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The Underline sailed along, well under the three hundred foot limit, taking us not to the Isle of Poran, but back to the Necrolaborem EZ, this time with remote assistance from the Dorises to actually find the fucker. Based on the readings that they’d been able to give us in the DFEZ, he was in the city itself, but deep underground, which wasn’t entirely unexpected, but was annoying. It meant that we were either going to have to find the entrance or drill down. We were working on it though, and in the meantime, we were cruising along in the nice, gentle air. We could have teleported, since we’d been to Necrolaborem, but none of the sites we’d ‘acquired’ by making whorls on our worldlines were ones that we could be confident would be safe.

Amaryllis and I shared a cabin, as we’d done during all our recent flying, and while we spent a fair bit of time out and about on the flying schooner, or with the others, our cabin was a place that we went to retreat. The bed was wide enough for two, if they were willing to get close, which we were. She liked to lay beside me, resting her head on my chest. We were both clothed, something that needed to be stipulated in these odd times, dressed in t-shirts and shorts, because it was a little bit warm in the region we were passing through. It made me think about Reimer’s insistence on having his characters constantly wearing full plate unless there was some mechanical penalty for it, which had always irked me (there had been a time when I used the term ‘ludonarrative dissonance’ every chance I got). In reality, constantly wearing as much physical protection as possible got old fast.

“How are things in clone land?” I asked.

“No change from the locus,” said Amaryllis. “Solace is brooding, and it’s difficult to comfort her, because she views it as a vindication of the Second Empire’s research, at least if I’m reading her right. That’s been leading to her having some hard feelings toward both of us, which is frustrating. Again, reading between the lines. She’s not talking all that much.”

“I wish it weren’t that way,” I said. “I wish Grak’s thing had been the end of it.” That the locus getting out of the bottle hadn’t done much was disappointing but not surprising.

“In Anglecynn,” Amaryllis continued, “There was an effort to bring forward a vote that would have restricted the number of council seats that any individual can hold, which I squashed. The pushback has started, though it’s not as fierce as I thought it would be, because so many people dying in such short order has left an enormous power vacuum that I’m filling almost entirely on my own.” She paused. “I’ve started being a little more flamboyant in how I dress myself, because people keep getting the versions of me mixed up, even though I have very clear roles assigned. It’s starting to get to the level of costume.”

“Sexy costumes?” I asked.

She gave me a dirty look. “I know you’re joking, but that’s been a problem in Anglecynn. One of the things that I underestimated about going public with the clones is just how many sex jokes I would have to endure. The clones dress very conservatively, covering skin and hiding my figure, but people still seem to think that when we’re not working, we’re having giant lesbian orgies. And if the jokes aren’t about that, it’s about you being a very lucky guy. But people will say that to my face, like it’s any of their fucking business, or at all appropriate to speak of to another person. These inconsiderate assholes get a boner thinking about it and don’t have the common courtesy to keep their idiotic fantasies to themselves. The papers are worse about it, but that I at least understand, because there’s a profit motive — I’m working on reforms there, incidentally. But no, these people who’ve been pissing me off are in conversation with me over the future of their businesses and our country. And they’re saying these things.” She was tensed up, and took a moment to relax. “Obviously you are a very lucky guy though.”

“I am,” I nodded. I still felt a bit guilty about the new sexual aspect of our relationship, but that guilt was fading as it became the new normal.

“I liked having the four of us together,” said Amaryllis, as though she could feel my guilt and felt the need to assuage it. She had two clones on the ship with us. “This isn’t about you and me, it’s just a really pointless and unwelcome complication for my work.”

“Okay,” I said, rubbing her back. “You let me know if there’s anything I can do.”

“I’ll think about it,” said Amaryllis with a sigh, allowing herself a moment to just enjoy the feeling. There were, as it turned out, a lot of physical sensations that she enjoyed, and I had been slowly learning them. “Anyway. That’s another thing that’s going on in Anglecynn, if you wanted to know.” She tapped her fingers on my chest. “I’ve been commiserating with Blood God Doris about how annoying the lewd jokes are.” I was pleased as punch that my name had stuck.

“They don’t, uh,” I started, not knowing how to finish that. “I assumed that there was freaky sex stuff going on in the DFEZ.” I had no idea how to phrase that so that I wasn’t doing the exact thing that she was just complaining about. After our brief time in the EZ, I didn’t think that I would ever fantasize about Doris, not having seen the poverty, slavery, cannibalism, and everything else. But I had assumed that the Dorises were using each other for sexual gratification.

“It’s very limited,” said Amaryllis. “Most of the Dorises are in brutal poverty, and of the ones that aren’t, they hate each other and don’t trust themselves. That makes intimacy difficult. So there’s a trade in dildos, and plenty of masturbation, but very little of what people like to imagine goes on there.” I badly wanted to know how that conversation had gone, and wished that I could have been a fly on the wall. It seemed like a bizarre thing to bond over. “Blood God Doris hates what people imagine, viscerally hates it, probably because conditions have been so bad for so long, and there are people on the outside making up this fantasy that might as well not have her in it at all.”

“Huh,” I said. “And … you’re getting along?”

“I’m starting to understand her,” said Amaryllis. “It would be better if I could count on her to listen to me, but I can’t. She wants someone to advise her, but she doesn’t want to be a puppet, and it’s exasperating, because I could have the whole EZ turned around in virtually no time if I had either of her powers.”

“And Poran?” I prompted.

“Oh, that’s completely fine, but it’s work,” said Amaryllis, shrugging. She held up a hand and began counting things off. “Principle engineering and design for the first televisions is finally done, which means we’re looking for labor; the televisions will be useless without television stations, which we’re securing content, rental space, and radio allocation for; tuung are really gung ho about a second generation, which they’d like to start sooner than later, with or without Bethel; and finally, we’re getting some imperial attention, probably because of the locus in our backyard, which means that we might reach the status of member polity earlier than expected.”

