“I -- yeah,” I said. My mind went briefly to my vambrace, which would switch me into full combat gear. I was on edge, obviously, and while Reimer (or whoever he was) didn’t look like a threat, there was a chance that could change in a hurry. I could feel Amaryllis tense up beside me.
“What the fuck man,” he said, smiling at me. “What the actual fuck, what are you doing here?” He looked me up and down. “When did you get jacked?” His eyes went over to Raven, then to Amaryllis, who he stopped and stared at for a little bit too long.
“Yes?” she asked.
“Are you,” he said, then stopped. He turned to me. “You are Juniper, right? Juniper Smith?”
“I am,” I said. “And you’re …” I waited for a moment, so that he could fill in the blank. “Arthur Reimer?”
He nodded, seeming confused by the question. “How the hells did you end up here, Joon?”
Hells? The word tripped me up. If you were listening to spoken dialogue and trying to determine whether it was from Aerb or Earth, there were a few common shibboleths, and the two biggest were ‘hells’ and ‘gods’. I had mostly switched to using ‘hells’ and ‘gods’, the better to fit in, while Amaryllis had switched the opposite way, maybe because she’d gone too deep on Bible study, or maybe because it felt like it had more impact. If I’d gone native, then maybe Reimer had too … but maybe it was a sign that he wasn’t who I thought he was.
“It’s a long story,” I said. I cast my glance over to the people he’d been walking with. They had stopped to wait for him, still talking amongst themselves. “Do you have time to talk?”
Reimer looked back. “Yeah,” he said, waving them off. He turned back to me as they started going on their way. “Seriously though, what gives?”
“What’s the last thing you remember hearing about me?” I asked.
Reimer glanced at Raven, then at Amaryllis. Again, he held the look for a little too long. “You were arrested,” he said. “Expedited sentencing or something like that. I thought you were in prison.” I could see the confusion on his face.
Things started clicking into place. “I was,” I said. I shrugged. “Trial by adversity.”
Reimer’s eyes widened. “You survived that?” he asked. “So you’re, what, part of the Host?”
“It’s a special arrangement,” said Amaryllis.
Reimer stared at her. “Amaryllis Penndraig,” he said, with only a slight upward inflection.
Amaryllis frowned at him. “No,” she said. “Tamra Constance. I work for the government.”
“You look just like her,” said Reimer, openly staring at Amaryllis. He glanced at me. “Joon had a poster of you in his room.”
“Future Leaders of Anglecynn?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow.
“Yeah,” said Reimer with a laugh. He looked back at me. “It’s good to see you,” he said. “I’m sorry, I didn’t want to hold anything up. Are you -- will you be around? Catch up, maybe? It’s been, what, half a year?”
“Sure,” I said, not feeling it. “I’ve, uh, got a house off-campus.” I gave him the address, and noted a slight frown on Amaryllis' face. “I’ll be there for the next week and a half. Stop by any time.”
“Can I ask what you’re doing here?” asked Reimer. “I mean, I’m starting classes in a few days, is this just coincidence, or … ?”
“Just coincidence,” I said, though that wasn’t at all the truth. “I’d like to sit down and talk for a bit, but … not here.”
“Are you okay?” he asked. “Joon, I know you weren’t doing well, but … hells, trial by adversity? And now you’re here somehow, thousands of miles from home?”
“I’ll explain everything,” I said. “Not out in the open though.”
Reimer nodded once, cast a second look at Amaryllis, and then hurried off to wherever it was he’d been going. We watched him leave, silent.
“Okay,” I said. “Well, that was something.”
“I’m not sure that we should have let him go,” said Amaryllis with a frown.
“Who is he?” asked Raven.
“It’s complicated,” I said. I was internally groaning. “I have an outstanding quest to return to the place that this body is originally from. My guess is that he’s from that same place, and thinks that I was his childhood friend, because there are proxies for everyone I know there.”
Quest Updated: They Say You Can’t Go Home Again - He had a life, before you came, one with parallels to your own. The man you met is not Reimer. The girl you will meet is not Tiff. But they’re close enough, for our purposes.
