Most people in the Mid-Uppers were there for the complete transhumanism or the lack of intellectual or creative scarcity, but not so for Valencia the Red. No, Valencia was a relatively rare specimen of the Mid-Uppers, someone who liked the neighborhood, so to speak, but also enjoyed a fairly mundane human existence. The assistants had made a wonderful place for them that Valencia could always imagine Juniper having a hand in, with a large, stately home up on a hill, rambling woods with a meadow in the middle, a stream running close by, and various places beyond which were destined to become a part of the family traditions, like a beach with dunes they could go to in the summer, and a cabin on a lake they could stay at, and various other things that were sometimes there and sometimes not, depending on the seasons. Their family heaven could be as big as it needed to be, but Valencia liked things relatively small and cozy.
“Mummy, why did they call you Valencia the Red?” asked Juniper. She was four and a half years old, and still learning to read. They sometimes went to the library twice in a day, using the big oak door in the living room whose dial could call up all kinds of places.
“I had a bright red suit of armor to protect me,” said Valencia. “It had big, pointy spikes on it, and I was the only one who could wear it without being hurt.”
“Okay,” said Juniper. She looked like she wanted to ask another question, and she was holding onto her little book.
“Yes dear?” asked Valencia.
“Mummy, why did people want to be hurt?” asked Juniper, twisting her mouth a bit.
“Oh, they didn’t sweetie, it was in a time when things happened even though no one wanted them to happen,” said Valencia. “All kinds of things.”
“But why did god do that?” asked Juniper.
“This was a time before god,” said Valencia. “I’m not sure that you even remember those times.”
Juniper stayed, swaying slightly, a tremulous expression on her face. “Mummy, is god going to disappear?”
“No, sweetie,” said Valencia. “I know god personally, and he’s going to stay here, watching over us, forever.”
“Oh,” said Juniper. The worry went out of her like a candle being blown out. “Okay mummy.”
“That book isn’t too scary for you, is it?” asked Valencia, but Juniper had already turned and was going off to read some more.
“No, mummy!” called Juniper without looking.
In addition to the library books, there were perhaps thirty books that had been written by Valencia with the help of her assistant, most of them with splendid illustrations. That was the kind of thing that was easy to do in the Mid-Uppers, where amazing art could be had by the basketful, freely and instantly. Valencia understood why people might want their heaven to not be absolutely flooded by the kinds of customized masterpieces that assistants in the Mid-Uppers could churn out, but it was definitely not the kind of life she wanted to live.
Valencia moved through the house, making sure that everything was as it should be. Juniper was reading, which it seemed like she was going to devote her entire life to, Amy was out in the woods with their blink dog, and Harry was being bathed by their semi-‘spian nanny, which largely involved watching him to make sure that he didn’t drown while he played in the water for as long as he was allowed. There was, naturally, no chance of children drowning, whether in bathtubs or otherwise.
Jorge was in his workshop, learning woodworking, which he was doing without enhancements. While they lived in the Mid-Uppers, they went down to the lower heavens on a regular basis for one reason or another, and the Authority had laid down some general rules for how that worked, mostly in service of preserving the feeling of the heavens for the people who wanted to live there and to align everyone’s preferences. The Middle Heavens, where Juniper and Mary mostly resided, had a woodworking association that Jorge had taken an interest in, but he had learned woodworking in an instant, on a whim, and wasn’t allowed to take that skill or knowledge with him to association events or meetings. He found it a bit frustrating, but had resolved to learn woodworking the ‘proper way’, so that he would be able to do more when he visited.
For her part, Valencia was almost entirely unenhanced. If she needed things done, she had the assistants do it, rather than having modifications to her person. The garden in the back was one example. It would have been entirely possible for her to learn gardening instantly with a modification, or to give herself a Knack, which some people preferred. Instead, Valencia had opted to have the assistants help her, and watched with interest as they built the raised beds, put in the dirt, and planted the seedlings. Sometimes she would use magic to get things done, and she fancied herself a bit of a witch, with a broomstick and a wide-brimmed pointy hat.