“Sounds great,” I said. “That would be a quest completed without me lifting a finger.”

“It’s a long way out,” said Amaryllis. “The Empire moves at a snail’s pace, when it deigns to move at all.”

“And you personally?” I asked. “All those Amarylli out there are doing well?”

“It’s just me,” she said. “I keep telling you that.”

“You didn’t answer the question,” I said.

“The prospect of more time with Blood God Doris makes me uneasy,” said Amaryllis. “Some of it is just being with her, some of it is the worry that she’ll snap and kill me, or that the other Dorises will attack, or that when it comes time for me to leave, I won’t be allowed to.”

“You’re two days in and sounding like it’s been a lifetime,” I said with a frown. “We shouldn’t have left you there.” I moved a bit, trying to think through our options, but also trying not to dislodge her. “Shit, if that’s the cost of the social option, then … well, fuck. We do battle, I guess.”

Loyalty Increased: Amaryllis lvl 26!

She laid her hand on my arm. “I’m just venting,” she said. “I’m not suggesting that we pull me out. It’s three percent of my existence, and when it’s the full hundred percent, when I’m that instance of me, I can manage. If it were long-term, a year? Then I would say better to get me out as soon as possible. But I will have a replacement, I’ve been working on that, and it won’t be more than another week, which I’m confident I can handle.”

“I don’t want you to be unhappy,” I said.

“More than that,” said Amaryllis, smiling at me. “You actively want me to be happy.”

“Okay,” I said, leaning back. “In the interests of manipulating you into more consistently telling me when you’re not feeling well, I will let this be, and not take any rash actions.”

“Thank you,” said Amaryllis. “Trust me that if I’ve had enough, or think that something concrete needs to be done, I’ll tell you.”

“Loyalty up, by the way,” I said.

“Really?” she asked. “When?”

“When I suggested we go against Blood God Doris to save you,” I said.

“Oh,” said Amaryllis. “Yes, I suppose.”

“You suppose?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “I think it was that I believed you would.”

“Of course I would,” I said, frowning a bit.

“Yes, and that’s ill-considered,” said Amaryllis. “But it was still the thought that you would do that for me. It was me realizing that you were entirely serious. It gave me happy thoughts.”

There was a knock at our cabin door, and I sat up. “Come in!” I called.

Raven poked her head in, checked that we were decent, then stepped all the way in. There really wasn’t a point in her checking, because I would have said something if we were naked, and further, locked the door. My mind went to what Amaryllis had said about the assumptions of sex, and how that had bothered her, and I wondered whether she thought the same about Raven double-checking.

“Juniper, can I talk to you for a moment?” she asked.

“In private?” I asked, looking at Amaryllis.

“If that’s alright with you,” Raven replied.

“I was just leaving to speak with Grak,” said Amaryllis. She pulled away from me and sat up, and after a moment, I followed suit. “So even if it’s not alright with Juniper, he’ll have to do without my company.” She slipped off the bunk where she’d been laying with me and then scooted past Raven. These weren’t exactly luxury accomodations, so there was a fair bit of that on the ship.

“Mute us, please?” asked Raven, as soon as Amaryllis was gone.

“Already done,” I said. I was using vibration magic to block the sound of our conversation, which was standard practice for me, since it was usually pretty cheap in terms of ‘breath’ so long as it was just one or two people, and helped me level the skill. “But you should get to the point quickly, because I’m getting worried.”

“Oh,” said Raven, “No, it’s nothing serious, just personal. Personal and serious, I suppose. If it’s okay, I’d still like to lead with the pretext?”

“The … pretext for talking to me alone?” I asked.

Raven nodded. “It’s specifically with regards to the dimensional bridge or tunnel that the Dorises have pointed out, which, as you said, is the second time that’s been suggested. If it goes somewhere, then it’s almost certainly not a place that’s widely known, and … the best guess is that it leads to Earth. We wouldn’t count on it, but that’s where we’d place money, right?” I nodded. “If Uther is stuck on that bridge, for whatever reason, however that might have happened, then I’m worried that if we get him unstuck, he’ll still want to go to Earth.”

“But that’s just the pretext for what you actually wanted to talk about?” I asked.

Raven sighed. “I wanted to talk about both,” she said. “But if we talk about the other thing, then I worry that’s all we’ll talk about.”

“I’m getting really distracted by the other thing,” I said. “You really shouldn’t have said anything about the thing with Uther being a pretext, and yes, I know, you were just trying to put me at ease.”

“Alright,” said Raven. She looked around the quite small cabin for a moment.

“You can sit next to me,” I said. “Sorry, it’s that or standing. It’s going to take quite a bit of leveling for me to get star magic to the point where I can expand the interior of all the rooms of a moving ship.”

Raven moved over and sat down on the bunk next to me. It was more than enough space for two people, but maybe she was just a bit nervous, or maybe it was that we usually kept our distance from each other. A part of me was hyper-conscious that it was a bed, where people sometimes had sex, the sort of thought that I could recognize as infantile, but which still sat there in my brain.

“Amaryllis and I had a long talk last night,” said Raven. “The matter was somewhat delicate. She was requesting my blessing, as a member of the Council of Arches, to modify her soul. She would like some minimal carnal feelings toward you, ideally responsive in nature.”

“Ah,” I said. “I’ll be honest, that’s not unexpected.” Fucking awkward, but not unexpected.

“I said no,” said Raven. Her eyes were downcast.

“Oh?” I asked. Now that was unexpected. “Why?”

“I was alive for the entirety of the Second Empire,” said Raven. “I saw what essentialism was. There were never that many essentialists, but you could apply for a change to your soul. If the essentialists felt that it had merit, and especially if you could pay, they would change you. There were bad cases. ‘Miscalibration’ was the euphemism of the day. A man would come back from the soul mage and kill himself from overwork, or a mother would forget to take care of her children. Soul magic was good at creating obsessives, and the soul was complex, so accidents happened.”

