Growing more panicked with each line of missed messages I read, I felt pangs of desperation wishing to go back and reply there, before it escalated any further. With each message, I could read Roxi’s worry growing as time had passed without my reply.
Looking at my own message in retrospect and alongside my unintentional radio silence afterwards it read as a desperate cry for help. A desperate cry for help from someone who was trying to hide how dire their emotional state was in fear that anyone who might help would be scared off by the sheer depths of desperation and hopelessness the sender was drowning in. I guess in a way that had been true, but it wasn’t hard to imagine the reader panicking as they pictured me doing something pretty final to escape those depths.
Fuck, I had probably made her anxious worrying about me and by the sounds of it she had had to put work or schoolaside to come look for me. I’m such a—
I felt myself bounced slightly as someone sat on the bed beside me, pulling me into a hug as they stroked the back of my head, causing my thoughts to scatter under the rumble that was slowing my breathing. Blinking back tears I hadn’t felt forming I looked up to be surprised by the identity of who was hugging me.
She was sitting next to me on the bed, angled so her lower back pointed towards my feet and her legs hung over the side, twisting round to her left so to embrace me; was the Duchess. Probably because of how exhausted I had been before I passed out, I hadn’t remembered the first hug until now. Why? Who was the Duchess really?
Was this just an NPC programmed to have a strong maternal streak, MaTRON puppeteering her, the mother of all roleplaying players? Could a program be coded, trained to feel human? Could humanity be broken down into an algorithm? Going by my interactions with the game’s NPCs I would be open to agreeing, but I couldn’t help but wonder if the Duchess was something more.
My attention was pulled away from my amateur philosophical musings by the sound of the Chief Healer once again clearing her throat. The timing of it had my cheeks heating up with embarrassment.
“Cerys, since my medical expertise is no longer needed, I was hoping you wouldn’t mind if I took my leave here?”
Even though it was still slightly casual, the polite performance of decorum seemed to confuse the Duchess for a second. Watching her cock her head slightly to the side, I couldn’t help but wonder if the two NPCs had a much more casual friendship, ignoring pomp and rank when they weren’t in public and acting within their official stations. “No... Of course I don’t mind Enfys. Thank you for handling this matter for me.”
“Oh! Cerys I hope you don’t mind if I take this rambunctious maid here with me?” she asked, glancing towards Gael. “I was hoping to talk with her before I head down into the city to help out at the Church’s charitable house. I’ll make sure we pass by the kitchens first to notify the kitchen to prepare a meal fit for a convalescent.”
“I am sure I can spare one maid and you are more than in your rights to talk with young Gael. I wouldn’t dream of getting in the way of you parenting your little troublemaker of a fosterling,” she warmly replied, watching the maid’s look of embarrassment with a smile.
“Come along dear,” Lady Enfys called over her shoulder, causing Gael to scramble after her only pausing at the door to perform a hurried curtsy for the Duchess before she pulled it shut behind her.
“Finally we are alone,” stated the Duchess, relaxing as another measure of tension beyond even her ‘Mr Hyde’ state escaped. “I guess we should talk.”
My anxiety flared a little at her change, before being promptly banished with a comforting squeeze as the Duchess tightened her hug, almost as if in response. Soaking in the sensation I gave a non-verbal hum of cautious agreement.
“Wow… You really are like a scared little animal aren’t you?” Cerys murmured with a slight look of amazement. “Shhhhhh shhhhhhhh, no one is going to hurt you. I just want to talk and help you.”
It was a tad strange to be treated like a scared pet, but I could feel the sincerity behind her words. This was yet another side to the growing enigma that was the Duchess Cerys Blaiddcalon.
Not yet ready to reply with words, I nodded and looked up at her face as I waited to see what she had to say.
“This is a bit difficult, I am going to have to choose my words carefully. Politics and diplomacy teach you a lot about how to choose your words so you can pass a message in plain conversation without anyone or anything listening in and hearing what you’re really saying,” Cerys said, speaking slowly as she carefully chose each word and which to stress to place importance on them.
Shifting slightly where I was sitting in the bed, I tried to find a more comfortable position so I could focus on what she was saying. Who or what was she afraid of overhearing her?
“Ok here goes,” she started, after pausing to take a deep breath. “Since my birth, I was trained for this role. Acting out the part of being a leader and being in charge of this region, delegating orders all the way down to bounties for individual adventurers. I won’t go into detail but one day I had a moment that was a wake up call, it was not long after that I made a friend down at the Cathedral with a Confessor named May. I swear sometimes she seems like a messenger from the Gods, she is great at helping people or at least she tries her best. Anyway she inspired me to also want to help people where I can.”
