Gemma took the Egress, which apparently belonged to Pallida, but before she did, we took a few crates full of stuff out of it.
“These are good times for renacim. We weathered the storm of the Second Empire far better than most,” she said as I helped her haul the crates up the hill to Bethel. We were doing it as one trip, with the crates stacked up between us. “To give you some history you may not have, the Second Empire was money hungry, especially in the early years, and there was this undercurrent of fighting back against the entrenched interests of the world, so you know, it was a combination of laws and direct executive action that essentially robbed the wealthy and long-lived. Legally speaking, all a renacim’s wealth was forfeit to the empire whenever we died, but we had schemes in place, and all the money seemed to vanish into thin air when the Empire came to collect.” She gave a little laugh. “I helped with some of that. Even stole from the Empire on a few occasions, though the other renacim didn’t like that so much, especially not when I was using our networks to shift the goods around.”
“So you’re rich, is what you’re saying?” I asked.
“Rich is relative,” said Pallida. “But yes, quite rich. That’s the advantage of age, if you stay on your toes.”
“Nothing compared to Amaryllis, of course,” said Bethel, appearing beside us as we walked up.
“Hells, can you give some warning when you’re about to do that?” asked Pallida. She’d almost dropped the load, and I had to wait for her to get her bearings again.
“Amaryllis has as much wealth as the rest of us,” I said. “Maybe she was rich before her fall from grace, but not now.”
“She lends her wealth quite magnanimously,” said Bethel, though there was sarcasm dripping from her voice. She was back in her normal form, a slender woman nearly eight feet tall wrapped in gossamer robes, with skin the color of cedar. It was a relief that she didn’t look like Tiff anymore. “A fair fraction of your entads are keyed to her, invested by her will. She could retract them with a thought, should she desire. Beyond that, and aside from whatever Anglecynn has claimed from her, she has a great many entads she owns by claim-in-fact, useless in the hands of others and profitable to her. All of them Uther’s spoils.”
“Does that piss you off?” I asked.
“That she’s the beneficiary of ill-gotten gains?” asked Bethel. “Such is the way of the world. It’s useless to be upset about.”
But she sounded upset.
“I knew a few of her ancestors, in passing,” said Pallida. “Shitheels, the lot of them. Same goes for the current crop.”
“I won’t be so easily wooed as that,” replied Bethel. I glanced back for long enough to see her wearing a smile, shortly before she blinked out of existence again.
We placed the crates down in Pallida’s new room, which was in the same style as most of the rest of the house, tall and ornate. The windows were stained glass, which served to make the cold, bleak light from the Isle of Poran look as multi-colored and warm as the stars that dotted Aerb’s night sky. Everything was done up in pinks, though the designs weren’t as lacy or girly as that might lead you to believe. I wasn’t so sure about whether it made sense to theme a room’s colors around a person’s skin color, but Pallida seemed to like it, and that, in turn, made Bethel very pleased with herself.
“Okay, so,” said Pallida. “First things first, I have twenty million obols,” she said, opening one of the crates. “That’s about as much money as I would like to commit to this life, but there’s about twice as much in holdings, which I could get with varying degrees of time and hassle.”
“Shit,” I swore.
“Shit?” asked Pallida, stopping what she was doing and looking up at me.
“Ah, nothing,” I said. “It’s just … some internal issues.”
“Seems like the sort of thing a new member in good standing should hear about,” said Pallida, still frozen where she was.
“Grakhuil Leadbraids is our team warder, though there’s some overlap with Bethel’s abilities,” I said. “He’s not really that interested in saving the world with us or being a continued member of the team. We had an agreement with him that once we had the funds, we would see him on his way. It’s an honor thing, a penance he needs to pay. He might be coming back, or he might not, but if we’re absorbing your money into our own, that will probably force the issue.”
“Ah,” said Pallida. She slowly closed the crate. “How do you want me to handle this? Say that I don’t have any money? Or say that he can’t have any?”
“No,” I said. “I wouldn’t want to do that to him. I’m increasingly of the opinion that it’s probably better to handle soon anyway.”
