I opened Bethel’s front door slowly and looked out at Raven with a raised eyebrow. She was dressed in black from head to toe, a concealing outfit that went so far as to keep her neck covered. Her hair was the same way Maddie had usually worn hers, bangs cut to just above her eyes, with the rest of her hair falling down to her shoulders. Raven looked a bit older than Maddie, which made some sense given their relative ages; Raven was 1700 years old, which translated to seventeen years old. When I’d left Earth, Maddie had been fifteen. They still looked the same, which wasn’t a surprise.
“Can I help you?” I asked.
She held out her hand. “Brayda Beaman,” she replied. “I’m looking for the Advisor on Industry? I was told by those down in the village that the Council of Arches resides in this building.” She gestured toward the collection of houses down the hill from us, where everyone outside the group lived. Aerb had a lot in the way of quickly made buildings, whether that was the cobblestone houses you could create via tattoo, or structures put up by steel mages. It was an architectural mishmash laid out according to as much of future-proofed design as Amaryllis’ skill as an urban planner would allow.
“Come in, please,” I said, gesturing inside the house. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”
She followed me in, stepping more firmly into Bethel’s domain.
(Bethel had already gotten a look at Raven so invasive that it would have made the TSA blush. Raven was wearing eight entads, six that were deemed harmless or defensive and two weapons. Her blood pressure and flow was normal, indicating that it was unlikely she was a skilled blood mage. She had magical tattoos, but they were primarily utility oriented, including a small suite of extremely expensive (and obscure) translation tattoos. Bethel had read every piece of paper that Raven was carrying on her, including her forged travel documents and credentials in the name of Brayda Beaman, as well as the second and third set of documents hidden on her person for two other identities. In Bethel’s words, she could have described the taste of Raven’s nasal cavity; we were mostly concerned about the entads and any black swans, but Bethel had assured me that if Raven so much as looked at me wrong, she would be deprived of her life in as brutal a fashion as possible. Bethel was also silently and invisibly moving wards around us to ensure that we were breathing different air supplies.)
“Can I ask what this is regarding?” I asked. “The Advisor of Industry puts in some long hours, and I would rather not bother her if at all possible. Even some background information might be helpful in making sure we don’t impact her time too negatively.”
I wasn’t the ideal person for this job. The problem was, Amaryllis apparently looked enough like Dahlia Penndraig that people would stop and remark on it, which was something that Raven was sure to either note or remark on. Amaryllis’ identity was an open secret, one that was going to hit the wider world sooner than later, but there was no need to reveal it now, especially not when we weren’t sure why Raven was actually here. Beyond that, we thought I had better odds of survivability in case of a surprise attack. There was another reason too; we knew what papers she was carrying in her satchel.
“I’m sorry,” said Raven as she took her seat. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Simon Trent,” I said. “I’m the Advisor’s secretary. Sorry about this impromptu pre-screening, but I’m sure you can understand.” I wasn’t sure how well I was pulling it off, but I could lie half as well as Amaryllis, unless there were hidden modifiers that made me worse than half, which there very well might have been. (If abilities were a factor in the successful use of skills, then it was possible that my lower social abilities made me less effective at using social skills granted by Symbiosis. We didn’t really have a good way to test this, so it was just a hypothesis sitting in Amaryllis’ notes somewhere.)
“It’s not a problem,” said Raven. “I hadn’t expected that I would be able to get a meeting that quickly. From what I’ve heard, the industrial plans for the Republic of Miunun are quite ambitious, almost beyond reason, and the Advisor on Industry is, in fact, more akin to an executive position than an advisory role. That must come with a lot of meetings.”
“It does,” I said with a shrug. “There are two tuung, and there are things that need to be done beyond what they’re capable of doing. Once we’re up and running, the Advisor intends to return to a more traditionally advisory role.” Fat chance of that happening.