There was a lot of joy in the rhythm of the seasons, in the cold of winter, the beating sun of summer, the crisp autumns and earthy springs, and the plants of the garden had their own rhythms, which Valencia took some pleasure in. It was the time of cucumbers and raspberries, and the apple trees weren’t quite there yet. Valencia did her best to keep their food seasonal, but it was a half-hearted sort of effort, especially in the winters, when canned or fermented vegetables got old in a hurry. There were limits to how much stock Valencia was going to put in realism. Realism wasn’t the point, not by itself. The point was an appreciation of the world and a personal grounding within it.
“The spells are holding,” Valencia said to the small black cat, which had followed her out to the garden. “Keeping those nasty crows away.”
“I miss the crows,” said the cat.
“Well, I’m sure you can take a walk through the woods and visit them there,” said Valencia. She bent down to look at how the cucumbers were coming along, and decided that the largest of them could stand to go for another day. Too large and they lost some of their flavor. It was a delicate balancing act.
“Amy ate the blueberries this morning,” said the cat.
“Ah,” said Valencia, looking over the bushes. All the blue ones were gone, leaving only the purple ones, which could be eaten, but were too tart. “Did she enjoy them?”
“She enjoyed them in the unthinking way that a child enjoys eating something sweet while moving on to other adventures,” said the cat.
“Well, that means that we might not have enough to make a blueberry pie today,” said Valencia, sighing. “But, I suppose, I could magic some up with a duplication spell. I’ll need a yew wand, some chalk, and a sprig of chamomile.” She made the ingredients up off the top of her head, but they had the right kind of feeling to them, and with the children occupied, it felt like a good time to go out and have an excuse to experience the woods.
“Perhaps that will have to wait,” said the cat, stretching out slightly and extending his claws into the dirt. “Mary would like to visit.”
“Oh, well, by all means,” said Valencia. “Will she be coming through the door?”
“She’ll be flying in,” said the cat, looking to the sky. “Now, if that’s alright with you.”
“Yes, of course,” said Valencia. It wasn’t unusual for them to have visitors to their property, but typically they liked to have some notice, and except for emergencies, not that there were true emergencies anymore, there needed to be explicit consent from either Valencia or Jorge.
Mary rode a broomstick, flying high over the maple trees, and landed with a rush of air in the garden, which briefly billowed up her skirt. She was radiantly beautiful, made more so by the wide smile on her face.
“I always forget how chilly flying can be,” said Mary, grinning ear to ear.
Valencia wrapped her in a hug. “You’re free to take the door.”
“Nonsense,” Mary replied, squeezing tight. “If you’re a witch here, then I’m a witch too.” She pulled back. “I even brought my wand with me.” She turned to the side to show her wand, which she was using to hold her hair in place. That was only possible because she’d chosen a short, thin length of wood. “Is Jorge still bitten by the woodworking bug? I was hoping that I might get him to make me a new one.”
“He’s in the workshop right now,” said Valencia. “No Juniper?”
“No,” said Mary, shaking her head and still smiling. “He’ll be by later, I think he might have needed some time to himself to process the whole thing.”
“What whole thing?” asked Valencia.
“I am,” said Mary, “At this very moment, pregnant.”
Valencia shrieked in delight, then wrapped Mary in another hug. “Oh that’s wonderful, I hadn’t even known you were, well — trying is probably not the right word.”
“No, it is,” said Mary. “I wanted it to be as natural as possible. I’m even going through the whole nine months of it.”
“Jorge and I are thinking of another,” said Valencia. “Should we coordinate? Would that be weird?”
“I wouldn’t want you to have another baby on my account,” said Mary, momentarily faltering. “Though it would be good to have a close friend our daughter’s age.”
“You know already?” asked Valencia, slightly taken aback.
“We’re not that traditional,” said Mary. “No pain for the childbirth, no chance of complications, I’m not insane, and once was enough. And obviously we’ll have a happy, healthy child.”
Valencia nodded. It sometimes cast a pall over things, to talk about how things used to be, even by inference. “Well, I’m thrilled, I sometimes wish that we’d waited a bit, so we wouldn’t be the only parents.”
“You meet up with Lisi and Reimer and their children, right?” asked Mary.
“Oh, of course,” said Valencia. “They’re good friends, partly because of the history, partly because Jorge is so agreeable. He could make friends with a brick. And we have other friends and playgroups. But tell me about the baby, I want to know everything.”
