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Bethel left behind the Egress, but pretty much nothing else. Next to the big metal bean of a ship, pinned down by a rock, was a note from Valencia.

J,
We’ll be gone for a bit. Don’t worry. I’ll write to Amaryllis once there’s some progress on our end. On your end, you need to do your best to make sure that you’re the healthy, happy Juniper that you’ve always struggled to be. Lean on Amaryllis, but don’t forget to help her where you can, because she’s just lost more assets than she realized she would. I’m sorry that I won’t be there, but I’m needed elsewhere. If you see Jorge before he’s gotten a letter from me, let him know that one is coming, and that I’m fine.
V

I read it twice. There was no mention of Bethel, which must have been deliberate. It wasn’t clear whether this had been Valencia’s plan from the beginning or not, but if it had been, she had kept a lot from us. I wasn’t even sure how they had gotten off Poran, but given the wide array of entads, there were a dozen ways Bethel could have done it. I wasn’t really in the right frame of mind for figuring out her movement options with different combinations of entads.

“We’re down to six,” said Grak. He sniffed. I knew him well enough that I thought he was probably thinking about the practical implications. He hadn’t been terribly close with Bethel or Valencia.

“We’ll manage,” said Raven.

“She can’t be gone, just like that,” said Amaryllis. “She’s not equipped for the long-term, she’s not equipped to handle herself against Bethel of all things, and if she’s staying constantly topped-off on devils then there are going to be repercussions.”

“She’ll manage,” said Raven. “She’s stronger than you realize.” She was putting a bit of command into her voice, the firmness that I had heard from her when she was bossing people around in the Infinite Library, but not very much aside from that.

“We’re down a time chamber and a base of operations,” said Grak.

“We’ll manage,” Raven repeated, but her face had lost just a bit of the confidence it had before.

“I want to be realistic about the problems,” said Grak. “We have fewer resources than we had before.”

“We do,” I said. I looked at Amaryllis. “And Valencia has put herself in a position of danger where we can’t save her if something goes wrong. I don’t think that we can or should ignore that, but it’s not actionable. We have a steel mage on-site, which means that we should get a home built in the next few days, one that Grak can properly ward for us. Until then, we can get a quick-hut --”

“Skin magic was excluded,” said Pallida.

“Oh,” I said. The little cobblestone houses that tattoo magic could make had been decoupled from the actual magic in my mind, and it had simply slipped my attention that this was another thing that the world wasn’t going to have any more. “Then for the next day or two, we can all sleep in the Egress, or if Solace thinks it’s prudent, we can sleep in the bottle, though I have reservations about that. Alternately, we can take over one of the existing sites around the Isle.” The steel mage we’d hired had already made some buildings for us with his team, though I wasn’t sure about what the status of them was. The tuung had taken over the auxiliary school, but the plan had been that they would move back into Bethel after a week or so, because they were teenager-equivalent, not full-grown. “For now, I would rather keep our attack surface as small as we can.”

“I have to imagine that we’re going to get a visit from the Draconic Confederacy soon,” said Amaryllis. She seemed relieved that I had taken some initiative, though I thought she was probably still on edge about Valencia being gone. “I’m not looking forward to it, but I don’t think that Hyacinth has the pull necessary to call in a dragon, let alone a dragon strike, especially not when there are so many foreign nationals on our soil. Besides that, I have something she wants, and a visit from a functionary would seem to be the right amount of pressure from her. So far as I know, that’s the next thing that we need to watch out for. Valencia … wherever they went, we can’t actually do anything for her.”

Unspoken was the idea that this had all been organized by the Dungeon Master. In the course of less than a week, I’d been stripped of my two most powerful allies and one of my magics, with little to replace them. It was hard to see his hand in it though, and I didn’t feel like I could preemptively absolve Bethel, not when it had been the two of us alone in a room together. If the Dungeon Master had manipulated her, it had been by shaping who she was, and that manipulation wouldn’t actually change anything, except maybe to engender some pity.


“I need to go into town,” said Amaryllis as we watched Grak build up the wards around the bottle. We’d decided on it after some deliberation, most of which was led by Grak, given that he would be the one putting up the wards. “There are contractors that I need to speak with, teachers and caregivers who won’t be having another stint in the time chamber, moneychangers, and, basically, twenty different meetings that I’ll need to have. Most of them would have happened anyway, but this is a new wrinkle, and I need to start making new plans.”

A new wrinkle. I didn’t know whether she was minimizing it for my benefit or simply taking things in stride.

“Let me help you,” I said. “You don’t have the time chamber to lean on anymore, and you’ve been putting too much work on yourself for too long.”

“Joon, that’s very sweet, but I don’t think what you need right now is to bury yourself in work,” said Amaryllis. She must have caught my look, because she followed it with, “Tomorrow I’ll have you come with me, if you still want to. Tonight is trial by fire as I see if I can do this without a week of preparation between every major negotiation and Valencia’s occasional insights. I’ll have the tuung for protection and support.”

“Okay,” I said.

“I’ll be back sometime after dinner,” said Amaryllis. “Which reminds me that there are logistical challenges we’re going to have to address, but it’s nothing that bulk teleport won’t be able to handle. The economics are a little more grim though.” Bethel had been responsible for supplying a large amount of our food and water, as well as clothing. Most of what we had was in Sable, not Bethel, but our reserves there weren’t infinite.

“We’ll work it out,” I said. “I’m willing to help in whatever way I can.”

We had a quick, awkward hug, and then she set off down the hill. She had, naturally, changed out of her bikini, instead opting for the immobility plate, her old standby, but it was still nice to have a hug.