“But you’re not here to talk to me about accidents, are you?” I asked. “You’re here to argue against the general case. If Amaryllis altered her own soul in a way that was detrimental, we would be able to see it and reverse it. We’re not so worried about fringe circumstances or a careless, overworked soul mage without enough oversight.”

“We should be worried, since she’s a soul mage too,” said Raven. “She can alter her own soul, and yours. There are feedback loops that would occasionally happen to imperial essentialists, though they were largely kept quiet. One modification leads to another, until it’s gotten out of control. Two soul mages together are especially dangerous that way, because they can keep pulling themselves deeper and deeper, spiraling until they become monsters, at best focused only on themselves, willing to waste away, at worst, inflicting themselves on everyone else.”

“We have measures in place,” I said. “Such as requiring that any self-modification go through the Council first.”

“Measures that you’ve willfully ignored,” said Raven.

“Sorry,” I said. “With Bethel, I was,” raped, “confused about what I was feeling and not really in my right mind. I didn’t know what I should do or how else to deal with it.”

“And turning off pain?” asked Raven.

“Exigent circumstances,” I said. “The point of the rule isn’t to be hardlined about it, it’s to create some checks for safety and sanity. If it’s life or death, or even just major trauma, without the possibility of even talking to anyone, let alone getting consent — we’re not a major organization, we’re seven people, we’re allowed to be nimble. As it stood, I probably would have died in that blacksite if I had to feel all my injuries.” Technically it was spirit, not soul, but I wasn’t such an ass that I would argue technical definitions instead of getting to the meat of the argument.

“I’m pointing out that there are exceptions to rules,” said Raven. “It’s the kind of thing that sets me on edge.”

I frowned at her. “Is this your true objection?”

Raven let out a groan. “I’m well acquainted with that argument. It was one of Uther’s favorite rhetorical tricks. If you started arguing with him about anything, he was liable to say, ‘but is that your true objection?’, implying that you weren’t making your argument in good faith. Or even if it was ‘good faith’, measured by intent, perhaps you were constructing your arguments from whole cloth because of an emotional reaction that wasn’t amenable to reason or argument. It was sometimes exhausting to talk to him.”

“That was Arthur,” I nodded. “And yeah, it was exhausting. Not all the time, not even most, but sometimes.”

“Well, if you’re asking about my personal feelings, then I can tell you, but it wouldn’t be an argument, and I don’t think that I would convince you,” said Raven.

“I technically haven’t said that I would say yes, if she asked me,” I said. “But … I guess it would depend on what our friends had to say on the matter. And yes, I would like to hear your feelings, in addition to your logic.”

“My feelings,” said Raven. She sat back on the bunk and lifted up her legs, hugging her knees to her chest for a moment. “Uther and his wife had a similar problem. In that case, it wasn’t a problem of mindset, it was of means. After the Wandering Blight, after everything below her sternum had been replaced by an entad, she was physically frail. That aspect of their relationship was simply gone, because so much of her had been stripped away, down to her core.”

“And you want me to use the same solution?” I asked. “Have sex with whatever reasonably attractive women we find on our adventures, then go back to Amaryllis like it’s nothing?”

“Is sex always meaningful to you?” asked Raven.

“It is,” I replied.

“Was it with Maddie?” she asked.

I was stunned into silence for a moment. “No,” I finally said. “No, it was not. It was — I was in a bad place, trying to — do you want to talk about this?”

“We already have, a bit,” said Raven. “I was just pointing out that you’ve made exceptions in the past.”

“Sleeping with Maddie was a mistake,” I said. “I felt terrible afterward. Partly that’s because it was just … bad sex.”

“In what way?” asked Raven, raising an eyebrow.

“Gah,” I said. I looked at her. “You know, just … she was kind of laying there, not moving, not making any noise.” I felt my stomach flip as I thought about it. “You know, the more I think about it, the more I think I’m not comfortable with continuing this conversation. And if you’re about to explain that from some perspective, it wasn’t actually bad, I would rather not hear it.”

“This is one of those things that’s important,” said Raven. She didn’t seem particularly angry with me, though she might have had a right to, but I could feel the weight of her grievances with me. “It’s important because you’re important, the threats we face are your threats, and beyond that, your wife is asking for permission to edit her very soul because you have some complicated feelings about sex. If other people are kept completely in the dark about what those feelings are, it makes it hard for us to offer proper advice and counsel.”

I grumped. She was right. “I don’t know what to tell you,” I said. “I tried meaningless sex, hoping that it would bring meaning, and it probably left me feeling worse about myself than any other single thing I did. I didn’t really want to do it then, and I don’t want to do it now. I don’t think that’s a viable option, at least for me.” Obviously I could probably edit myself to enjoy it, but that didn’t seem like it would help with Raven’s objection.

“Would you have felt differently if the sex had been good?” asked Raven. It was hard not to hear that as an accusation.

“I don’t know,” I said. “I feel like a shithead for saying ‘yes’, but that’s how human brains work, it’s positive and negative reinforcement. If she’d been really into it … I never actually got her side of it.”

“And you don’t want me to talk about my side of it?” asked Raven.

“Your side being … times where there was some synchronicity?” I asked. “Some possibly deliberate parallels?”

She nodded.

“I don’t want to hear it, but that’s because I’m a coward,” I said. “I think it would be good for me to hear, if not to take a lesson, then at least so we can know each other better. I want to be your friend.” Even before it left my lips it sounded weak and pathetic. I should have phrased it differently, called us ‘true companions’ or something.

Loyalty Increased: Raven lvl 4!

