Amaryllis answered the door holding a book in one hand, and gestured for us to come into their room without letting go of it. It was smaller than the one Fenn and I had, built narrow so that more rooms could be fit on the car, and when all four of us were in it, it was barely big enough to keep us from an uncomfortable amount of body contact.
“Hi Joon,” said Valencia, looking up from her book. She was already a fair way through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone.
“I can make all this,” said Amaryllis, gesturing with the book she was holding. On the page I could see something that looked like a microchip. “Aerb has been so slow compared to Earth, I don’t understand it.”
“I can venture something like thirty different guesses,” I said. “Enforcing medieval stasis was a hobby of mine.”
“But I can make all of it,” said Amaryllis. “Integrated circuits, magnetic storage, television -- on Earth it was thirty years between radio and television, did you know that?”
“Sounds about right. I’m not really all that familiar with Aerb’s development timeline,” I began.
“Radio came just a little bit after the Second Empire,” said Amaryllis. “One hundred and thirty years and we never made the leap.”
“That’s … I don’t think we have the time right now to get into the medieval stasis trope, and how it’s been working out on Aerb,” I said. “My guess is development traps, perverse incentives, lackluster incentives, active suppression, lack of resources, lack of intellectual capital, competition of alternatives … I actually legitimately think that I could get to thirty, and then guess how or whether they apply. But not now, because we have an invitation to visit with the tuung princess.”
“How?” asked Amaryllis. “Why?”
“Can I come?” asked Valencia.
“I don’t think that would be a good idea,” said Amaryllis, turning towards her.
Eagerness turned to distress in a single moment; Valencia looked like she was about to cry. “Well why don’t you just lock me up in a cupboard under the stairs!” she yelled. She turned away from us and returned to her book, gripping the pages hard.
Amaryllis gave her a bewildered look, then turned to me.
“Harry Potter is locked in a cupboard under the stairs by his evil step-parents,” I explained.
“Because he’s different,” said Valencia, not looking up from her book, which she seemed like she was trying to stare a hole into.
“I never read the Harold Plotter series,” said Amaryllis. The words came out slowly. She looked over to Valencia and reached out to rest a hand on her shoulder. “Val, you being different is, on a pure utility level, really, really good for us. Even if I didn’t like you at all, which I do, I would consider you to be a valuable asset. The problem is that there are risks in having you out, so long as you’re still learning how to be you. Your difference comes with costs. You’re going to have to learn how to hide it, so you aren't recognized.”
“Like how Harry was recognized by his scar,” said Valencia.
Amaryllis looked to me, and I nodded. “Sure,” she replied.
“This party seems like a good time to practice,” said Fenn with a happy smile.
“Fenn,” began Amaryllis.
“Mary,” Fenn replied. “It’s low stakes, lots of people to let us blend in, she can always call on a devil if she really needs to spin some lie, and if things go wrong, well, the plan was that we’d make an illegal descent into the Boundless Pit anyway, right? What’s the worst case scenario here?”
“We get kicked off the train, which costs us an extra day or two, which means that we get Solace back late, just after the locus has drawn its last breath,” said Amaryllis. “Though that’s not actually the worst case, the worst case is that we all wind up dead, getting kicked off the train is just the most likely of the bad cases.”
“The invitation was for Fenn and I,” I replied. “I’m not sure how closely they’ll be checking, or how much they’ll care, but I don’t know for certain that they would let us have a plus one.”
Amaryllis demanded a fuller debriefing than that, which I gave her. She cringed at the idea that we’d left our cabin to get some food, especially since we could just grab food from the backpack, and cringed again when Fenn had revealed me for a bone mage.
“Is this why you don’t split the party?” she asked.
“Part of it,” I replied.
“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “I’m in mild agreement that at least some of us should go, despite the obvious risks.” She took a breath. “Better to have it be me and Juniper --”
“No,” said Fenn. She took out the invitation and handed it to Amaryllis. “She uses the word ‘multicultural’ twice. I think half the reason we got an invitation is that I’m a half-elf. Maybe more than half the reason. If you were her, and you thought that your days were going to be spent at court, surrounded by other tuung, and you wanted to have all the variety and mishmash of different stuff that a place like Cranberry Bay had to offer, you wouldn’t want to stack that party with, no offense, boring old humans.”
Amaryllis frowned. “Point taken,” she said. “If it’s just you and Joon though, I worry that you won’t be as adept at gaining her aid. We can see from our souls that I have better social skills, and I’m a princess, like her --”
“So am I,” said Fenn. She seemed almost giddy about being able to throw that back in Amaryllis’ face.
“I’ll go with,” said Valencia. She seemed to have calmed down somewhat. “Mary, you said that I was almost better than you, with a devil inside me, but you were lying, because you thought that I was better. I can pretend that I’m Joon’s sister.”