I let out a sigh. Fuuuuuuuuuck.
“Are you so certain that you should be going to a dwarfhold?” asked Solace.
“It’s a test,” said Grak, grumbling beneath his beard. He’d been thinking of shaving it off. He’d done that, once or twice, when he was at Barriers. It had felt odd, like being naked, and repeated shaving had irritated his skin, so he’d grown it back out again. To cut it might be a nice change though. Juniper had offered advice along those lines. He had said that cleanliness was foundational, that incremental progress toward building a new version of himself had been invaluable. Small changes. Small steps.
“You went into a dwarfhold in Boastre Vino, if I recall correctly,” said Solace. She had a pleasant voice, high, as fit her child’s body, but still with the tones and cadence of a wise old woman.
“Yes,” said Grak.
“Also a test?” asked Solace.
“Of sorts,” replied Grak. He was being taciturn again, for no good reason. “I thought it was part of my penance to be with dwarves. To be a true dwarf.” Megimaka, it would be in Groglir. There was probably a cleaner, more evocative way to say it in Anglish. “I worried I would drift.”
“And now?” asked Solace.
“Now I want to see how I feel,” said Grak.
She slipped her hand into his, a casual thing that buoyed his heart. They were unalike, in so many ways, but she had a real and honest affection for him, and wasn’t at all shy about touching him. The first night they had slept together, he had been hesitant, but she had removed his clothes with deft fingers and pressed her skin against his own. She was odd, a four-hundred-year-old woman who had been reborn a dozen times, now voluntarily choosing to inhabit the body of a child. They barely knew each other, but she had treated him as a longtime friend from the very beginning. She was good at being krin.
“I’m glad you’re doing better,” said Solace. “Are you sure you wouldn’t have preferred different company?”
“Juniper?” asked Grak.
Solace nodded once, bobbing her antlers. “I know he means something to you.”
“He does,” replied Grak. He bit the inside of his cheek, a nervous habit. “He cannot be what I pin my life on, whatever else he is.”
They walked hand-in-hand for a while, winding their way through the city. They got a few looks, even in a cosmopolitan area such as this, in part because of the entads they had on clear display, in part because of the fact that she presented as a child, and in part because of her antlers. There were odder couples in Li’o though, people who were actively trying to be strange. Grak liked that.
Grak’s father had held a low opinion of the dwarfholds that could commonly be found next to the major cities of the world. There were a variety of names for those dwarfholds, but none were particularly flattering. “Shadow cities” was what Grak had grown up hearing, and he had never been able to think of them as anything else, dwarfholds that formed as a shadow cast by imperial cities.
When he’d gone to Lalon Dohore, the shadow city beneath Boastre Vino, he had been thinking about leaving the group. No one had questioned the pretext, and they had barely asked him about what he’d done when he was there. All that was to be expected, and more to the point, as he’d wanted it. He didn’t want to have to explain the alienation he’d felt among the dwarves there, the way their culture had seemed strange and unfamiliar, the same unsettling medley of dialects and traditions that had marked his year spent with the dwarves at Barriers. With Lalon Dohore, he had been trying to prove to himself that there was no place in the world for him, that even a larger dwarfhold, a proper city, one steeped in imperial culture, couldn’t be a place for him. He had been wavering in his dedication to his penance then, tempted by the thought of simply taking the gold from Aumann’s and making a life for himself. It would have been a slap in the face to everyone who died in Darili Irid, not only living on without them, but spending accursed gold as well, after everything the gold mages had done to his people, but he had still thought about it, and hated himself for it.
He was going to Raho Lenheg for a different reason. He was going to see if he could gain a new perspective on the dwarves.
They walked together to the entrance, which had a similar trolley system to the one that connected Boastre Vino with Speculation and Scrutiny. This was a system designed for much greater throughput though, with thicker trolleys running at more regular intervals, capable of carrying a hundred people each. Grak had always been glad that Junah, the city that housed Barriers, didn’t have a shadow city of dwarves, as otherwise he might have been expected to live there, rather than in Junah itself. He might have commuted in every day and been otherwise sequestered, at his father’s insistence, in with other dwarves, even if they weren’t the right kind of dwarf.
