I’ll admit to a bit of panic.

“How serious is this?” I asked.

“Serious enough for the hospital,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was steely calm. “Labor needs to be induced, because it’s been twenty-four hours without it happening on its own, and the baby is going to be preterm, which means she’s likely going to need special care. On Earth, it would be about one in fifty chance of infant mortality, but I think higher on Aerb. In my estimation, this is beyond our capabilities. We’ll be going to the Penndraig Memorial Hospital in Cranberry Bay to get me checked in as quickly as possible.”

“Fuck,” said Fenn. Her eyes were wide.

“I planned for this,” said Amaryllis. “I’m not in any pain. But the amniotic sac is ruptured, none of the methods I’ve tried for inducing labor worked, and we need to go, now.”

“I’m coming with,” said Bethel. As she spoke, the walls began folding away, showing the cavern she’d carved out around us.

“The time chamber,” Amaryllis said. “We may need it to age Solace up.”

“I wasn’t negotiating,” said Bethel. “I suppose we’re going to see what happens when I collapse it down.” Before there could be any further discussion or argument, the back of the time chamber peeled away and the walls began coming down. All around us, the house, which had been reduced to a mere four rooms, was folding in on itself, vanishing until all that was left was a thick wooden staff that Bethel held in one hand. It was long and gnarled, and sitting at the top were tiny windows, with a little door, barely visible.

“No,” groaned Amaryllis. She shook her head. “Please tell me that our years are still there.”

“They are, so far as I can see,” said Bethel. “I should be able to reconstruct it, with the sand magic intact.”

“If not, we can undertake a quest,” I said. I wasn’t sure the lack of quest pop-up was good or bad.

“Our last quest took us nine fucking months,” said Amaryllis.

“Eight, technically,” muttered Fenn.

“We need to get moving,” said Amaryllis. “We’ll deal with the fallout later.” She pulled the teleportation key from a pocket in her dress, and held it out. “Everyone together, I’m very serious that we need to be going.”

I came in close and held onto her hand, then reached out with the other to gingerly touch the dollhouse staff, which was all that was left of the place we’d called Kuum Doona. Around us was the cavern that had held the house during our time in it, the pile of refuse she’d cleared out, a collection of cursed magic items that we were obviously going to go back for later, and everything that had been left in the time chamber when Bethel had removed it. The delivery room we’d spent all that time on was now just a collection of equipment.

I felt a flash of blinding pain at the transition, and as I slowly recovered, I was startled to realize how dark it was. I should have realized though; we’d hijacked the Down and Out just after nightfall, and it was still night, or maybe, technically, early morning.

We had a car in the safehouse garage, which we’d paid for in cash and off the books. None of us had a license that was valid in Cranberry Bay, so that was something of a necessity. I drove, while Amaryllis sat beside me holding her stomach, with Grak and Fenn in the back. Bethel had dropped the illusion entirely, and was present only as a staff, listening in and speaking through her powers from time to time. As I drove, I was painfully aware of the lax safety standards that were endemic to Aerb, even in a relatively modern, civilized place like Cranberry Bay. There were no airbags, no crumple zones, and the glass would cut us to ribbons given the first opportunity. I almost mentioned something about Ralph Nader to the others, but kept my mouth shut and my attention on the road instead. The roads were also more narrow than I was used to, and the car only passingly familiar, and all that aside, it had been a few months since I’d driven a car. I burned SPD as I drove, trying to heighten my reflexes, even though there was practically no one on the road.

In the movies, women were always sweating and yelling on the trip to the hospital, screaming and groaning. I found it unsettling that Amaryllis was staring calmly ahead, not showing any particular reaction to the fact that her water broke. Then again, she also wasn’t in labor, so maybe it didn’t feel like anything much, which was unsettling in its own right.

Penndraig Memorial Hospital was far wider than it was tall, a curved ribbon of building that stretched for three city blocks, with roads cutting tunnels through the building at ground level. We followed the directions that Amaryllis had written out days (months) earlier, and arrived at the emergency entrance not too much longer after we’d left the safehouse. Fenn took the car to find parking, and Grak rode with her, carrying the staff and Ropey; we wanted to present as being as normal as possible, and having the four of us together wouldn’t have been good for that. I wished that I’d had a chance to remove my armor, or maybe not even worn it at all, but I was also worried that I would need it before all was said and done. Amaryllis slipped a ring on my finger, as well as one on her own, just before we went in. Again, the hope was that we’d seem normal.

The night nurse gave my armor a sideways glance but focused her attention on Amaryllis.

“Preterm premature rupture of membranes,” said Amaryllis. “The initial rupture happened twenty-four hours ago, and I’m at thirty-six weeks.”

The night nurse nodded. “No contractions?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “Minimal effacement, no dilation, as observed via speculum.” I tried to keep my face blank at that. I wondered whether she had done the inspection herself, or whether she’d gotten Grak to do it. I did my best not to picture either.

“Okay,” said the nurse. “I’ll get your intake ready, we’ll move you to the maternity ward shortly. Do you have a doctor here?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “We’re from out of town. We didn’t expect the baby to be so early.” She touched her belly and leaned on me for support, which I thought was mostly to sell it.

We were given a clipboard and a form to fill out, while we waited in the lobby, which had a few people and dozens of empty seats. Amaryllis began filling the form out, then swayed slightly in her seat and closed her eyes.

“Here,” I said, taking it from her. “I can do this.”

“Did you memorize the details of my fake identity?” asked Amaryllis, with her eyes still closed.

“No,” I replied. “Not all of them.”

She took the clipboard back and began filling it out in a hurry, ticking off boxes without seeming to look all that closely at what she was doing. When she finished, she leaned back in the chair and pressed her head against the wall. “This is probably in the bottom five percent, by the way,” she said. Critical failure, in other words. “Normally labor starts after the water breaks, and preterm labor alone we might have been able to handle, but without labor that’s too many complications at once. Grak isn’t a doctor, and neither am I.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m glad we didn’t have to drag you here kicking and screaming.”