“Ah,” said Pallida. “Any other minefields I need to worry about? I’m slowly getting a handle on what everyone’s deal is, I think. Demon hunter, pretty princess, last of the druids, murder house, grumpy dwarf, and of course, the Chosen One.”
I thought for a moment. “Solace has some pretty damned obvious problems with the Second Empire,” I said. “I don’t think you’d be dumb enough to put your foot in your mouth on that one though, not if you’ve been alive for thirty thousand years.”
“It’s really not like that,” said Pallida. “I pretend it is, sometimes, to claim seniority, but it’s more like … like all the lives compound with each other and get lived through at the same time, and I can remember what my parallel selves were doing when they were exactly my same age. Younger or older, it fades off a bit. The way back lives, from the dawn of time, those are weak too. But there’s this compounding effect, because I don’t just remember, I remember remembering, and the really big things that have happened to me have so much weight to them that they’re almost impossible to ignore, since it’s the event itself, and then all the things I’ve thought about it, and my reactions to those previous thoughts.”
“You explain this a lot?” I asked.
“We’re rare,” said Pallida with a smile and a shrug. “I’d say I’ve probably said something similar hundreds of thousands of times before. A hundred times per lifetime? Maybe that’s even on the low side.” She rummaged around in the crate, before pulling up a ring. “Ah,” she said, flicking it toward me. I caught and turned it around, raising an eyebrow. “Try it.”
I slipped the ring onto my finger. “What’s it do?” I asked.
“Makes you incorporeal,” said Pallida. She looked down into the crate. “Looks like I’ve got six or seven entads here for you and your people, the ones that aren’t exclusive to me.”
“Sorry,” I said, trying to feel a mental connection to the ring, if there was one. “Incorporeal how?”
“You can make a part of your body incorporeal, so long as it’s only one part,” said Pallida. “That’s a big limiter on it, because it means you couldn’t do something like, say, reach through a door and unlock it from the inside.”
“Huh,” I said. I could feel it, now that I knew what I was looking for. I could retract my fingers from reality, allowing them to smoothly pass through my arm without resistance. It was a little bit awkward to get it to cover all the fingers, since apparently the keyword was ‘contiguous’, and it wasn’t just that I could only have one splotch of incorporeality, it was also that I couldn’t have it separating two areas of corporeality. In other words, I could make my whole leg incorporeal, but not just my knee, since that would leave my thigh and calf disconnected.
“What happens if I go full incorporeal?” I asked.
“Oh,” said Pallida, looking up. “Don’t do that. You’d fall through the floor, then down into the rocks, and then probably die of starvation or dehydration unless you had a clever trick.”
I wonder whether there’s an achievement for that.
“Is there a reason you weren’t wearing this?” I asked.
“Race restrictions,” said Pallida, making a face. “It only works for humans, not renacim, but it is bound to me. Happens sometimes. I have a few like that. I’m hoping that Amaryllis knows where some that go the other way are.” She stopped for a moment in her rummaging. “Can I ask you why you all call her Mary?”
“She’s supposed to be dead,” I said. “Before we became the Council of Arches, it was less of a paper thin disguise than it is now. Also, we didn’t know that she was a lookalike of Dahlia, which obviously makes her actual identity even more obvious.”
“But why Mary?” asked Pallida.
“Oh,” I said. “Fenn thought it would irritate her.”
“Ah,” replied Pallida. She glanced away. “And we were just speaking of landmines.” She pulled out a cloak, and threw it to me. “Now, this one belonged to a man named Elhart Cloakshield.”
“Swish it around and it becomes impenetrable?” I asked.
Pallida stared at me. “Is Bethel looking at my stuff and helping you out?” she asked.
“It’s from a game I ran,” I said.
“Bullshit,” said Pallida. “There are a billion entads, what are the odds that -- or wait, did your Dungeon Master arrange this, is that what you’re saying?”
“He’s not my Dungeon Master, but yes, probably,” I replied.
“How?” asked Pallida.
