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“We need to talk,” I said as I flew through the air. “You’re supposed to give me a break.”

You couldn’t really carry on a conversation with the call of the gold, at least so far as I’d been able to find. It would give instructions, for some people as a voice in the head, for others as a feeling about what they should do. It knew everything that I knew, along with some things that it knew for itself but hadn’t yet felt the need to share.

“My best guess is that there’s a lot of low-hanging fruit right now,” I said. “The gold inside the glove, definitely easy to grab. The coin from Finch, that too. The materials from the dragon corpses, okay, sure, but I think Amaryllis can be trusted to be honest.” In this particular case, I wouldn’t have cared if she lied to me, and maybe that was why it had been important to check up on her, or show that pressure would apply. That was surprisingly sophisticated reasoning for whatever was on the end of the call. “So if that’s the case, and you’re just having me grab things that are easy to grab, and will slow down after that, then okay, that’s fine. But I can’t keep running errands at this rate. I’ll have to cancel out the contract.”

There was no response. I hadn’t really expected one, though it would have been nice. Absent that conversation, I was more or less on my own, screaming across the sky, alone with my thoughts.

I wanted downtime. I hadn’t seen Val in what felt like a very long time, and I wanted to just hang out, watch some movies, talk about things, and not really think that much about the ways in which the world sucked, and how big a percent of it was my responsibility. I wanted a vacation, and it didn’t seem like I was going to get one, not while I still had the call of the gold active.

The other thing weighing on my mind was Bethel, whose help we were enlisting in order to raise the second generation of tuung. The thought of her still made my heart beat a little faster, and it was becoming a familiar source of anxiety that I kept pushing down, which wasn’t a good thing. The party would probably do their part in keeping us from each other, but that was only a temporary measure, because if we were going to try to sneak past Fel Seed, we would want to have every tool in our toolset.

It probably wouldn’t be as bad as I was building it up in my head. Whenever there were things that were weighing on me, I would think about them and wargame them, imagining all the possible scenarios, all the ways that it could go most wrong. When Tiff and I had been doing our secret dating thing, I’d thought about all the ways that it might blow up in my face, and sometimes I would get a knot in my stomach just thinking about the eventual fallout. When I’d punched Victor Clark, I’d thought that I would get arrested, or expelled, and after I’d had a chance to think about it, to cool down, I’d felt the blood drain from my face. Every time I fucked up, I felt like a weight was pressing down on me.

I was thinking about Bethel in the same way, though I tried hard to convince myself that it wasn’t my fault. In my imagined version of events, she would blame me, or try to extract concessions, or at least make excuses for herself, painting herself as eminently reasonable. It probably wasn’t going to be like that. If Valencia had been able to get any kind of a change in mindset out of her, and had been able to bring about any kind of empathy, then I didn’t know what it would look like, but it would be really unlikely to be the worst case. Maybe she would apologize. Maybe she would voluntarily keep her distance from me, limiting how much we talked to each other, giving me space and time I still apparently needed.

“You know,” I said. “Technically you didn’t tell me to go to Perisev’s, you just told me to ask Amaryllis about it.”

Go to the dragon’s lair, said the call of the gold.

“Alright, fine,” I said. “We have the time, we can have a chat. Surely you’re more complex than just wanting me to mark more and more gold for you. Let’s at least have a discussion of what this relationship is going to look like in the long term.” I didn’t really expect an answer to that.

We will gather all of the gold that is easy to gather and rightfully yours, replied the call of the gold. Once that is done we will venture out to capture gold stores. After that, we will convert any funds or services into permanent sources of gold income, or liquidate those in exchange for gold that cannot be acquired. We will mine out gold from ore. We will acquire all gold on the face of Aerb and Celestar. We will generate new gold through entads and magic. We will open a gate to the plane of gold.

“Huh,” I said. That was a lot more information than I thought I would get. The end goal of opening a portal to the elemental plane of gold was pretty much never going to happen, because it would require lots and lots of star mages working together, or boosting my own skill in star magic, which I couldn’t do now that Essentialism was gone. Portals to the elemental planes were very rarely done, and a portal to the plane of gold was, if not impossible, then so hard that I knew of no successful attempts at it.