“Are you doing okay?” asked Pallida. Amaryllis and I had been talking alone, off to one side, and Pallida approached me as soon as Amaryllis left.

“Hunky dory,” I replied.

“Only asking,” said Pallida.

“Yeah,” I said. “Sorry, reflex.” I looked her over. She was back in her inky black armor, with her trident in hand. I still had bits and fragments of what Pallida had said in mind, in the context of her thirty thousand year history. “This must seem silly to you,” I said.

“The house seemed like a problem from the moment I showed up,” said Pallida. “Too much power, if you ask me. I’m always at my worst when I have too much power.”

“I meant more … I know you have perspectives,” I said.

“Val was right, it probably wouldn’t help you,” said Pallida. “The thing about being renacim is that most of us have done everything and been everyone. It’s sometimes hard to resist the urge to tell people how much worse it was for me at various points. Hells, when I’m going through some shit it’s hard not to tell myself that I’ve seen and experienced worse. Never helps, in my opinion, to know that this isn’t the worst it’s ever been. All that does it make me feel small, like I don’t deserve to feel hurt over something that hurt me.”

“Okay,” I said. I was glad she hadn’t gone into details about when it had been the worst. Renacim didn’t always have the luxury of choosing which parents they would be born to, and my mind looked in dark directions for just long enough that I resolved never to think about it again. “Thanks.”

“No problem,” said Pallida. She stayed next to me, rather than moving away. “It feels weird, to have this group be so small.”

“Lisi is in Anglecynn,” I said. “She was planning to be on the Isle in another few days, though I don’t know if that’s going to happen now. Plus Gemma finished her warrior’s trial, didn’t she?”

“Still seems like too few,” said Pallida. Her eyes widened slightly. “Wait, was Hesh --”

“He left this morning,” I said. “He said he didn’t want goodbyes.”

“Gods dammit, that rat bastard!” Pallida swore. “I wanted a farewell party. I had all kinds of puns lined up.”

“Puns?” I asked.

“He’s had that necklace for hundreds of years,” said Pallida. “I’ve been preparing for a few lifetimes. You know, he was always ahead of the rest, wherever he might beheading I wish him luck, he’s headstrong, the head of our group,” she was speeding up, not slowing down, “always went in with a cool head, and maybe he would have been fine if someone had given him a heads up, I always said I would avenge him if someone touched a hair on his head, and if his heart ever ruled his head, it wouldn’t anymore, I had tons of them, neck puns too, and a couple in elven, on a list somewhere.”

“Well, that was pretty good,” I said. “For being off the top of your head.”

Pallida looked at me as though she was offended by my taste in puns, then burst out laughing. “Good to know you’ll be fine,” she said.

When the wards were done, we all went down into the bottle together, with Solace turning us into leaves part way through the drop. We floated and fluttered, then landed gently on the grass before turning back into ourselves, having scattered quite a bit in the wind. It was weird and disorienting, but it was certainly a more magical way to go down into the bottle than using Amaryllis’ immobility plate, which was our standby when Solace wasn’t available.

We had dinner without Amaryllis. It really did seem like we had a lot fewer people, all of the sudden. Five people was pretty much a normal party size for D&D, though our power levels were all over the map. Solace was our cook, which was also a bit weird, since Bethel had been our cook for quite some time. It made me feel awkward to think about how much food she’d fed me, and how much of an opportunity she’d had to screw with what she’d made for me. I didn’t think that she would have, since it wasn’t her style, but you never knew. And I was the one she liked, the one she cared about, in some fucked up way.

Conversation was subdued and focused on light subjects, by unspoken agreement. I talked for a bit about smeerps, which Solace had roasted for the main course, but my heart wasn’t really in it, even though it was the kind of fundamental worldbuilding arcana that I normally loved. Once dinner was done, I went outside for a walk, though the doe was nowhere to be seen.

Eventually I found a rock to sit on, and I watched the sunset through the glass of the bottle, alone with my thoughts, trying to process things.

I heard Raven before I saw her. She had dark hair and wore mostly black, and there was something about her cloak that made her a bit harder to see, though I wasn’t sure whether that was its nature, or something that she or it was doing with its power.

“Doing okay?” she asked.

“Sure,” I replied. I scooted over. “There’s room on the rock.”

Raven climbed up and sat down next to me, mimicking my pose, with her arms wrapped around her knees. “It’s nice to have another member of the no sleep club,” she said.

“I suppose so,” I said. Enough time had passed that the others were probably in bed. Back in Li’o, I hadn’t really had time to myself unless I wanted it, which I hadn’t. There were always things to do, no matter the time of day.

“Even before I stopped sleeping, I was an honorary member of the club,” said Raven. “Sixteen hundred hours awake, eight hundred hours asleep, that’s how it is for the Ell, so when I was with Uther and the rest, I would have six hours or so to myself every night, sometimes a little less. Some of them went to bed late, and others woke early, but there was still always a slice of time when it was just me. When we needed a watch, I was the one to do it.” She sighed. “It got lonely.”

“And then you would conk out for a month,” I said. “And miss a bunch of whatever was going on.”

“Yes,” said Raven. “And obviously there’s some give in our sleep schedule, just like a human, but my naps themselves lasted for days, and being short of sleep affected me for months of time.” She sniffed slightly. “Uther began tracking when and how much I slept, because he decided that I couldn’t be trusted to set my own bedtime, which was probably true.” There was some warmth when she said that, but it seemed horribly paternalistic to me.