Even going down the tunnel in the trolley, there was something obvious that marked Raho Lenheg as different from Darili Irid. The seats were shaped for dwarves, it was true, but they could easily be raised for other, larger species, and the roof of the trolley was higher, allowing humans and others to ride in comfort, which several were doing. The shadow cities differed in how they dealt with accessibility; some considered themselves dwarven cities first and foremost, and if their accommodations locked them off to some other species, all the better. Raho Lenheg had put in some work, likely some expensive work.
The entrance to Raho Lenheg was expansive, with a vaulted ceiling that was held in place almost entirely with wards. Grak stared at it with his warder’s sight, not liking the look of it. There wasn’t necessarily anything wrong with relying on wards for structural support, but wards could fail if they weren’t made properly. The roof was currently failing to collapse. It was probably fine. He knew pitifully little about engineering, save what he’d learned in the relevant class at Barriers. Most likely he was seeing the same kinds of tolerances used in more mundane versions of construction. It still called to mind the idea of the wards failing, which called to mind Darili Irid, an old wound that had reopened so many times that it was a mass of scar tissue.
Solace squeezed his hand, and brought him back to the world.
They went off together, quickly getting lost in the shadow city. The main thoroughfares were brightly lit, two stories tall, which expanded the view and gave long sight lines, with exterior stairs going up to the second level, allowing twice as many businesses. It didn’t take long to find a tavern; their goal was, ostensibly, to gather information, in the hopes that they might avoid being blindsided.
“Would you like to split up, or stay together?” asked Solace. She let go of his hand as they took a seat. Again, the tavern had the same arrangement as the trolley, with seats and tables that could be adjusted upward if needed, and too-tall ceilings which almost no one was making full use of.
“Stay together,” said Grak. They sat down to order food and drink.
The gold hadn’t ended up staying in Darili Irid, though Juniper had made plenty of offers to let it stay there, either because he thought he needed to, or because he believed that the gold was, ultimately, immaterial. Juniper had said, repeatedly, that in his games the “loot” didn’t matter much, that he would adjust the challenges to the party as they gained abilities and could spend more money. It was hard to tell with Juniper how much of what he said was hollow words, how much was simply motivated by the game, and how much he really meant. In this case, he was saying that it was no true hardship, because money would come to them all the same. ‘Gold sinks’, he kept saying. It was slightly uncomfortable, to hear that the money didn’t matter either way. Grak had deferred to Amaryllis; the money wouldn’t bring anyone back. It wouldn’t actually provide absolution. He had always known that.
Grak still thought about the prices as he ordered. He had spent a long time thinking that it was necessary to devote himself to the pursuit of penance. To be frivolous with money was as good as to declare that he didn’t really care about the penance at all, that the lives lost because of him had been meaningless.
That wasn’t how he was going to live his life any longer.
“There,” said Solace, nodding to another table. “Guards. The patch on their shoulder is the same as the one on the trolley. I’d wager they hear a lot.”
Grak nodded once, then walked over to the table. He had done this sort of thing a few times, and it was always painfully awkward. At Barriers, it had always been in pursuit of knowing others, whether they were classmates or simply people he’d seen out in public. Here, he wanted to know whether they had heard about the sorts of problems that only the Chosen One could solve.
“Hello,” said Grak, feeling awkward. “I’m new in town. I was wondering if you’d like drinks in exchange for some gossip.”
The dwarves looked between each other, exchanging some wordless conversation.
“So long as it’s not the ferment,” said one of them. “Something bubbly.”
Grak ordered from the bar, trying his best to affect the mannerisms of a dwarf from far outside the big city, which wasn’t terribly much of a stretch. He was, largely by technicality, the Advisor on Defense for the Republic of Miunun, but if asked what he was doing, the truth would probably be that he was simply following Juniper, at least for the time being. (And again, there was the familiar flash of rilirin, nostalgia for a world that never was and never would be. It was easier to dismiss, now.)
“Now,” said one of the policemen, “Tell us what sort of gossip you’re looking for. You want a mate?”