I didn’t do a whole lot but think during the trip, though I did briefly stop to pee, which I did while floating two hundred feet above a prairie (and this was a complicated process, given that I was wearing heavy armor). I wondered whether Superman ever did that, and decided that he probably followed the law and found a bathroom somewhere.

I arrived at the mountain just after nightfall. There was a gaping hole in the side of the rockface, large enough for a dragon to make a landing, but next to it was a cable with a car attached, leading down to a village at the base. There, a train snaked out away from the village, through the woods. Some dragons had their own lands, micronations, but others, like Perisev, had some kind of status within a polity, an arrangement that would allow mutual benefits.

I blinked on warder’s sight for a moment, then landed in the mouth of the mountain entrance, doing a small zig-zag once my feet were on the ground to create a marker in my worldline for future teleports.

The mouth of the place was done on a grand scale that couldn’t help but remind me of some of Bethel’s designs. Perisev had been massive, though smaller than Tommul, and her lodgings had been sized to suit her. I was thankful that I had flight and speed, because otherwise, it would have taken a considerable amount of time just to traverse the entryway.

There were no doors, and I floated through, looking around. The tunnels were huge, but must have been just barely wide enough for Perisev. They were unadorned, smoothed-down bare rock, something dark and igneous. Gabbro, maybe, though I had no idea whether that was actually a rock, or what dark recesses of my mind the knowledge was coming from. When there were doorways, they opened out into much larger rooms, but I couldn’t help but feel that the whole place would have been claustrophobic to something the size of Perisev, and wondered whether she’d run up against engineering challenges, or whether this place had been carved out when she was smaller, or if she was just less sensitive to small spaces than I was. There were lights in the ceiling, but they were fairly weak, only bright enough that the corridors and rooms weren’t swallowed up in darkness. They must have been for the benefit of someone else, because dragons could see in pitch black darkness.

Eventually I spotted someone, a young woman who was driving a small cart along the corridors. She didn’t seem to see me, so I called out to her, and she slammed on the brakes so quickly that she almost hit her head on the front of the cart. I landed in front of her, far enough away that I was hoping I didn’t seem like a threat.

“I’m looking for Amaryllis Penndraig,” I said.

“Oh,” said the woman. “Oh, uh, sorry.”

“If you could just point me in the right direction,” I said. “If you know where she is?”

“Oh,” she said again. “I was — yes, I can.” She spun the wheel of the cart and then stopped for a moment. “Did you … need a ride?” Her eyes flickered down to my feet, which moments ago had been high up off the ground.

“Sure,” I said. I climbed over and sat in the seat next to her.

We puttered along in silence for a bit, moving down the corridors of this mountain complex. Up close, I noticed that the smoothness of the stone was glassy in places, and it occurred to me that rather than hollowing out this place in the normal way, Perisev might have come in here with her dragonbreath, though that still left the question of where the molten stone would have gone.

“Are you,” began the woman next to me. “Are you the one who killed her?”

“Oh,” I said. “Yeah.”

“That’s me out of a job, I guess,” said the woman with a nervous laugh. She had a tight grip on the steering wheel. “You kind of expect,” she said, then sat on the silence for a bit. “You expect, when you get a job with a dragon, that it will be for life, that you’ll be a little mayfly, coming and going.”

“Sorry,” I said. “She tried to kill me.”

“Oh,” said the woman. “No, I don’t blame you, she was a dragon, they have their nasty sides, we all knew that.” She cleared her throat. “Not everyone sees it the same. Among the staff, I mean.”

“Alright,” I said.

“I’m just warning you,” she said. “We’re going to have to figure out what to do. We’ll land on our feet, for the most part, but —”

“We’ll try to make sure you’re taken care of,” I said.

“Thank you,” she replied. She let out a low breath, and loosened her grip on the steering wheel, seemingly by conscious effort.

The room we came to was one of the larger ones, and it took a moment for me to realize that it was a stage of all things, built for an audience of perhaps a dozen at the front, and an enormous place for a dragon to sit at the back, near the big opening.

There were nearly thirty people in the room, most of them on the stage. In the middle of the group, looking rather small with the men looming over her, was Amaryllis.

