I was laying in my bed, staring up at the ceiling. Kenner’s Eye was pushing off sleep, and would continue to do so for another week before it started to wear on me, and another month before I would be forced into sleep, by which time we would hopefully have something to replace it with which could eliminate sleep entirely. The Lord of Dreams could do it, as could the Elon Gar, but those were the only two methods that we knew of that would last forever without drawbacks, and both presented pretty serious problems. I wasn’t in my room, lying on my bed, to sleep. I was just there because I had been through a lot and wanted some time to recuperate.
I spent most of it wishing that Fenn was there with us. She had always been easy to talk to, easier than any of my current companions, simple and uncomplicated, or at least that way on the surface, able to brush away worries and concerns so that we could settle into a friendly banter with each other. It hadn’t really been all that healthy, because she wasn’t as simple and uncomplicated as she pretended to be, but I still missed it.
It was the first time I really, honestly thought about shoving every part of Fenn’s soul I could into someone else’s body, so that I could have a facsimile of her, just for a moment.
It was hard, sometimes, when I had thoughts like that, to know whether or not they were just the intrusive thoughts that everyone had from time to time, or whether it was because I really was sliding down a slippery slope toward becoming the vile kind of soul mage that everyone always worried about. A part of the complication here was that a few of my former barriers had been outright stripped away: we had a body that seemed destined for the oubliette in the person of Ellio. All I would have to do was excise his memories and values, then replace them with Fenn’s, plus everything else I could grab and remap. It wouldn’t be Fenn, because try as I might, I couldn’t access a person’s spirit from their anima exa (and I suspected that it was simply unavailable), but it would be close to her, a way to talk to someone with her exact memories and values.
I was mulling this over when I got a knock on my door.
“Enter,” I said.
“Hello, Juniper,” said Bethel, slipping inside.
I sat up on the bed and looked at her. She changed form often, which I thought was fair given how easy that was for her. This was what I thought of as her human form, one that was our size instead of nine feet tall, more normal looking, for lack of a better description. She was wearing human clothes, too: instead of the gossamer dress she favored, she had on a simple dress with a green earth tone. The more I looked at her, the more dressed-down she seemed; she normally kept a bit of wood grain as a part of her cedar-colored skin, and her hair was typically in ropelike braids. Both those features were gone, bringing her close enough to human that if I didn’t know better, I might not have been able to tell.
“You came in through the door,” I said. “I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve that level of politeness, but thank you.”
She was looking me over.
“What’s up?” I asked. “I assume from the fact you’re not using the mental link, this is a more social visit?” I was worried that she was going to harangue me about how long it was taking to get everything in order.
“Do you mind?” she asked.
“No,” I said. “I was pretty much done with the decompression. Not really ready to get back out into the trenches just yet.”
“Well,” said Bethel, smiling at me. “The way I figure it, you owe me a favor.”
“Yes,” I said. “Many. Unfortunately, my ability to do you favors is pretty lacking.”
“Somewhat, yes,” replied Bethel. “Do you remember our earlier conversation?”
I stopped, then frowned. “Which one?”
“Sexual pleasure,” she replied.
“Oh,” I said. I straightened up. The near-human appearance seemed like it had more of a point now. “Look, I know that’s something that you expressed an interest in, but as I’ve said --”
“What you said, precisely, was that if I found an entad that allowed me to experience sexual pleasure, you would find the prospect of having sex with me appealing,” said Bethel. She gestured to her body. “Consider that accomplished.”
I looked her over. “What am I looking at?” I asked.
“It’s a body,” said Bethel. “The entad that belonged to Oberlin. I have a physical body now. I have to say, it’s a lot less work than projecting one.”
“Um,” I said. “That’s …” I shifted on my bed. “Look,” I began.
“You’re aroused,” said Bethel.
I tried to let the tension out of my body. “Yes,” I said. There was really no use in denying that. I’d spent too long looking at her curves. She was pretty, she had always been pretty, sometimes with a bit of alienness to her, but usually just pretty in an exotic way, instantly remarkable. Also, she had boobs, and who doesn’t love boobs? “Let me think for a moment.”
“I’m not sure what there is to think about,” said Bethel, smiling at me. “Amaryllis?”
“Amaryllis,” I said. “That’s definitely part of it.”
“So far as I’m aware, nothing has happened between the two of you?” asked Bethel. “You were really much better at flirting with Fenn than you are with her. So much attraction, wrapped up in polite conversation and businesslike demeanor.” She was looking at me. “Ah, and there goes the arousal, such a pity.”