“There’s not even that much to tell,” said Mary. “Juniper is nervous, but he thinks that it’s a good kind of nervousness, and obviously there’s no risk. With his own parents being how they were, I imagine he’s just thinking back to worse times and trying his best to make sure he can do better for his own child.”
“Are the Narrator and the Fenns thinking of having children?” asked Valencia. “They’ve lasted together a lot longer than I thought they would.”
“I’m not sure that children are the kind of future that she wants. I’m not sure that’s what happiness means for her,” said Mary. “Which is a shame, because for all his low-key anxiety about it, Juniper has been enthusiastic, and I’m hard-pressed to think the same wouldn’t be true for the Narrator.”
“Well, would you like to stay for dinner?” asked Valencia. “I think it will be pork, cucumber salad, and perhaps potatoes. You can keep me company while I cook.”
“I was going to make the rounds,” said Mary, looking somewhat regretful. “Though I suppose I can commandeer some clones for that task.”
“Juniper would like to enter the property,” said the cat, in his mild tone.
“Of course,” said Valencia, giving Mary a puzzled frown.
“Oh no,” said Mary. “I think he might have been making —”
But at that moment, Juniper appeared in the woods, dropping down from the upper branches of the maples and landing deftly on a root that rose from the ground to catch him. He had said, quite a bit ago, that if Valencia and Mary were going to play at being witches, then he was going to have a magic system of his own, and apparently the one he’d settled on involved trees.
He had a satchel over his shoulder, and a full beard. From the satchel, he pulled a small pot, which he lowered to the ground so a sapling could uproot itself and clamber inside. Once that was done, he slipped the pot into the satchel and held his arm still for a moment so the sapling could twist and wrap around it. From the bottom of the satchel, a small toad with a garden on its back climbed up to sit in the pot. The toad wasn’t a constant companion to Juniper, and had its own annex of their house, but it always came when it was time to visit Valencia.
“Juniper,” said Valencia. Her hands had gone to her hips, and she found herself using the voice she sometimes used with her children when scolding them, not that it was a common occurrence. “Did you bring gifts for my children?”
“I did!” Juniper exclaimed as he strode forward. He looked happy and healthy, and a bit more at ease with himself. There was still a bit of darkness there, by Valencia’s reckoning, and a tendency to brood, but there was far less to brood about these days. He’d excised any outright depression.
“Juniper,” said Valencia. “If it’s another screaming spoon, I swear to — well, to the Authority that,” Valencia hesitated. “Alright, I don’t swear it, but please don’t let it be another screaming spoon.”
“Finding out is half the fun,” smiled Juniper. “What kind of uncle would I be if I didn’t let the kids have the joy of discovery?”
The screaming spoon had, in Juniper’s defense, been one of Amy’s favorite toys. There was a little face on the handle, Juniper’s own, and it would make a mock scream along with some dialogue if it was put in something too hot, too cold, too mushy, too sticky, or in someone’s mouth. ‘Oh gross!’ the spoon would say, ‘Get me out of your mouth, you’re getting SPIT all over me!’ or ‘Who made this soup so hot! It burns!’ or ‘Stop banging me against the table! Ouch!’ Amy, at four, had found it utterly hilarious. For Valencia, the screaming spoon wore thin after the first meal with it, and eventually, after a week of the screaming spoon yelling its way around the house, Juniper had been forced to come back and change it so that only children could hear it.
“Congratulations, by the way,” said Valencia, giving Juniper a hug. He squeezed her tight and lifted her off her feet, if only for a moment. There was a nice smell to him, something of the forest floor.
“You’ll have to give us some pointers,” said Juniper. “Your kids are turning out so well.”
“It’s hard to raise bad kids in the heavens,” said Valencia. “But of course I’ll be there for them.” She paused. “I suppose I’ll be an aunt, won’t I?”
“I suppose so,” said Mary. She was still smiling, the same as she’d been when she’d first arrived. She looked at Juniper. “Did you want to stay for dinner? I have clones to go make the rounds, did you want to get a temporary split?”
“Sure,” said Juniper. “Done.”
They spoke together in the garden for a bit, and Juniper made interested noises at the cucumber plants. He had a garden of his own in the middle heavens, though he was doing things more by hand than Valencia was. It was part of a spurt of worldbuilding, as things often were for him, in this case a way of getting some sense of what life was like for pre-industrial farmers. He had a setting focused on farming and plantlife ready to go.