“You’ll have to take it up with the Kingdom of Pellico, which never removed the conquest stipulation in its documents, and which yes, does apply to dragons and applies even in the event that she had made a will, which as you say, she did not,” said Amaryllis. She was calm and resolute, and I felt oddly proud of her. She was a clone, without any magical power or entad support, yet she was here, alone, and holding her own against an enormous amount of pressure.

I stayed at the periphery, watching but not making a move to come closer, unnoticed by anyone in the center of the verbal melee.

“It is not yours to take,” replied a taller man with an impressively long grey beard. “Perisev, the Wretched, made this place what it was, but it represents the blood, sweat, and tears of hundreds, thousands of people over the course of many centuries. You cannot simply come in here and grab it.”

“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “While we lay claim to the entirety of this complex, and all property once held in the name of Perisev, that doesn’t mean we’re going to leave you all homeless or without a safety net, even beyond whatever the Kingdom of Pellico provides. We’ll help pay for relocation, in whatever form that takes. But to be frank, this private retreat, and the community here, cannot survive in its current form.”

The people around her were angry. Whatever they’d had going here, this way of life, was coming to an end, and I could get that. Not everyone was taking it as well as the woman who was still standing next to me. The ones surrounding Amaryllis were the angriest, their rage visible in how they held their bodies. I was sure that there was some grief in there, given that they were Perisev’s staff, and even if they weren’t exactly like family —

One of them clenched his hand into a fist and raised it against Amaryllis. I was watching and waiting, not actually thinking that he was going to, and then I saw Amaryllis close her eyes, as if accepting it.

And then I was there, holding his wrist, with his fist an inch away from her skin. We stayed like that for just a moment, with the wind of my arrival disturbing clothes and blowing back hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. I released his arm. “I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

“I have this, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. She was still staring ahead at the man who had been about to hit her.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll be nearby. Let me know when you have a moment to chat.” I stepped off the stage, floating above the seats, and switched my armor over to lava mode. The lava had a sound to it, mostly from the way it heated the air, and I amplified the sound, just to give me a bit of presence.

“Let’s all calm down,” said Amaryllis, talking to the man in front of her, but probably also a bit to me. “There’s a power disparity here, we all understand that, but it’s similar to the situation your community has been operating under for its entire existence. The truth is, we can’t keep everything going how it was. We don’t have the voracious desire for stories that Perisev had, we don’t need a theater filled with actors, and we don’t need an oversized retreat. But with that said, we will do everything in our power to make sure that you can have a normal life once the transition period is over.” She looked around, waiting for dissent, then nodded once when there was none. “I need to speak with my husband for a moment, but I’ll be right back to talk about what the transition will look like.”

She stepped out of the crowd and across the stage, then hopped down and began walking through the seats. I descended to meet her, and switched my armor over to iron, which didn’t run the risk of burning everyone.

“Mute us,” she said.

“Already done,” I replied.

“I wasn’t expecting you,” said Amaryllis, looking me over. “I’m actually not sure why you’re here.”

“The call of the gold told me to come,” I replied. “Looking to extract value, I’m guessing. It’s not clear to me whether that’s a good thing.” I wondered whether we would have to go back on the promise of giving these people a cushion.

“I would have been fine,” said Amaryllis. “I saw the hit coming. It would probably have hurt, but it would have been good, on balance. I’m a young woman, and they would feel bad about hurting me, which would help bridge the gap.”

“Sorry,” I said. “I did restrain myself. I could have snapped his arm.” Or worse.

“Why didn’t you?” asked Amaryllis.

“Too much power differential,” I said. “I had a flash of rage, but it would be like crushing a mouse to death. Also not instrumentally useful.”

“Well, thank you for not going that far,” said Amaryllis. “I do think it would be better if I had some wounds to lick, but the moment has passed, and I can work from a position of power.”

“I’m surprised that you didn’t have backup,” I said, frowning a bit. “You should have backup.”

“I have a fireteam of tuung with me,” said Amaryllis. “They’re just not a part of these negotiations. I thought it was better not to have the threat of violence here. Besides, the humans here don’t take to outsiders. They’re imperial citizens, but their culture is decidedly not cosmopolitan.”