Amaryllis looked between the three of us. I think she was hoping that I would be the voice of reason, but I wasn’t really on her side on this one. The conversation with Fenn had stirred something loose in me; trying to keep Val bottled up was a recipe for disaster, because if we kept her from speaking with people and coming with us, eventually she would snap in one way or another. She’d been teased with freedom, and it hadn’t actually happened yet. Instead, we’d kept her under lock and key, away from the wide world, seeing things only through conversations with the same small group of four people and constrained to prepared safehouses that were barred to the outside. (In fact, maybe this was her snapping, finally pushing back after one too many times of being told that she wasn’t allowed to do something that she should, by right, be capable of. Or maybe it was that the only work of fiction she’d ever read was the first half of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone .)
“Okay,” said Amaryllis.
“Really?” asked Valencia, brightening up considerably.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “I’m not even going to insist on coming with, in part because I think Fenn is right.”
“She’s gone mad,” said Fenn.
“I don’t think that I would make things better,” said Amaryllis. “Dropping down into unfamiliar situations has never been my forte, and if I’m looking at my list of failures, that’s where all of them start. I'm nobility, but not of the same type, and can't reveal that on pain of severe consequences. So,” she looked over at the books. “I predict that this goes badly. My read, from the invitation, is that the princess is the kind of vapid, overly-indulged nobility that I hate, and on the surface, there’s no reason for this party to be anything but boring. It’s possible that it will turn out well for the three of you. On the face of it, there’s at least no reason to suspect that you’ll be attacked and thrown from the train.” She fidgeted slightly, resting a hand on her book. “I’m going to get into full armor, double-check that I’m ready for the most likely of the worst outcomes, and then spend my time trying to plot out the next scientific and technological revolution.”
“Ah, well that makes sense,” said Fenn. “The only reason that our princess would miss a party is if there was something more important to work on.”
“Are you sure?” I asked Amaryllis.
“No,” she replied. “But I think my compulsion to go with is at least partially grounded in the need to exert control, rather than the actual utility I can provide, and in the interests of not doing things simply for the sake of doing them, I would rather stay here.” She touched the book like it was her lover.
“And try to single-handedly map out the entire future of science and technology on Aerb, in accordance with what’s written in a handful of books from Earth,” I replied.
“Leave the backpack and the clonal kit with me,” said Amaryllis. “I’m hoping to get a better picture of what things are like on Earth by dipping into multiple sources, and there are some things I want to try.”
“Okay,” I said. “And you’ll be available as armed and armored backup in the event that things go really wrong?”
“Naturally,” she said.
“And I can go?” asked Valencia.
“I’m not actually in charge of you,” said Amaryllis. “All I could do would be to argue against it, and I don’t think that I have the grounds to do that. The most successful non-anima the world ever knew would be more than capable of attending a minor party with virtually no social expectations, especially one predicated on the idea that it was a blending of cultures and unfamiliar people.” She leaned forward and gave Valencia a kiss on the forehead. “I trust you to do your best.”
“See, talked to death,” said Fenn as we made our way down the train cars. “The party is probably already over.”
“The invitation didn’t actually give a time, which I thought was a little weird,” I said. “I hope after all that we’re not turned away at the door.”
“It’s an adventure!” said Valencia. “Like when Harry and Ron and Hermione killed the troll, and they were best friends after.”
“We’re going to have to have a talk about fiction and reality,” I said, then I let out a little laugh, because Aerb was cobbled together from a hundred different tabletop campaigns.
“We should get our stories straight,” said Fenn. “Juniper, you’re a scholar studying the dream-skewered, of late having taken a trip to the Athenaeum of Bone and Flesh in order to speak with some medical experts, a trip which proved fruitless. I’m your loving wife, Valencia is your little sister, we’re with you because we thought it would be fun to take the trip, and because like many idle scholars, you had a surplus of money.”
“Amaryllis can be my governess,” said Valencia.
“Sure,” said Fenn. “That works. But the key to any successful story is that you don’t lay out the whole thing at once, you let it have bits and pieces that show at the edges, okay? Strings for people to tug on, not a tapestry that you present them with.”
“But we’re going to ask for this woman’s aid?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” said Fenn with a shrug. We passed between two of the train cars, momentarily silenced by the rumble of the train and the wind that passed us by. “Given our circumstances, I don’t think she’d hold the lie against us too much, and you can demonstrate mastery of a handful of magics at will to prove whatever crazy story is the ‘truth’.”
How many people had I told the truth to so far? Amaryllis, Fenn, Grak, Solace, and Valencia? Fallatehr had known, because he’d had Grak and Amaryllis to tell him. Aumann might have known something, because Amaryllis was presumably tortured under revision magic and I wouldn’t have blamed her for breaking. My policy had been to let the companions in on it, on the theory that it directly affected their lives and was information that they needed to know, but it wasn’t a secret that could keep forever, especially not if we wanted to become a part of polite society, and eventually too many people being in the know meant that the secret would be free, out into the world. I wasn’t sure whether it would make our lives harder or easier, but harder seemed more likely.
When we got to the first of the three tuung cars, two guards stopped us at the semi-enclosed gangway between cars. They had a mister tank that it seemed like they were sharing, and conquistador-style breastplate that formed a wedge at the center. Though they weren’t obviously armed, it was fairly common for the tuung to be able to summon a weapon at a moment’s notice, one of the things that made them formidable in a fight. (I wanted a summonable blade for my own, but they were a well-guarded secret of the tuung, one that had survived as secret for centuries.)