“Unlimited power,” I said. “Temporal manipulation, metaphysical shenanigans, memory modifications, just take whatever power you’ve heard about someone or something using on Aerb or one of the other planes, and then expand that beyond all reason.”
“Fuck,” said Pallida, swallowing as her eyes went wide. “You know, it was enough of a mindfuck when I came to accept that the world was catastrophically warping itself to make Uther into a hero. This is … I mean, I had thought that maybe someday we would find the hand of fate and actually be able to do something about it.”
“We might,” I said. “I’d consider it a slim possibility. That was a concept I toyed with from time to time.” It helped explain why the PCs were special. Most of the time, you didn’t need it, but sometimes a justification for the extreme feats that the player characters could do was fun.
“It was?” asked Pallida. “And all the stuff around Aerb is pulled from ideas that you had?”
“Kind of,” I said. “Here would typically be the part where you say that maybe I was implanted with a bunch of memories of having made up Aerb. That’s still possible, I guess, but it doesn’t seem very likely to me.”
“I wasn’t thinking that at all,” said Pallida, shaking her head. “I was thinking about the beginning of the world. I was there for it, you know.”
“Thirty thousand years ago?” I asked. “There’s some debate -- you know that, though.”
(The question of how old Aerb actually was had occupied a lot of scholars for a lot of time. According to the renacim, it was thirty thousand years old, because that was around how old they all were. It was also around where most of recorded history actually began, if you looked at the oldest accounts. There were anomalies though, places where history went a lot further back, some with appreciable amounts of evidence. Some of the species were obviously not the result of evolution, but some were, which the timeline didn’t leave enough room for. Similarly, there were mountains with more than thirty thousand years of erosion and rock strata that seemed like they’d have taken millions of years to form.)
“I know lots of things,” said Pallida. “You live long enough, you either get comfortable rehashing conversations or you go insane. But yes, I was thinking about thirty thousand years ago, when the world was shiny and new, and we didn’t have much else but language and fire. And I was thinking about a being that could draw a line from then to now with such precision that I would end up here, right where I needed to be to give you these things and lend my aid.”
“It churns my guts,” I said. “I try not to think about it, even though it’s important, because there’s not much I can do about it.”
“Sounds like a plan,” said Pallida. She pulled out a circlet. “Want this one? It lets you see what everyone else on your team sees and compensates for the sensory overload.”
“How much compensation?” asked Bethel, appearing in the room beside us.
“Fuck!” shouted Pallida. “Stop doing that!” Her armor had moved to cover her more completely, seemingly of its own volition. “One of these times I’m going to … I don’t know.”
“Kill me?” asked Bethel with a laugh.
“Yes, there are obvious problems with that plan,” said Pallida. She turned to me and said, in a whisper, “Does she have any weaknesses?”
“Not that I know of,” I said. “We’ve removed the major one, and I can’t think of what’s left. Grak assures me that the warding around this place is impeccable, which cuts off a lot of possibilities, and the fact that she’s a warder means that you’d be hard-pressed to put up a ward to disable her.” I was quite chipper about all this.
“Have you been thinking of ways to kill me, little Juniper?” asked Bethel, cocked her head to the side and giving me a devilish smile.
“‘Have a plan to kill everyone you meet,’” I said.
Bethel bent over cackling with laughter. “I do!” she said with a manic grin.
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 6!
“Do you actually have a plan to kill everyone you meet?” asked Pallida with an eyebrow raised.
“No,” I said. “I mean, sometimes we do, but it’s a rare plan that survives contact with the enemy. It was just a quote from an Earth general.” It felt weird to phrase it like that, but I thought ‘United States Army general’ was needlessly specific.
“Amaryllis is the one with plans to kill people,” said Bethel, wiping an illusory tear from her eye and still shaking off the laughter.
“Is she?” asked Pallida, suddenly looking concerned. “She seemed more level-headed than that.”
“I’m not sure that you’re treating her like a reincarnation of Dahlia,” I said. “But if you are, I should probably warn you that they’re different people. I don’t know virtually anything about Dahlia aside from what you’ve told me, but … yeah. To her, it is reasonable to have plans to deal with threats, especially given mind manipulation bullshit or whatever else. You called it Face Protocol, right?”