“I had a terrible boyfriend that I think was supposed to be you,” said Raven. “It was during that period when I had given up. I didn’t know what it was all for. My self-imposed quest to find Uther had failed completely. I was living in Five Spires at the time, in a little apartment, trying to write my memoirs. It was shocking how little everyone knew or cared about me. We were legends, sure, but I could walk down the street without anyone recognizing me, and even if I gave my name, Raven, people would just assume that I was named after the historical person. Aside from the attempts to recruit me, promote me, or otherwise make money off my existence, I was invisible.” She turned to me. “Scene set?”

“Uh,” I said. “Sorry, but not really. I don’t even know what century you’re talking about, I’ve never been to Five Spires, and I honestly don’t have a good grip on what life before the Second Empire was like, if that’s even what you’re talking about. Sorry.”

“This was during the Second Empire,” said Raven. “311 FE. Five Spires is and was a huge city with five absolutely enormous, inviolable white spires, of which there are a few around Aerb, with no known purpose. Five Spires has five of them. Each is about two city blocks across, square at the base, tapering in, and then flaring back out into another square at the top, this one with rounded points at the corners. You can climb them, using an interior stairwell, but it’s two thousand seven-hundred feet to the top, meaning that people only do it for the experience. Locals just kind of ignore the Spires. The better neighborhoods are to the north and south, where they get sunlight through the whole day, while the worse parts are in the east and west, where you’re in the shadow of these things for either the morning or night. It was once a major trading port, thanks to a thick river that winds through the spires, but bulk teleport killed that, and the city has coasted on having superior organizations to keep it afloat for most of its existence. I was downtown, north of the Spires. They made me feel … I don’t know, like there was magic and grandness in the world. I would just stare at them sometimes. It made me feel nice.”

“And there was more magic in the world then,” I said.

Raven nodded. “More during that era than now, but less than during Uther’s time. Or maybe it was just more spread out, commonplace. Airships crowded the air around the Spires like flies,” she said. “The city of Five Spires paid a tithe to a dragon, I think.” She frowned. “There were shuist parlors on every corner that had been perfectly arranged so that you could spend five or ten minutes sitting in the center, which would make you focused and revitalized. And there was such a variety of cultures, so many of which have been watered down and mixed into a dull brown by the centuries. Five Spires was one of the cosmopolitan centers, even in Uther’s time.” She sighed. “We’ve lost so unbelievably much.” There was pain and longing in her voice, not just for a better age, but for this entire other life with Uther. “No telephones, no radio, no wires running everywhere. There were other forms of long-distance communication, all now excluded, but for the most part it was about books, pamphlets, broadsheets, and criers.”

“Okay,” I said. “Scene set.”

“You were just trying to calm me down,” said Raven, giving me an accusatory but not all that serious look.

“No,” I said. “You weren’t that upset. But if you can be a bit detached from whatever you’re feeling … I think it would be a good thing.”

“You’re right,” said Raven. “Thank you.” She sat for a moment, cheeks still a bit pink. Maddie had gotten like that sometimes, especially in the evening, a bit flushed, even if she wasn’t embarrassed or even particularly emotional, though embarrassment definitely exacerbated it. “I’d started writing in the Society of Letters again, under a pen name. That was the only place that I really felt at home, but it had changed so much. They were imperialists, who were sometimes fine, and other times would just say these shocking and offensive things that it took me too long to realize were part of the zeitgeist. When I wasn’t doing that, I was trying to live a normal life, though that was hard too, because all these people around me had no idea the things I’d seen. I did my writing for my memoirs and to the others in — well, it would probably skip a lot of explaining if I just said a coffee shop.”

“Come on,” I said. “You know that I love explanations.”

“I guess I did know that, yeah,” said Raven. She gave me a half smile, which wasn’t much, but was enough to make me feel a bit better. “Before smoke magic was excluded, they managed to get some big farms up and running, harvesting and processing enough rare herbs that smoke bars were common. The effects were low grade, for the most part, at least the legal ones. You would go up to the stoker and get a glass bottle filled with fresh, charged smoke, and then you would sit down at the bar, or in a comfortable seat, feeling the effects.” I had done my fair share of reading on excluded magics. Smoke magic was primarily concerned with the alteration of perception, with the higher levels being able to push that perception into becoming reality. It had no connection with the he’lesh smoke magic, which was a completely different take on smoke-as-magic (that was just how Aerb was sometimes). “I would take something called Spire’s Shade, which made everything seem a little more rigid and grounded. To make a long story short, there was a man — seventeen, actually, so … your age — who went to the same smoke bar that I did, at the same time I did, every day. I would smoke up and write letters, or work on organizing the memoir, sometimes writing it, rewriting it, throwing bits away. Other times daydreaming.”

She looked dead ahead at the wall. “I talked to him once or twice, and then I got obsessed. He was an engineering student, hoping to work for the railways, a depressive, like you, and … I guess I saw something of Uther in him. Not Uther, armored titan of a man wielding a sword alongside his many magics, but Uther the poet and writer, slaving away at his next creative endeavor, head bent above his desk, as he — tried to remember stories from Earth, I suppose, or put his own spin on them.” The room was silent as another piece of the edifice in her mind was chipped away. “Benji had that same look to him sometimes. And he was a thinker, like Uther, imaginative, with these grand ideas that he loved to talk about, always somewhat dour about them. I would follow him when he left the smoke bar, pretending that I needed to walk the same way. I made no secret that I liked him. A puppy dog would probably be the accurate way to describe me. I had nothing else going on in my life. We became very one-sided friends. He tolerated me. He liked to talk, and I would attentively listen.” She gave a little laugh. “He had no idea who I was, obviously. To him, I was just some fifteen-year-old human.”

“And you started dating?” I asked.

“For about a week,” said Raven. “I just … I wanted someone. I wanted an anchor. Someone who could make sense of things, even if their version of sense was lacking. And yes, with him, it was awkward, physically.” She looked over at me. “Was Maddie a virgin?”

I really, really hated the answer that I had to give. “I don’t know.”