“But how did your sleep actually work?” I asked. “I mean … are you just out hard when you’re asleep? How can you actually make it through a month without being interrupted? How do you survive without food?”

“You invented the Ell,” said Raven. “You tell me.”

“Huh,” I said. “I mean, I didn’t actually put that much thought into it. Sorry. If I had, I think my answer would be that the Ell have a bunch of adaptations that you might find in a human, like new parents waking up for a brief few minutes to take care of their infant then going back to sleep, but new parents are perpetually sleep-deprived, so I don’t know if that’s a good model. Maybe it’s just brief moments of groggy lucidity before returning to sleep, like a bear in hibernation. And Ell metabolism pretty much has to be fucky in order to follow the multiply-by-one-hundred rule. I doubt that you eat enough to get through a whole month of sleep, because if you did, you would have, uh, BMR times whatever, something like a hundred thousand calories, which would be what, twenty-eightish pounds of fat?”

“You love math,” said Raven with a nod.

“I’m not sure that I love math,” I replied. “I love answers. Math helps to find answers, so I like it, at least some of the time. So what is the answer?” I felt mildly embarrassed that I hadn’t asked before. I didn’t even know how she ate, except that she did.

“A few of our organs are extradimensional,” said Raven. “You can actually kill an Ell with a fairly basic ward against the unique magic of our species.”

“Huh,” I said. “And to use the adapted human analogy, you … drink by having lots of sips and eat by having lots of small snacks, effectively?”

“Effectively,” replied Raven with a nod. “Though we can eat in bulk, if we wish to.”

But what about pooping?

“You’re wondering about bowel movements and urination,” said Raven. She sighed.

“I was,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay,” replied Raven. “I’ve gotten the question so often that I know the particular feel to the silence it engenders when someone is holding back.”

We sat for a moment.

“I’ll look it up later,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Raven. “And please never discuss it with me.”

I nodded at that.

(I did end up looking it up later. It wasn’t a subject that came up in The Book of Blood, which was more concerned with which species Ell could reproduce with (the same as humans), how long their sex lasted (hours), what pregnancy was like (really, really long), and other questions that had occurred to Alek Syfriend and been only partly cut out by successive editors. Instead, I found a book in Sable’s library that covered all the various species specific magics in detail, until eventually I got to the entry on Ell. Apparently, they had poops that lasted for roughly twenty minutes, which expelled a huge amount of waste that needed special logistics that other species didn’t have to deal with. This was one of those things that probably would have made me scrap the Ell if I had thought of it when I was making them, because it was silly and gross, but I had been a young, reckless worldbuilder.)

“We can talk about something else,” I said.

“Good,” said Raven. She looked around for a moment. “Can I be candid?”

“Sure,” I said. “No one watching us anymore.” I tried to feel relieved about that, but all I felt was the same familiar anxiety of being watched. “Well, the locus, presumably, wherever she’s gone off to.”

“I’ve been thinking a lot about Uther, and whether or not he was a good man,” said Raven.

Once she said it, I could tell this was what she’d been trying to build up to. I felt a little bit guilty about all the detours we’d taken to get to this point. There was nothing so annoying as trying to have a serious conversation with someone when they weren’t giving you an opening to get down to business.

“And?” I asked. “Was he?”

“I don’t know,” said Raven. She was still hugging her knees. It made her look smaller. “I don’t know everything that he did. I don’t know why he did the things that he did. Both of those seem like they would be crucial elements in deciding whether he was good or bad.”

“And you’d have to pick a moral framework,” I said.

“Uther disliked moral frameworks,” said Raven. “And he invented dozens of them. Well, not invented, stole from Earth, then talked about at length on Aerb. Knowing that he was from Earth, it’s just … it’s so hard to get a handle on who he actually was, what was real, what was fake, what was an attempt to circumvent the narrative, or play to it. I was with him for thirty years, and all I have is guesswork.”

“I’ve always thought there was an unknowability to other people,” I replied. Raven looked over at me. “People are complicated, really complicated, and we only get bits and pieces of them, without any of the actual context. Even people that you spend time with, a lot of time even, the people you think you know backward and forward, they can surprise you, and they surprise you because you didn’t know all of them. It’s probably a Pareto’s Principle thing, twenty percent of the information gets you eighty percent of the predictive power, but the last twenty percent requires eighty percent of the observations.”

“I think that might be a misreading of Pareto’s Principle,” said Raven, looking momentarily confused. “But I understand the general point. So far as people go, there might always be hidden things, because people are big and complicated, and exploring every last nook and cranny of them would take eons.” She was silent for a moment. “What I’m talking about with Uther is different.”

“It is,” I admitted. “You don’t think that it can be abstracted down to being a matter of scope and scale?”

“Maybe,” Raven replied. “Maybe there are always different ways to view the information you have, different interpretations, and with Uther, the distance between those interpretations are simply greater and grander, like everything else about the man.” She sighed.

I started thinking about Fenn. Thoughts of Fenn were always depressing, always unbidden. She was, after all, a gaping hole in my life, similar to the one that Arthur had once left. But time had passed since Fenn had died, and I was better at coping with death. Also, and it hurt to think it, I hadn’t known Fenn as long or as deeply. One of the things that I was thinking about was how little I had actually known her, how many times she’d become a different person in my mind because some new bit of information or context was brought forward, sometimes casually, as when I’d learned that she was not, in fact, the same age as me, and sometimes brutally, as with the disastrous therapy session. But it had always felt like I was getting closer to the True Fenn, rather than further away. I had no idea how to succinctly say that to Raven, or whether it would be helpful for her to hear.