“Technically Face is for someone who can imitate an ally’s appearance,” said Pallida. “If you’re fighting against their abilities, that’s Cat Protocol, and if they’ve been completely compromised by a hostile entity, then it’s Puppet Protocol. I’m not sure if you’ve got anything similar in place, but maybe you should. We didn’t use them often, but Uther thought it was important for his inner circle to at least have basic awareness of them.”
“So I can have the circlet?” asked Bethel. She’d taken it from me and looked it over.
“You’re going to … eat it?” asked Pallida, raising an eyebrow. “I’m never going to get it back?”
“And we won’t be able to use it on missions?” I asked, though it wasn’t really a question.
“My sensorium is vast and troublesome,” said Bethel, eyeing me. “This would be the first request I’ve made since I first met you.”
I thought about that some. “It’s ultimately Pallida’s call,” I said. “I’m going to assume these entads are on indefinite loan, rather than owned by me or the group outright. If you’d like, we can set aside some of the incoming funds to go entad shopping and find something that can make you a more effective house.”
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 7!
“A more effective house?” asked Pallida, gawping at me.
“She has a few limits,” I said. I glanced at Bethel. “I’m not really concerned from an opsec standpoint, but from a personal standpoint, I think she’d prefer to choose what gets revealed about those limits.”
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 8!
The loyalty increases were gratifying feedback. I hadn’t really been angling for them, but I had been trying to take Bethel’s feelings into account. I had done that in the past, to little effect, and now, for some reason, it was working. My guess was that something had changed in how she saw me, and that made it easier for subsequent loyalty increases to happen. I had no worldly idea what would happen if or when Bethel got to Loyalty 10, given how differently things had gone with Valencia.
The question of loyalty had been on my mind a lot, because of all the new people we’d brought in, none of them had pinged. I was pretty sure there was some kind of grace period involved that staved off loyalty increases until after I’d known the person for some token amount of time, since it was rarely immediate, but it really had seemed like it had been long enough for both Pallida and Raven. Pallida had pledged her life to me, after all. Still, there were no increases.
“Fine, she can take it,” said Pallida with a sigh. “Let’s give the terrifying house even more powers.”
“Thank you,” said Bethel, looking over the circlet. “You taste very nice, by the way.” Pallida froze in place, and Bethel laughed in that way she sometimes did, where the laughter seemed to come from everywhere in the house at once. Bethel flipped the circlet over once, then handed it to me. “Take it for now, I think. Someone needs to keep track of the more devious of our party members while you’re outside me.”
I took the circlet, happy for the change of heart.
“What else do you have?” asked Bethel.
“Hrm,” said Pallida. “A lot of this is just clothing, and what’s not is relatively minor. I have a hairpin that makes me more attractive,” she put it in her hair as she spoke, apparently not putting that one on offer, and indeed, becoming a shade more pretty, though she’d already been pretty to start with, “Some marbles that are paired with each other, good for recon, a dagger that tells you the name of people you stab, an infinitely extensible rope, a pair of dice that will always roll the number you’re thinking, a deck of cards that never runs out -- do you have any use for a dagger that hurts everyone in line of sight when you stab yourself?” she asked, looking hopefully between Bethel and me.
“Seems useful,” I said with a frown. “But only useful in some very specific scenarios.”
“It’s redundant for me,” said Bethel.
As it turned out, Pallida had a lot of stuff, but a lot of it was niche or useless, the kind of thing that you could maybe find some use for, but which wasn’t a game-breaker in its own right. The biggest boon among the stuff that wasn’t locked to her was armor I had already decided was probably going to Grak, an ornate affair with silver scales that apparently allowed limited temporal manipulation, which would allow him not just combat ability, but also the ability to put down wards a lot faster. Pallida also showed off a lot of her things, which she seemed quite proud of. The trick, she explained, was trying to hold onto all of it between lives, since she inevitably spent at least a few years out of commission.