“We have an invitation,” said Fenn, holding the envelope out. One of the guards took it without so much as inspecting it, and opened the door for us.
The train car before us was completely open, with no interior walls. I didn’t know whether this train car had been custom-built for this particular journey -- I really doubted it, given that it was only a two day journey -- but it was obviously built for this sort of function, rich people milling about, eating tiny food off of tiny plates, sitting on a few scattered chaise lounges or armchairs that were bolted to the floor. I could see guards too, tuung with the same armor that the ones that had let us in wore. Along one side was a buffet filled with all manner of roasted, fried, and bubbling things, and in the corner, an unfamiliar upright stringed instrument was being plucked by a woman with four slender arms.
As I looked around the room, I revised ‘rich people milling about’ down to just ‘people milling about’. Fashion was not my forte, but this wasn’t even what I’d come to think of as ‘Aerb-standard’ fashion, that being the cultural melange of the Empire of Common Cause, which was only a few steps to the left of what you’d have found on Earth. It was a dozen people from a dozen cultures, some of them certainly dressed in clothes that had been produced by a forge-frenzy and thus not hewing to any cultural standards at all. A woman with a long neck bent in a U-shape to keep her head from touching the ceiling wore a cerulean dress that fluttered out as it draped to the floor, obscuring almost all of her but her lanky arms, elongated neck, and head. A green-skinned woman had a shell on her back, embellished with miniscule gardens and inch-tall trees that gave the impression of a living place, a world in miniature (and I could vaguely recall seeing something like it before, but couldn’t quite place where). Two dwarves were talking to each other on one of the chaise lounges, both in completely different styles, one in a suit that moved like grass, a ghillie suit completely unsuited to the occasion, and his hair dyed green to match, the other with a beard dyed grey and an axe that showed flowing hair -- Grak?
He caught my eye for long enough to let me know that he’d seen me, then continued on with his conversation as though nothing was out of the ordinary. Fenn slipped her arm in mine and I realized that I was staring; I came out of it just in time for two of the tuung to approach us, one of them dressed in simple, shapeless white clothes, with a mister on her back, the other in damp, pink frills.
“Oh, more guests!” she cried, holding a hand out to Fenn, which Fenn took with a smile. “Welcome to this little soiree, my best imitation of the imperial aesthetic that my funds were able to provide. I apologize for the impropriety of sending an invitation without so much as knowing your names, but this is how friends are made in the urban centers of the world, is it not, hrm? A little boldness that must be excused?”
Fenn nodded along as the tuung talked. This was my first extended period with a tuung up close, and, with fascination, I watched her mouth, her long tongue that seemed to spring and bound around her wide mouth, the way she had internal ridges rather than teeth, and her comparatively enormous eyes that were set so far apart that focusing on almost anything close by made her look cross-eyed.
“We were delighted to have the opportunity to do something other than stay cloistered in our rooms,” said Fenn. “I love to travel by train, but finding company can be a bit difficult, especially the better class of company.”
“Too right!” shrieked the princess. “But you must forgive my manners, I am Princess Emomain, as I’m sure you’ve surmised. This is my handmaiden, Esuen.”
“Tantia Shoemacher,” said Fenn, placing a hand to her own chest. “My husband, Ernst Shoemacher, and his sister, Gloria. We’re for the Boundless Pit, just as you are. My husband fancies himself a wandering scholar.”
“I am a scholar,” I replied with a frown. I assumed that this was the role Fenn intended me to play, a fussy scholar defending his interest or obsession with some bit of minutia. “Have you heard of a phenomenon called the dream skewer?”
Princess Emomain shook her head. “Were you studying at Bone and Flesh?” she asked. “As I said in my invitation, I’ve just recently finished my studies there, receiving a first order diploma for my efforts, with a focus mainly in non-magical healing, that is to say, healing that relies wholly on the natural rather than the unnatural, which is of course a concern to my people, given the unfolding political situation in the Boundless Pit, of which you are no doubt aware.”
“I wasn’t,” I replied. Surprised and pleased at how quickly she’d deflected from my question about the dream-skewer. “Between different factions of the tuung, or between Headwater and the Boundless Pit?”
“Well, you are aware of the driving philosophy of the tuung, are you not?” asked Emomain. Her handmaid touched her elbow, and Emomain shrugged it off. “If you are a scholar, then you are coming to the Pit for some purpose?”
“To speak with and learn from the tuung,” I said. “I usually find it better to approach cultures somewhat unawares, so that my view of them isn’t so tainted by the interpretations of those outside the culture, which I’m sure you know are often wrong.” I was about to go on, but Emomain seemed to interpret me taking two sentences for myself as the start of a power struggle for control of the conversation. Fenn patted me lightly on the arm and took her leave, making a beeline for the food.