“I don’t know you,” I said. “That’s my own fault. We spent a week together and I hardly even scratched the surface. You talk a lot about the old days, but it’s usually in terms of objective facts, not subjective feelings.”

“That’s my nature,” said Raven. She gave a small, helpless shrug that screamed of Maddie. Maddie had given me that same little shrug after she’d finished talking about the unsavory looks one of her mom’s boyfriends had given her. “I was the group’s researcher, our historian. I learned to default to facts.”

“I’m trying to say that I’m sorry I haven’t been more of a friend,” I replied. I hadn’t been trying very hard to get toward the True Raven.

“I remind you too much of Maddie,” said Raven. She was looking off at the tree house again.

“It’s the mannerisms, mostly,” I said. “And I guess I feel like I was horrible to Maddie, and I don’t want to be horrible to you, but my solution up to this point has been to keep my distance, which doesn’t let me know the True Raven, and doesn’t let you know the True Juniper. So I’m sorry for that, and I want to correct it.”

“I’d like that,” said Raven. She uncurled somewhat, sticking her legs out across the rock instead of drawing them in toward her. “Can I ask questions then? Personal ones?”

“Sure,” I replied.

“What did you see in her?” asked Raven.

“Oh,” I said. “I was hoping for a softball.”

“Softball?” asked Raven.

“It’s a game,” I replied. “Or, an idiom that was coined for -- you know, it’s just an easy question.”

“And that question isn't easy to answer?” asked Raven.

“It’s easy to answer,” I replied. “I just don’t think that it reflects very well on me. Even if I give the longer, sympathetic version, I don’t think that it reflects well on me.”

“Well, go on then,” said Raven. “I don’t think that I have the stomach for lies and omissions, not the second time around. Just tell me.”

“Okay,” I said. “Maddie was … happy? Enthusiastic? She would listen with rapt attention when I told her things. She made me feel like I was important. She had a curiosity about things, which I found appealing, and she didn’t know much, or at least she knew a lot about strange, obscure, irrelevant things, so I was able to sate her curiosity a lot of the time.” I let out a sigh. “Okay, now the parts that paint me in a bad light. The biggest thing was that she was there when no one else was. She talked to me. She gave the impression she needed me. And, I don’t know, by comparison she made me feel mature, like I had all these life experiences to share, or like the shallow wells of knowledge I had were somehow deep. She liked me, when no one else liked me, and that was comforting.”

“Sounds complicated,” said Raven.

“Not really,” I replied. “We dated for a week, then we had sex, then she dumped me.”

Raven was silent for a moment. I worried that I had been too blunt.

“Can I tell you how it was, from the other side?” she asked.

“I don’t even know what you mean by that,” I replied.

“For me, it was about someone older, wiser, more experienced,” said Raven, without clarifying. “A rock that would shelter me from the winds, a solid foundation, a raw, protective power. I wanted to help, I wanted to pitch in, I wanted to be wanted.”

She was talking about Uther, clearly. I had no idea how to handle that. “You were … the equivalent to twelve years old.”

Raven looked over at me. “Physically,” she replied. “Mentally, emotionally, I don’t know.”

“Still,” I said.

“I know,” she replied, looking away from me and back toward the house. “It happens a lot with children, that they have some knowledge of courtship or marriage and think to themselves, ‘oh, I should just marry my father’ without really understanding what it is they’re saying. Except I feel like I always knew that it could never actually happen. It was fantasy.”

I was silent for a bit. I was feeling uncomfortable. None of my childhood crushes had been real people, they’d all been fictional, or failing that, actors. For Raven, it was someone who had been a father figure to her, and more than that, it had been Arthur.

“Did you … grow out of it?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Raven with a sigh. “This is making you uncomfortable.”

“A bit,” I admitted. “But if this is True Raven, then bring it on, I guess.”

“You’re imagining a twelve-year-old human girl traveling around with a much older man,” said Raven. “I understand. At best, it’s naive and awkward, at worst, it’s gross and awkward. What I’m trying to say is that from the inside, it felt romantic, like we were star-crossed lovers.” She gave me a look. “He never showed me even the slightest hint of impropriety, not the slightest hint of anything more than a familial interest.”

“Which you didn’t like,” I said, reading between the lines.

“I understood it,” said Raven. “Even at the time I understood it, though I understand it more now. I understood all the levels that it was unrealistic and impossible on, and my heart still got swollen at the sight of him.”

“I feel like we have vast gulfs in our experiences,” I said.

“Yes,” said Raven with a nod. “But I can make my guesses about Maddie and how she saw you, if she was like me. I doubt that you had a good window into the True Maddie.”

“No,” I said. “Probably not.”

“Well then, since we have all night together,” said Raven. “My guess is that she saw you as good and noble, as --”

“No,” I said. “Sorry, I was a shitheel. I know you only know half of it, but I should set the record straight there. I was a shitheel, and literally everyone knew it. I don’t know how Maddie could have missed it.”

“Maybe she didn’t,” said Raven. “Maybe she thought despite it all, you were a good person. She felt all this empathy toward you, and she knew that you were a genius, so --”

“Sorry, not a genius,” I said.

“Amaryllis said that you were one of the smartest people in your school,” said Raven.

“I … maybe,” I said. “But it’s real easy to say that you’re a genius and the only reason you didn’t get good grades is because you were barely trying. And if ‘genius’ just means toward the top of a pile of a hundred fifty some kids in the middle of nowhere, then it’s a less impressive word than I thought.” I hesitated. “Sorry, I’m just … if I were amazingly gifted and talented, then that would mean that I was even more of a waste than I already thought I was.”