“You like the hairpin then?” asked Pallida, as we were wrapping up. Bethel had disappeared, as her ‘presence’ was requested elsewhere, leaving the two of us alone.
“What?” I asked. I had been looking through a book that logged the internal thoughts of the person holding it. The words were unfortunately only visible to the person holding it, making it semi-useless for interrogation, and also unfortunately, I was sitting there reading through my own thoughts, which I didn’t really like that much. On the plus side, it was an open book, so I had a grey cat sitting in my lap that Bethel had spawned in.
“You’ve been looking at me more, since I put it in,” Pallida explained with a smile. “Always fun to see how people react.”
“Ah,” I said. “Sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Pallida shrugged.
“I was actually thinking about Amaryllis,” I said. I flipped through a few pages of the book, until I found the passage of disjointed internal narration. Right there, right after I’d noted that she was, in fact, prettier, I’d had a stray thought about whether Amaryllis would think the same, and then a long passage that I’d done my best to steer my thoughts away from. Confused emotions, mostly.
“She’s certainly pretty,” said Pallida, making a non-committal noise. “The two of you …”
“Not an item, if that’s what you’re thinking,” I said. “Fenn … she was, ah.” I swallowed and tried to clear my head. I was sure that if I looked down, I would see ‘true love’ written in the book, followed by scattered thoughts about how true it had really been, and no, ‘true love’ wasn’t a concept that I had ever believed in, but it was a feeling that I had for her, as though it was true, even if it wasn’t. I decided that I really didn’t like the book. “Landmines, as you said.”
“Ah,” said Pallida. “So there’s not anything that I need to worry about with Amaryllis?” she asked. She had a hopeful look on her face.
“There’s some personal stuff,” I said. “Things we had to work out together, or, um,” I tried my best to be a better person than I had been in the past. I owed that to Fenn. “I don’t think I should be the one to tell you. If or when you ask her about it, just let her know that I said I wanted to respect her privacy?”
“Cryptic,” said Pallida with an eyebrow raised. “But okay. Sorry if I’m stepping on toes.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Better than stepping on landmines. Just … weird to be asked about, I guess. I’m going to go check on the others, since it looks like I’ll be gone with Raven a few days.”
When I stepped out into the hallways, Bethel was waiting there, leaning up against the door and looking like Tiff, still wearing the same ‘Kansas Swim’ t-shirt.
“Ah, young love,” she said.
“Did you pick that form just to make things difficult for me?” I asked.
“This?” she asked, looking down at her body. “A bit,” she said. “If you ask nicely, I’ll change into something else.”
“I was actually just wishing that I could talk to Tiff,” I said. “There’s a lot that I’d want to say. She gave good advice, most of the time.” I shook my head. “But right now, being swamped with more of the past isn’t really something that I can handle so well.” I started walking down the hallway, and she accompanied me, still not changing.
“How do you think I feel about having Raven here?” asked Bethel.
“She’s here at your pleasure,” I said. “We can eject her and either send her down to the village, or if that’s not enough, across the sea to a hotel in one of the Ha-lunde cities. I was planning on leaving tonight though, so we’ll be gone soon enough.”
Bethel made a ‘harrumph’ sound. “I understand,” she said. “I don’t need her to leave, but I’m still unhappy about her being here.”
“I know,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“I suppose I’ll content myself with frightening her from time to time,” said Bethel. She blinked out of existence and then right back in. A smile crossed her face. “Ah, that was a good one.”
“What was it?” I asked.
“Oh, just a flash of myself in the corner of her eye,” said Bethel, still smiling. “Heart rate up, pupils dilated, hairs standing up. I’ll admit she’s keeping her cool, but I can read the fear response of all but those trained by the Elon Gar.” She looked at me. “You’re not upset by it.”
“I’m,” I began, then stopped. I wished that I’d held onto the book that gave internal narration. Maybe it would have helped me get my thoughts in order. “I am upset by it, but I also get it,” I said. “I don’t think that Raven really deserves it, and I don’t think that you should do it, but I really do empathize with that impulse. I understand it. I told you that, back when we first met, but you brushed it off as manipulation or something.”