“Oh, there are some dreadful misconceptions about us,” said Emomain. There was something terribly affected about her speech, as though her way of speaking had been built as a caricature of high-society Anglish. “The men outnumber the women a hundred to one, you know, so of course there’s this ridiculous idea that they’re like human men, thrust into competition with each other, fighting over the women, squabbling for a mate, all of these very messy traditions that are so common to the other mortal species. But we’re not like that at all, the male tuung don’t have any such instincts, not toward mating, nor toward fatherhood -- not that any such concept exists within tuung culture. It's not until we will our scent on them that they awaken to anything approaching romance as you would understand it. Of course much of the blame falls to Blackstone, who wrote the supposedly authoritative book on our species, and Syfriend with his Book of Blood made no effort to correct matters, though he had a much better picture than you’d think he had, from reading his book. And there have been no end to the plays and books that purport to take place among the tuung, given the element of the forbidden, but none of them have so much of a shred of accuracy to them.”
“And the politics?” I asked. During that monologue, Valencia had left too; she was sitting beside Grak and the other dwarf, her slender form taking up only a fraction of the chaise. “The most I know is that there’s something called ‘the supremacy of existence’, but given what you’ve said, I might have been misinformed.”
“Oh, well that’s true enough,” said Emomain, “But of course much more nuanced than you’d expect to read from the papers, when it shows up at all. So many years spent in Cranberry Bay, and I looked to the papers all the time, you understand, because I wasn’t simply a student but an ambassador for my people, and given I was one of the few well-known tuung I expected to be asked for comment, even put out my name to the papers of Cranberry Bay in case they had questions, but I was only asked two or three times over the course of my time at the athenaeum, and then I think it was more a matter of the novelty rather than due diligence. I must say that my opinion of the mass media has lowered considerably.”
She hadn’t answered my question about politics at all. I was, at this point, looking for an out, some way that I could disengage from conversation without being rude, but though my two floating points were firmly in SOC, I still couldn’t figure out the best way out. Luckily, Fenn came walking back over, holding two sticks with white cubes on them (they looked more like tofu than anything else, though up close they had some texture to them).
“These are delicious,” said Fenn, handing one to me. “Having a good chat?”
“The best,” said Emomain. “I was just relating my experiences with the newspapers to Ernst, I was saying that the tuung rarely showed up in the news, despite all I was hearing about from back home, and though I’d extended my expertise to the papers, they showed little interest in hearing what I had to say on the matter.”
I was, at this point, really, really hoping that she wasn’t a companion, or anyone that we’d have to spend an extended period of time with. Hearing the same thing twice was a personal pet peeve of mine.
“Do you happen to know what this is?” asked Fenn, gesturing with her skewer of meat. “Some sort of meat, I’m assuming, but I don’t know that I’ve tried it before. It’s exceptional.” I’d taken a bite, and while it wasn’t bad, I wouldn’t have called it exceptional. It was creamy and came apart with little resistance, but it was still clearly meat of some kind.
“Oh, when I saw you come in I had meant to show you that,” said Emomain, “It’s a delicacy, extremely rare for any to be on the market, but I was out shopping in preparation for this party and the exotic meats merchant happened to have heard of a large quantity recently brought in, and was able to procure some for me.” She leaned in close, eyes bright. “It’s unicorn meat.”
Fenn paused in her chewing, then started to laugh with her mouth full. Princess Emomain looked between the two of us with an uneasy smile.
“A private joke,” I said, apologizing. “We recently acquired a unicorn bone, almost certainly from the same creature.”
“The meat was sterilized through the use of bulk transport?” asked a tall, robed man who had moved into the conversation circle. I was fairly sure that he was the first orc I’d ever seen, skin brownish-green with tusks that stuck up slightly from his mouth. The orcs had been allied with the Dark King, back during the time of Uther Penndraig, and he’d decapitated their matriarchal government shortly before the final showdown with the Dark King himself. They’d never really recovered from that, in part because of sanctions placed on them by Anglecynn, and later, the First Empire.
“Sterilized?” asked Princess Emomain. “I suppose, but --”
“Sterilization is a scourge upon the face of food,” said the orc, gesturing with a full glass of some kind of bluish drink. “So many of the traditional foods of the mortal species are ferments, none of which can survive the bulking process, the food we eat, even the best of it, is so dead that it’s barely worth calling food, no bacteria in it, no life to the meats, and so many foods have been eradicated from the diets of the world by the way in which those foods are moved around. It’s a terrible shame, but of course economics is the driving force of the world.”
“Economics?” asked Emomain. “Well I hardly think that’s the case, why if you look at the history of the world …”
I slipped away, grateful that her attention had been taken up by someone else, and went over to where Grak was sitting with the other dwarf on one side of him and Valencia on the other.
“Ernst!” said Valencia. “This is Grakhuil Leadbraids and Magoron maRohon, Ernst is my older brother, I’m traveling with him and seeing the world.”
“Hello,” I said, extending my hand to first one and then the other. Grak squeezed my hand a little bit too hard, and there was a hint of warning in his eyes. “Are you two traveling together? From the names I would guess different clans?”