“Joon, you might be called on to do the full-body swap for her,” said Amaryllis. “And it’s possible you’ll have to do that for me too. Be prepared, and don’t let anyone push you out of the room when we’re getting close. It’s not traditional for fathers to be in there, but you have resources that the hospital won’t. Knowledge, too. And the baby is going to come out with green skin, which is going to raise some questions I might be too exhausted to answer. It might be better to be forthright about that from the start.”

I swallowed. “Why a full-body swap for you?” I asked.

“When you get a chance, look at my soul,” said Amaryllis. “My body’s been going through some changes, you might have noticed, and the soul has only been halfway keeping up. You have the backup for my body, you might have to use it.”

“Okay,” I said. I’d have to sacrifice a skill in order to get Essentialism up, but I was well-prepared to do that. I reached for her hand. “Everything is going to be alright.”

“Sure,” said Amaryllis, but she was probably thinking that I had no way of knowing that. That was certainly what I was thinking. She reached over and slipped her hand into mine, squeezing it tight. “I might need you to protect me, and keep me safe.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Of course.”

Healing was complicated. Magical healing was a mainstay of fantasy, and of tabletop games in particular, but there were always questions you could raise. If you cast ‘cure light wounds’ on yourself every morning, did you look younger after thirty years than someone who hadn’t done that? Did magical healing fix scars? Did it fix congenital abnormalities? How did it decide what was a defect that needed fixing and what was just a peculiarity? Would magical healing fix a bone that had been set incorrectly and healed suboptimally? If building muscle was mostly a matter of repairing micro-tears in muscles, did magical healing make that go a lot faster, or prevent it entirely? Not that I would have ever been enough of a weirdo to include it in a game, but would magical healing repair a ruptured hymen?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I’d played with healing a lot in my time as a DM. There was a villain who ‘healed’ peoples’ mouths closed, the magical healing in Long Stairs would move you closer to an elfin appearance and eventual psychosis, and in Scattered Asches, healing took your memories of the injury too.

On Aerb, there were some pitfalls to magical healing, many of which I’d already had first-hand experience with. Get it? First hand? Because my hand was fucked up for a while? Anyway, there were three primary problems with fairies and PHY-boosting bone magic:

  1. Magic generally didn’t produce more magic, with a few exceptions. If you cut off a finger, it was really hard to find a magic that would regrow those bones (though it was relatively easy to heal a broken bone back together). If you lost blood, you needed a donor, or you needed to replenish it naturally on your own. Skin was a little more permissive than bone or blood, but it was apparently hard to find a magic that would help you recover from flaying. This was because bone, blood, and skin weren’t just physical things, they had latent magic.
  2. Magic had some trouble with diseases, infections, poisons, and other chemical, viral, or bacterial problems. A blood magus could burn out a lot of them, if they were caught early, but there were limits on how much force they could apply to the problem. There were a few methods that could deal with those problems to greater or lesser extents, but generally speaking, you were in a bad way if things had progressed too far. (Unicorn blood wasn't shelf-stable, and had gone bad, but we still had unicorn horn to get around most of these issues, so long as we had the time to crush and powder it, something that couldn't be done ahead of time.)
  3. Magic had a lot of trouble if your soul had problems. Scars persisted through healing when the wounds were bad enough or persisted long enough to feed back into the soul’s conception of the body. On Aerb, ‘phantom limb’ syndrome came from a mismatch of soul and body, but tended to fade with time, as the soul gradually caught up to the reality. Congenital defects tended to persist through healing. So did direct attacks on the soul’s conception of what the body should be. And, if you snipped the bi-directional connection between bones and soul, you would run into some problems in fairly short order, especially if you repeatedly made liberal use of healing magic.

We’d had lots of experience with these limits in one way or another. Fenn had almost died because Solace hadn’t been able to conjure up the power from the locus necessary to refill her with blood. Amaryllis had almost died from rat rot because that had been left to linger for almost two weeks, though that wasn’t entirely our fault, and we hadn’t known how bad it would eventually get. We’d also had more than enough experience with both scars and burnt-through bones. There were ways around the limitations of ‘standard’ healing, some more esoteric than others, but it was the edges where things got worrisome.

The big worry was with that third point. If Solace’s lungs hadn’t developed properly or fully, the magics we had available weren’t likely to help her. We’d asked Bethel’s opinion back at the safehouse, but she wasn’t able to tell one way or another, though she was able to confirm that the baby was, so far as she could tell, either full or half crantek with a steady heartbeat. Amaryllis had looked into Solace’s soul, but we didn’t have the necessary medical expertise to say one way or another, nor did we have the expertise to do any (wildly experimental) modifications to her fetal soul, if we had even been able to diagnose the problem.

“I’m sorry I have to ask this,” said the doctor, “But what species is the baby?”

We were in the maternity ward, with thin fabric separating us from the rest of the place. When Grak got in, I was going to have him put up a ward against sound; we could hear a woman screaming from down the hall, periodic bursts of anguish that were separated by minutes of low moans. It was edging into morning, and I hoped that she would be finished before too long, or at least taken into her own private room.

A nurse had examined Amaryllis, asked questions, and redone the examination. All of their equipment seemed hopelessly outdated to me, but part of that was because Aerb didn’t have access to proper plastics. It made me think back to visiting Arthur in the hospital, and all of the plastic tubes and crinkling, throwaway packaging on all the medical supplies on the wall. On Aerb, they used rubber where they could, and there was more made of wood or metal than on Earth. It didn’t feel like a safe, sterile, well-lit environment. Not that it had done Arthur a whole lot of good.