“If I had known how socially inept you were, I would have believed you,” said Bethel with a laugh.
“Your Loyalty has gone up, by the way,” I said.
“Has it?” asked Bethel, her voice still light and airy. “I had wondered.”
“I just thought that you should know,” I said. “After everything with both Fenn and Valencia, I’m far less concerned that Loyalty is essentially mind control, but that also means that it’s not really a measure of trust either, so … I don’t know. I just wanted you to know, so you could be prepared for the game to throw something at you.”
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 9!
“If I find out you don’t actually care for me, I’ll cut off your penis,” said Bethel, reaching forward to poke me in the chest. We’d arrived at Grak’s room some time ago, and were just standing in front of it. “I know how fond you are of it.”
I smiled slightly. “You know, I complain about Aerb a lot, but this is the first time someone has threatened to cut off my penis. So, congratulations on being the first.”
“I’m very serious,” said Bethel, staring at me with Tiff’s eyes.
“Sure you are,” I said.
I felt her grip me, there, quite firmly, just for a moment.
“Ah,” she said as she backed away slightly. “That wasn’t the reaction I was expecting.”
“I loved Tiff, a lot, and you’re wearing her body,” I said. My face was flushed. “Look, let’s forget that this was ever a thing.”
“Oh, well that might be hard,” said Bethel, “Because I just told everyone in the house.” She had a wicked smile on her face.
I stopped and stared at her, not knowing what the hell I was supposed to think about that.
Bethel cackled again, her booming laugh seeming to echo through the halls.
“I’m kidding, of course,” said Bethel, watching me closely.
“Okay,” I said, shifting around. She’d thrown me far off-kilter. I pointed at Grak’s door. “I do need to speak with him for a bit. It would probably be better if you weren’t ‘there’ for it.”
Bethel watched me for a moment, then transformed, from Tiff back into the form she’d been wearing for the past month. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Forgiven,” I replied with a wave of my hand. “I get your sense of humor.”
Loyalty Increased: Bethel lvl 10!
Companion Passive Unlocked: Full House!
“One sec,” I said.
“Oh,” said Bethel, eyes wide.
Full House: Bethel knows the location of every entad inside her, even if she wouldn’t otherwise. Bethel can use the powers of any entad inside her, so long as it remains inside her.
“Huh,” I said, opening my eyes. “You got a perk.”
Bethel let out a laugh of pure joy and leapt up into the air, then flew down the hallway like a banshee. I was vaguely aware of the feeling of my house moving under my feet, but before I could move or even question it, she had returned to me, blinking into place in front of me.
“I’m invincible,” she said to me. There was something brilliant in the way her eyes sparkled, this towering woman looking down at me like I was the light of her life. “I don’t have to eat them anymore, I can just borrow them, and I don’t have to take their senses, ” she said. “The things I can do now, I --”
She stopped short, then blinked out of existence.
“Bethel?” I asked the empty hallway. “Are you okay?”
There was no response.
<Bethel?> I asked again. I could feel the connection still there, the conduit that I would use to speak to her, but there was no response from the other end.
I tried to mentally take stock of all of the entads we had in the house. If we equated Bethel’s absorption of entads to ‘eating’, then this new version would be ‘tasting’, or maybe just holding them in her ‘mouth’. Could some of those have been poisonous to her in some fashion? I hadn’t been given a brief on what all of Raven’s entads were, and it was hard to tell with warding alone, but for the others --
It suddenly occurred to me that there was one sentient entad in the house, one that I customarily wore around my waist, but was sitting in my room at the moment. There was nothing about Ropey that would put him at risk, I didn’t think, but it was still a little worrisome.
I knocked on Grak’s door.
“Come in,” he said.
I stepped into his room. The fire was going in his fireplace, and he was sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at it. His bed was low to the ground, befitting his stature, and the walls were hewn rock. I wasn’t entirely sure that Bethel’s stylistic choices suited him; after all, he hadn’t really liked being a cave dwarf, and giving him a reminder of home didn’t seem like something he would want. Then again, maybe he had requested this.