(Magoron. Mag? Magor? I had a decent working knowledge of Groglir -- magor meant ‘breathed’, and the suffix -on meant ‘one who’, but I wasn’t sure what the rules were on how to shorten words used in names, if at all. The name Grakhuil meant something like ‘half of a series’, but it was an old name, one that wasn’t quite so literal.)
Magor laughed. “The last names? Ah, well, that’s more a question of politics than anything else. See, ‘maRohon’ would translate to something like --”
“‘Of one who fixed or mended’,” I said. I held up a hand. “I know just enough Groglir to embarrass myself.”
“Oh, not so!” said Magor. “It’s a rare language for a human -- you are human, aren’t you?” I nodded. “At any rate, literalism was in vogue for quite a while, on the theory that the meaning was more important than the sounds, so in Anglish it’s Leadbraid, but in Groglir it’s,” he pointed to me.
“Haimelhaknil,” I asked. “That, or Haiodohaknil,” I said. “I might be missing a word, or mistranslating.”
“The first was correct,” said Magor. He looked over to Grak. “Though going by the beard, I suppose I could see why you’d assume the latter. But of course that’s the whole problem, because translation is an impossibility, it’s not simply one-to-one correspondence. Especially with Groglir, you miss certain nuances. That’s why I use maRohon as a name, more than our difference in clans.”
“Well, you learn something new every day,” I said.
“Sometimes many things,” said Valencia.
Magor laughed. “And there are other differences between us, of course. From what I gather we ended up on this train following distinctly opposite paths, Grakhuil a clan traditionalist who entered into the Third Empire through necessity, though I don’t have the full story there, myself a third-generation agkrioglian turned neo-traditionalist.” He rested a hand on Grak’s knee, which Grak very carefully made no notice of. “And if you have a working knowledge of dwarven culture, you’d know I’m something of an unfavored bastard to most of our species, and Grakhuil is a prince.”
“There might have been a few things that my teacher left out,” I said as I tried to figure out what the deal between the two of them was. “Safe to say that our host got a bit more multiculturalism than she expected?” Valencia laughed at that, then raised a cup of some sparkling red drink to her mouth and tried to hide her smile, but Magor joined in with the laugh, and eventually Grak did too.
“I’m sorry,” said Magor. “I’ve been talking about myself and my temporary traveling companion far too much, my manners seemed to have fled me. The safe and bland question would be about why you're traveling to Headwater, but I suppose the more interesting question is how you came to know Groglir. Answer whichever you prefer.”
Before I could though, the lights in the room flickered off. The sun had long since set, which left us in only the light of the multicolored stars, and somewhere far overhead, Celestar, but that wasn’t enough to see by, not with our eyes uncalibrated to the darkness. I would have used blood magic to light up the room with fire from my hand, but I was established as a scholar, one with a tiny bit of a background in bone magic, and until I heard someone draw a weapon, I wanted to stay as innocuous as possible.
I felt something touch my chest, but it wasn't hard, and I left the brief contact go unremarked. Of all the people in the train car, how many of them could see in the dark? I was guessing that it was enough so that no one could launch a covert attack in the dark, and this wasn’t all a long setup by the Dungeon Master for a body being discovered in the middle of a locked room.
When the lights went back on, I looked down to see nothing at all on my chest. I glanced at Grak, who stared down at my chest and raised an eyebrow my direction. I gave him a shrug back; I was fairly sure that whatever or whoever had touched my chest, they had done some sort of magic, but I wasn’t incredibly concerned about it, unless this room somehow contained a soul mage more powerful than Fallatehr.
<Don’t look around,> said a voice in my head. <The effect is temporary, no more than an hour. It’s harmless. Send back okay if you understand.>
“You were about to answer the mundane question or the personal, before the lights flickered,” prompted Magor.
“I think I’ll go with the mundane,” I replied. “I’m a scholar, with a specialty in a rare phenomenon called the dream-skewer. If you’ll excuse me for a second, my sister can tell you more, I think something from the buffet disagreed with me.”
<Okay. Who are you?> I asked, looking around the room for Fenn, though I had enough situational awareness to find her. There were eighteen of us, plus two guards and two waitstaff. I could rule out Grak, Val, and Fenn, naturally, but that left a fair number of suspects. The princess was the obvious one, if she was just putting up a really good mask, but I sort of doubted that.
<I need your help,> came the reply. As I walked toward Fenn, I tried my best to make a note of who was talking and who wasn’t. There was no guarantee that whoever was on the other end of the psychic connection experienced it the same way that I did, but I didn’t think I’d be capable of maintaining normal speech and thought speech at the same time. <I said not to look around.>
<I’m inclined to help those who need it,> I replied as I reached Fenn and slipped my arm in hers. She was standing with the shell-backed woman, who had gotten a mirror on a long metal wire out, and was explaining the various features of the elaborate scene on her back to a small crowd of five. <I’d need to know who and how though. And why me.>
<You’re not a scholar,> replied the voice. <You gave a fake name.>
I tried to think about how anyone would know that. The names we’d given to the princess didn’t match the ones that were on the papers forged by Fenn, but as it had been explained to me, there wasn’t really such a thing as a passenger manifest, only tickets that were held and checked … and yet whoever was talking to me knew anyway, either because they had a passenger manifest that wasn’t supposed to exist, or because they had a magical method of divining the truth. Or maybe some subtle detail had given me away. Still, lying about my name didn’t seem like it was going to land me in hot water. Forging papers to get a ticket did seem like it would get me in trouble, but I wasn’t sure that was in question at the moment.