“Give me a minute to think,” I said. “Pros and cons.”
“You can think out loud,” she said. I might have been imagining it, but it seemed like there was a huskiness to her voice.
“Yeah,” I replied. “But then I would have to voice my thoughts, and there are some thoughts that I’m worried might hurt various people, myself included, if I had to live with having spoken them.”
Bethel sat down next to me on the bed, leaving barely an inch of space between us. “I’ll wait while you think.”
It’s hard to think, when someone is sitting there waiting for you to think, especially when that someone is a house who you are a little attracted to, one that could kill you even when no one else could, but I tried my best.
Look, I was eighteen, and at pretty close to peak human physicality. As a natural consequence of that, I got horny on a regular basis, and while I did my very best not to let that interfere with executive function, it wasn’t something that felt natural to rein in. Some of that was compounded by the lack of privacy, which made masturbating to clear my head a little bit awkward, because if I was inside Bethel, then I knew that she could choose to watch me. That hadn’t historically stopped me much, and Bethel had thankfully never commented on it, though I was pretty sure she might, in the coming conversation. It would have been great if I had been a sexless robot that could just ignore my hormones without the need for self-pleasure, but I wasn’t. Given that, I certainly hadn’t compounded all my other problems by starting on the NoFap challenge for a month when I first got to Aerb. And if you think that I went two months in the time chamber with Amaryllis, the most beautiful woman conceivable, and didn’t masturbate once, then I don’t have any idea what your mental model of me must look like.
And the appeal of having sex with Bethel wasn’t just because of sexual frustration or high libido, the usual attraction of a warm and willing body. At least some of it was Bethel herself, an entity that I was pretty sure had been designed for me by the Dungeon Master, or at least manipulated into existence in the same way that all my other companions seemed like they had been, made for me, in some sense, not that I had asked. Bethel had a mean streak that appealed to me, one that was likely a reflection of my own mean streak, my worst impulses. She had killed hundreds of people, maybe even thousands, and somehow that usually ended up triggering my empathy for her.
If I imagined, for a moment, that Amaryllis were out of the picture, not dead, obviously, because that would be a whole thing, but just some alternate scenario where it was me and the house, or some kind of antimemetic effect that made me forget about Amaryllis … it was fucking terrifying to think about, but if that happened, then I could see Bethel and I getting closer, closer than we already were. Never in love, no, probably not, but there could probably be something between us, at least on my end. Loyalty was a bad and confusing metric, but hers was eighteen, and that probably wasn’t meaningless, you know? She was a house, and she wanted me to live in her, and that was … something.
That just about covered the pros.
Cons? Well, as it happened, Amaryllis hadn’t been erased from my brain, and I was getting to be pretty confident that if it were possible for us to be together, I would want that, even if the whole sex thing didn’t end up working out. I could have sung her praises to the high heavens, if Aerb had heavens, but it was really just a matter of the way that I felt. And to go and have sex with Bethel, or even just have her give me a handjob, felt like it would be a betrayal of a relationship that hadn’t even started. I didn’t think that Amaryllis would actually care that much, given what she’d had to say on the subject. What was important was how I would feel, which would be unclean, like I was a betrayer, and yeah, that was probably guilt about other things tainting how I thought.
And the other downsides were mostly centered around Bethel, who --
“Time is up,” said Bethel. “Are we going to do this or not?” She was giving me a very patient look, the kind of placid that lets people know that they’re being waited on.
“Not,” I said. I let out a breath.
“I talked to her, while you were taking time to think,” said Bethel. She was still sitting very close to me, and it might have been my imagination, but I thought I could feel the heat coming off her body. “She said that she hoped you would say yes.”
“I’m really hesitant to call you a liar,” I said. “But that seems very convenient.”
She leaned over and kissed me. I was taken by surprise, and put up a token struggle before I kissed her back. She smelled faintly of wood shavings and campfire, a pleasant smell. Her lips were soft, so convincing that I wouldn’t have known she wasn’t human. Maybe in that body, she was human. It didn’t really matter, that was just where my brain was going.
“Bethel, no,” I tried to say, but she moved forward when I moved back, still kissing me, and I wasn’t quite not kissing her in return.
<Bethel, no,> I tried again. It felt good to kiss her, and I was fully erect, there was no doubt of that, but I hadn’t actually decided that this was something that I wanted to do, and I felt a knot of fear forming, because she was more powerful than me, and if I said no, well, that was what I had been in the middle of thinking about when she’d interrupted me. I had Prince’s Invulnerability, and she could strip it away like it was nothing.