While Juniper was giving himself a tour, Amy appeared in the garden, with her hand on their blink dog, Blinkers.
“Blinkers, you were right!” said Amy. She beamed at Mary, her namesake, of a sort. “Hi auntie.”
“Hello, little one,” said Mary. “Are you staying out of trouble?” She had a way of taking on a cool and mysterious demeanor with the girls, which they loved.
“Always,” answered Amy.
“But getting into a little trouble is something good girls do, from time to time,” said Mary with a smile.
“Well, I do get in a little trouble,” said Amy.
“I got you a gift,” said Juniper, reaching into his satchel and pulling out a length of red fabric. “It’s a cape.”
“What does it do?” asked Amy, taking it into her hands and looking at it with wide eyes.
“Now that would be telling,” said Juniper. “Go on, try to work it out. I’ll give you a hint though: it’s better when you’re fast.”
Amy affixed the cape around her shoulders, then took off, with Blinkers the blink dog following close behind her.
“They’re getting to the age where it might be better to make multiples,” said Valencia.
“They’re entads, sorry,” said Juniper. “Each one is unique.”
“Juniper,” said Valencia.
“Fine, fine,” replied Juniper. “I’ll consider it.”
When Amy came back into view, there was a storm of leaves following behind her, rolling and tumbling. “Mom, I’m the god of leaves!”
“It should give you a fair bit of control,” Juniper called to her. “Try getting a boost when you jump!”
Amy picked up speed, then jumped, and the leaves came rushing under her, pushing her tumbling high into the sky, which elicited a shriek of joy. She landed with a thump on the ground, and something in Valencia’s brain sent a momentary jolt of panic that was swept away to the side when Amy climbed to her feet.
“Ow,” said Amy, brushing herself off. She’d fallen nearly twenty feet, and there wasn’t a scratch on her.
“She feels pain?” asked Juniper, suddenly tense.
“She asked to turn it on, and the Authority agreed,” said Valencia. “It’s at a very low level, fleeting, and only in specific circumstances.”
“Hmm,” said Juniper.
Amy was already running again, with the leaves following her.
“I don’t like it,” said Juniper.
“It’s always odd to me, seeing the places where he disagrees with the Authority,” said Mary. “Usually it’s in a place where he agrees with the general principle but not the logical conclusion.”
“I just think she’s young for it,” said Juniper. “And … I hadn’t thought that we’d have children who are traditionalists.”
“You’re seeing it through the wrong lens,” said Valencia. “She’s a child, she read about pain in books, she’s been exposed to it, and she wanted to try it for herself. I’m sure she’ll be able to articulate it better when she’s older, but I imagine there’s something grounding that comes with a tiny bit of negative feedback from your body when you’ve made a mistake or suffered a failure.”
“Yes,” said Mary. “But Juniper doesn’t have to like it.”
They watched as Amy moved across the grass, fast as the wind, with the blink dog behind her. She jumped into the air and the leaves pushed her again, tossing her high, and this time she landed without incident.
When they went inside, Juniper the Younger had to be prompted to stop reading, then prompted again to give her aunt and uncle a hug. There was something very timid about her, which Valencia couldn’t quite account for, and she’d had conversations with Jorge about whether or not it might be better to petition the Authority on her behalf, or perhaps talk with her about it. It was, perhaps, just a phase, but even as a baby, Juniper the Younger had startled easily and been a bit more sensitive than her sister.
“I have a gift for you, Younger,” said Juniper the Elder. He always referred to her as ‘Younger’ when he met her. It had taken him some time to get used to having a namesake, but once he’d adjusted, he’d begun to spend more time with her than with her sister. That might have been because she was a more subdued child though.
“A gift?” asked Juniper the Younger.
“A gift,” Juniper the Elder repeated. He reached down into his satchel and withdrew a gleaming silver sword.
“Joon,” said Valencia with a sigh. “You are not giving my four-year-old daughter a sword.”
“I’m actually four and a half,” said Juniper the Younger. She used the word ‘actually’ a lot.
“It’s a safety sword,” said Juniper. “It cannot cut, cannot hurt a single living thing, except for the boojums.”
The Younger looked at the Elder with wide eyes. “What’s a boojum?” she asked.