“How did you get here so fast, anyway?” I asked.

“By leaving two weeks ago,” said Amaryllis. She allowed herself a smirk.

“Devious,” I replied with a nod. “Dispatched from Anglecynn?”

“Yes,” she replied. “The goal was negotiation, or if I wasn’t able to get an audience, then at least some very diplomatic spying on Perisev. I’m one of the tangent clones, not meant to sync up every day. Primary made an exception a few hours ago, for obvious reasons. There’s not a lot for you to do here, aside from being a demonstration of force. The anger will subside and be replaced with hopelessness.”

“Grim,” I said.

“I’m allowing myself to feel for these people,” said Amaryllis. “We destroyed what appears to have been a fairly relaxed life for a lot of them. Perisev had librarians here, and this theater was home to her own private acting troupe, who would put on plays on demand from within a wide repertoire.”

“And that’s your job here?” I asked. “Picking up the pieces?”

“Somewhat,” said Amaryllis. “One part public relations, one part management, one part resource extraction. Legally speaking, the entire complex belongs to you, since you were the one who killed her. I have a standing order to act as the executor of this place, in your name, which is another fringe benefit of our marriage.”

“And there’s a lot to loot?” I asked.

“Perisev had an extensive library and many unique works,” said Amaryllis. “Some of it we’ll be able to sell, but I imagine quite a bit will only be worth the value of the paper. A lot of it goes back to dragon psychology. There are stories here that would only ever have held value for Perisev. It will take some time to work out. We’ll also have to worry about the staff robbing the place blind, which is part of why I mean to dismiss them down to the village as quickly as possible. It’s also very possible that we’ll be the target of robbers or other bad actors, which might include the kingdom itself.”

“Well, I’ll be here for a bit,” I said.

“It’s probably not necessary,” Amaryllis replied with a sigh. “As far as our overall priorities go, this one comes in fifth or sixth.”

I thought about that for a moment. “Sorry, can you give me the order?”

“Fel Seed, Poran, Necrolaborem, Anglecynn, and then possibly the hells, depending on whether there’s any merit to the rumblings down there,” she said. “Most of those aren’t about you, they’re just bookkeeping and administration that will go on quietly in the background while the core team is off doing quests. The point being, you should only spend time on this diversion to the extent required by the call of the gold.”

“Hrm,” I said. “Fair. Seems a waste to spend so long in the air just for that.” I paused. “You know, bookkeeping is one of my favorite words.”

“Why?” asked Amaryllis.

“Because it’s one of the very few words in English that has three double letters,” I said.

“I really hope that’s not what you took from that,” replied Amaryllis.

“No,” I said. “Just making conversation. It’s the kind of thing I wish we did more often.”

“Just talking?” asked Amaryllis. “Me too. Sorry, I didn’t mean to criticize.” She paused as we kept walking. We’d left the theater, and we were going down one of the corridors, with her leading the way, our destination unknown to me. “I think the best I can do is moonnoonnookkeeper.”

“What?” I asked. “Oh. But that’s not a real word.”

“Of course it is,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s someone who keeps the nook at moonnoon.”

“Moonnoon is,” I began, then stopped for a moment, because as soon as I thought about it, I knew that it was, in fact, ‘a thing’. Moonnoon was the time when the moon was highest in the sky, though we’d probably use the term lunar noon instead. “It’s contrived. And should maybe be hyphenated.”

“Well, take it or leave it,” said Amaryllis.

“And nookkeeper is … I’m not sure if it's permissible,” I said.

“It’s part of the keeper cluster,” Amaryllis replied. “Brookkeeper, creekkeeper, rookkeeper, weekkeeper, hookkeeper, spookkeeper, and so on. All perfectly fine.”

“Remind me never to play Scrabble with you,” I said.

“And what is that?” asked Amaryllis.

“It’s a letter game,” I said. “You lay out words on a board, with the words crossing over each other and sharing letters, and certain spaces worth bonuses.”

“Ah,” replied Amaryllis. “We should try it sometime, though I imagine the Anglish/English problem would cause a significant amount of confusion.”

“Probably worth playing just for that,” I said. “Hey, when are you going to sync with Primary?”