<I give fake names sometimes,> I said. <I’m sure you would understand, if you want to keep your identity secret from someone who’s willing to help you.>
<We will establish a dead drop for communication,> said the voice. <Terms and conditions, your payment for your help, some method of establishing your credentials and abilities. Under the second table on the right in the dining hall, when facing the front of the train. Details will be waiting there for you.>
My eyes were wandering, and again I saw the tuung princess talking while the voice was speaking to me. Her handmaid, however, was silent, and when our eyes briefly locked, she turned away from me. The old Phantom Menace gambit, a handmaid pretending to be a princess.
<Alright,> I replied. <I have four allies on this train, is it alright if I share this with them? Whatever it is you want, we would probably need their help.>
<So long as you stay quiet about it until the time is right,> replied the voice. <That's all for now. Communicate by letter.>
I nodded, as though I was listening along to the shell-backed woman explain how she’d convincingly faked a water feature that ran down the center of her shell, something she had apparently done herself using a variety of tools to do the work around the awkward angle. I didn’t have to feign interest; I’d always loved miniatures and tiny things in general, though I watched a lot more tutorials on Youtube than I spent time actually painting figs or making terrain.
Dead drop, second table on the right. Not a quest.
“I think I might have had my fill here,” I whispered in Fenn’s ear.
“Oh?” she asked back, searching my face for meaning. “I was enjoying myself.”
“I guess there’s no reason that we can’t stay for a bit, but I have other business that’s, ah, time sensitive.” I wasn’t sure how time sensitive, but it would probably need to be wrapped up by the time we got to Headwater, the city that sat above the Boundless Pit.
“Crap,” said Fenn. “Just say the word and I’ll do what you want.” No matter how serious she might have thought the situation was, she couldn’t resist a wink.
“We’ll stay, for now,” I said. “I’ve been enjoying myself, for the most part.” I looked over at where Grak was sitting; the hand on his thigh hadn’t moved. “That dwarf over there seems like he’s got an admirer.” Fenn’s gaze followed my own, and I saw her eyes go wide.
“There’s no way we can leave now,” she said.
It was late when we finally made our way out of the party car. Fenn had a little bit too much to drink. Valencia had far too much to drink, and was standing mostly through the force of the devil she’d trapped inside her at some point, which didn’t actually make her less inebriated, but made her more able to compensate for that inebriation, which was cause for her to get even more drunk than she would have been. Grak and Magor left far before us, and while we were pretending to be strangers, I thought there was some aspect of sneakery to the way he’d left without calling attention to himself.
“I love you Fenn,” said Valencia. She was leaning on me for support as we moved through the corridors, with only dim light to guide us.
“I love you too,” replied Fenn with a happy sigh. “Today was a good day.” She turned to me. “You still sober, junebug?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “Also, please explain what a junebug is, because there’s no month called June on Aerb.” It almost certainly would have been faster for me to simply carry Valencia, but she hadn’t asked, and I would have felt weird about it. It was bad enough being someone to lean on.
“You have a month named June? Literally a whole month named after you?” asked Fenn. “That’s dumb. Earth is so dumb. Not even McDonald’s is good.”
“McDonald’s is about price point and availability,” I said. We came to one of the doors between cars. “Hold on tight, don’t want you going off over the edge.”
“Mmm-hmm,” said Valencia, clutching closer to me. “I liked being your sister today. You’re a better brother than Dudley is.”
I helped her through the gangway, thankful that we were to her car. “I’m going to be happy when you have more than just a third of a book under your belt,” I said. “Given some time, especially if you’re in the time chamber with nothing else to do, you might get enough cultural literacy that you could pass for dream-skewered.”
“Oh, I could do that already,” said Valencia. “I’d just need a big, powerful devil to chomp down on. I can move my tendrils around the hells and try to find one, to line one up, just in case.”
“You’re fucking scary,” said Fenn.
“Can I tell you both a secret?” asked Val. “They’ve started to notice, today I got a devil that knew, he heard a rumor that someone important had vanished, and the devils almost never die, so it was a big important thing, but there’s nothing they can do about it. He thought I was fucking scary too. There were a few seconds, when I was eating him, that I think he maybe realized what was happening, but he couldn’t do anything about it.”
“That’s kind of disturbing,” I replied.
“I was their puppet my entire life!” yelled Valencia. She pushed off from me with weak arms and stumbled slightly, then slumped up against the wall.
“I know,” I said. “I’m just saying that whatever it is you’re doing to them on an actual object level, it’s probably terrifying to them, and I think empathy towards even abjectly evil creatures is a good thing, so long as you don’t let it cloud your judgment about who and what they are.”