“It’s a monster,” said Juniper the Elder. “A very scary monster with thick black teeth and a twisted skull, and eyes like wrinkled lemon seeds. Now, your mother is a witch of some power, and she’s warded your family home and the outlying areas against the boojums, but if you go to certain realms beyond, that’s where you’ll find the boojums.”
“In the library?” asked Juniper the Younger.
“No,” said Juniper the Elder. “Not the library, nor places where other people are. A boojum can only be found when you’re alone, and only when you seek them out. If you choose to accept the sword, then you will be the one tasked with seeking them out.” He drew back slightly. “But if you don’t accept it, then I’ll find some other child to give it to.”
Juniper the Younger took the sword from him. It gave off a faint glow in her hands.
“Good,” said Juniper the Elder. “Now, the sword has several magical properties that make it good for fighting boojums. One is that it can make light, like a flashlight.”
“Or a spell?” asked Juniper the Younger.
Juniper the Elder nodded. “Yes, like one of your mom’s spells. Now, the other two things you need to know are that it will give off an angry red glow if a boojum is near, and if you want it to, it will teach you how to fight. You can pull it from the air or return it to the air at a moment’s notice. Beyond that, for every boojum you kill, it will grant a new ability.”
Juniper the Younger was holding the sword, which was perfectly sized to her young hands, and looking at the designs that covered it. She turned to leave, and Valencia stopped her.
“What do you say?” asked Valencia.
“Thank you,” said Juniper the Younger, not looking back.
“I really, really hope you know what you’re doing,” said Valencia to Juniper the Elder. “Did you run prognostics?”
“I had the idea, then ran prognostics. I made the suggested tweaks,” said Juniper. “According to the Authority, given the information that it has access to, it’ll be good for her. It’s a way of conceptualizing the fact that there’s danger in the world, and that she can be proactive about that danger.”
“Not much danger,” said Valencia. “Juniper, if she has nightmares, I’m banning you from more ‘gifts’.”
“Do your children have nightmares?” asked Juniper.
“You know what I mean,” said Valencia.
“It was an honest question,” said Juniper. “I know you like to keep a grounding in the world. Baths instead of instant cleaning, that kind of thing.”
“I would not let my child get hit by a rock so I could have the joy of being able to comfort them,” said Valencia, crossing her arms.
“Annoying each other already?” asked Mary as she came over. She had a new wand, something that Jorge had likely made, and it was a slender, handsome thing that gave Valencia a pang of envy.
“Juniper thinks I’m a bad parent,” said Valencia with a pout.
“Why does she think that?” asked Mary, grinning.
Valencia sighed. “In my defense, when I named her, Juniper the Elder was dead.”
“I don’t think you’re a bad parent,” said Juniper. “I just think that we’ll probably have very different parenting styles, which is probably down to us having different concepts of what a good heaven is like.”
“Speaking of parenting,” said Valencia, looking at Juniper’s satchel. “Your toad is missing.”
Juniper looked down. “Ah, shit.”
“Language,” said Valencia.
“I have an amulet,” said Juniper, pulling something out from his shirt as he looked around on the ground. “It’s the Amulet of Bad Words. If I say a bad word, the children will hear something else. Farkle or fungi or something.”
“Do you need help finding the toad?” asked Valencia.
“Nah,” said Juniper. “He’s around here somewhere.” He got down on his hands and knees to look under the chairs and tables. “I’m going to look outside real quick.”
“It’s like a game they play,” said Mary with a sigh as she watched Juniper leave. “The toad does it on purpose, I think.”
“I think he’ll make a good father,” said Valencia.
“He’d better,” said Mary. “The Authority approved us as parents, which puts a limit on how bad we can be, not that I’m going to depend on that.”
“Do you think he’ll enjoy it as the ultimate act of creation?” asked Valencia.
Amaryllis laughed. “No, I don’t think that aspect of it would ever even cross his mind. I think for Juniper, at least in his mind, before it’s happened, parenthood is more akin to being a Dungeon Master, shepherding a player who is ultimately in control of her own destiny, and hoping that she has fun with things.”
Valencia nodded. “Or perhaps, this once, it won’t revolve around games and worldbuilding?”
“Perhaps,” replied Amaryllis with a smile.