“Hey,” I said. “Bethel hit Loyalty 10, which gave her the ability to use any entad in the house without having to eat it. She seemed really happy, but then she went silent. Can you see anything?” I spoke Groglir, which I tended to do when we were alone together.
Grak frowned and looked up slightly, at the wall. “I can see that there’s been a change, but can’t tell you much more. She’s always been wide-spectrum.” He resumed looking at the fire.
“You okay?” I asked.
“Fine,” said Grak. He looked over at me. His gray he’d used to dye his braided beard had faded. I wondered when that had happened, and tried to think back. While he was in the time chamber, maybe? It made me a bit sad to see.
“Did you pick the decor?” I asked.
“No,” said Grak.
“Ah,” I replied. “You could ask Bethel to change it, if it bothers you.”
“It’s fine,” said Grak. He returned to looking at the fire.
I frowned a bit. Given whatever mysterious thing had happened to Bethel, I probably should have been making my way to Amaryllis, because she would certainly want to be informed, but I didn’t want to just leave Grak here by himself, not if this was the kind of mood he was in. I was pretty sure I’d been in that mood before. People would ask me if I was okay, and I would lie to them, because I didn’t think that they could help me.
“Can I sit?” I asked.
“Suit yourself,” Grak replied.
I sat down on his bed, right next to him. “Pallida brought some money with her,” I said. “A lot of money, actually, more than I would have thought she would have, but I guess that she’s been a thief for most of her lives, and accumulated a lot.” I looked over at him. He was still staring in the fire. “I was thinking that maybe after we had some room to breathe, we could go to Darili Irid together, with a thousand pounds of gold.”
Grak turned to look at me. “Hrm,” he said, then looked back at the fire.
“Did something about the meeting bother you?” I asked.
“Are you trying to increase my loyalty to you?” asked Grak. I could see the fire reflected in his eyes as he stared.
“No,” I said. That stung a little bit. I had hoped that we were past all that, but apparently we weren’t. Maybe it was just a bad day for him. “Look,” I said, then stopped, because this was one of those situations where I really didn’t want to put my foot in my mouth. “I care about you, and I want to support you,” I said. I put my hand on his shoulder. It felt a little awkward, but I had always been weird about physical affection with other guys. “If there was something at the meeting that bothered you, I would rather we talk about it than just letting it simmer.”
Grak kept watching the fire. I wondered how long he’d been doing that before I had come in.
“I envy the way you are with Amaryllis,” said Grak.
“We fight a lot,” I said. “She’s not happy about me leaving for the Library alone.”
“You’re partners,” said Grak.
I wanted to say that we were all partners, but I knew that wasn’t actually true.
Arthur gave a shit about things. It was one of the things that set us apart from each other.
He’d pressured me into mock trial with the argument that it would look good on a college application, that I liked the law, and that we would be able to spend more time together outside of our games. I had eventually relented, and halfway through the first meeting, had started regretting it.
After it was done, and I was supposed to be going through the facts of the case on my own, Arthur came over.
“Floating islands again?” he asked, looking down at my notepad.
“Yeah,” I said, staring at the legal pad. I wasn’t sure when I had gotten in the habit of taking notes on legal paper, but it had been a thing for a while. “Just trying to figure it out, I don’t know. It’s the pastoral thing again, Stardew Valley.” I didn’t really need to tell him more than that. We’d talked enough that he got it.
“Sorry if you’re not having fun,” said Arthur.
I noticed the if there, giving me an out, so I could lie and say, ‘no, no, I am having fun’.
“It’s just not really my thing,” I said. “I was sitting there while everyone was talking and just felt adrift, like I was floating through it all with only a vague understanding of what was actually being discussed.”
“Floating?” asked Arthur. He pointed down to a doodle. “Hence the islands?” There was something that I found irritating about the way he said ‘hence’.
“Oh,” I said. “Yeah, I guess.” I frowned at the paper. That wasn’t really it though. I’d wanted a place that was simple, confined, warm, and cozy.
