good to go again. Still, it was a lot, and probably more for everyone else than it was for me.
Having real, actual time off was amazing. I’d had times on Aerb that kind of, sort of, if you squinted at it sideways, approached time off, but most of that was spent on training. That wasn’t to say that I was planning on just abandoning training altogether for a whole week, but the game had sort of given me an excuse; I couldn’t go past 20 in a skill without either being in actual danger or having a good teacher. Given that we had given ourselves a week, I expected I would be able to hit that cap without having to devote all my hours training.
After we’d all had food, a communal dip in the stream, and a change of clothes, Solace and the Six-Eyed Doe gave us a tour of the bottle. It was only a square mile, but that meant about three and a half miles of walking the perimeter, and another few miles of going down the trails, all at a rather sedate pace necessitated by the fact that there were no proper roads and numerous elevation changes. We split into groups, somewhat organically, in part because the deer trails required us to move single-file. Grak took great interest in the wards, some of which were apparently necessary for the (mostly) closed system, and Solace indulged him. Fenn, after whispering in the Six-Eyed Doe’s ear, was treated to a ride, which took her far from the rest of us as the locus stretched its long legs and went for a run. And that left Amaryllis and I, staying back somewhat.
“It doesn’t bother me,” said Amaryllis, apropos of nothing. “You and Fenn.”
I could feel myself tense slightly at that, mostly because I didn’t know how much she was telling the truth, or what her motivation was for saying that. For all that I was giving her a second chance, I felt like I was perpetually off my footing when talking to her.
“I’m glad you’re not bothered,” I replied. “I mean, I’m glad that it’s not going to be a source of tension, or anything, not that it would be.”
“I bring it up because I don’t know what I said while under the influence of the unicorn blood,” said Amaryllis. “Fenn and Grak apparently made a pact between them not to tell us, but I’ve been worried that it’s going to come out at the exact wrong time, so I’d like to be forthright in the interests of not having complications that we can’t afford.”
“Ah,” I said. “I see. And there are things that you might have said that might lead me to believe that you were bothered by our very-much-unofficial-but-probably-not-for-long, ish, thing.”
“You can simply say that you’re courting,” said Amaryllis.
“Yeah,” I said.
We kept walking in silence for a minute. Amaryllis was more relaxed now than she’d been since I’d met her, which, admittedly, was probably a high point for stress in both our lives. She had taken off the armor and was going around in an unadorned blue t-shirt and shorts, with sneakers on her feet. She probably would have been able to pass as a student at my high school, if she’d been dropped there in some kind of reverse portal fantasy. There were details that would give her away to anyone looking closely, like the blend of textiles in her clothes, or the lack of plastic anywhere on her person, or the brands, but it was very close. She’d draw stares, because she was breathtakingly, heart-stoppingly, beautiful, but that aside, it was eerie how close to home she could make me feel.
“You grew more handsome with every point you put into your physical attributes,” said Amaryllis. This, I could tell, was a rehearsed line. “I didn’t feel anything like attraction to you when we first met, and I could tell that you felt some attraction to me, so I decided that I would keep that option open.” She was walking ahead of me through the tall grass, and she turned back toward me, maybe to see whether I was listening. “I’m a Princess of Anglecynn, marriage and progeny are part of our stock and trade. I never imagined that I would have the luxury of marrying for love anyway. With your ability, if it was as powerful as I had imagined, if you were Uther reborn, you were as good a match as any I was likely to find. Maybe if I were more driven or more callous I would have pressed that advantage. Maybe … maybe I am that callous, I just doubted my ability to actually pull it off, when push came to shove. I don’t have experience with men. I don’t have that natural spark that Fenn does either, that raw sensuality, the way she can effortlessly draw the eye.”
I listened to this carefully, trying not to feel too bowled over by what she was saying. The last thing I had ever expected her to admit was a feeling of inferiority toward Fenn. That she wasn’t attracted to me wasn’t a surprise, but it did still sting. Was I supposed to apologize for my attraction to her, an attraction that I still felt? I couldn’t actually help that, but I would have apologized for being that way if it made any difference.
“You understand why I’m telling you this?” asked Amaryllis. “Some things it’s better to do quickly and thoroughly.”