I was fine with playing this game for as long as Raven was. It was uncomfortable, talking to Maddie like this, but she was so vastly different from Maddie that it wasn’t fazing me as much as it might have. She was close to the character of Raven, a studious scholar who dabbled in magic as an outgrowth of her obsession with books, but Raven had been played by Maddie, and the character suffered from an actor who wasn’t up to snuff, as much as I might have tried to help her out. There was a weirdly dissociative experience associated with being next to her, like my brain was trying to play catch-up, but in some ways that was a boon, because I was forced to pay attention to everything that I said.
“Alright,” said Raven once we got to a room that Bethel had hastily repaired. Raven took a seat across the coffee table from me, and I sat opposite her. “Shall we get started then? What do you need from me?”
“Credentials, for a start, though we’re still at the stage where those aren’t terribly important, if you’re here selling something or giving us an offer,” I said. That much was true; we cared about pedigree and testing for competence, but the Isle of Poran had become a welcome place for people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. Disruption was the name of the game, after all. We already knew that Raven couldn’t possibly be here for that.
“Nothing like that,” said Raven. She reached into her satchel and withdrew a sheaf of papers, which she set down on the coffee table. “I work with the Intellectual Property division of Imperial Affairs. Sorry, I don’t have much in the way of a warrant card. The matter that I’d like to talk to the Advisor about is with regards to some planned industrial processes.”
<Seems like she’s here because of the Library, not because Masters or Heshnel sent her,> Bethel said into my head.
<Perhaps,> I replied back.
We already knew the contents of her satchel, and who she was presenting as. Unfortunately, we didn’t know whether it was a bulletproof cover or a paper thin one, since we didn’t have the requisite knowledge, and we didn’t know whether it was a cover with layers. Really, we only had guesses as to why she was here, and I wasn’t about to take anything for granted.
<You and Amaryllis think alike,> replied Bethel.
“Ah,” I said, looking up from the papers I’d been pretending to read. The documents outlined Raven’s role within her division and the authorities that had been granted to her. “To my knowledge, we haven’t publicly discussed our plans.”
“That city you’re building down there leaks like a sieve,” said Raven. “I would be extremely surprised if there were any secrets left on the Isle of Poran.”
I couldn’t tell whether that was intended seriously or not. It seemed like a masterful joke, one that acknowledged the depth of secrets that Bethel contained, but I wasn’t sure. If she actually believed that we had no secrets, was that because she was hinting she’d found out everything there was to find out? Was it all written in a book somewhere in the future, which she’d brought into the present? Now that would have been a good joke.
“Which innovation in particular are you concerned with?” I asked. “And if you’re from the Empire, you must be aware that we already have imperial agents here, and that we aren’t part of the Empire.”
<Two peas in a pod, you and Amaryllis,> said Bethel.
“You would like to be though,” said Raven. “Everything that I’ve seen indicates that you intend to be on the fast track into the Empire. There’s no grandfathering for patent issues. That’s why I’m here. Aside from that, unofficially, I would like to know where the innovations came from.”
“You said we had no secrets,” I said. I forced a smile.
“I didn’t claim to know all of them,” said Raven. “I’ve only been here half a day.”
<Amaryllis would like you to ask her directly about the Library,> Bethel said into my head. She was relaying this entire conversation to where the others were waiting in the next room, naturally.
“May I ask a question?” I asked.
“Certainly,” said Raven. “Whatever gets me to see the Advisor.” There was a slight twinkle in her eyes, like she knew something was up and was humoring the false reality I’d created.
“Was Uther Penndraig a good man?” I asked.
Raven’s face fell.
<Amaryllis didn’t like that,> said Bethel.
<Noted,> I replied.
“From what I’ve read,” began Raven.
“No,” I replied. “You were his archivist, you cataloged his travels, you had to have formed an opinion on him, given five hundred years to think about it. Was he a good man?”
Raven stared at me for a moment. “Yes,” she replied. “He was haunted, and he kept his secrets, but yes.”
“My name is Juniper Smith,” I said. “Does that mean anything to you?”
“Oh,” said Raven. “You’re the Advisor on Culture for the Republic of Miunun.” She shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry, have we met?”