“I don’t know the species,” said Amaryllis. I saw the muscles of her jaw go tight after she finished speaking.

“I see,” said the doctor with a nod, as though he heard that sort of reply fairly often. He was abnormally tall, and though I had a decent handle on the different species of Aerb, I thought he was probably a hybrid that I didn’t recognize. His teeth were a burgundy red, as was the skin around his mouth, which I found particularly hideous, but other than that, he was a pretty normal-looking guy, with a white coat and a stethoscope around his neck, and thinning black hair. He’d given his name as Nonnatus, but I wasn’t sure whether that was his first name or his last. I was also pretty sure that it meant something in Latin, but not sure what. (Latin didn’t exist on Aerb; Anglish had a different precursor language instead that gave rise to some of the same structures and etymologies.) “I don’t mean to press the point, but would it be possible for you to narrow it down? It’s important so we can be sure we don’t give you any medications that might negatively impact the baby.”

“Taxonomic contraindications are rare,” said Amaryllis, frowning somewhat. She was about to launch into something but stopped herself. “She’s either crantek or human, I think, but there’s a possibility that she’s something else. And … she might not be hybridized.”

Nonnatus stared at Amaryllis for a long moment. “I see,” he repeated.

“It’s been an interesting pregnancy,” I said. I felt like Fenn, trying to add in some levity and seeing it fall flat.

“You said it was important to know,” said Amaryllis. “I’m telling you that there are things I don’t know.” I could see her chew the inside of her cheek for a bit. “The pregnancy is a result of complex and highly advanced magics that we didn’t and don’t understand.”

The doctor looked at Amaryllis, then at me, then down at Amaryllis' belly.

“We’re covered by doctor-patient confidentiality,” said Amaryllis. “It may be important for you to know, I’m being forthright, do what you need to do in order to save my baby’s life, even if it’s at the expense of my own.” That set my heart racing. I was almost certain that it wouldn’t come to that, but feared that it might.

The doctor frowned slightly, then nodded. “We’re going to try a few methods of inducing labor, and if they don’t work, we’ll proceed from there. Okay?”

Amaryllis nodded, and not much later, the doctor left. Another scream came from down the ward.

“I don’t know if it was smart to tell him that much,” said Amaryllis. Her hands rested on her belly.

“Is that really what you’re worried about right now?” I asked.

“I’m worried about a lot of things,” said Amaryllis. “Primarily, I’m worried about the baby, and going into labor as soon as possible. There are two primary approaches here, stalling out and rushing ahead, both with their own risks, and we don’t have the necessary medical expertise to do either on our own. I’ve already tried as much as I dare to. But I also know a lot more about Earth’s procedures than Aerb’s, and I worry that Aerb’s approaches are worse.”

“Well, you’re taking this well,” I said.

“I’m really, really not,” said Amaryllis. She rubbed her belly. “The thought of nine months -- eight months in that chamber coming to nothing, of my baby dying after everything we’ve been through ...” She shook her head and let out a seething sigh. “I honestly think that I should stop thinking about it, because it makes me so fucking angry and sad to imagine it. Maybe I’d be fine with it if I thought that it was just random chance, but it’s not, is it? It’s the fucking Dungeon Master and his fucking narrative.”

“Yeah,” I said. Probably, maybe. Certainly within his power to have stopped it. But it’s also possible that somewhere deep within the game mechanics is a chart you roll on to determine the outcomes of a pregnancy, or that we’re in a subgame, or that this was a natural complication of a complex and arcane ritual that I only sort of understood while I was helping to cast it. Or just chance.

My anger had faded a bit, over two months in the chamber, partly because I’d written out some of my feelings in letters to Fenn, and partly because we’d gone that long without anything really bad happening. All the shit that I’d gone through on Aerb was some distance behind me, and no, that didn’t logically excuse the Dungeon Master from being a grossly negligent god … but on a purely emotional level, it took some of the sting from it.

“I’m really hoping that this isn’t the most dramatic birth of all time,” said Amaryllis. “But I knew that was a possibility when I agreed to it. I had foolishly hoped that pushing a child out of me would be interesting enough on its own.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. She’d been the one to take on the burden, but while Fenn had privately expressed feeling somewhat less sympathetic because of that, it wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t know that I’d have chosen to become pregnant in Amaryllis’ shoes, not to save Solace’s life, nor that of the locus. Maybe I would have, but I would have had a lot of selfish thoughts first. In my eyes, Amaryllis was suffering by virtue of being a better person than I was. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

“Fight off the ninjas when they show up,” said Amaryllis with a mirthless laugh.

“I’m serious,” I said. (There weren’t any ninjas on Aerb, or if there were, they were really good at staying hidden.)

“Okay,” said Amaryllis. “Then I’d like you to burn some bones. Wisdom is the ability to withstand mental stress, right?”

“Huh,” I said. “Yeah.” I came forward and laid a hand on her shoulder, tentatively letting my fingers touch her skin, then began burning through the bones of my hand. I was thankful that I had a renewable source of bone magic, and that it was discreet.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis as the magic started its work. “I should have had you do this while we were in the chamber.”

“Takes some focus,” I said. It was hard to use on myself, since it took enough mental effort and split focus that it was difficult (though not impossible) to use it to accomplish anything.

“Ow,” said Amaryllis, leaning forward slightly and wincing.

“Are you okay?” I asked, stopping the magic. I wasn’t sure how someone could be hurt by having Wisdom channeled into them, but --

“She kicked,” said Amaryllis. She smiled slightly. “That’s the first time.” She winced again. “Ow. Not really very pleasant though.”

“Good sign,” I said.

“Yeah,” said Amaryllis. “I wish Grak would get here.”

It wasn’t too long afterward that Fenn and Grak showed up; the screaming from down the ward had, mercifully, stopped.