“Like ripping off a band-aid,” I said, aware that the idiom probably wouldn’t translate. “Was there more?”
“Yes,” she said, letting out a breath. “I decided, at a certain point, that there was something legitimately attractive about you. Not in terms of personal aesthetics, though there was that too, but …” She sucked in a breath. “I don’t know what I said while I was feeling the effects of the unicorn blood,” she said. “So I’m going to say the worst things that I might have said, because right now we have time to get past them. I don’t want us to have another falling out because we didn’t talk about things that are painful or awkward to talk about.”
I could feel a tightness in my chest. “Can we stop and sit somewhere?” I asked. “I don’t like not being able to see your face when you talk.”
“Sure,” she said. She hailed the others, who were engrossed in their own conversation, and they waved to us as we hooked to the left and found a large rock to sit on together. Amaryllis had a solemn face, and hugged her knees. She spoke into the air instead of looking at me. Maybe it was easier for her that way.
She reached up, as if to brush a strand of hair back, but stopped and touched her short hair. “I thought that I would be your love interest, if you started to grow beyond my ability to contribute,” she said. “Uther had his Knights, but he had a wife as well, and Zona had more power than any of them, in all the ways that mattered. All the focus gets placed on Uther, but she’s the ancestor of every Prince and Princess of Anglecynn just like he is. She shaped the future of Anglecynn in her own ways.”
I had set the biography of Uther Penndraig aside before getting to the part where he met her, but I obviously knew that he’d had a wife. It weirded me out to think about Arthur in his twenties, married with children. Maybe I was at a point in my life where that was harder to wrap my head around than the fact that he’d built an empire that had spread across the world.
“So I thought I would be that to you,” said Amaryllis. “If you tried to kiss me, I would kiss you back, and if you wanted to fuck me, then I would --” she looked to me, “Endure it,” she finished, apparently not pulling any punches. “I would get through this thing that I didn’t want to do, and I would learn to like it, or at least learn to not visibly dislike it.” She folded her hands in her lap. “I’m aware of how that makes me sound,” she said.
“Kind of makes me feel like crap,” I said. That wasn’t the half of it. It wasn’t her saying she didn’t want to have sex with me, it was the idea that she would still her instinctual response of recoiling from me. That made my heart drop, not because of what it said about our personal relationship, or just our friendship, but what it said about her.
“I thought it might,” said Amaryllis with a small nod. “I’m not done yet, sorry.” She let out a sigh and hugged her knees closer, still not looking my way. “It was while we were making our way through the Datura that I started to see something in you. There was a glimmer of a real spark when I looked at you, so I did what I thought made the most sense given the circumstances, and I set that spark in kindling, then blew on it to start the fire going.” She paused. “Did I misread your attraction to me?”
My heart was hammering in my chest. “No,” I said, almost choking on the word. “You have to know that I would never have done anything if I thought that there was any chance you didn’t want it.”
“I know,” nodded Amaryllis with a soft smile. “That made it easier to kindle the flame. I fantasized about what it would be like to kiss you, or to have you hold me. I tried to imagine what it would be like to have you take my virginity, and I tried to imagine sex with you as this positive thing that I wanted with all my heart.”
“Did it work?” I asked. (I was trying to be careful with my words, but this was not a conversation that I was cut out for.)
Amaryllis was silent. Then she looked over at me. “A bit,” she said. She pursed her lips. “I don’t know how I would have put it, when I had the unicorn blood in me. My phrasing then might have been stronger. I think that what I managed to make myself feel for you is probably just a fraction of what you and Fenn feel for each other.”
“Ah,” I said, swallowing hard. “I’m glad it didn’t work all the way. Because … Fenn.”
“Yes,” Amaryllis nodded. “I'm working on snuffing out the small fire I had going. I was serious, when I said that it didn’t bother me. She suits you better than I ever would have. You'll be good together. Probably annoying too, but that's Fenn. I care about both of you, and it makes me pleased to see you finding happiness in each other.” She hesitated. “I think about alternate presents, and other paths that we might have taken. There’s a sense of loss that I’m trying to shake, like a unicorn’s vision of a past that was lived but never actually happened. I don’t wish that you and Fenn were apart, and I don’t wish that I was with you, but I do think about this other version of me that was more ready to trust, more craving of a man’s touch, warmer and kinder. If I were someone fun, like her.” She bit her lip, hard enough that she winced. “I’m sorry, this isn’t helpful, I’ve said all the things I meant to say to inoculate us against this in the future. I probably shouldn’t say more.”