Arthur frowned. “Let me know if you need anything,” he said. “I can go over the case with you for a bit. The big thing is having a testimony that fits the facts as presented here, one that you can answer all the questions about on cross.”
He walked over to talk to someone else, and I looked down at my legal pad, wondering how much I was going to keep up the charade of caring about something that didn’t really interest me.
“You don’t want to save the world?” I asked. “There’s no judgment there,” I quickly added.
“There’s an old legend about a dwarf who was cursed to mine forever,” said Grak. “Every day he gripped his pick-axe and dug a little deeper. Every day the gods would fill his hole back in. I see the future stretching out before us, and it’s not a future I have any enthusiasm for.”
“Yeah,” I said. But odds are we’ll all be dead before it gets too monotonous. “Can I ask what you would want, if you could have your choice of future?”
Grak’s lips twitched, as though he had a quick answer, but he stayed silent, staring at the fire.
“Oblivion?” I asked.
Grak glanced over at me and then back toward the fire.
“It took me a long time to see why you might have been happy for Fallatehr to alter your values,” I said. “I get it now.”
“Congratulations,” said Grak.
I winced again. I wasn’t saying the right things. I thought I’d been doing pretty well with Bethel. I was failing to help Grak though, and frankly, he needed me much more than she did.
“You can speak up, when we’re all in a group like that,” I said. “If you think that would help with feeling like you lack power, or purpose, or companionship, or whatever.”
“No,” said Grak with a sigh. “I don’t think it would help.” He still wasn’t meeting my eyes.
He was in a truly foul mood. I still had my hand on his shoulder, and I wanted to do something for him, but I had no idea what to do. He was reminding me of similar moods that I had been in, similar conversations where I had been on the other side, unreasonable and wanting to sulk.
“Magoron,” I said. “The dwarf from the train. Did you ever end up sending him an invite?”
“He wanted to fuck. Nothing more,” said Grak. Groglir had a fair number of words for sex, and he’d chosen to use the most vulgar of them. It called to mind two sopping wet cloacas, both ripened and pressed up against each other. I had no memory of having ever learned the word, but the Language skill point must have added it to my vocabulary.
“You got a response back then?” I asked.
Grak nodded. “He was apologetic. Kind.”
“When?” I asked.
“I got the letter this morning,” said Grak. “It was foolish to invite him here. Desperate.” He said the word like he was tasting it, making sure that it fit.
“Ah,” I said. “You know, I don’t think it’s foolish to make a try for happiness, if --”
“I am done talking,” said Grak, switching to Anglish.
He got rejected, at a time like this. But it was foolish, and it was desperate, to meet someone on a train and have what probably wasn’t much better than a one-night stand, then invite them to come visit you after … it was desperate, but I could relate to the desperation, that feeling of needing someone for validation, of wanting a relationship that I could cling to for some sense of purpose and worth.
“Okay,” I said, pulling away from him and standing. “I should go figure out what’s happened to Bethel anyway.” I stopped near the door as I made my way out. “You know that you can talk to me any time, right?” I asked. “My door is always open.”
“I know,” said Grak.
I felt like I had fucked things up, but I didn’t know what more I could have done. I had been on the other side of the fence so many times before, shutting down people who had come to me trying to help. I was still hurting from the loss of Fenn, but I wanted to be better, damn it, and I just had no idea how. I didn’t even know what someone could have said to have helped me, when I was like that. I didn’t know what I was supposed to say to Grak.
“I’m fine,” said Bethel after I’d shut the door. There was a precursor to her appearing beside me, a slight shimmer of warning, which I assumed was for my benefit. “I didn’t want to interrupt.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I wasn’t doing so hot in there.”
“You did fine,” said Bethel. “I should have burned the letter when it came, or at least given some warning to the rest of you.”
I looked her over, not that it would have told me anything. “Where did you go?” I asked.
“I was exploring my new abilities,” said Bethel. She raised an eyebrow and spent some time evaluating me -- showing that she was evaluating me. “I have some news.”
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Ropey and I are getting married,” she replied.