<I want you, Juniper,> she replied into my head while still kissing me with her bodily mouth. I tried to move backward again, and she pushed against me, so that my back was resting on the bed. It didn’t take her long to maneuver around so that she was on top of me, straddling me, the weight of her pushing down on my erection. <I can feel the arousal in us both.>
She was kissing me hard, firm yet still soft, and moved down to kiss my neck as her hands worked at the buttons of the shirt I was wearing.
I wanted to say that I couldn’t, that I didn’t want to, that I cared about her but that it was still a bad idea for a fair number of reasons. And then I thought that we’d already gone so far, so fast, this would already need to be explained, or could be exploited by her if she really wanted to, and if I pushed her off and told her no, then if she really wanted to, she could overpower me, or kill me in a thousand gruesome ways, or just hurt me, even if I could heal back.
And I liked it. On so many levels, I liked it, not just the purely physical, but the sense of the forbidden, the bad idea that I knew I would regret, giving in to basal impulses, the roughness and intimacy of it, the power she held over me, the fear and adrenaline, being her first, showing her what it was like … the more it was happening, the less I was thinking, the list of pros and cons got washed away into a confusing river of emotion and sensation, all moving toward the same destination.
Afterward, I lay there, staring up at the ceiling, like I had been before Bethel had knocked on my door. The difference was that I was naked, slightly sticky, and feeling out of sorts. Bethel’s new body lay beside me, staring up at the ceiling, same as I was.
“I can see why people like it,” said Bethel, into the silence.
I didn’t respond.
“I always thought it was fumbling,” said Bethel. “Two creatures who can barely see each other, barely feel each other, who have to guess what certain physiological responses must mean, groping and grappling while they seek their own pleasure. It always seemed so inefficient. But I think I can see it better, how the mutuality of it works.”
I still didn’t respond. I was thinking about what we had said to each other, before it had happened, the specific words we had used with each other. I knew that what I should really be thinking about was what my next steps were going to be, or failing that, how I could best support and encourage Bethel, which my life might depend on. Instead, I was thinking about what I had said to her, and not just that, the tone that I had used, the context of my words. And I was thinking that I hadn’t actually fought back very hard.
“I stimulated my own clitoris, at the end,” said Bethel.
“A lot of women do,” I replied. My voice sounded hollow to my ears, despite my best efforts. “It’s like you said, bumbling animals who hardly know each other.”
“Well, I enjoyed it all the same,” said Bethel. “More than I thought I would. It was at the upper edge of my predictions for how well I thought it might go.”
“Good,” I said. “I hope … I hope that I was as gentle and understanding as, as you thought that I would be.”
I wondered if the game was giving me some penalties to my skills for whatever esoteric reasons it might be doing that. Everything out of my mouth felt like I was watching it at a remove, like there was some lingering dissociation from that entad that I’d been under at the temple. Through every conversation I’d had on Aerb, nothing had ever felt so much like picking dialogue options from a menu, knowing that it wasn’t what you’d actually say in that situation.
(I’d gotten achievement progress on A Key for Seven Locks , my least favorite achievement. There had been a time when I had worried that the game would set things up, or contrive ridiculous scenarios, just to make all seven happen, convoluted plots lasting decades in service of incrementing that progress tracker. I hadn’t imagined that it would simply be forced on me.)
“Are you okay?” she asked. Her voice was soft and gentle. She sat up slightly, rolling her naked body so she was on her side.
“Fine,” I replied. “I just … wasn’t expecting it.”
“But that’s something that you humans like, isn’t it?” asked Bethel. “Spontaneity?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“You’re worried about what Amaryllis will think,” said Bethel with a nod.
I hadn’t been, not until Bethel had said that. My brain was still catching itself up to speed. “I don’t know what I’m going to tell her.”
“She doesn’t need to know,” said Bethel. She reached over and laid her hand against my chest, trailing her fingers, clearly experimenting with what it was like to have senses like a human. “I won’t tell.”
“You said you talked to her,” I replied. I felt a chill go down my spine.
“I lied,” said Bethel, dropping that casually, effortlessly.
“Oh,” I replied, because I didn’t know what else to say. I felt a coldness in the pit of my stomach. “It should probably come from me, if it comes from anyone.”
“You don’t owe it to her to tell her,” said Bethel. “You clearly enjoyed yourself, that’s all it has to be. I don’t see myself doing this again. Or if I do, then not with someone so ...”
“So what?” I asked, because it felt like she wanted me to ask.