“Maybe that was what she liked,” said Raven. “A diamond in the rough? You have that expression?”

“We do,” I replied. “And … maybe. Or maybe she was just lonely, and I was part of this different world that she was gated from, and then one day I offered to let her into the garden, long after it had already collapsed into ruin.”

“That garden being?” asked Raven.

“Uh,” I said. “Our friend group.”

“Oh,” said Raven.

“What did you think I meant?” I asked.

“Coitus,” said Raven. She was staring straight ahead. The word came out firmly, with commitment, but I still got the sense that she didn’t want to say it.

“Oh,” I said. “No.”

“The metaphor wasn’t clear to me,” said Raven.

I wanted to rush to pave over the conversation, and maybe on another night, I would have, but I let my thoughts turn to Maddie instead. I tried to see myself as Maddie had seen me, then I tried to see myself as Raven thought Maddie saw me, which was a few levels too deep for my brain to handle, at least at that particular moment.

“I spent a long time chasing after him,” said Raven, who was apparently having thoughts of her own. “After he was gone, I just wanted to know where he’d gone to.”

“Really?” I asked. “If you had known, you wouldn’t have tried to follow?”

“I’d have tried to follow,” said Raven, nodding. “So maybe I’m just whitewashing myself. I pretended, early on, that my search for him was just about making sure that the world had a savior. As the search went on, and there were fewer and fewer people involved, until it was just me.” She let out a breath. “Eventually I decided that it wouldn’t have been what he wanted. If he came back, he would be disappointed with me for chasing after him.”

“Hence the Infinite Library?” I asked.

“Partly,” said Raven. “Partly I was looking for a future where Uther came back.”

“Easy to lie to yourself and say that it was more the former than the latter,” I said.

Loyalty Increased: Raven lvl 2!

“Yes,” said Raven, nodding. “And eventually I started to develop from a girl to a woman, and the feelings took on a different texture. I tried to deal with it in various ways, but nothing really helped that much, because there was no one like Uther, and there never could be. And now I don’t even know if there was ever a person like Uther, because Uther wasn’t Uther.”

“I’m sorry,” I replied. “Must have been rough.” It felt empty when I said it, and it was the kind of thing I hated to hear, but sometimes there were no good options for conveying empathy. Raven didn’t seem to notice.

“It was,” said Raven. She gave the same little helpless shrug. “Obviously I want to find him so that he can get back to saving the world, or so that we can help you save the world, but Uther always said that the personal was a key component of the universal, so I don’t think that he would be too upset with me for wanting to find him, just for myself.”

“To give him a piece of your mind?” I asked.

“To ask questions,” said Raven. “To know, to understand. To get at the True Uther.”

“And then maybe your life will make sense?” I asked.

“Maybe,” said Raven. “Probably not, because it’s clear that my life isn’t just tied to his, it’s tied to yours as well. My understanding of Arthur is that I was the kid sister, a perpetual innocent, knowledgeable but naive, and my purpose was in keeping him grounded, not just by being the person I was, but by being Maddie. And my understanding of you is that I’m symbolic of a mistake you think you made, here to help you get over it, or to make amends that you didn’t get a chance to make on Earth, or something like that.”

“Probably something like that,” I said. “I ended up freezing you out instead.”

“I didn’t feel frozen,” said Raven. “I was fine with being clinical. It was usually how it was with Uther. ‘Exposition fairy’ is a term of endearment that’s grown more and more upsetting with time. I saw the TVTropes page for it in a pile that Amaryllis had taken from the backpack.”

“Alright,” I said. “I’ll make a note not to call you that.” I smiled a bit, but she didn’t smile back.

“Thank you,” she replied. She cleared her throat. “You know, I’m not sure what you did with Maddie was actually wrong.”

“Oh,” I said. “Well, no thanks, I don’t need apologetics.”

“I first had sex when I was 1,514 years old,” said Raven. “I didn’t feel taken advantage of or traumatized. I didn’t feel like I was unable to consent, which I understand is the issue that gets to you.”

“But it probably wasn’t someone who was in a position of power over you,” I replied. “And look, I think I can anticipate what you’re going to say, which is that my position of power over Maddie was debatable, but I just really don’t want to be made to feel better about it.”

“I’m not even talking about you,” said Raven, shaking her head. “I’m talking about myself, and how I think about these things. Maybe that will change how you think about Maddie, or maybe it won’t, but it’s what’s true to me. I’m … putting myself out there, a little bit, in telling you this.”

“Okay,” I said. “Sorry, it’s weird for me. You have her voice.”

“I know,” said Raven. She sighed. “I don’t even know how much we’re actually alike, looks and mannerisms aside. A part of me wants to go to Sporsan and track down my doppelganger on Aerb, though she apparently doesn’t look like me, even if she had a similar role for the Aerbian Juniper. Maybe that would help me understand my purpose in the world.”

“Well, so far as I know, the Earth Maddie didn’t have a whole bunch of adventures all around the world when she was twelve, so there are obvious differences,” I said.

“You wouldn’t count the games?” asked Raven.

“Oh,” I said. “I guess that would have been when she was twelve, at least in part. Still.”

“I’m not going to claim that it’s a perfect mapping,” said Raven. “But I think there are more points of commonality than you might imagine. Maddie had the Internet, I had the Society of Letters. Maddie looked up to her brother, I looked up to Uther. Presumably she had some female friends that outgrew and excluded her?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. “If she talked about it, I didn’t listen well enough.”