“No,” said Grak, shifting uncomfortably at the suggestion. “General information. Things that people might talk about up there.” He was self-conscious about his dialect, a cadet branch of the many-pronged Groglir family tree.
“Goings on with S&S,” said one of the policeman with a nod. “There’s new construction in their underground bunker. They hired on a few dwarves for it.” His moustache was slicked so that the tips of it were pointed up, and they bounced as he spoke.
“Some problems they’ve been having down there,” said one of the other policemen. “Problems at S&S always ripple out, they say. That’s how it is at Li’o. Council of mages still runs the city, on top of employing a fair number of people, directly or not.”
“There was a death,” said the first, the one who had asked for drinks. “Three months ago, down in the temple.”
“No one is talking about that anymore,” said the dwarf with the pointed moustache, shaking his head.
“It’s the reason for all the construction,” replied the other. “It’s relevant.”
“We’re off track,” said the third, who had been mostly silent up to this point. He turned to Grak. “You want to ‘gossip’ so you can speak to people, to know what’s going on? Or to make conversation?”
“Both,” said Grak, furrowing his eyebrows.
“The Demonblooded Festival is coming up, a week from now,” the other dwarf replied. “That’s what will draw attention. Maybe the wrong kind, if you’re talking to a prospective employer and didn’t want to take a side.”
“Only side is against the devils, isn’t it?” asked one of the others.
“But they’re not devils,” replied the other policeman.
The conversation continued in that vein for some time, with a fair bit of back and forth that delved into arcana Grak wasn’t familiar with. He wouldn’t have assumed that either of them were either, and as he listened to them talk, he could see the seams of their knowledge showing; neither knew quite what they were talking about.
“The death,” said Grak, when there was the slightest room for him to speak. “Can you tell me more?”
“When they go down to the temple, they meditate,” said the third policeman, who seemed eager for a respite from the demonblooded conversation. “They do five hundred at a time, packing the temple full, with entads so they don’t need food and water. They said it was a reaction to one of those, the magic not sitting right in a young girl’s system.” He shook his head. “Smells of negligence.”
Grak nodded at that. Whatever it was, it was probably not negligence; more likely, it was something that only the Chosen One would be able to deal with. Grak was pleased with himself; he’d been useful.
Valencia didn’t like being part of the home team. It was just her, the locus, Heshnel, and Bethel. There were also all the teachers and aides for the young tuung, and the tuung themselves, but they were in a different ‘wing’ of Bethel, and didn’t count. Valencia could see the logic in raising tuung from birth, totally isolated from the world and cared for by people who had been paid a tidy sum to undergo the time dilation … but it all reminded her too much of her own childhood, locked in a cage and muffled so that a devil’s words wouldn’t get out.
Worse, Jorge was several continents away, left behind on the Isle of Poran. Valencia had wanted him to come with, but someone had to stay back and deal with the hangers-on in the village, and Finch hadn’t wanted to do it alone. It was their first real test as a couple. She missed him, in part because she knew that she would probably be confined to Bethel until she was needed, if she ever was. The armor would conceal her, but there was too much of a risk that she would be outed anyway, as she had been twice now, first with the illusion mage, and next with a complex ward. The armor didn’t have a good track record of keeping her secret safe.
Instead of reading Harry Potter again for the third time, she went to bother Heshnel, who was in his room, half of which was a makeshift garden. It was a pretty place, with light streaming in through the windows, more light than could possibly be hitting Bethel. The plants there were all small: Bethel had asked him whether he’d like accelerated time, and he had informed her that under no circumstances was she to do anything like that. Off to one side, he had a lofted bed and a desk beneath it, along with a trunk that he was, for the time, living out of. The traditional home of the dark elves was the Gelid Depths, in homes carved from the seafloor ice, but Heshnel was an oddity, as an elf would have to be to join them.
“I’m surprised that you’re planting them,” Valencia said. He had let her in without seeming surprised that she had come. “Do you expect to be here long?”