“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “There’s no cross-contingency, at least so far. It might be as long as a week. We can communicate through other methods, there’s no need to sync if she needs those ten minutes. Why?”

“Just thinking,” I said. “I’m not sure how the experience of it is for you. I had this idea that I would be able to give you a surprise that you wouldn’t ‘discover’ until later, but it probably doesn’t work like that.”

“It does, sometimes,” said Amaryllis. “The longest I’ve ever gone was two weeks, and some of the memories were little surprises, things that I brought new context to when I thought of them. The merge doesn’t include full synthesis of all ideas and experiences. If I’m reading a book on the lives and times of Imperator Kim, I won’t automatically connect it to a different book in another instance about the failures of the Second Empire’s occupational pipelines, because I never experienced either with each other’s context. There are gaps. I actually have a single instance of myself devoted just to drawing connections between lives.”

“Okay,” I said. I took off one of my iron gloves, which turned back into plain leather, then stuffed it into Rilke’s Strap. With my hand uncovered, I took Amaryllis’ hand and threaded my fingers into hers.

She looked down at it as we walked. “Holding hands?” she asked.

“Let me know if you hate it,” I said.

“No,” she said. “No, it’s … affectionate. In a good way.”

“There’s something really impressive about the way you toil away,” I said. “There’s no self-interest, no rewards, just your nose against the grindstone. Leave aside for a moment that you’re competent and capable in ways that almost no one is, the way you put yourself to work is really admirable.”

“Thank you, Juniper,” said Amaryllis. Her voice was soft. She squeezed my hand. “I mean, you’re wrong, there are rewards. I only do this because it’s the optimal thing to do. The rewards aren’t directly tangible, but I believe they’re there. I don’t love work like this, especially when I have nothing but my words. Thank you all the same.”

I nodded. “Where are we going?” I asked.

“Here,” said Amaryllis, gesturing to a small door that could clearly never have fit a dragon. “I thought you would want to see this.”

The doorway was too small for a dragon, but still large by human standards. Unlike the corridors, which were sparsely lit, this room was fully illuminated, with that light spilling out into the hallway. When I stepped in, I realized what this room was, and why Amaryllis might have wanted me to see it. Books were lined up on tall shelves, in long rows that stretched down into the center of the circular room, which was at least a hundred feet from us. I could see there, in that central room, that we were only on the ground floor, with the area stretching up at least another two stories. This was Perisev’s library.

“What’s in it?” I asked, looking over all the books.

“Stories,” Amaryllis replied. “This isn’t even the bulk of her hoard, most of it is down in deep storage, packed away in boxes. These are the ones that she actually liked, or wanted to reference. She had a staff of two dozen personal librarians.”

“Jesus,” I said softly. I waited for a beat. “Compared to the Infinite Library … it has that beat, but not in terms of volume. Opulence, and probably selection, definitely.” I started walking forward, through the shelves, and Amaryllis followed just behind me.

“I’m planning to keep on some of the librarians, if I can,” said Amaryllis. “But that will come with its own costs, and it’s not clear to me who or how many will stay.”

“Anything unique, from what you know?” I asked. “Clues?”

“This collection largely predates Uther’s invention of the printing press,” said Amaryllis. “There are bound to be books that never had a second copy made, which would mean that they didn’t make it into the Infinite Library. We’ll have to get Raven here at some point, if there’s time. I think the librarians will be the bigger assets. It’s hard to believe that Perisev would have gone as far as she did without consulting people she specifically paid to keep her informed.”

“Assuming that they’ll even talk to us,” I replied.

“We’re unpopular, for the moment,” said Amaryllis. “I’m still hoping that there’s something to be gained. I’ve already had an initial conversation with the librarians, and I’m hopeful that their academic inclination will carry through where there might be hard feelings.”

We reached the center of the room, which went up nearly ten stories and showed the extent of the stacks. There was even a little elevator built in, probably because going up more than four stories would be a pain in the ass. The whole place reeked of understated opulence, mostly in the woodwork and places where brass had been used at the joints or for protection. There was a certain level of stylistic cohesion that I’d come to associate with money, and it was on full display here: whoever had made the bannisters had also made the lamps, the tables, the elevator, and everything else.