“Hard question to answer,” I replied. “My name wasn’t in one of your books?”
Raven froze up again. “My … books?”
“Or your father,” I continued. “He didn’t share the details of his questionnaire with you?”
“Juniper Smith,” said Raven, as though chewing the words. “Juniper Smith!” Her eyes widened. “Uther wrote your name, five hundred years ago, that’s where I’d heard it before, and … how do you know any of this?”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
The door on my left opened before I could get an answer. Amaryllis walked in, wearing a functional dress that she often put on for business. She had been wearing plate armor when last I’d seen her, loaded for bear. I was impressed with how quickly she’d changed, especially since she was wearing makeup that hadn’t been there before.
“Dahlia?” asked Raven.
Amaryllis rolled her eyes. “No,” she replied. “The resemblance has been remarked upon a number of times though. I’m Amaryllis Penndraig, alias of Lydia Chance, Advisor on Industry. You’re here because part of your remit with the Infinite Library is stopping the development of technology, isn’t it?”
“I … what?” asked Raven. She looked between the two of us. “You’re Uther Penndraig’s most direct female descendant?”
“Yes,” said Amaryllis. “And I take it you’re not here because of the altercation with your father, nor the separate altercation with a number of Uther’s cohort?”
“I’m sorry,” said Raven, holding up a hand. “Let’s start from the beginning.”
“With fewer lies this time, please,” I said.
“No, not the beginning,” said Amaryllis. “Tell me what happens if we widely distribute televisions, or any of the other technologies we have planned.”
“We have time to talk,” I said.
“I just want to know what utter bullshit is standing in our way,” said Amaryllis. “I spent a year and a half of my life working on the technical details of this island’s planned industries, and now you’re going to come in here to tell me that no, it’s going to end the world? You could have just fucking put out an Empire-wide bulletin that explains what the threat is, and I wouldn’t have had to waste so goddamn much of my time.”
I stared at her. The math wasn’t quite right. A year and a half? She’d had eight months in the chamber while pregnant with Solace, and a few weeks outside of it with us. I wondered whether she’d been spending more time in the chamber than previously revealed. That was a little worrisome for a number of reasons.
“Calm down,” said Raven.
“I’m perfectly calm,” said Amaryllis, but I was pretty sure we all knew that was a lie. I was still having the bad dreams, and if we’d been in detox for the same amount of time, I was pretty sure that she was still suffering from bouts of aggression. If it was possible to change emotions within the soul, I was sure she would have dialed impulse control as high as it would go and anger as low as it could be, but that wasn’t a lever that we actually had access to (nor were dreams, for that matter).
“Tell me where you got the technologies from,” said Raven. “If you know about the Infinite Library, then surely you know that we’re constantly running against a deadline, and the deadline has gotten tight of late. This island seems to be the turning point, at the moment, but it’s very possible that it’s a symptom rather than a cause, and we don’t have the time for another few weeks of delving the library in order to find some sparse scraps of information that point us in the direction of something actionable. Tell me what your source is.”
“No,” said Amaryllis. She straightened somewhat and I watched her demeanor change. “You hold approximately none of the cards here. We’ll speak once we’re satisfied with your answers. To start with, tell us what you know of what happened to Uther. You were looking for him. Why did you stop?”
I looked Amaryllis over. Something wasn’t right. Raven seemed to sense it too.
“You know who I am,” said Raven. “You know my pedigree and my mission. If --”
“Tell me where he is,” said Amaryllis. Her voice had gone cold. “Start in the next few seconds, or I’ll begin cutting your fingers off one by one.”
“Bethel, stop,” I said. Amaryllis hadn’t taken off her armor frighteningly fast and then makeup on top of that, she’d sent in a projection of herself via Bethel, of course she had. Why risk more exposure than necessary? Well, naturally, because the house had some unresolved issues, and talking through her holographic projections ran the risk of a man-in-the-middle. Our house was unruly, with a few triggers, one of which had apparently stepped in through our door, blithely unaware of the danger.