“Do I need to reciprocate?” I asked. “Do I need to tell you ... things?” (God knows what I said about Amaryllis when I was on unicorn blood, but it apparently wasn’t enough to stop Fenn.)
Amaryllis gave me a small, hollow laugh. “You’re very transparent, Juniper,” she replied. “No, I already know the gist of it. I don’t think there’s anything that I would worry about being blindsided with, in some future argument.”
“Okay,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. “Should we go join the others?”
“Give me a second,” said Amaryllis. “I’d like a little time alone.”
I left her on the rock and started down the trail again. Grak and Solace were sitting together a ways away, where the tall woods started, just before the run-up to the side of the bottle. From the looks of it, she was telling him a story, with large hand gestures and the occasional flash of color from her hands.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about Amaryllis and the things she’d told me. On the one hand, I felt like I had dodged a bullet there, because she was suited exactly to my tastes in so many ways. Maybe if we had more time for a slow burn, or if Fenn weren't there, I would have ended up with her, courting this girl who was trying her hardest not to feel distaste when I kissed her. On the other hand, I felt this irrational need to fix her somehow, to hold her and comfort her until she was defrosted and capable of, I don’t know, experiencing actual romantic love and the joys of sex. I knew that if Tiff had heard me say something like that, she probably would have talked my ear off about how that was a deranged male fantasy that didn't even remotely map to the real world, but it was what I felt all the same. Mostly though, it all just made me sad. No wonder her loyalty had gone up when I’d told her that she was never going to lag far behind me in power.
Fenn came up alongside me, riding the Six-Eyed Doe, as I was lost in thoughts of parallel timelines and might-have-beens. “I found this funny-looking deer,” she said. The locus bucked below her, hard enough that she had to grip it tight, and Fenn laughed at the struggle until finally the locus went still again. “Good chat with the princess?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Care to tell your Fenn what about?” asked Fenn with a thrum of her fingers on the doe’s flank.
“It’s complicated. Unicorn stuff,” I said. “I’m hoping that you already know all of it, so we don’t have to have this awkward, stressful conversation about it.”
“Ah,” said Fenn. “And you’re in a mood about whatever she told you?”
“A bit,” I nodded.
“Could you tell me what sort of mood, precisely?” asked Fenn. “I am, naturally, a strong, self-assured woman who doesn’t need her almost-boyfriend to tell her that their fledgling relationship is still intact, but maybe you should go through the motions, just to get some practice, in case you ever do date someone that pointlessly needy and insecure.”
“Fenn, I know that this might seem like it’s coming out of nowhere, but would you like to go on a date sometime?” I asked.
Fenn hopped down off the doe with an acrobatic twist and landed beside me. She was giving me the widest smile I’d ever seen from her. “Well,” she said. “This is very unexpected.” She stepped closer to me, within the zone of intimacy. “Obviously I’d have to think about it.”
One of the changes that had happened to my body was that I had grown taller. Fenn and I had started out about the same height, but now I had about two inches on her, which meant that if she wanted to kiss me, she would have to tilt her head up just slightly. She was doing that, obviously so, and she left her lips slightly parted when she finished speaking. I shouldn’t have felt so unsure of myself; I knew how she felt, I knew how I felt, and yet I had this nervous, trembling energy as I moved forward and kissed her, fear and adrenaline coursing through me like maybe, somehow, I had misread her.
She melted into me, pressing her body against mine, sliding a hand up to touch me on the back of my neck, with her fingers in my hair, and I pulled her closer against me as we kissed, like I thought I’d be able to merge us into a single being. I was surprised by my urgent need for her, and she for me, but that surprise was eventually washed away by the pure sensation of her soft lips against mine.
When she pulled away she was breathing heavily and shaking slightly, her freckled cheeks red. She stared into my eyes and ran her tongue between her lips, savoring the aftertaste of our kiss. “Okay,” she said. She shivered slightly, and her hands clung to my waist. “I’ve given it some thought. One date, and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
END BOOK III