“I’m going to take a demon now,” said Valencia. She stopped for a second, then straightened up, all signs of drunkenness gone. “Oh,” she said. “Is just slow reflexes. Feedback. No need Joon.” She waved me off.
“Well, we’re here,” I said. I knocked once on the door, and after a moment, it opened up, pouring light into the dim corridor and revealing Amaryllis in full plate. “Val isn’t in a good place right now.”
Amaryllis sighed, and let Valencia in. She moved with catlike grace until she got over to the bed, then collapsed into it without ceremony.
“Just a little drunk,” I said.
“A lot drunk,” said Fenn. She was leaning up against the door to the cabin. “I tried to cut her off, but she’s a wily little girl when she wants to be.”
“It was a productive party?” asked Amaryllis. “I didn’t hear any banging from the front cars or see any smoke coming by my window. I’ll say that wearing full plate for several hours while reading and trying to keep a lookout isn’t exactly my idea of a good time, and I’d expected you back earlier.”
“We got a coded call for help,” I said. “I’m going to pick up the dead drop on our way back.”
“Oh, I totally forgot about that,” said Fenn. She pushed her way past me. “Mary, you are never going to believe it, but Grak has a boyfriend. Or a girlfriend, or whatever you’d call it.”
“Krin,” I said. “And it’s not exactly clear what their relationship is.”
“Joon wishes that I had a cloaca,” said Fenn, in the worst attempt at a confidential whisper I’d ever seen.
“I didn’t say that,” I replied, rolling my eyes. “I said that if you had a cloaca, I would be open to the possibility, it wouldn’t be a deal-breaker.” I’d tried my best to feel no shame at that, since it didn’t really seem like all that extreme of a position to take, but if I’d said something like that in high school, I would have been called a weirdo, if not a pervert. I’d meant it as an expression of love toward Fenn, but apparently that wasn’t what she was taking away from it.
She turned to look at me. “But with your mouth?” She turned back to Amaryllis. “I don’t mean to make you jealous, but Juniper --”
“Alright, enough of that,” I said. I glanced over at the books that were strewn everywhere, along with what looked like the circuit boards and half-built electronics. “Fenn, your job is going to be to help put all this stuff away and get things ready so that Mary can get some sleep, while she and I have a talk out in the hallway, okay?”
“Okay,” said Fenn. “Got it. I’m going to take a quick nap instead of doing that.”
Once we were in the hallway, and Amaryllis had looked around, she crossed her arms and looked at me. “Quest, companion, or something else?”
“Something else,” I replied. “Mostly it was just us having a good time. But not too long after we got there, the lights flickered out for a bit, someone pressed something against my chest, and I was connected to someone. She -- probably she -- told me that she needed my help and was setting up a dead drop, which I’m going to stop by on our way back to our cabin. If there’s something that needs doing tonight, then I think I’ll probably have to do it alone, or with your help, because Fenn is too far gone. I guess technically I could transfer over my Liar’s Cup tattoo and have her push the alcohol into Val, but at some point alcohol poisoning is probably going to be a factor, if it isn’t already.”
“It is the princess?” asked Amaryllis.
“Looks that way,” I said. “So you were right on that score. But despite talking to her and agreeing to help, I haven’t had any game text at all.”
“And what do you think she wants?” asked Amaryllis.
“If I had to guess, extraction,” I replied. “She didn’t seem happy to be going back to the Boundless Pit, and from everything that I’ve heard of the place, that’s not terribly surprising.”
“And what does rescuing her get us?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “The ire of the tuung and an ally with no political capital? It does seem like a kind of crap trade to me. She said that there would be terms and conditions at the dead drop. Maybe there will be something enticing.”
“Maybe,” said Amaryllis, giving me a dubious look. “Entering into the court politics of an unfamiliar court … but if it’s extraction we’re talking about, creating a princess-in-exile, maybe that could be done without revealing ourselves too much. But then I don’t know what the benefit would be.”
“The tuung don’t seem like they have a very healthy society,” I replied.
Amaryllis made a face. “The supremacy of life.”
“No,” I said. “Not that, that I understand, and to some extent sympathize with.”
“If you die, you want to be sent to the hells?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.
“I -- yes,” I said.
“Gods, why?” asked Amaryllis, backing away slightly.
“I’m more afraid of oblivion than death,” I said. “I think enduring pain and suffering is, ultimately, the correct path no matter what that pain and suffering might be, so long as there’s even the smallest glimmer of hope that things will get better.”
“Oh, you’re hoping that we would do the impossible and save you,” said Amaryllis, seeming relieved.
“No,” I said. “I would be hoping for … I don’t know, something outside what I know to be possible. And I would probably change my mind after a few hours and wish that I had made the other choice, but part of the reason to make decisions ahead of time when you’re not under duress is so you can make those decisions when your brain is functioning properly.”
“I’m --” Amaryllis was staring at me. “I’m not going to promise that I’ll respect your wishes.”