“I wasn’t,” said Raven. “I don’t know if that can give you information about Maddie, but for me? I had been having sex for a few decades. Four decades, I think. I felt —” she hesitated. “I felt like I could do what Uther did. I felt like I could have these flings, these romances, always without commitment, always without any pretense of it lasting.” She was quiet for a bit. “I hadn’t quite been Ell, when I was with Uther, and I can feel that I’m no longer quite that with you. Ell have this infuriating way of failing at things, over and over, making the same mistakes a hundred more times than a human would. You can shortcut it by realizing where you’ll eventually end up and just forcing it, even though you aren’t quite there mentally, but not all of us do. Sometimes you have to burn your hand on the stove a hundred times just to have it sink in.”

“That sounds horrible,” I said.

Raven shrugged. “We were a dashed off bit of worldbuilding.”

“Sorry,” I said, trying to make it clear from my tone that this was sympathy, not apology.

“Benji, the one that I think was supposed to be you,” said Raven. “He was another in a long line. But he was different, because I felt something with him, a foolish notion that there would be a future of some kind. And he was also different because he didn’t even like me. And all those things that you said about Maddie? I felt that from Benji. That indifference toward me that at the time I thought was his general malaise, but I later realized was just that he didn’t actually care about me. That realization came when he was trying to get me into bed.”

I was feeling unclean. I hadn’t wanted absolution, but I hadn't really wanted her to twist the knife either. She was just saying what it had been like for her, which could maybe be extrapolated to Maddie and maybe couldn’t, but either way, made me hurt.

“I liked sex, Juniper,” Raven said. “But with him, it was this crushing realization that I cared about him and he didn’t care about me, that he was drifting through this relationship that I had foolishly started, and it had led to him trying to find some refuge from his misery by way of my body.”

She smoothed out her clothes. “It was quite possibly the worst sex of my life,” said Raven. “It was like we were on different planes of existence. It would have been one thing if that was what it had been from the beginning, if we were just strangers looking for a good time, but it’s not what we were.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and tried to convey that this was an apology, not sympathy.

“If the situations are the same,” said Raven. “And I won’t say that they are, because I don’t know, but if they’re the same, then … Juniper, the things you did with Maddie were the thoughtless, inconsiderate actions of someone who had lost his place in the world. That doesn’t excuse it, and it doesn’t absolve it, it just explains it.” She sighed. “At some point, you have to say that tomorrow is a new day. Feel bad about it, because it was bad, but then move on and stop letting it define you.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I guess.”

“I don’t actually know if any of this was helpful,” said Raven.

“Helpful is relative,” I said. “It’s given me a better picture of you in the dark years. Sometime soon you’ll have to tell me about how you came to be head librarian. But you came here to talk about something specific.”

“I did,” said Raven. “I suppose the question is, would you be in favor of letting Amaryllis change herself for you?” she asked.

I paused as I thought about that. “I’d be more comfortable going the other way,” I said.

“The other way?” asked Raven. She was staring at me with her brow furrowed.

“Meaning that I could cut out the part of me that wants sex,” I said. “And then we’d have no problems.”

“You can’t do that,” said Raven.

“Well, not without consent of the Council, no,” I said. “But the problem isn’t Amaryllis, it’s the mismatch between us, and that’s one way to solve it. I suppose you would say no to that too?”

“I would,” said Raven.

“Well, the vote doesn’t have to be unanimous,” I said. “Technically, I think it just has to be a meeting, though I can get why Amaryllis would want to whip votes before any kind of meeting took place. She’s not immune to feeling shame, just to showing it, if it would get in her way. Better to have a meeting where everyone has been talked to privately and the meeting itself is a formality. And I can’t imagine that people would vote differently for her than for me.”

“You can’t just swear off sex,” said Raven. “It’s a part of you, it’s — it’s human.” She seemed aghast at the very notion.

“Well, no,” I said. “Because Amaryllis is definitely human. I think that to remove this last point of contention in our relationship, I could do a minor edit.” And as I said that, I could feel some sense of loss at removing that part of myself, which went beyond just the idea of not feeling pleasure. Maybe for Amaryllis, it wasn’t a part of her identity, but sex was a part of mine. It was tied up in memories and thoughts, whole ways of being. I wasn’t lying though. I would leave it behind, for her, and by definition, I wouldn’t miss it.

“Do you really think this is the last point of contention?” asked Raven. Her eyes were wide. “Juniper, there are so many things that mark the two of you as different, so many ways that you know you would make a better match through changes to your soul or hers.”

“You’re saying that there’s a slippery slope,” I said.

“Sometimes the slope is actually slippery,” Raven replied. She had a faint scowl.

“I know,” I said. “I’ve argued with Uther too, remember? I’m not even saying that’s wrong. Just in this one particular instance, it’s different. It shouldn’t affect anyone but us. It’s not attached to other ethical or moral problems.”

“So if you had different tastes in food, or movies, sufficiently different that it caused any friction, would you change that?” asked Raven. There was a sharpness to her voice, but I figured that she was also curious, trying to take some measure of how far I would actually go.

“Look, I’m a hypocrite,” I said. “I can admit that’s what I am. But if I were to try to make some weak defense for my hypocrisy, it would be that a choice of what to eat or what to watch is hardly likely to rise to the level of actual dissatisfaction.” Amaryllis hadn’t said she was dissatisfied, and I wasn’t sure that I would call myself dissatisfied either, but it was the relevant metric. It was still new. Maybe when the novelty wore off I would feel differently.

“You know as much as I do that life is filled with special circumstances,” said Raven. “We tell ourselves that it will be just this one time, and then it becomes a pattern.”

“How about this,” I said. “Let’s say that somehow, Amaryllis and I could average all our values. That wouldn’t actually work, because it’s not just values, it’s how the spirit interacts with those values, but if we could, somehow, take the average of our spirits as well … I don’t think that would be morally wrong to do, it would just be a question of whether it would be a good idea.”