“I’ll ask her alternate,” said Raven.

“That’s … I’m not sure that would be good for her,” I replied.

“I shouldn’t speak to her?” asked Raven. “In theory, I’m quite a bit like her, but older and more experienced. Would you turn down the chance to talk with an older, more experienced version of yourself, one who could give you some advice on avoiding the pitfalls that you ran into?”

“I don’t know,” I replied. I was thinking, of course, of the Dungeon Master, because how could I not? He was a sadist though, and if we were, as he claimed, kindred spirits, then I didn’t understand how there could be such a colossal gap between us. “I guess. And what would you tell her?”

“Oh, that, I have no idea,” said Raven. She glanced at me. “Myself at twelve hundred years old, her I understand, because her mistakes are obvious. Myself at fifteen hundred … I don’t know how much I could apply to her problems. From what I know of the alternate Maddie, she’s dropped out of Anglecynn’s educational system, which possibly maps to my disillusionment with society.”

“Height of the Second Empire?” I asked, after some quick math on the dates.

“Its fall, actually,” said Raven. “But the writing was on the wall for a long time before that.”

“And did you … were your hands clean?” I asked.

“As clean as any bystander’s hands ever are,” said Raven. “I more or less disappeared from the world stage. For me it was a time of … hedonism, I suppose you might call it. Some of the Ell were targeted by the Second Empire, mostly for their money, but I was spared, because the Second Empire pretended to be the heir to the First Empire, and I suppose it would have looked bad for them to steal from the youngest and most innocent of Uther’s Knights. So I just casually wasted a hundred years doing nothing in particular. Some of it was spent pretending that I was working on biographies of the long-dead, some of it was spent pretending that I was searching for Uther, and some of it was spent pretending that I was learning.”

“Huh,” I said. “It’s hard for me to picture that.”

“Well, thank you,” replied Raven. “But there was a dark period there where it all seemed pointless. I don’t know if that’s what she’s going through, but if it is, it would probably help for her to hear that it gets better.”

“And that she’ll be leading a library that imperfectly foretells the future in another few months?” I asked.

“Har,” said Raven, rolling her eyes. She gave me a little smile. “Maybe once Amaryllis comes back down she’ll want to spend some time working out the parallels with me. That’s something that we could use your help with, even if you didn’t know Maddie that well.”

“Amaryllis is decidedly not a member of the no-sleep club,” I replied. “But … sure, I guess. Even if I don’t think it will be useful, it might allow me to spend some time with you.”

“Ah,” said Raven. “Because you actually want to spend time with me?” asked Raven. “Or because you want my loyalty score to increase, or because you want my actual loyalty to increase? Or because you feel obligated?”

“Can I say something a little bit rude?” I asked.

“Hrm,” said Raven. “I’ve made it 1,767 years without anyone being rude to me, and it would be just awful of you to break the streak.”

“Har,” I replied.

“I’m also not sure how I would be able to handle it emotionally,” Raven continued. “Intellectually, I can understand how I would have to pick myself back up from the despair that would inevitably follow from rudeness on your part. But from where I am right now, just contemplating you being rude to me, it seems impossible that I would recover.”

“You done?” I asked.

“Sure,” said Raven. She flashed me a smile. “You know, I didn’t really get to be sarcastic at the Library very often.”

“Too busy saving the world, I suppose,” I replied.

“Too busy being the boss,” said Raven. “There was always plenty of downtime, people need downtime to be productive,” she had shifted into her exposition voice, without seeming to notice it, “just like they need good social structures and to have their various mental needs met.”

“The rude thing I was going to say was that you’re smarter than Maddie,” I replied.

“Oh,” said Raven. “That is rude.” She was quiet for a moment. “I’m also not sure that it’s true. I don’t consider myself to be very intelligent.”

“Really?” I asked.

“I’m a researcher,” said Raven. “My job is to know things, and maybe to make connections from things that I know to other things that I know.”

“You have such a way with words,” I said, smiling at her. It was good to know we could make fun of each other.

“Vervain used to say that connection was the most powerful force in the universe, and that it all boiled down to one thing connecting to another thing,” said Raven. “Anyway, most of what made me an asset to Uther wasn’t my ideas, it was the information that I brought to the table. Same with the Infinite Library. I wasn’t usually the smartest person in the room, I was the one with the most experience, the one who knew the most, and aside from all that, the most capable fighter, with a lot of strong relationships on the outside. All that is different from being smart.”

“True, I guess,” I replied. “But Maddie … I can’t really see the parallels.”

“Can’t you?” asked Raven. She turned a bit closer to me. “You told me that she spent most of her time neck-deep in her equivalent to the Society of Letters.”

“I mean … yeah,” I said. “But that wasn’t scholarship, that was, I don’t know, trying to find a place to belong.”

“And you think that’s not what I was doing with the Society of Letters?” asked Raven. “Do you think that I wasn’t writing to these early scientists, philosophers, and thinkers because I was trying to find a place where I belonged? Even then my role was as a historian, knowing more than everyone simply because I was throwing myself at it with everything that I had.”

“Okay,” I said. “But most of what Maddie came up with was weird and alien to us. It was, I don’t know, cultures that sprang up around games that we never played, or really poorly written webfiction, or these fourth wall breaking multimedia projects.”

“I don’t think that I understood all of that,” said Raven. “But for me, with the Society of Letters, I was exactly the same toward the very few friends that I had, or the people who weren’t friends, but who didn’t really have a choice but to spend time with me. I knew things, and more than that, I liked things, so it was only natural to share all these mental places that I had been, even if it was boring to whomever I was talking to, or I wasn’t getting the experience I’d had across to them. I grew out of it. I started to recognize that glassy look when people didn’t care about what I was saying, and I got better at conveying what excited or interested me. I’m sure that Maddie would have too.”