I shrugged. “I’m not a fanatic,” I replied. “I don’t expect my wishes to have much weight after I’m gone. You’d probably keep my soul around in a bottle for a while, trying to figure out how to get me back, which is what I’d want, but if you didn’t figure out a way to get the rebirth ritual to apply to me, and nothing else worked … you’d be left with a choice, and remember this conversation, and maybe you’d do the thing I wanted, rather than what you thought was right.”
“Have you talked about this with anyone else?” asked Amaryllis.
“No,” I replied. “But I might, if it comes up. I know it’s not what your culture has settled on as correct, and I don’t want to get into a big philosophical argument about it either, so … I trust you to keep a level head.”
Amaryllis said nothing for a bit, then opened the door to the room just a crack so she could see inside. “Val and Fenn are both asleep, can we go pick up that dead drop together? Neither is going to be reliable in a fight anyway.”
“Sure,” I said.
Amaryllis locked the door to the room and we went down the train together, with me leading the way. Her full plate armor would be noteworthy, if not outright illegal, but it was night, and almost everyone had already gone to sleep.
“I was saying that the political situation doesn’t seem healthy to me,” I said as we walked, speaking just loud enough to be heard above the noise of the train. “One hundred males to every female, the rule of the many by the few, isolationism, internal conflicts that revolve around their extremist philosophy … I don’t quite have the full picture yet, I don’t think, but in combination with what I learned at the party and read from the books, it seems like the sort of society that a person should, by rights, want to leave, and I don’t want to just say no because it means sticking our necks out a little bit. We’re in a position of power. I’ve become pretty strong. If we can help people, we probably should.”
“One person,” said Amaryllis, shaking her head.
“Sometimes one person needs to lead the charge,” I said.
“Meaning that you want to get imperial attention?” asked Amaryllis.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe. It was something that Arthur used to say.”
“Ah, a lone hero leading the charge,” nodded Amaryllis. We passed through a gangway, momentarily silencing our quiet conversation.
“No,” I said. “It wasn’t really a game thing, he just meant, you know, that someone needed to be the one to actually do things, and if everyone left it to someone else, then it wouldn’t get done. Someone has to be the one to take up the burden, and it’s almost always better if it gets taken up decisively and with great gusto.” He’d hated when people would ask around about whether there was maybe some interest in possibly doing something.
“Assuming that whatever this princess needs from us is actually worth doing, regardless of whether we’re going to be the ones to do it,” said Amaryllis.
We reached the dining car in silence. Most of the lights were off, with the few left on providing only token light to see the tables by, enough illumination for people making their way up or down the train, but not much more. I was being careful as I moved, worried that the dead drop would turn out to be an ambush. I wished that we had Grak with us to check for traps, especially now that he didn’t need the monocle to do it (though he’d said that he was somewhat useless on the train, given the difficulty and expense of creating a ward that was anchored to the train rather than the earth).
I touched the bottom of the second dining table on the right, burning SPD and preparing for an explosion or something worse, but my fingers only ended up touching a paper envelope. I pulled it away from the adhesive, turned it over a few times, then opened it up, bracing for white powder or some exotic Aerbian contact poison. Instead, it was only a letter, which I read after looking around to make sure that no one was watching.
I do not know who you are, only that you booked a seat on this train at the last minute, and that you gave a false name at the party. So far as the tuung security detail can surmise, the only reason that you and the others might have for being on this train is an interest in the affairs of the tuung, and given that you did not report the contact between the two of us, it’s my fervent hope that you’re unaffiliated with any of the internal factions of the Boundless Pit.
My name is Esuen. I am the Emomain’s handmaid, and her second cousin, a minor figure within the politics of the Boundless Pit in my own right. For five years, I studied along Emomain, obtaining my own education at the athenaeum in the hopes of furthering the interests of the tuung. You have certainly heard enough of her frippery that you have formed your own opinions on the princess; know only that we are different people. Where the princess sees the Empire of Common Cause as a decadence and delight, I see it as a lesson in the need for growth on the part of the tuung. I learned enough history to see that those who prosper are those who grow and change. Both growth and change are, I fear, out of the reach of the tuung in their present state.
I wish to leave and make my own life away from the tuung. To that end, I am willing to offer anything possible within my limited power. If your spies don’t already know all of our secrets, I would be willing to spill them. If you need help with making the spirit blades work, I would provide it. I have thirty years of good breeding ahead of me, and with dedicated resources, could produce as many as five hundred thousand young, in whatever ratio of genders you prefer. The catch to all this is that I will act only in the best interests of the tuung. It so happens that what I believe would be the best interests might constitute a betrayal in the eyes of my peers.
I have tipped my hand, at least in part. I need to know more of you, who you represent, what resources are at your disposal, and how much you are willing to spend to have me. I would prefer that Emomain goes unharmed. The male tuung that make up our security detail can be bewitched by my scent, but doing so will have immediate repercussions. If you have a plan, let me know it.
If this dead drop is compromised, place your response beneath the last seat in the observation car. I will expect your reply within twelve hours from the end of the party.