“Where are all the doctors?” asked Fenn when she came in. “Also, why don’t you have a private room? What’s the point in having millions of obols if you can’t buy a doctor?”

“They don’t have private rooms for birth, not unless it’s far enough along,” said Amaryllis. “Labor can take hours, most of it not all that exciting. The doctor came and went. We’re waiting, though I don’t know for what.”

I looked Grak over. I hadn’t noticed it before, but he was in Earth clothes, rather than his normal, more traditionally dwarvish outfit. He still had his braids dyed the color of lead, but he was wearing a buttoned-down shirt and jeans. I had no idea how I had missed it, but I must have been just that focused on Amaryllis.

“I am here for you,” said Grak. He reached forward and Amaryllis took his good hand, squeezing it lightly.

“Probably not much room for your expertise,” said Amaryllis. “I know you put in a lot of time on the training and education, but this is too far into the danger zone.”

“I am still here for you,” said Grak.

“I am too,” said Fenn. “But I long ago consigned myself to not being much help.”

The doctor returned, parting the curtain and giving us a bit of time to register his presence before he came in. He glanced at Fenn and Grak, then down at Grak’s prosthetic, then over at me and Amaryllis.

“I’d like a bit of privacy with the patient,” said the doctor.

“I’m the midwife,” said Grak.

The doctor looks down at Grak’s prosthetic again and frowned slightly. “I see,” he said. He had a great deadpan, though that wasn’t really something that I thought you wanted in a doctor. He looked at Fenn, hesitating.

“Just a friend,” said Fenn with a smile. “But I was there when the baby was conceived, and I’m not going to duck out until labor starts.”

“Very well,” said the doctor. He turned to Amaryllis and cleared his throat. “It’s been twenty-six hours since your water broke, and you show almost no signs of going into labor. Unfortunately, the baby will be preterm, at least by your accounting. We have two options at this point. Our first option is to give you as much time as possible, in the hopes that any remaining development can take place. This comes with some risks, notably infection, which a blood mage should be able to help you fight off if we catch it. However, there are some risks to the infant as well, since it too will be exposed to infection risk, and that’s much, much harder to treat.”

“And the second option is inducing labor,” said Amaryllis.

“Yes,” nodded the doctor. “Depending on how premature the infant actually is, there will be some risks to it, especially if it’s underdeveloped. In the worst case, we’ll use the Nufer method, but that’s not preferred. Induction of labor is my recommendation.” (The Nufer method was what they called a Caesarean section, because Aerb didn’t have a Caesar.)

“Okay, yes,” said Amaryllis. “Do it.”

“Good,” said the doctor, seeming pleased. “Now, there are a number of natural methods --”

“Assume I already tried them all,” said Amaryllis.

The doctor stared at her for a moment, then nodded. “Have you self-medicated?”

Amaryllis hesitated. “Yes,” she said. “But I don’t know the name it would go by in this hospital.” Again there was a twitch of her jaw muscles. “I took a prostaglandin suppository sixteen hours ago, the equivalent to roughly one fortieth of a grain. So far it’s shown no effect.”

The doctor stared at her, pursing his burgundy lips. “I see,” he said. “And have you tried manual dilation on yourself?”

“No,” said Amaryllis. “With the infection risk, I didn’t think it prudent.”

The doctor nodded. “I find myself in agreement,” he said. “I’ll be back shortly with a nurse, and we can perform the procedure. I should warn you that it can be quite uncomfortable.” He looked at the rest of us. “Your husband can stay, the rest will have to leave.”

“I am her midwife,” Grak repeated, folding his arms across his chest, which really just made his prosthetic more visible.

“It’s fine,” said Amaryllis. “It should be simple enough, and they have considerably more practical training.”

That put a sour look on Grak’s face, but he nodded and left, with Fenn following close behind him. The doctor left too, presumably to get a nurse to assist him, along with the necessary equipment.

“Do you want me to stay?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” said Amaryllis. “Stay close, but you don’t need to watch them stick a catheter in my cervix, no.”

I stepped out from behind the curtain and found myself next to Fenn, who was chewing the nail of one finger down to the quick.

“How’s married life?” she asked.

“Fine,” I said. “I’m not really sure that deception was necessary.”

“You want to look normal,” said Fenn with a shrug. “Grak and I aren’t normal, better for us to stay back, I get it. Mary was pretty keyed up on the idea of us not fucking things up, which I get. I should probably make myself scarce, actually, at least for the time being.”

“Sorry,” I said.

“Didn’t mean to sound put out,” said Fenn. “Human births are grotesque. I really don’t want to see her split open. Better to just have it all happen where it’s out of my sight.”

“I can hear you,” said Amaryllis from behind the sheet.

“I love you, Mary,” called Fenn. She smiled at me. “I knew she could hear.” She stepped close to me and gave me a very chaste peck on the cheek. “I’m going to catch some sleep on a couch somewhere, Grak thinks this will probably take a while before it goes anywhere interesting.”

“Didn’t you just wake up?” I asked.

“Eh, I can always go for a nap,” said Fenn.

The doctor and nurse came, and I waited outside the sheet of cloth. In retrospect, maybe I should have stayed in there, if not for my own sake, then because listening to the whole thing without being able to see was nerve-wracking, especially hearing little sounds of pain or discomfort from Amaryllis. Some time passed as this went on. I took a few minutes to dip into my soul and replenish my bones, in case I wouldn’t have time to do it later. I wondered idly to myself whether I should go in and try to burn bones for Wisdom again, to help her out with, at the least, the mental side of things. I touched the wedding ring I was wearing and thought about what it would feel like to be doing this for real. Fenn had seemed to indicate that pregnancy for an elf was, comparatively, easy street, and not too much harder for a half-elf. Not that it would be her, necessarily, but that was where my mind was at.