I wasn’t so sure about that, but Raven was talking about her own life, and I was finding myself interested by it, maybe because I could relate. Half my experience of high school had been excitedly telling someone about everything I’d read in The Singularity is Near or how Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock was a prescient work of genius, and really, the medium was the message (though I put down McLuhan ten pages in and just read a summary). The other half of high school was keeping up with Arthur when he was on a tear through some new-to-us idea. And naturally, all of it got fed back onto the gaming table.

“I don’t think you can imagine how suited I was to being Uther’s Knight,” said Raven. I had sat there in silence for too long, and there were still things that she wanted to say. “He wanted to know what I knew. He wanted me to go out and learn things, then bring them back to him. Some of it was a struggle, difficult language, difficult concepts, authors who invented their own terminology, but I adapted, faster than any Ell could ever have hoped to, and I would come back to Uther with all the shiny treasures I had found. And then … he was like an artisan, taking the precious metals and turning them into something beautiful, or useful -- a plan, or a device, made from the raw ingredients I brought him.”

“That does sound nice,” I replied.

“It was,” said Raven with a nod.

We both went silent for a little bit. Raven was probably thinking about Uther, and how things had gone sour, how none of it had been what she’d thought it had been, or what it would be like to have it back. I was mostly thinking about Maddie, trying to figure out how she might have lived her life, unknown to me, given this new context that Raven had given me.

I was startled out of my thoughts when the rock shifted beneath us. I had a sudden startled moment of panic as I tried to make sense of what was happening, then began burning bones for Speed, my go-to when I needed more time to react. I calmed back down at once though when I realized that it was just the rock shifting, only the rock, and that the way it was moving was organic. I hopped down and gave my hand to Raven, who took it despite it being entirely a chivalrous gesture with no practical help. We both stood back and watched as the ‘rock’ unfurled itself into a pale white doe. She gave a long, loud yawn, then looked at us with sleepy eyes.

“It would appear that the locus isn’t a member of the no-sleep club,” said Raven.

“The doe does what she wants,” I replied. “Sorry for sitting on you. Try not dressing up like a rock next time.” I gave the doe a small bow, and to my amusement, Raven did a little curtsy.

“Should we move elsewhere?” asked Raven.

“No, I think I’m done sitting for a bit,” I replied. “There are things that need doing, skills that got sacrificed that I want to level back up for more sacrifice, mostly.”

“Do you want help?” asked Raven. “Or company?”

I looked at her and saw Maddie.

“I know that today has been difficult for you,” said Raven. “I’m sure you’ll be fine on your own, if that’s what you want. Just offering.”

“Thanks,” I replied. “Should be fine on my own though. Maybe some time to think, maybe some time to process. Valencia being gone … Bethel too.”

“I’ll be by the doe, reading, if you need me,” said Raven.


Raven Masters, Loyalty lvl 2

Raven Masters was always the weakest of Uther’s Knights, and now she is the last of them. As an Ell, her life has been stretched out to the extremes. As the Head Librarian of the Infinite Library, she has seen thousands of futures. Since she was a young girl though, there has been one constant in her life, Uther Penndraig, who even now, in his absence, defines her.


I worked on leveling up skills in the cellar of the treehouse. I had no particular reason to pick there instead of somewhere else, other than that I was feeling like I should go somewhere quiet and dark. A soul lamp lit the area for me as I went through the motions of relearning the skills that I had sacrificed. It was grueling work, and it would have gone faster with Raven there, both for someone to talk to and someone to help with the actual training, but I really did want some time alone, or failing that, some time with someone who I had less complicated feelings about. It was hard not to see Maddie in Raven, and even harder when Raven was making a bunch of comparisons between the two of them. Worse, I kind of liked Raven.

So I consulted with the training manuals (fresh new ones) and ran through forms again, watching the awkwardly spaced skill ups and writing everything down in a journal so that we could tweak procedures if we really needed to. A lot of the relearning penalty could be ameliorated by following different disciplines or skillsets than I had done in the past, which was part of why sparring wasn’t the be-all-end-all for raising skills back up. If I had sacrificed One-Handed Weapons, for example, training with a sword would get me less skill than training with a mace, because I hadn’t really used maces in the past, and there were differences in technique. Once I was back on track, it seemed to be a little more lenient, though still slower than it had been. And as might be expected, it was a slog.

Amaryllis snuck up on me while my back was turned, and I don’t know how long she was watching me before I noticed. I put down my sword and wiped myself off a bit, taking a moment to glance at my watch.

“It’s late,” I said. Two in the morning was really late, especially by our standards.

“Mrm,” said Amaryllis. “You’ll have to forgive me, but I’m very sleepy.”

“Well, go to bed then?” I asked. “Unless there’s something you need from me. You can borrow the ring and pawn off the sleep debt to someone.” It was a thousand hours per person, and could be shared, which we planned on doing.

“No,” said Amaryllis. “I’ll be fine. Maybe tomorrow, after I’ve arranged something with the tuung. We’re short on labor, and extra sleep approximates labor, so.”

“Okay,” I said. I waited for her to see herself out, but she stayed silent, leaning against the wall and watching me. “How did your meetings go?”