Raven’s robes split apart at the front and swept behind her, making something of a cloak, which twirled and twisted in a magical wind. She had been wearing plain clothes beneath the robe, at least according to Bethel’s first report, but one of the entads she was wearing must have changed that, because she was fully armored, in a suit of armor composed of golden bands, which went from her neck down to her toes. Something clicked near her neck, and I saw a shimmer in the air around her, which I guessed was either a private air supply or invisible armor. Raven twisted her wrist while this was happening, and three seafoam-green orbs began orbiting her, which apparently wasn’t enough in the way of offense, because she produced a sword from thin air which reflected light better than a mirror. She was horribly mismatched in terms of aesthetics, which was the sign of a high level character.
“Don’t make threats that you’re not capable of carrying out,” said Raven. There was a hard edge to her voice, and it was the first time I’d really been able to see her as being one of Uther’s fabled Knights, powerful beyond reason and the veteran of a hundred thousand adventures.
Bethel-as-Amaryllis frowned for a moment, then raised her right hand and snapped.
All of Raven’s fingers fell to the ground.
Her sword fell to the ground a bit later, since it’s hard to hold a sword without any fingers, and she stared down at her hands in shock for just a moment as blood spurted from clean, identical wounds. They began closing up after half a second, with the skin creeping over to close up, and Raven set herself into a defensive stance, though she no longer had a weapon to defend herself.
“These orbs,” began Raven.
The orbs winked out of existence. The shimmer around her head disappeared moments later, then the billowing cape behind her fell down, no longer supported by any unfelt winds. Bethel had put up wards against each individual entad that Raven wore, leaving her with only her inborn powers, and at a guess, Bethel had layered wards so tightly that even those (whatever they might be) wouldn’t work.
“You were telling me where Uther is,” said Bethel.
“Stop,” I said. <Bethel, stop.>
“I don’t know where he is,” said Raven. “I searched for a hundred years and never found him. The trail went cold.” She looked down at her fingers, which were laying on the floor, but made no move to grab them. “That’s all I know, I swear.”
“Oh, naturally I’ll want the longer version,” said Bethel. “You’ll need to account for that hundred years. Tell me the secrets you uncovered. Tell me the paths you looked down, in pursuit of him. And I don’t believe you, incidentally. You did find him.”
“We can reattach the fingers,” I said. “Bethel, stand down, I want answers as much as you do, but this isn’t the way to get them.” I wasn’t actually sure that was true -- the kind of raw power on display here would have gotten me talking.
“I can’t be coerced,” said Raven. Her voice had a slight hitch to it.
“Tell me again how Uther was a good man,” said Bethel. She barely even looked like Amaryllis anymore. It was very rare to see Bethel do anything except by intent, that was just the nature of her powers, since everything required some amount of deliberation on her part. It took me a while to realize that her physical appearance was halfway between Tiff and Amaryllis.
There was a pounding at the door behind us, but when Bethel waved a hand, it stopped.
“I want answers too,” I said. “She’ll have incentive to talk to us once she’s in the know.”
A slight frown crossed Bethel’s face. “I want to hear her justify everything that he did.”
“I don’t know everything that he did,” said Raven. The place where her fingers had been hadn’t closed up entirely, and they were still bleeding, dripping down onto the rug. I didn’t know if that was a limitation of whatever healing magic she was using, or if Bethel had simply cut off her healing supply with another ward. “If he did something to you, or your people, --”
Bethel held out a hand, and Uther appeared above it, a talking head speaking with restrained fury.
“If you speak about this to anyone, whisper so much as a word, I’ll return here and start ripping away every piece of you. I’ll smash your windows and tear up your floorboards. Your power? I’ll load you with so many entads you won’t be able to think, let alone speak. There are dark and twisted items of power, and I’ve been collecting the worst of them for quite some time, horrible things that would warp you beyond all recognition. Don’t so much as think my name, do you understand?” I didn’t know how close to the truth that actually was, since by her own admission her intellect and memory hadn’t been fully formed at that point, but he was nearly snarling. He seemed ready to launch into something else, another threat from the look on his face, but Bethel waved the image away like it was a cloud of smoke.