I had expected a wizened old man for the head librarian, but instead we got a young woman. It took me a moment to take note of her pointed ears and human teeth, and another moment to realize that she might be a half-elf, like Fenn. She was on the taller side, only a few inches shorter than I was, and dressed in a very conservative red robe that hid her shape and looked ceremonial in nature.

“Juniper Smith?” she asked as she stepped forward. There were other people, probably also librarians, who were together in the stacks.

“Yes,” I said with a nod.

“Vella Greypalm,” she said, not stepping any closer to me for a handshake. “I run the library here, or did, apparently, until earlier today.”

“I won’t be in charge of any staffing changes,” I said apologetically. I wasn’t even sure what I was doing here, except that the call of the gold had told me to come. Presumably I was supposed to be looking over what was of value, to act as a check on Amaryllis, but like hell I was going to do that if not directly prompted. “What can you tell me about Uther Penndraig that I don’t already know?”

“I don’t know what you know,” Vella replied. “Should I assume you’re a layman or a scholar?”

“In between,” I replied. “I travel with Raven Masters, who knew him personally, and I’m married to his most direct descendant, Amaryllis, which probably has let me in on a number of things that I would otherwise have remained ignorant of. I’ve also read a few biographies.”

“Hrm,” replied Vella. “It seems to me that you probably have more to teach me about Uther than I have to teach you,” she replied. “There is a rare book written by Uther, Degenerate Cycles, never widely published —”

“I have a few copies, and have read it,” I said.

“Ah,” she replied, thinking for a moment. “His daughter, Dahlia, disappeared when she was eleven. In reality, she used an entad to disguise herself as a boy and became Uther’s squire, Helio.”

“And after that she became the Red Mask in Cidium,” I said, nodding.

“She did?” asked Vella.

I nodded. “I heard that firsthand from some of those involved, so it’s no surprise that it never made it into any books.”

“Am I supposed to be able to tell you things that Raven herself didn’t know?” asked Vella.

“I had hoped so, yes,” I replied. “Or, not to besmirch her, things that she wouldn’t have told me, for one reason or another.” Also, nothing that ever appeared in a book that had two or more copies.

“Uther’s supposed murder of Vervain?” asked Vella.

“The rumors are known to me,” I replied.

“The mass dracicide?” I asked.

“Revealed by Perisev, confirmed by Raven,” I said. “I don’t really care too much about the details of that.”

“Uther’s connection to exclusion?” asked Vella.

“I mean … do you know much more than that there probably was a connection?” I asked.

“Not particularly,” replied Vella. “I could talk about the theories, including Perisev’s, but there’s nothing concrete.”

“She had theories?” I asked.

“She did,” replied Vella. “She understood them as essentially narrative in nature, though the theory is complex and in my opinion, not really worth going into.”

“Please,” I said. “Indulge me.” I grabbed a nearby chair and sat down, and after a moment, Vella did too.

“You’ve read Narrative Cycles, correct?” asked Vella.

I nodded. “That and Degenerate Cycles, though both of them only once.”

“I have marked up copies of both,” said Amaryllis as she took her own seat.

“Uther doesn’t specifically talk about the phenomenon of exclusion in either,” replied Vella. “But he does talk about the needs of the story, and to Perisev’s way of thinking, these needs corresponded to exclusion in a few key ways.”

“To be clear,” said Amaryllis. “Do you subscribe to this theory?”

“I think there’s something compelling in it,” replied Vella. “But I wouldn’t uncritically present it as something true, as Perisev did, nor do I think that it has enough explanatory power.”

“Alright, go on,” said Amaryllis.

“In Uther’s view, an essential component of ongoing narrative was a return to the status quo,” said Vella. “That’s the first and most obvious element that exclusion serves, by returning the world to normalcy in ways that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to accomplish. Many of Uther’s adventures ended with the climactic decapitation of enemy forces, literally or otherwise, and the return to normalcy was accomplished by a complete break in morale, along with structural and political changes. In some cases though, exclusion was the only possible way for the world to return to anything like it was before. That brings us to a second element of how exclusion might serve narrative, which is de-escalation. Uther talks about this extensively in Degenerate Cycles, the ways in which an infinite series of stories would require periodic down-scaling of stakes in order to compensate for what he saw as the inevitable rise in power, what he termed ‘power creep’. But of course, this breaks down when we look at exclusions which occurred outside of and unconnected with Uther’s time on Aerb.”