“Good,” replied Amaryllis. “I was losing focus toward the end there. I’ve made my negotiations and delegated a bit to the tuung. It’s sooner than I had wanted, but they’re all eager to prove themselves, and if they’re effectively teenagers … well, they’ve had a quality education, and the drift hasn’t been too bad, from what I’ve seen.”

I waited a beat. “Was there something that you needed from me?” I asked.

“No,” said Amaryllis. She blinked, and it was a slow blink, as though her eyes didn’t want to open back up again. “I wanted to ask you how you were doing, but I know you don’t like that question, and I wanted to ask you if there was anything that I could do, but I know you don’t like that either. So.”

“Oh,” I said. “I’m … fine. There’s a weight off my shoulders in some ways. People have been really supportive.” I shrugged. “I’m worried about Val, and a little shook that she’s gone, but I trust her. There’s a part of me that knows Bethel is out there somewhere and that’s just … not a great feeling. Other than that, I’m doing some necessary work to try to squeeze out the last of the utility from the skills that are going to be respecced.”

Amaryllis let out a breath. “Alright,” she said. “I have a request.”

“Go for it,” I replied.

“I’d like you to lay with me while I fall asleep,” she replied.

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah. Sure.” But why?

“There are some Earth studies,” said Amaryllis. She paused. “I just think it would be nice. For both of us.”

“Alright,” I said. I gave her my best nonchalant shrug.

I followed after her as she went upstairs, then waited for a moment while she got changed. I was just a little bit sweaty, and tried to clean up, but the last time we’d been living in the bottle, we’d taken our baths in the river with something that Solace swore was as good as soap. There was no running water in the tree house for me to get properly clean. I could still smell the sea on me, beneath the smell of sweat.

Amaryllis wasn’t wearing anything special, just her typical pajama bottoms and a tank top, which was what she wore to bed every night. She climbed into one of the beds, then patted beside her for me to join her. It was awkward, mostly because we were both making it awkward. I think that there was too much built up history between the two of us, but no corresponding tension, not really, and given how the day had gone, and how tired she was, I wasn’t expecting that this was going to lead anywhere. That was part of what made it awkward.

I lay down in bed with her, and she arranged herself so that she was by my side, with an arm draped over me and our legs touching. I could feel the heat of her, and her breath on me. Nights were generally cool in the bottle, which made for a pleasant contrast.

“The research paper was about cortisol,” said Amaryllis. She was speaking slowly and softly, mumbling, already half asleep. “Intimate touch from someone you care about decreases cortisol, which means lowered stress, increased immune function,” she yawned. It felt like her list was going to go on, but she just lay there.

“Sounds like an excuse from someone looking to cuddle,” I said, half-jokingly.

“What is?” she asked. Her speech was slightly slurred.

“Nevermind,” I replied.

She gave me a little squeeze, then nestled in a bit more deeply, and it wasn’t long before I felt a slight jerk of her leg. It brought back some memories; the first time I had ever experienced a kick like that had been with Tiff, and I had thought that something was wrong with her before looking it up online. Apparently it was a thing that people did as they were falling asleep, a byproduct of the transition from being awake to being unconscious, we just didn’t remember it, because it was in that twilight time when our consciousness was fading. I had gone pretty much my whole life without knowing that was a thing, simply because I’d never slept next to someone, and it was one of those little revelatory moments that had made me think firsts actually did matter, because I was never going to get that discovery a second time.

It was still nice to have Amaryllis fall asleep on me, don’t get me wrong. I was wide awake, and there was no danger of me falling asleep so long as I wore the ring, but it was nice to be doing nothing for a bit. And it was very nice to be doing nothing with Amaryllis.

How was I doing? The storm of emotions was mostly quieted down, not to baseline levels, but nowhere near what I had been the day before. Bethel was gone, and that was such a relief that I could barely believe it, like someone who had been living with an inch-long splinter in their side suddenly having it removed and thinking, ‘oh, right, I used to not feel like shit all the time’. Valencia was gone, and that was … well, not good. If something happened to Valencia, I wasn’t sure what I would do, but I had to believe that she would be okay, because if I didn’t believe it, I would tear myself up trying to do something about it. She had promised letters, and I was holding out hope for that.

Was there anything that Amaryllis could do to help? I looked down at her, resting her head on my chest, peaceful, for once. I wasn’t sure that I liked her as much when she was putting an effort into being happy, but it had been for my benefit, and that was heart-warming, especially now that the other stuff was at least a little bit resolved. This, now, with her pressed against me … well, I could already feel my cortisol levels dropping, whatever that meant. I wasn’t sure how long I was supposed to stay there with her, given that she had to have known that I wasn’t going to sleep, but I was willing to give it some time. I ran my fingers through her hair and she shifted against me, making a little sound with her throat that I interpreted to be happy.

After an hour alone with my thoughts, I slipped out from under Amaryllis, letting her turn over and then putting a blanket over her. I wanted to kiss her, but I didn’t know if she would want to be kissed, so I held back. The last thing I wanted was to betray her trust in me. It occurred to me that Valencia had said something, a while ago, about how we should all talk openly about the things we were feeling and handle them like adults, instead of speaking in metaphor and talking around the issues. And it also occurred to me that what Bethel had said was an echo of that, how we mortals were fumbling creatures, barely even aware of each other. I shook off those thoughts as best I was able and went back downstairs to keep training, as much as I might have wanted to stay next to Amaryllis.

I had responsibilities, after all.

~~~

In the morning the delegation from the Draconic Confederacy’s Order of Air Supremacy Enforcement came to the Isle of Poran. Amaryllis had been expecting a functionary and dreading a dragon. Instead, we got two dragons.

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Alexander Wales

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