(This was small talk, which was one of the things that Valencia knew she needed to work on. It would be easier, with a devil, but she was trying her best not to use them, both because she thought it would be good for her, and because killing too many devils might stir up the rat’s nest that was the hells. She’d grown more powerful when Juniper returned, with more tendrils, which moved more swiftly through the hells and sought out targets more eagerly, but she held them at bay for the time being, with her targets pre-selected. There would be a time to strike and wipe the hells clean, but it was not yet, not before she was powerful enough to actually do it.)
“I don’t know how long I’ll stay,” said Heshnel as he tended to his plants. “Flower mages thrive on connection. To go without building that connection is anathema. Yet it’s difficult, in cases such as this, when there’s uncertainty in the air.” He looked over at her. “The seeds contain some of the connection of the plant, fading slowly over time. I plant in the hopes that these might flourish and their connection strengthen. If this garden is demolished, then I still have the seeds whose connection is slowly fading.” He sighed. “I’ve lost many plants and many seeds, over the years. When hard choices have to be made, it’s often the flowers that are sacrificed.” He turned to look at Valencia. “We were Uther’s flowers. He cultivated his connections, and when the time came, he spent us for higher purposes, vast and opaque ones.”
Valencia didn’t know which one of them was being bad at small talk. “Tell me about my father,” she said.
“Fallatehr Whiteshell,” he said, after a long pause. “I don’t know who he was in prison, or who he became. The things that Juniper says are, I have to admit, disturbing.”
Valencia reached out and killed a devil, a minor one, picked at near-random. She, Jorge, and Amaryllis had all sat down to make a map of her kills across the nine thousand hells, then established a protocol for future kills. It was undoubtedly the case that the demons and devils were making their own map of deaths, and while there was nothing to be done about those early deaths, their working group (Mary’s term) had done their best to ensure that future deaths wouldn’t give anything away. At least some of Valencia’s ability would be put toward continuing the old patterns, making them look more random than they had been, or if not random, then at least part of a complex phenomenon that had no real relation to the real world or the Council of Arches.
With the devil in her, Heshnel snapped into focus once more. He felt as though he bore the weight of the world on his shoulders, one of the only people left alive who was in the know, especially with so many allies fallen, either in the Grand Finale after Uther had left, taken by old age, or killed when the Second Empire fell from power. Then more, in the last two weeks. He was adrift, uncertain, not willing to follow Juniper whole-heartedly, yet with no real idea what he was going to do if not that. He had a stubborn pride for what he’d accomplished as part of the Second Empire, though he was keenly aware of its missteps and faults, as well as those events and programs which would later be labeled atrocities. He’d been a soul mage, and seen hundreds of years of practice and dedication to that magic stripped away in an instant. He blamed himself for that; it was one of the things that drove him, the idea that he was meant to do something with his life. It haunted him that he had wasted enormous amounts of time and effort on a grand project that had borne only rotten fruit. Like other soul mages, he had altered himself, slowly and carefully, in order to become better at the tasks he laid before himself, more driven, more focused, more cutthroat. Little of that had been undone.
Valencia knew him, deeply and intimately, as she knew everyone she looked at with her augmented thoughts, so long as she’d had time to make concrete observations. She kept her face the same, not changing her outward appearance in the slightest. She had gotten better at that.
“Who was he, when you knew him?” asked Valencia. She put calm and understanding into her voice, with a touch of force, to show that she was trying. “He thought of me as a thing, not a person,” she said. “As a father …” She momentarily paused, unable to spit out the devil’s words. “He came up short. But I still want to know him, from someone who knew what he was like before the prison.” It was true, after a fashion, which meant that she could say it without running afoul of the instructions that Mary and Juniper had given her.
“He was a researcher,” said Heshnel, after he’d paused to think. “He was eccentric, even by the standards of Second Empire researchers, and especially for an elf. He spoke Anglish with a lisp, rather than avoiding the difficult sounds, as most elves do, or some clever bit of magic, as is common. The most eccentric thing about him, though, was his purity of focus. He dedicated himself to knowledge of the soul, without concern for politics, or even the core principles of what we were attempting to accomplish.”