“Conflicted,” said Bethel. “You’re a very moral person, in your own way, even as you stumble and fall. You have these ideas of who you should be, what you should do, it’s sometimes attractive and sometimes not. Even now I can see you trying to find ways to hate yourself over this.”
I felt my stomach churn. I’d thought that I was keeping my feelings from her, but she could still see through me as well as before, it was just that she was misinterpreting the signs. “I’m sorry,” I said. “You deserved someone less conflicted, someone who was fully committed to you, heart and soul.”
“Ropey,” said Bethel. She removed her hand from my chest and sat up on the bed, hugging her knees. She looked down at her arms. “You know, this didn’t really make me feel better. I’d always wondered.”
“Might be learned,” I said. “You’ve got a body, but I doubt it’s got all the things that come with a body, all the stuff that gets packed into a mortal’s brain.” I could feel myself coming back down to terra firma. I was going to have to deal with this reality, with this shitty hand I’d been dealt, all the baggage that I hadn’t wanted and then some. That seemed like the path forward.
Bethel moved over to me and placed her hand on my chest. Her fingers were thin, like I imagined a violinist’s, and she touched the sparse hair on my chest. It took me a moment to realize that she wasn’t being affectionate, she was testing the motions that she’d seen before. A fair number of people had lived in her, through the years, first squatters after Uther had left her alone, and later the mayors of Headwater, followed by the Penndraigs and their help, and later, the armies. I had no real clue how many people had lived in her over the years, and no way to guess how many people had sex in her, but it was probably a lot.
She was touching me because she was curious about the human experience, about the things that these people did inside of her, the aspects of their lives that she had seen but never experienced. Maybe it was like a chef that never ate their own food, tasting one of their dishes for the very first time, just to see what it was like.
I reached for her hand and pulled it up to my mouth, then kissed her fingers, letting myself feel the taste of her, slightly salty. There was a part of me that had liked it, and I tried to bring that to the surface, to think of the pros instead of the cons, and when that didn’t work, I tried to instead think warm thoughts. Bethel had been mistreated, by many people, for a long period of time, and she was trying to come into her own, trying to be a better person, or a person-equivalent. If this, what we’d done together, was the result of that, it didn’t speak well to how she was adjusting, but I couldn’t just give her the cold shoulder, not when she was this huge, terrifying, alien house with anger issues, privacy issues, consent issues, weird values, and damn that cons list would have been long, if she’d given me time to finish it.
But while I was thinking that, I was also kissing her fingers and pulling her closer to me, pretending that we were lovers, that any intimacy between us hadn’t been rent to shreds.
“It would be a bad idea for you to fall in love with me,” said Bethel. She was watching me kiss her fingers, her stare intent.
“Oh?” I asked.
My mind was running on two tracks at once, multithreading, one part caught in a loop and wholly silent, insisting that she’d betrayed me, that she’d gone a step too far, then second-guessing my complicity and replaying what I had said and done for the umpteenth time. The other part of me was slowly relaxing, trying to come to terms with the idea of it, accepting Bethel as she was, because she needed someone to care for her, because I did care for her. I was sure that any objective outside view would say that my mind was a mess, but it seemed to be working, at least so far as Bethel was revealing anything to me through her human form.
“I don’t think that I can love like a human,” said Bethel. “I’ve seen many lovers before.”
I stopped kissing her hand and let it drop to my chest, and she moved closer to me, curling up in the crook of my shoulder so that she could use me as a pillow. I tried to believe that it felt nice, that it was a comfort, and I think I succeeded in convincing myself.
“Arrogant of you to think I would fall in love with you,” I said. I kept my voice to a murmur. It was something that I would have said to Fenn, a playful little joke that she would have appreciated.
“Humans don’t make sense,” said Bethel. “More than any other species, you don’t have proper brains. It’s not your fault.”
“Well, I’ll try my best,” I replied. And in the thread that was thinking like her lover, or at least like a Juniper that was trying to show her love, a thought occurred, one which might have been warm and pleasant if things had been different, but one which I couldn’t help but speak, even with the roiling conflict inside of me. “Would it be so bad, to do this again?”
“We’ll see,” replied Bethel. There was no mistaking the warmth in her voice. She was practically purring like a kitten.
I went back to my rounds, helping out where I could, until eventually there was an excuse to leave Bethel and have some time to myself when I wasn’t trying to doublethink, wasn’t trying to push down the discomfort, unease, and downright dread I was feeling. Once I was gone from Bethel, so far away there was no possibility she was spying on me, I took a few deep breaths and tried to figure out what I was going to do.