A little boy in a suit came up to me, and it took me a bit to notice that he wasn’t a little boy at all, but a gnome. He was three feet tall, clean-shaven, except for his enormous mutton-chops. I had seen a few gnomes and hobbits on Aerb, but only in passing. As a gnome, his head, hands, and feet were disproportionately large, making him look older, rather than childlike. He didn’t have any wrinkles though, and his hair was black as night. I wasn’t about to venture a guess as to his age, but he seemed on the young side, and not because of the height.

“Can I ask you some questions?” he asked. His voice was high, but not very childish; he enunciated well.

“Uh,” I said. “My wife is having some difficulties, I don’t really have the time, sorry.”

The gnome nodded, then reached into his suit. He pulled out a badge that must have had some kind of magic on it, because the sight of it hit me like a brick and caused my eyes to lock focus on it.

“My name is Figaro Finch,” he said. “I’m an agent of the Uniquities Division of Imperial Affairs.” He put the badge away, and my mind momentarily went to mush before springing back. “I’d like to talk.”

“If this is about that joke my wife made, she’s got a very offbeat sense of humor,” I said. Jesus Christ with half Amaryllis’ ability to lie, that’s the best I could come up with? “She’s a little bit neurotic, especially with the baby on the way, and I don’t want to get into our personal history, but …” I trailed off. He was completely stonefaced. I’d been about to tell him that she had cheated on me with a crantek man, but I wasn’t sure that I would share that with a stranger, if it were really what had happened. I also had no real idea who he was or why the hells he was here. One of the classic interrogation techniques was to stay silent and let the subject talk themselves into a corner. I’d done that more than once as a DM. “Why don’t you tell me what this is about.”

“There have been a series of incidents,” replied Finch. “I was hoping that you could shed some light on them.”

“Oh?” I asked. Shit.

“Does the name Larkspur Prentiss ring a bell?” asked Finch.

Shit shit. “He was Anglecynn’s Foreign Security Director,” I said. “We’re from there, or were, a long time ago. I seem to remember reading something about him in the papers, but I can’t remember what.”

“How about the name Esuen Tsa?” asked Finch.

Shit shit shit. “That one is less familiar,” I replied. I looked back to the curtain. “Look, my wife is having complications with her pregnancy, so you can either explain what’s going on, or leave me alone until a better time. I can give you the address of the place we’re staying in Cranberry Bay, hopefully in a few days we’ll be back home with our baby, and I can talk then.”

“Just one last name,” said Finch. His large eyes were watching me closely. “Amaryllis Penndraig.”

“Princess of Anglecynn,” I said, nodding and trying not to show a single hint of nerves or my racing heart. “But I don’t have any idea where you’re going with this.”

Finch pointed at the curtain behind me. “In there, is that Amaryllis Penndraig?”

“My wife?” I asked. I gave a little incredulous laugh, and was surprised that it sounded more or less convincing. “I could only dream of being married to Amaryllis Penndraig. Is that what this is about? That my wife looks a bit like her? Because other than the red hair,” which she hadn’t had a chance to dye, “I really don’t see it.”

“I’ll need to see her,” said Finch.

“Absolutely not,” said Nonnatus, who came out from behind the curtain to join me. “My patient is in considerable distress, and could hear enough of the conversation that she was growing worried. Whatever business the Empire has here, it can wait a few days. She will only be moved from this hospital under extreme circumstances, and then only with my express consent.”

I felt a sudden surge of affection for the doctor.

He turned to me. “We’ll be moving her to a private room, given the complications. I can speak with you about it privately later, but she’s requested you.” He looked at Finch. “I’m familiar with the authority you claim, but unless I have express written instruction from the hospital director, you’re not going to so much as see my patient until after I’ve delivered her child.”

Finch frowned slightly and gave a curt nod before stepping away. I held in a sigh of relief; whatever he wanted with us (probably an arrest), he didn’t have enough evidence or capital to push past a doctor and cause an incident. That made me pretty hopeful. I ducked in to see Amaryllis.

“Hey,” I said. She was laying back in the bed, with her feet slightly propped up.

“Hey,” she replied. She tried nodding, but it was more a loll of her head. “Labor’s started, so that’s good news.”

“Good,” I said.

“Might have been the prostaglandin, which would be ironic,” said Amaryllis. “How are things out there?”

“I met a guy who thinks you’re a princess of Anglecynn,” I said. “He had some other questions, but they didn’t make a lot of sense to me.”

“I heard some of it,” said Amaryllis. “Sorry, my focus was elsewhere.”

“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’m sure it’s a simple misunderstanding, you focus on the baby, I’ll deal with clearing up any misunderstanding.”

“I heard the word ‘Uniquities’,” said Amaryllis. “Not my favorite people.”

“You have experience?” I asked. “I never knew.” The name was familiar, from some long ago briefing, but nothing much that stuck.

“Remind me to tell you about it sometime,” said Amaryllis. “Not now.” She winced slightly and hunched forward a bit, then laid back down. “That was a contraction,” she said with a faint smile. “A weak one, but it was there. I almost feel like we could have handled this at home.”

“If she’s early, there might be problems,” I said. “I’m glad we came.”

“Can I tell you something?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sure,” I said.

“I’m kind of glad there was a mix-up with Uniquities,” she said. “It means that there’s something else interesting going on.”

“Yeah,” I said.

She was talking about the narrative, not about actual outcomes; Finch showing up meant that we had other problems to worry about. I had, for the most part, abandoned any belief in the narrative, partly because of what I’d talked about with the Dungeon Master, and partly because I felt like that was no way to live my life. But even if I believed the narrative was in full effect here, I wasn’t sure that I would have agreed that meant labor would go well. If I had been writing it … well, it was hard in tabletop games, really hard, but parallel plotlines were a thing, and you could set up one to succeed and the other to fail.