“That was the endgame of the Second Empire,” said Raven. She had backed away from me slightly, retreating to the far end of the bed we were sitting on. “Induct new people, take on their values as you force their values on them … it made it easier to work together when you could make sure that everyone actually valued the same things. And, of course, things got sanded away. They weren’t a hive mind, naturally, their abilities didn’t rise to that level, and they had no knowledge of spirit except by its absence — that’s not the endgame for us. It can’t be.”

“Okay,” I said. “But I already said that I was planning to be a hypocrite. I’ll just change this one thing about myself, and even if the same logic makes sense for other things, I won’t do them. Besides, I’m the one with the problem. I’m the one who can’t just accept things the way they are.” I wasn’t even sure that was true, since it was possible that I would adapt. Humans were famously adaptable.

Raven turned away from me for a moment.

“You were never tempted?” I asked. “You never thought about your attraction to Uther, especially after he was gone, and thought that you’d have been better off without it?”

“Don’t make this about me,” said Raven, turning back to glare at me.

“I’m not saying that you should have,” I said. “I’m just asking. You were saying that people went to soul mages to alter things about themselves. I’m sure sometimes it was unrequited love. That had to have happened, right? And I’m wondering whether you, at the equivalent of fourteen or fifteen, ever thought about having that done to you.”

“I had too much marking my soul,” said Raven. “Thirty years I was with Uther. It left scars.”

I nodded. I still hadn’t looked into her soul, and didn’t plan to, because there was a chance there were things in there that could hurt me. It wasn’t just the memetics and antimemetics that she’d been exposed to, it was almost certain that Uther had installed whatever defenses he could. “But you did think about it.”

“I did,” said Raven. She got up from the bunk and stayed facing away from me. For a moment I thought that this was where I was going to get a monologue from her, but instead, she just left.

“Shit,” I said to myself.

I tried to imagine the speech that I’d thought she might have given. “You see, Juniper, we can’t just cut out our bad feelings, that’s treating the symptom, not the cause. If you ignore that cause, all you’ll do is manufacture pain down the road. These feelings need to be struggled with, worn down, and finally, bested. It’s through struggle that we become better than we were, it’s through that pain, sweat, and emotional labor that we grow as people. Beyond that, soul magic is the mutilation and eventual death of the self. You know that, because you have had every opportunity to alter yourself, and refused. You felt it when Fenn died. You didn’t cut or even dampen those emotions, because you knew that it would be a betrayal of who you were.”

Maybe that was what she would have said, maybe it was just my own arguments. It rang false to me, at least in this situation.

I lay in bed, ruminating for a bit, then got up and went out of the room, on deck. Raven was nowhere to be seen, and Amaryllis and Grak were still in conversation elsewhere in the ship. Our party was so small. I missed Pallida, as strange as that thought was. I missed Valencia. I missed Fenn too, obviously, though if she were to come back to life, it would cause all kinds of interesting problems.

I waited for a beat, but she didn’t appear.

Some day, the narrative was going to work in my favor.

“Doing well?” asked Captain Bonny, clasping me on the back and standing beside me on the railing to look out on the lands below us. “There’s something that I’ll say for you, I always have nice weather when I’m ferrying you about.”

“I’m a water mage,” I said.

“That would do it,” our Captain said with a nod. Her hand was still on my back. “You’ll protect us if anything goes wrong, won’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. “Nothing is going to go wrong though.”

Maybe I said it because I wanted a fight. Or maybe I said it because I wanted something to distract me. In either case, it wasn’t much more than two minutes later that a big black bird flew up to where we were and landed on the railing of The Underline.

“Go on, shoo!” yelled Bonny, who had elected not to move from my side, though she’d dropped her hand.

The bird turned and looked at me, then cocked its head to the side nearly ninety degrees.

“Juuuuuunipeeer!” it screeched at me.

Bonny bolted, moving faster than I would have expected, and I very casually popped my sword from the ring on my finger. I was unarmored, which was a problem, but I’d grabbed my bandolier, the crown, my pistol, along with all my rings.

“Hello little bird,” I said, trying to keep my voice gentle. I was multithreading, sending an alert to the others with vibration magic through the walls, which I could only do in a very crude way.

“Juuuunipeeeeeeeer, we’re cooooooming!” it screeched, turning its head the other way.

The question was whether or not to attack the bird, and I held off. I was anxious more than afraid, but this was coming out of left field, and I really liked to know what I was up against before blindly charging in. Maybe this was the famed exploding messenger bird of the Aqlith Highlands: I had no idea.

There was a burst of dried leaves from the center of the ship, and it sank slightly beneath my feet in a very disconcerting way. I brought my sword up for a parry, but parried only leaves, and saw what it was through the crown before I saw anything with my own eyes.

Standing in the center of the schooner was an enormous six-eyed doe, and beside it, a small crantek teenager.

“Is this your jackdaw?” I asked Solace, pointing at the bird with my sword.

“I don’t own it, no,” she said. “But I did send it as a messenger.”

“You couldn’t have had it open with, ‘This is Solace’?” I asked. “You had to damn near give me a heart attack?”

“It’s an art, not a science,” said Solace, frowning at me.

“And why now?” I asked.

“What in the fuck?!” shouted Captain Bonny. “Explain to me why there’s a giant deer on this ship!”

“They’re friends,” I said.

“Yes,” she said, voice still raised. “I got that from how you were talking to them, but that damned crow took a year off my life!”

“It’s a jackdaw,” I said. “And that’s the last remaining locus on Aerb.”

“That crow is a locus?” asked Bonny, frowning at me and glancing at the jackdaw with a skeptical look.

“No, the deer,” I said.

Bonny looked at the locus, perhaps taking some time to register that it had six eyes. “Right, that makes more sense. Look, I’m going to go back to captaining this ship, this is too much for me.” She stalked off. From what I knew of her, ‘captaining the ship’ mostly meant chatting with the crew, as there wasn’t much to do when the sailing was smooth (which it always was, because I had a good enough handle on the weather).