Raven had a pale complexion, which went paler on seeing that. (Maddie had spent most of her time in a dark room with blackout curtains, typing away on her computer. The whiteness was another thing they shared in common.)
“You were … the house, Kuum Doona,” said Raven. “I … I don’t know why he would have said such a --”
“Oh, that,” replied Bethel with a malicious grin.
She showed it. I turned away, but the sound was loud enough to fill the room. It made my skin crawl. Bethel showed no mercy whatsoever, which wasn’t a surprise; this was a display intended purely to torment, dirty and ugly. I heard Uther stop more than once to give some instruction, and I felt my stomach churn at hearing his voice. It felt like a few minutes had passed before it finally stopped.
“Strange, to me, how important the act is to mortals,” said Bethel. “It was meaningless to me, and still is, but you care more about the images I projected with one power and the force I applied with another than his threats to me, or the decades of isolation he enforced. He deprived me of purpose, he refused to be my master, and it’s the ephemeral, simulated flesh that makes you cringe in horror. No, don’t speak.” This was directed at Raven, who had opened her mouth to say something. She shut it and pressed her lips into a thin line. “Juniper, what do you imagine is going to happen when you drag him out of whatever hole he’s hiding in? Will you bring him here, to me?”
“I don’t know,” I said. I clenched my teeth. “Probably.”
She seemed surprised at that. “After all that time? All that questing?” asked Bethel. “Why?”
“So he can answer to you,” I said. “If I had to guess, I would say … I would say that he would probably explain that he was going through some shit and you were the way he dealt with it. Or if he’s stupider than I think, he’ll say that you weren’t even a person then, that you didn’t have real feelings or weight to you, even if you do now. He could say that your ability to process anything only came later. I’m not sure that would absolve him. On Earth, there were computer programs that could fake being human, well enough to fool a few of the people some of the time.”
“Sims,” said Bethel.
It took my brain a moment to catch up. “Uh, no, The Sims was a game, I was thinking more of, um, Markov chains and chatbots. I’ll give you some of the literature later, moratorium on Earth stuff be damned.” I paused for a second. “I’m sorry that I haven’t been a good companion to you. I should have seen this coming. I should have talked to you more, before it became an issue.”
“It was always going to be an issue,” said Bethel.
“I know,” I said. “But if we had talked about your feelings beforehand, we might have been able to … I don’t know. Deal with them, I guess. I didn’t give enough thought to how you felt about Raven. She introduced you to,” fucking brain don’t fail me, what the hell was his name, “Tansy, and without him, you might have had a better life. She was complicit in what Uther did, even if she was ignorant, because the way these things work, that ignorance was cultivated.” I looked at Raven as I said it.
“You’re not angry with me?” asked Bethel. “Amaryllis certainly is.”
“I’m not happy,” I said. “But … I get it. I might have done the same in your position. Sometimes it feels good to hurt people.”
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 4!
“That said,” I continued. “We should probably put her fingers back on and actually hear what she has to say. If you don’t think that you can talk to her without wanting to hurt her again, we can go to one of the rooms where you can’t listen in. I’ll give you a full report later.” There was only one room that she couldn’t listen in on, the time chamber, but I didn’t need to say that out loud.
Bethel stared at me, with eyes that were halfway between the color of Amaryllis’ and Tiff’s. “You’re not acting like yourself,” she said.
“I’m putting in effort,” I said. “Most likely it’s effort that I can’t sustain, and when I slip up, I’ll be back to how I was again, but … I am making an effort.” I looked at Raven. “Let her speak?”
“Hrm,” said Bethel. “Very well, she’s yours.” Bethel vanished, blinking out of existence. It was always hard to remember that what we saw of the person was just a projection, and her actual self was the house we were standing in. She wasn’t actually gone.
<I’ll let the others in when you give the signal,> Bethel said into my head.
“Help me with my fingers,” said Raven. There was a certain weariness to her voice. Her face was damp with sweat.