If I believed, wholeheartedly, that the Dungeon Master was invested in narrative, I might have tried to tank things with Finch in some subtle way, letting myself get caught up in the anxiety the birth was provoking in me, or tapping into a well of anger. Failing with Finch ought to mean that the birth would succeed -- at least, that’s how I thought about narrative, a balance of failure and success to make the success bittersweet.

I wasn’t going to do that though. If I was going to reject narrative, I was going to do it with all my heart. I kept thinking that Arthur must not have, that he’d let himself get wrapped up in it. If he made his choices based on what he thought the story wanted, it would explain so much about his failures over the years; they would make sense as sacrifice to the greater good, maybe.

“I should go find him,” I said. “I should explain things.”

“You already explained it was all a mistake,” said Amaryllis.

“Yes,” I said. “But … he had more to say, dots he was trying to connect, not for my sake, but for his own.”

Amaryllis reached forward and slipped her hand into mine. “I trust you,” she said. She squeezed my hand hard -- she had incredible grip strength from all that rock climbing. “If you miss the birth of our child, you had better have a very good reason.”

“I -- okay,” I said. I wanted to protest that it wasn’t our child, but it kind of was.

I stayed with her, holding her hand through the contractions, until we moved to a private room. I did get an answer to why that screaming woman was in the ward with us; her labor had gone a lot faster than expected, and there wasn’t any time to move her. The private room was, in some ways, worrying; they were moving us because they might need a lot of space, or because things might get dicey in a hurry. I was mildly surprised that we didn’t have a nurse in with us, but Amaryllis explained that was more or less how it was on Earth too, at least until the contractions started coming closer together.

It wasn’t until we were alone in that room that Fenn slipped in. “Hey,” she said to both of us. “Going well?”

“Progressing,” said Amaryllis. She was a touch pale, but when I’d asked the nurse, she’d said that was normal.

“Good, good,” said Fenn. “Hey, who’s that fucking guy out there?”

“Gnome in a suit?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Fenn. “He’s been stalking the halls and twigging my luck sense. I keep avoiding him. I stuffed Grak in a closet, because it’s hard to maneuver with two people.”

“But you didn’t literally stuff him in a closet, right?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” said Fenn. She unslung the house-staff from her back and rested it against one wall. Ropey had been providing the strap, and was wrapped around the staff with elaborate knotwork that struck me as a little bit too intimate. I was used to his knots being economical.

Bethel appeared, standing next to the staff. Her chosen form seemed enormous in the hospital room, even though it had high ceilings. I noted that her hand rested on Ropey, rather than on the staff.

“Bring me closer,” she said.

Fenn rolled her eyes, but complied all the same, lifting the staff up and letting the head of it hover over Amaryllis’ belly.

“Progress,” said Bethel with a nod. “She is more animated than last night. You have moved closer to the birth.”

“Her?” asked Amaryllis.

“Her,” said Bethel, nodding slightly. “You had some doubt about that?”

Amaryllis nodded slightly. “I didn’t think to ask, earlier. It’s not important, really, but if we’d had an ultrasound or MRI we would ha-ahh,” the word was cut off with a gasp as another contraction came. We stayed silent until it had passed.

“Time?” she asked, breathing a bit hard.

“Ten minutes apart,” I said.

“What is an emereye?” asked Bethel with a frown.

“Equipment from Earth, too complicated for us to grab,” said Amaryllis. “Magnetic resonance imaging. It’s a way to see inside of people.”

“I can see inside you,” said Bethel. Fenn was still holding the staff over Amaryllis’ belly, resting it on the rail of the bed, while Bethel stood to one side. “My range is diminished with the material part of me so small, but there is less for me to think about when I’m this size. Less calling on my attention.” She held out a hand above Amaryllis stomach, palm up, and an image appeared there.

It was a fetus, curled up in a ball with an umbilical cord coming out of it, and around it, the amniotic sac, rendered nearly transparent for us. As I watched, it -- she, Solace -- moved slightly. I looked over at Amaryllis, who was staring at the image with wide eyes.

“You can do real-time false-color imaging of a person’s interior,” said Amaryllis. And here I was ready to mistake that look for a mother seeing her baby for the first time.

It seemed like actual, proper magic to me. Sure, rationally I knew that it was just a combination of abilities that I’d already more or less known Bethel had, but it was still really impressive, and not just in the way that it was overpowered, but also because there was an unexpected majesty to it. Bethel was a showman (showwoman? showhouse?), I’d already figured that out, but that didn’t make it any less impressive.

The doctor, Nonnatus, came into our room and stared at the scene in front of him. Fenn slowly pulled the head of the staff away from Mary’s stomach, but apparently Bethel still had some range, because she stayed where she was, holding the illusion of Solace. The look on Bethel’s face communicated something to the effect of, ‘yes, what do you want?’.

“How is it done?” asked Nonnatus, stepping forward and looking at the fetus.

“Entad,” said Amaryllis.

From the corner of my eye, I saw Fenn covering her mouth with her hand, hiding a smile.

“I see,” said the doctor, frowning slightly. “I could have saved dozens if not hundreds of lives if I could see like this. If it could be used by the entire hospital --”

“It cannot,” said Bethel.

Nonnatus turned to me. “Clive, the man from earlier has managed to sway the head of hospital. You can wait until after I’ve checked up on your wife, if you’d like, but the man from Uniquities has demanded a meeting with you, and while I’m in a position to shield your wife, I was not able to shield you. You are expected in room 203b.”

“Shit,” I said. I looked at Amaryllis.

“Go,” she said. “I’ll be fine. But come back soon.”

I nodded at that, hoping that I would be able to.

“Need company?” asked Fenn.

“Do you think it goes better if you’re with me?” I asked.

“No,” said Fenn. “Not even a slim chance it goes better.”