“Solace!” Amaryllis exclaimed as she came out of the cabin she’d been in with Grak. “You came?”

Solace gave her a nod. “The locus had recovered enough from the rupture, and I had no real ability to stop it.” She looked at Grak and gave him a smile that quickly faded.

“Just visiting?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” Solace replied, looking at the locus.

I was watching the two of them. The whole time I’d known it, the doe had been stuck in the bottle, unable to move beyond the bounds, and now that it was out and about, I could tell that Solace was wishing it wasn’t. Maybe that was because we weren’t ‘really’ in the domain, though that was a definitional quibble that I didn’t think Solace would go for. I could admit that there were safer places than a few hundred feet off the ground, but I was still happy to see the doe.

“You’ll be here a bit?” I asked.

Solace looked at the doe, then nodded. “I think so,” she said.

“Good,” I replied. “I assume Amaryllis had been keeping you apprised of what’s been going on?”

“She’s been giving dispatches,” said Solace.

“We could have used you a bit earlier,” I said. “I would understand not wanting to bring the locus into an EZ, but … we were planting a garden, and it would have been nice to have your help. Not even in terms of magic, it would have been nice to have someone with a focus on helping things to grow.”

“I’ve been busy getting things in order,” said Solace. “Amaryllis and I have talked about having the first of the applicants come into the locus’ domain soon. Not wanderers, obviously, but as close as we can come.”

“Do you mind if I talk to the locus?” I asked.

“Of course not,” said Solace. She looked over at Grak. “If you have time for a word?”

He nodded, and they went off together, leaving me and Amaryllis alone with the locus, or as alone as it was possible to be on a schooner.

“How did things go with Raven?” asked Amaryllis.

“Poorly,” I said. “I failed a SOC check.”

“Oh?” asked Amaryllis.

“I brought up her unrequited love for Uther,” I said.

“Ah,” said Amaryllis. “By way of comparison to our situation?”

“Yes,” I said. I was sometimes still surprised by how quick she was. “She left before we were really done talking. I don’t think she liked the idea of me using soul modification on myself.” I reached forward and patted the doe on her flank. She was looking out across the lands we were crossing over.

“On … yourself?” asked Amaryllis.

“To cut down my sex drive,” I said. “Or rather, sexual attraction. Or both.”

“Are you just being contrary?” asked Amaryllis.

I looked over at her. “No,” I said. “I’m offering the obvious solution, and if you think that it’s more obvious for you to be the one to change, then that’s something that we should talk about as a couple.”

“You mean as a fake couple?” asked Amaryllis. I looked at her, and she was giving me a raised eyebrow.

“Oh, obviously,” I said. “No, I’m not under some delusion that you have feelings for me, and I hope you’re not under the delusion that I have feelings for you. Sorry, I should have been more precise in my wording, that’s something that we should talk about as though we were a couple, so that we can keep our stories straight.” I wasn’t sure why I enjoyed this so much. Maybe it was the way she smiled at me.

“Juniper, this is serious,” said Amaryllis, but she was still smiling.

“Eh, we can talk about it later,” I said. “But if you think that you’re going to whip the votes and then hold a meeting while I’ve got my pants down — so to speak —”

Amaryllis laughed at that. It was rare that I got a laugh from her, and the turn of phrase hadn’t been intentional, but it was nice to hear. She had a pretty laugh.

“It wasn’t that funny,” I said as she kept laughing.

“Just the image of it,” she said, chuckling to herself.

“Well,” I said. “As I was saying, you’re in for the political fight of your life.”

“Against Juniper Smith,” she said, laughing again, harder this time.

“I’ll deal with you later,” I said, giving her a scowl. “I wanted to spend some time with the locus.” I was surprised to find that was actually true. I had a particular ‘locus mood’, one I tried to put myself in, which was partly Juniper-as-artist, or Juniper-as-dream-being. What with the ping ponging we were doing between exclusion zones, it had been quite a bit of time since I had seen the locus.

“Can I stay?” asked Amaryllis.

“Sure,” I said. “Just don’t think systematized thoughts.”

“Is that a hard and fast rule?” asked Amaryllis, smiling at me.

“Alright,” I said, “I changed my mind, I don’t want you here, you’re being too silly. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“Never in my life,” said Amaryllis with a happy smile. She came forward and kissed me on the lips, then walked away without another word.

“So that’s been going on,” I said to the locus. “Amaryllis with clones can be weird sometimes. I think her strategy, as much as I can figure it, is to compress a lot of the relaxation and stress reduction that she would normally get into a single instance of herself. It’s … kind of great.” I was hoping that it was a glimpse of how she would be once the universe had no more problems in it. “How have you been?”

The locus snorted, then turned to look out at the land we were traveling over.

“Yeah,” I said. “Out of the bottle, into the … uh …” I had really thought that my brain was going to come up with a great metaphor there. “So,” I said. “You’re out and about, and if you want to, when it’s safe, you can see more of the world than I reckon you could when you were at the height of your being.” I was patting its flank and watching it as it looked out past the ship. After a bit, it lay down and rested its head on the railing of the ship.

“These,” I said, pointing out at the forest we were crossing, “These are the shrieking forests of Perlon. The trees down there will let out a shrill yell at anything that tries to eat or damage them. An individual tree isn’t very loud, but if you set off one, you set off all the others, and at that point, you could be killed by the sound if you were in the thick of it. Well, maybe not you, but a mortal, for sure. For all that, it’s a pretty nice and peaceful place, if you don’t disturb the trees. People are really of different minds about it. Those who like the forests tend to call them the silent forests of Perlon instead of the shrieking forests.”

“They’re aspens,” said Grak, who had come over, his talk with Solace apparently concluded. “Also, I’ve never heard of Perlon.”