I collected the fingers from the floor and looked them over one by one, trying to figure out which one was which. It was ghastly work, and she was bleeding through all of it, though not very heavily.
“You’re going to have to cut away some of the skin,” said Raven. “Unless you have better healing than I do.”
“I don’t,” I said with a grimace. “And I don’t have a suitable knife, so --”
A knife appeared in midair, courtesy of Bethel, and I caught it without so much as a pause.
Raven was more or less silent as I cut away the skin enough that the finger could be reattached and then healed so it was a functional part of her again.
“Can she hear everything we’re saying?” asked Raven after I was done with her right hand.
I nodded. “If you assumed that she had arbitrarily powerful senses, you wouldn’t be too far off. She can’t read thoughts or memories.” That I know of.
“I see,” replied Raven.
“Sorry about your fingers,” I said. “I think your boasting rubbed her the wrong way.”
“It’s fine,” said Raven, her voice a little bit cold. “I’m seventeen hundred years old, and more to the point, I adventured with Uther Penndraig for thirty-two years. I’ve had my fingers cut off before.” She was silent as I reattached another finger. “Uther loved when his enemies made boasts. I’m not sure that he ever enjoyed himself more than when he was making someone eat their words.” She went silent again as she watched me work. I didn’t really have much to add. “It’s starting up again, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” I said.
Raven let out a long, low sigh. “Fudge,” she said.
I finished with the last finger. My hands were slick with her blood. She flexed and looked over the work.
“Yeah, pretty much,” I said. “I’m sorry about … about how Bethel chose to express her anger and frustration. She’s only recently reformed.”
“Reformed from?” asked Raven.
“Killing everyone that steps inside her,” I replied. “She did that for, uh, a few centuries, I think.”
“Ah,” said Raven.
Up close, the resemblance to Maddie was stronger. By rights, it shouldn’t have been, given that Raven was 1,700 years old and completely divorced from Earth fashions, but the Dungeon Master had probably manipulated things behind the scenes. They had the same hair style and the same makeup, and even the same cast to their expressions.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I shook my head slightly. “We’re, um, going through some things right now. I can explain more later. It’s complicated. I’m sure it was like that with Uther sometimes.”
“All the time,” nodded Raven. “It was complicated even when it was straightforward. He always assumed that anything simple was a trap, and he was usually right.”
<Amaryllis has some questions for Raven,> Bethel said into my head. <She is quite insistent. Are you building rapport?>
“Bethel can speak into our minds, so long as we’re touching her,” I said to Raven, by way of explaining why I’d gone silent. <I’m not sure. Another few seconds, a minute at most.>
<Take all the time you want,> replied Bethel.
“She just told me off,” said Raven.
I gave her a faint smile. “That doesn’t surprise me,” I said. My smile was quick to slip. Every smile I gave made me think of Fenn, and how she was gone.
“Why did you ask me whether he was a good man?” asked Raven.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I guess I just thought … I thought that maybe you would give an unambiguous yes, one that would clear away some things that I’ve heard about him.”
“No,” said Raven.
“Ah,” I replied.
“He saved his kingdom from ruin a dozen times,” said Raven. “He saved the empire he founded too. He saved the world. Billions of people owe their lives to him dozens of times over. If you stack up everything that he accomplished, there’s no way that you can say he wasn’t a force for good in the world.”
“And yet,” I said. The images that Bethel had presented flashed through my mind.
“Yes,” said Raven.
“I need to find him,” I said. “Even if you don’t know where he is or what happened to him, you must have made notes when you were looking. There are probably dead ends that we wouldn’t have to spend so much time tracking down.” And then I can find the Lost King, and we can rush the ending of this thing, and Fenn can have her life back.
“I know the last place he was,” said Raven. “I was never able to investigate it, though I did try.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“It’s in an exclusion zone,” Raven replied. There was something dark behind her eyes.
“Which one?” I asked, hoping that she wasn’t about to give the answer I thought she was.
“Fel Seed,” Raven replied.