Valencia took note of how he said these things, that obstinate pride in the purpose of the Second Empire. Heshnel would apologize for specific aspects, or even, sometimes, say that it had all been a calamity, but much of it would be empty words, said to pacify or further his aims, rather than because he actually believed it to be true.
He and Solace could be set at each other’s throats with a single sentence, if need be. Someone might even do it on accident.
“What did he work on?” asked Valencia.
“Everything,” replied Heshnel. “Comparative studies to catalog the differences between species, studies with other mages to see how the soul interacted with their domain, studies with entads to see what parts of the soul they were touching, and how, … and yes, the more problematic aspects of the soul.” He hesitated, unsure of how to phrase it so that Fallatehr would come out best. He knew that some of the things he had to say would sound reprehensible to her, but he wanted her to see Fallatehr as he saw Fallatehr. He wanted to imprint his mindstate on her own.
There was a distant part of Heshnel that had gotten used to freely adjusting the internals of other people, and longed for that power once again.
“He studied non-anima. He studied the hells. He studied Animalia, renacim, the loci, all manner of things, sometimes at a remove, through commenting on studies done by others, and sometimes on his own, attempting to solve the open questions, or to check what he saw as sloppy work.” Heshnel paused, watching Valencia, seeing how she was reacting. She could have kept her face blank and allowed him to assume that she was concealing her opinion from him, but instead she affected confusion and doubt.
“That’s why he made me,” said Valencia. “He wanted to know more about the soul.” She couldn’t pretend to come to an epiphany, that would be too obvious, but she could pretend that she was slotting the fact of her existence into the broader picture that Heshnel was trying to paint.
“He thought the soul was elemental, a basic fact of reality and consciousness,” said Heshnel. “And yet the existence of the non-anima showed otherwise.” He paused. “I am sorry, for what you went through. People may claim that you are not a person, but it’s only because it’s easier for them to justify what they have done to you.”
“He knew I was a person,” said Valencia. “That doesn’t make it better. It makes it worse.” It wasn’t what she should have said, if she were trying her best to manipulate him.
“It makes it worse,” nodded Heshnel. He only seemed to come to the understanding as he said it. He was still searching for some way to make himself the better person, to justify the things that he and the others had done. Valencia watched his mind as revealed through his mannerisms as he came up short. “Forgive me,” he said. “I need some time to think.”
“You held out hope that he was alive,” said Valencia. “You hoped that it might one day be possible to rescue him from prison, and you knew that he’d escaped having his education stripped from him.” And you had hope, until a few weeks ago, that he could teach you once more, so that you could regain what you had to give up.
“Yes,” said Heshnel. He was hesitant. He’d gained some skill at deflecting away from his past, but that skill was useless here. “I know he wasn’t kind to you. I wish that I could say that was because he had his reasons.”
The unspoken, ‘but I can’t’, hung in the air.
Valencia could see the good in everyone. With her augmentations (Jorge’s word), that came with the territory, but she was very careful to seek out the good parts, just so she would know where the light shone brightest within them. For Heshnel Elec, it was the way he wore his guilt, bone deep, so deep that she would never have seen it. He knew that things had gone wrong, even though he still believed in the ideals, even as he still wanted to defend his compatriots. He was incapable of self-directed change, incapable of doing better the next time, he’d already proven that by bringing together a band of murderers to kill Uther, but he wore his guilt well, and ruminated on it in a way that Valencia found pleasing.
She felt the itch to change him, to craft him into a better version of himself. It would take time and careful speech, especially if she didn’t want to reveal the devils she was using, but she thought she could probably do it.
She had thought she could manipulate people before.
“I have some books,” Valencia said instead, releasing the devil’s skills from her reservoir. “They’re about a young orphan who becomes a wizard. Would you like to read them?” Heshnel stared at her. “They might help us understand one another a bit better.”
Heshnel looked to the plants in his garden, the ones that he was planning to pluck or reap. He was thinking, and Valencia no longer knew what it was he was thinking about.
“Yes,” said Heshnel, slowly, turning back to look at her. “It’s been a long time since I’ve read for pleasure.”