“Eh,” I said. “Sometimes I like to talk to the locus like that, about things that could be true. I was just saying whatever came off the top of my head. It’s an easier mode of talking, where I’m wondering out loud what kind of strange and mystical wonders this world might contain.”

“I see,” said Grak. “Do you need privacy?”

“Privacy on this ship is a bit of a luxury,” I said. “Did you want to talk?”

“A bit,” he said. “Mute us?”

“Already done,” I sighed. The party was smaller, but sometimes it still seemed to have a lot of people.

“Amaryllis had a long talk with me last night,” said Grak.

“Did she now,” I replied. Two of her clones were aboard the ship with us, and I wondered how many long talks she’d had last night.

“She wishes to modify her soul,” said Grak. “She wants to experience sexual desire, for your benefit.”

“Right,” I said. “And your answer was … ?”

“I think it is better for you two to work through it,” said Grak. “There are also other solutions. It is not my relationship though. I gave tacit approval.”

“Oh,” I said.

He shrugged. “You have your own say,” he said. “If it is something you both want, I will not stand in the way. If you do not want it, she will not do it.”

“True,” I said. “I’m undecided.” I cleared my throat. “How are things with you and Solace?”

“This was my first time seeing her since we were in Poran,” said Grak.

“Ah,” I said. “Right. No letters to each other through the fourfold flask?”

“No,” said Grak. “That is not the relationship we have.”

I was silent for a bit. “I’m not fully comfortable with that relationship,” I said. “That’s a me problem, not a you problem, I’ll own up to it just being me not trying hard enough to either put myself in your shoes or correct for my, ah, intuitions or biases, or whatever. But if you need someone to talk to —”

“I appreciate that, Juniper,” said Grak.

“But you’re not going to take me up on it?” I asked. “Look, whatever it is that my hang-up is, I can get over it. It’s not well-formed, it’s just … when I was growing up on Earth, we had a lot of taboos against people of wildly different ages dating, so the whole reincarnation business is triggering some part of that programming, even if it’s not really applicable. And as far as gender goes — maka was not a gender, so far as Kansas was concerned.”

It was tempting to call Grak non-binary, as that was technically accurate, but to me that implied some level of gender-divergence or nonconformity, which was not the case for him: he was a fairly average dwarf. There were long Groglir words for sexual preference, and by that system he would probably have been ogorikiaded, but that didn’t map very cleanly into Anglish, and the cultural connotations were complicated, especially because they would have been different depending on which dwarfhold you were talking about.

“Solace is comfortable,” said Grak. “She brings affection and aggression to our relationship. She doesn't love me. I don’t love her. We are friends who share a bed.”

“Hrm,” I said. “Which is fine, in the short term, but you want a pairbond …”

“I do,” replied Grak. “There is a sadness in momentary things that will always be momentary. I am trying my best not to be sad.”

“The adventuring makes it difficult to find other options,” I said.

“It is not a problem I need solved,” said Grak.

“Okay,” I said. “I was just … trying to think of a solution, I guess.” Surely dwarves had some kind of matchmaking system. I knew that cross-pollination between dwarfholds was relatively common, and even read one of Grak’s books that was specifically about a romance between two dwarfs, one from a ‘foreign’ dwarfhold, in an arranged marriage, but it had skipped over the actual mechanics of how that match had been made. (Because it uncritically glorified arranged marriage, Grak had issues with the book, but he’d lent it to me after a conversation we’d had about Amaryllis, on the theory that it might help me to understand the institution a bit better.)

“I know,” said Grak. “It is your way to think of solutions to problems which do not require you.”

“Well, if you need to talk,” I said. “And if you need a break, like a week or a month where we go without you —”

“You would die,” said Grak.

“Maybe, maybe not,” I said. “It was just a thought.”

“Once you have won the game, you can make me a heaven,” said Grak. “I can wait until then.”

That weirded me out, but I said nothing, because that was the endgame. I hoped that it would be soon, but who knew how much fucking shit there would be to get through. After not too much more time with me and the locus, Grak left us alone, and I decided to go on about some of the completely fictitious creatures below us to the locus, who perked up a bit at my descriptions. I was using up some of the creativity that I would need for making inktads later in the day, but it was more fun than doing yet another piece of kit, because (at least so far) ink magic didn’t allow me to create flora, fauna, or other neat bits of worldbuilding.

After some time, Solace returned to us, and laid her hand gently against the locus, who huffed at her.

“It’s time,” said Solace. “This is your domain, but it is also not.”

I said nothing. It was fine by me if the locus stayed on The Underline, or if it went back, but it was good to know that we had a Deus Ex Dominia on hand in case things got really out of hand. On balance, I preferred going in with the smaller group, knowing that if the shit ever really hit the fan, we had backup. Every dangerous thing we did, there was a chance that we would have to use Bethel or Valencia as a safety net of sorts: of the four shot glasses, one was with us, one was with Amaryllis in Anglecynn, one was with Amaryllis in Poran, and the last had been sent to Valencia.

“Please,” said Solace.

I took a moment and used the Crown of Eyes to see what the world was like to the locus. It was a wild abstraction of where and what we actually were, everyone on the airship floating upon a cloud instead, gliding over a vibrant, fantastical landscape. Some of the people, crewmen, I thought, were only vague cloud-impressions in humanoid shape, doing nameless work to make sure the cloud would keep moving. Everyone else was there with us though, all represented through locus logic. Amaryllis and her clones were a skulk of foxes, mildly threatening in their posture; I was a tall and mighty stag, which I liked; Grak was a moss-grown boulder; and Raven was a literal raven, though that impression/abstraction was a bit less clear to me, and being really uncharitable, maybe the locus was just confused.

Most striking was Solace though. She wasn’t her teenage self, she was a hag, stooped and withered. She was holding onto a rope, which was tied around the neck of the locus.

I didn’t have much time to take that in though, because they both disappeared, taking my view with them.

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Alexander Wales

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