“What did Perisev think?” I asked.

“She had complicated theories,” replied Vella. “She believed that Uther himself was a force of narrative, that narrative itself was elemental to the world, a magic beyond all power and reason, of which Uther himself was only a single instrument. If exclusion was a narrative force, then the removal of the nominal protagonist from the world might have caused it to misbehave, or to only fire when it was necessary to ‘preserve’ the world in some way. Yet it’s clear that the world was not preserved, given numerous advancements in magic, society, and technology. The post-Utherian exclusions present the biggest problem with exclusion as narrative force, so long as you have accepted that narrative force is a real and coherent element of the world.”

“Huh,” I said. “Did Perisev ever posit that perhaps exclusions were a way to set up narratives?” I asked. “Zones of adventure where some future narrative could take place?”

Vella was silent for a moment. “She did. Is that … true?”

“Unknown,” I replied. “But it seems likely at this point.”

“And you’re the protagonist?” asked Vella.

“Yeah,” I replied. “Probably.”

“Oh,” said Vella. “Well.”

“Anything else about Uther?” I asked.

“There’s been ongoing speculation about where his stories came from, and where he went to, if he didn’t just die,” said Vella. “You’re familiar with the dream-skewered?”

“A bit,” I said.

“Perisev thought that many of his stories were adapted from Earth,” said Vella. “Either taken from the dream-skewered themselves, or through some other mechanism that connected to the same place. I was actually sent to Speculation and Scrutiny, about a hundred years ago,” she looked like she was in her mid-twenties, at the oldest, “to converse with the dream-skewered there, but they seemed to have a paucity of culture. The timeline is also not correct, as Uther’s discovery of the dream-skewered post-dates much of his creative work.”

“Unless Uther himself were dream-skewered,” I said.

“Yes,” nodded Vella. “This was considered and discarded. Unless … you have more information?”

“Why was it discarded?” I asked, ignoring the question.

“I spoke with the dream-skewered,” said Vella. “Their society wasn’t that different from what existed on Aerb prior to Uther’s birth. It’s tempting to believe that Uther’s advancements in sociology, language, art, technology, governance, and a number of other areas were the result of him bringing foreign and future ideas into the world, but that’s simply not the condition of the dream-skewered. Their world is not, in so many words, ‘real’ in that way, even if something like Earth can be said to, somehow, ‘exist’.”

“But Perisev didn’t find that persuasive,” said Amaryllis.

“There’s a much broader argument,” said Vella with a slight sigh. “I have my own writings on those arguments, streamlined versions of the dialogs that she had with me and other thinkers in this complex. It was enough to fill a short book. Much of it has to deal with the nature of the stories that Uther told, the variance between them and what they had in common with each other. He was imaginative about the role of magic and technology, but rarely if ever considered things outside the human frame. That’s speaking very broadly, of course there are counterexamples.”

“And as for where Uther went?” I asked.

“If he came from Earth in some respect, as seems plausible but unlikely, then that’s where he returned,” said Vella. “He was human, so would be long-dead by this point, but from what we know of the dream-skewered, Earth is timeless anyway, if it exists as a real, physical place.”

“But there’s no evidence for that,” I said. “I mean, no evidence that he actually did go back to Earth, just speculation based on what he believed about narrative.”

“That’s not quite true,” said Vella. “Are you familiar with Collections, his work of speculation? Perisev claims — claimed that hers was the only copy.”

I looked over at Amaryllis, and she frowned. “No,” I said.

“It’s not a proper book,” said Vella. “The title was applied to it only after the fact. The provenance is murky, but we believe that it was stolen from Caledwich Castle, where it was hidden behind wards. Further, it was enciphered in a way that took years of work to undo.”

“And what was in it?” asked Amaryllis.