“I’ll just go convince him that this is all a big misunderstanding,” I said. “Easy.”

I sat across from Figaro Finch in a small meeting room. He had a serious expression on his face, a notebook and pen in front of him, a folder to one side (whose contents I was very eager to see), and to my surprise, a thing that looked like a record player, which I was fairly certain was going to be recording our conversation onto wax. He sat in a booster seat, though they had a different name on Aerb that I didn’t quite remember.

“So,” he said. “Name?”

“Clive Horsewhistler,” I said. I wanted to ask how long this was going to take, but I didn’t want to be a hostile interview subject, not right off the bat, and not if Finch had connected the dots.

“And is horse whistling your occupation?” asked Finch.

“No,” I said. “I’m between jobs at the moment.”

“And where are you from, Clive Horsewhistler?” asked Finch.

“Anglecynn,” I said. “Specifically, a small town called Consort.” I’d picked it from a map; it was close to the place this body had come from, as seen on the teleportation key.

We had a problem. I had papers for Clive Horsewhistler, which I’d used to get on the train, but Fenn didn’t think they’d stand up to much scrutiny, and if Finch knew that Clive Horsewhistler had been aboard the Lion’s Tail, then he’d know that I shouldn’t have been in Cranberry Bay. Since he was asking about Esuen, I thought it pretty likely he knew I was lying.

“You have a different last name from your wife,” said Finch.

“We’re not technically married,” I said. “We were waiting until we had some money, and then … the baby came along.”

“Unfortunate how that sometimes happens, isn’t it?” asked Finch. “Your fiance, she’s from Anglecynn too?”

“Yes,” I said. “From Caledwich.”

“From her intake form, she’s very close in age to Princess Amaryllis Penndraig,” said Finch.

“You looked at her intake form?” I asked, eyes narrowed. “I wasn’t under the impression that was allowed.”

“The situation was deemed unique,” said Finch.

“I suppose that’s how Uniquities gets away with things,” I said, mouth in a thin line.

Finch pursed his lips, then began taking papers out of the folder. I was sort of dreading this. “Last month, a man matching your description got in an altercation with Prince Larkspur Prentiss, who was, at the time, Foreign Security Director of Anglecynn,” said Finch. “This happened in Cranberry Bay, at the Athenaeum. That was when I was called in. As you know, the Kingdom of Anglecynn is quite some distance from the Monarchical Democracy of Esplandian, and as you might imagine, the altercation raised some eyebrows. I use that word, altercation, because it’s unclear whether it was a direct assault on the FSD, or whether it was in some way provoked. There are discrepancies in the eyewitness accounts.” He slid a picture over to me.

It was black and white, with some horrible graininess to it. Photography wasn’t a new science on Aerb, but it was one of the places they were far behind Earth, as was the case with chemistry in general, probably because there was so much magic screwing things up. The picture wasn’t of me; it was a human woman with an elaborate bun and gray robe I thought was probably some shade of off-white. She looked a bit familiar, but I couldn’t place her. I looked up at Finch.

“You don’t recognize her?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “Should I?”

“Her name is Clarabell Brown,” said Finch. “She’s a student at Bone and Flesh who does work study in Coeus Hall. She was there when the altercation happened, and had some interaction with both Prentiss and the mystery assailant, who she insisted was only looking for information on something called ‘rat rot’, supposedly contracted in the Risen Lands. The Risen Lands, where Amaryllis Penndraig had been ceremoniously dropped weeks earlier.”

“Okay,” I said, shrugging. I remembered now, and did my best to keep it from showing on my face. “And?”

“The man this eyewitness met matches your description,” said Finch.

“I’m sure there are hundreds if not thousands of people in Cranberry Bay that match my description,” I said.

“There was another altercation in Boastre Vino,” said Finch. “Again, the Foreign Security Director of Anglecynn was involved, and again, I was called in, given the unique situation and my previous dealing with him in Cranberry Bay. I had many questions for him, you understand. He stonewalled me, then said that we would talk after his business was concluded. I busied myself gathering eyewitness accounts, thinking that I would apply some pressure later. The next day, in the morning, he teleported in a number of helicopters from Anglecynn, along with a large number of men who came through the touchstones, and …” He’d had his hands pressed together and then opened them wide, questioning.

“And?” I asked.

“There were no survivors,” said Finch. “We don’t actually know what happened. The initial altercation in Boastre Vino was between Larkspur Prentiss, with two of his most trusted lieutenants, and another party having four members. One of them, I now believe, was Amaryllis Penndraig. Another, again, matches your description.”

“Okay,” I said slowly. “And you think that … what, I killed Larkspur Prentiss?”

“Someone did,” said Finch. “The official story is that he was flying helicopters without a submitted and verified flight plan, and was subsequently attacked and killed by a dragon. The site of the accident was only briefly under the control of the city of Boastre Vino before being taken over by Anglecynn’s Major Accidents Department through a combination of legalistic and political chicanery. According to some private, off-the-record conversations with the initial officers on the scene, it appears to have been a full-on war. Not only were there no survivors, there were no bodies. I’ll spare you the details, because I’m fairly sure that you already know them, and far more intimately than I do.”

I stayed silent. I was wondering just how much of our history he was aware of. I was getting flashbacks to sitting with the Abswifth back in Parsmont, but this was so much worse.

Finch let me stew in the silence for a moment, maybe hoping that I would say something, before he moved on. “I was given leeway by Uniquities to investigate the matter further,” he said. “I spoke with law enforcement in Cranberry Bay and Boastre Vino, sent letters of inquiry to places Larkspur Prentiss was known to have visited in the days before his assumed death, interviewed eyewitnesses looking for some kind of angle, and even went so far as making a trip to Anglecynn to speak with his wife, Hyacinth.”

I felt like I was being too silent. If I was really Clive Horsewhistler, would I be sitting there trying to take everything in so I could figure out the angle he was working?

“I got bites,” said Finch. “Everything the least bit unusual crossed my desk, and while most of it was idle rumor, some of it was worth tracking down.” He smiled at me. He had small teeth. Not just because he had a small head, but proportionately, his teeth were small. “A human man and half-elf woman matching the descriptions of the two seen fighting Larkspur in Boastre Vino had, apparently, sold a unicorn at the meat market. Do you know how many unicorns are killed in a given year?”

“I don’t know the first thing about them,” I said.

Finch laughed, probably in disbelief, maybe trying to provoke me. “On average, about one every five years,” said Finch. “Usually it’s an elf that does it, since they have some kind of cultural connection to the creatures, but these two people walked in off the street and brought thousands of pounds of the creature out from extradimensional storage with no forewarning. That’s not something a professional hunter would do.”

“Okay,” I said. I rubbed my forehead a bit, trying to think of how Clive would react. “So you’re saying … what are you saying?”

“It’s another point of connection,” said Finch. “A man comes into Coeus Hall looking for information on a disease contracted in the Risen Lands, and gets in a fight with Larkspur Prentiss. A few days later, that same man is selling unicorn parts in Boastre Vino, and gets in another fight with Larkspur Prentiss later that evening. It doesn’t take a genius to know why a man with a serious, unknown disease would want to kill a unicorn. The real question is how the fuck he managed that. Do you understand?”

I nodded.

“I don’t think you do understand,” said Finch. He leaned back in his chair. “You don’t look like a man who understands.”

“No, I understand,” I said. “I just don’t know what it has to do with me.”

“There was another incident brought to the attention of Uniquities late last night,” said Finch. “A female tuung was pulled from a moving train. One of the guards was thrown off the train, the other woke up with a hangover, and a third is still missing. The tuung tried to keep this quiet, since they’d lost one of their prize females and didn’t know who had her, but they reversed course when a flying ship they authorized to descend into the Boundless Pit was hijacked and a hundred of their soldiers were murdered trying to get it back.”

“I … see,” I said. “But that was last night, and the Boundless Pit is what, four days away by train? You’re saying -- can’t you just check the logs to see who teleported where? That should clear me.” The logging was one of the reasons we weren’t going to be using the teleportation network anytime soon. Standards were a lot higher, when you were dealing with something so valuable. It was like the difference in scrutiny between driving across state lines and flying across state lines.

“The logs are clean as a whistle,” said Finch. He was staring hard at me. “Not just in Headwater, but in Boastre Vino and Cranberry Bay too. There’s not even a trace. If it was Amaryllis Penndraig, that’s no real surprise. There’s more than enough magic attached to her bloodline, and she’s had a month or so to go around reclaiming it. Anglecynn doesn’t require members of the Court to register their entads, but my guess is she’s got something in there, some way of moving around.”

“I’m confused,” I said. “All this is … it’s something. But what brought you to this hospital? How does this connect to me and my wife?”

“Back when I thought it was just a man looking to cure a disease, I thought maybe he’d end up at the hospital, and if by some outside chance the princess was involved, maybe her too,” said Finch. “I put out feelers, stopped by to talk to the nurses, especially the ones at intake, and I let them know that if they saw anything out of the ordinary -- uniquities, you might say -- they should send me a letter, long-distance, at my expense. I gave a sketch of the man and the half-elf, and a photo of the princess. I got a fair number of them, starting out, but nothing really worthwhile, just entads gone wrong or rare species hybrids. Eventually the letters dried up. But then, this morning, when I was in Headwater with my men following up on what had happened on the Lion’s Tail and The Down and Out, I got another letter forwarded from a night nurse, saying that a young couple had come in late in the night. The girl was the spitting image of Amaryllis Penndraig. The girl’s supposed husband was a taller human, blue eyes and brown hair, handsome and muscular, wearing blue armor.” Finch sat back in his seat. “Blue armor that you’re wearing now, which matched the description given to me by the tuung guard I had interviewed not thirty minutes before.”

“Alright,” I said. “So a nosy nurse violates patient privacy, hoping for a reward? What do I need to do to prove that I’m not this guy?”

“Are you really going to keep this up?” asked Finch. “Four tourists went aboard the Down and Out, two humans, a dwarf, and a half-elf. You and your wife have received two visitors, one dwarf, one half-elf, who I’m going to have some questions for too. I’m fairly certain that I can place all four of you on the train, at a party thrown by the Princess Emomain before the kidnapping of her handmaid.”

“Am I under arrest?” I asked. “And if so, what for?”

“Arrest?” asked Finch, raising an eyebrow. “This isn’t that sort of situation. You’re guilty of crimes, certainly, but most of them are against Larkspur Prentiss. From where I’m standing, all the evidence points to him acting in naked aggression against you and paying the price for it. Set your dealings with him aside, and we’re in murky water. Nothing that looks good for you, but also not anything beyond my ability to protect you from, so long as you have the two things my superiors think you have.”

I swallowed at that. “And those are?” I asked.

Finch held up a finger. “The first is Amaryllis Penndraig, part of the ongoing war for the soul of Anglecynn, one that the empire is losing, badly,” said Finch. He held up a second finger. “The second is Esuen, the female tuung.”

“And if I don’t have those things?” I asked.

“It gets complicated,” said Finch. He was watching me closely. “I have you dead to rights, and all I need is cooperation. I like dealing in carrots, not sticks.”

“But you do have sticks,” I said. “And you thought it best to present your sticks first.”

Finch gave me a nod. He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a pocketwatch, which he looked at with a faint smile. “You should know that we were able to find the hotel you checked in at. We know about your fifth member. Before I left to come find you, I put my second-in-command in charge of securing her, which should be done by now.”



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Alexander Wales


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