“You can read it yourself,” said Vella. “Perisev was adamant that no copies be created, but we’ve kept it in good condition, and obviously we have copious notes that were made from examination of it. For the most part, it seems to be flights of fancy, at least partially inspired by his adventures and companions, but there are several sections of note that directly speak of Earth. Specifically, he imagines, or perhaps had knowledge of, a method of linking Earth to Aerb via a long corridor of challenges somewhat reminiscent of the Chthonic exclusion zone.”

“Long Stairs,” I said, smiling just a bit.

“You know of it?” asked Vella.

I nodded once. “The imaginings in this book, do they include the phrase Magus Europa at any point?”

“You know all this?” asked Vella, raising an eyebrow.

“Just a guess,” I replied. “He used the phrase Long Stairs?”

“He did,” replied Vella. “Only in the heading though.” She was watching me, and I sat there in silence, waiting for her to continue. “The way he spoke of it was … odd. You’ll have to read it yourself, but he speaks of the titular stairs as descending down from Earth, and speaks only in speculative tones about how these metaphorical ‘stairs’ might connect to Aerb, and provide a passage back.”

I looked over at Amaryllis. “O ye of little faith,” I said. She raised an eyebrow. “Right, for you that conversation hasn’t happened yet.”

Vella was staring at me. “It … hasn’t happened yet? Are you … a time traveler?”

“Oh,” I said. “Nothing so interesting as that.” I looked at Amaryllis for a moment. “We had a hypothesis about the nature of the extradimensional corridor,” I said. “There’s some supporting evidence that you wouldn’t be aware of yet. So I guess it’s a good thing that I came here.”

Liquidate everything.

“Ah, and there’s some input from my special friend,” I said.

Give the command to Amaryllis.

“Amaryllis, liquidate everything,” I said. “Sell all the books for whatever you can get. Sell everything that’s been collected here. Make a copy of the new book, duplicate anything else that’s original, or suspected to be unique.”

“Hrm,” she replied. “Okay.”

“All the books?” the librarian asked. “You don’t even know the vastness of this collection, the unique pieces of it, that which is irreplaceable.”

“I’ll discuss it with you more later,” said Amaryllis.

Discuss it now.

“Sorry, just as a ballpark,” I said. “You would surely have been in charge of acquisitions, right? And have some knowledge of the worth of this place?”

“I … I do,” she said. “I had hoped that it wouldn’t come to that.” She spared a glance for the others, who were still congregated in the stacks, periodically looking at us but pretending that they weren’t.

“I just need a number,” I said. “Some dollar — some obol amount that you would expect to get from a nearly complete sale of the books.”

“It would depend,” said Vella, looking around. “To say now would be irresponsible.”

Force her.

“I’m afraid I need a number,” I said. “You can take five minutes or so. If you need help with math, I can do sums virtually instantly.”

She thought for a moment. “Most of the value comes from a minority of works, perhaps a hundred works that have a combined value of … three hundred million, let’s say. I believe that’s my answer.”

“Thank you,” I said. I wasn’t sure what the next step in escalation was for the call of the gold, but I was glad that I hadn’t been asked to break her fingers or something like that.

Leave for Necrolaborem.

“I need to go,” I said, frowning a bit. I had been enjoying myself in the library, especially with the promise of new, never-before-read books. It was hard to tell from the brief description I’d been given, but my guess was that Collections was just a fancified notebook that Uther had been using to write down whatever scraps he could remember from our campaigns.

I trekked back out of the library, then began flying once I reached the corridor, and went supersonic once I was out.

“Now why did you do that?” I asked the wind, not really expecting a response, and after a minute or so, realizing that I wasn’t going to get anything like a dialogue.

My best guess was that while I’d been looking around Perisev’s place (which probably had a name, now that I thought about it, and was too far away to ask anyone), the call of the gold had been looking too. It knew what I knew, after all, which meant that until we’d actually gone there, it had been ignorant of what was valuable. I had no idea whether it was tracking the conversation about the Long Stairs, but perhaps it had just reached the point where it felt like I had gleaned enough information, and needed to get back to something approximating work.

The idea of the call of the gold gathering information was a bit frightening, but I tried to put it out of my mind, and instead focus on what the next few days would hold.

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Alexander Wales

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