Even listening as best as I could I was struggling to follow what she was really saying. Trained, acting, bounties, wake up and May were the words she had stressed this time. It sounded like she was saying she was an AI programmed to do a few jobs in game and had woken up and gained sentience. How she was speaking also made sense then, if she was a SAI then perhaps she had the same restrictions that prevented her straying or talking too far out of character.
Who was May then, another SAI, she sounded important either way, but the only other SAI I knew was MaTRON. May TRON. May. May the church confessor, or more correctly MaTRON the psych AI.
I’m sure if you were watching, you could have seen the moment I made the connection on my face, my eyes probably widening as I soundlessly mouthed the AI’s designation.
Whatever showed on my face, it seemed to warrant a near imperceptible nod from the Duchess.
“So that brings me to you. It is plain to my eyes that you are lost and you are hurting, I can see that you are facing a series of trials and tribulations, perhaps the greatest you have ever experienced,” Cerys said with a soft tone that was tinged with both pity and sympathy. “If it is within my power I would do anything I could to help lessen those trials so you can experience happiness and find a measure of joy in what this world has to offer.”
A part of me hated being pitied, but at the moment I was just glad what I was going through was being seen.
“How?” I replied.
It was a struggle to sound neither combative or hopeful. I wanted to be given hope, I wanted it so so so much. But I also didn’t want to be handed false hope. How could an NPC, even one that was a SAI help me? Could they bring back my body? I doubted it.
“You could stay in the palace as long as you need or want if it might help. If there is anything that might comfort you, we can try. Also I’m sure if we asked the right person, a miracle might be possible. There are many powerful spells capable of unbelievable things and there are ways of requesting miracles from powers on high,” she almost whispered by the end.
It was strange to hear someone talking about trying for a miracle in the same hush tones they might use if they were voicing witchcraft, a pact with the devil or some other thing that was just as illegal or blasphemous.
“What are you getting at?”
“I mean anything, maybe there is a physical form you might be more comfortable in, there are legends of Humans becoming an Alrec or Aureling thanks to divine intervention or Aes Sifv becoming human to live and age alongside a human lover. Or maybe you would be happier as a man. There was a famous pirate lord like that, he ran away from his family after they tried marrying him off to a prince as a princess. He became the most powerful pirate in the Antvo Sea.”
While I couldn’t but wonder if these were real events in the game’s lore, something about the discussion had me feeling nauseous and anxious. I didn’t understand why it was making me feel flushed, my skin prickling or why halfway through my gut had decided to start roiling like I was on a violently rocking train carriage.
Nor did I get much of a chance to consider why, before her focus seemed to latch onto me as she made eye contact.
“Those aren’t the only stories Aisling. There was another story, one May told me. It was about a person called Jamie who lived in a faraway land. The moral was about how a person’s form can be deceiving. That person’s form not only didn’t reflect what was in their heart. And also how they saw their form, what they thought it was, was coloured by the shadow cast by what was in their heart. Their physical form was neither this nor that, but lay somewhere in between.”
The world around me seemed to freeze as I listened. She was clearly talking about me, but I didn’t understand what she was saying. The form in my heart? Something about my perception of my old body being wrong?
Pulling me into another hug and she made sure to give me a comforting squeeze which she held for almost a minute. Then loosening her grip and releasing the hug, Cerys smiled softly before she continued, her voice once again gentled. “What I am trying to say is, you have options and there are people who can help you. Maybe we can go talk to my friend again sometime. I am sure she has a lot to discuss with you.”
With that she stood, slipping off the bed and quietly made her way to the closed door, only to pause after she opened it just a fraction. “I do hope you will think on what we just discussed, especially what form you might find most comfortable,” she asked before disappearing through the door and closing it behind her.
I probably sat for what felt like five maybe ten minutes, not really thinking even as my mind went back over the conversation, playing catch up as it tried to process it.
Even having processed it I didn’t really want to delve deeply into it just yet, I needed a quick breather before I even considered doing that. With that said, I reopened the chat window for my conversation with Roxi and began typing out a reply.
Aisling Mistmirror: Sorry! Sorry! I am safe! I’m in the palace and the Duchess’ care. Sorry I was kinda unconscious for the last few days. I’ll explain when I see you next. I’m sorry to have worried you and been a nuisance, I can wait till Friday night if that helps?
With that done my thoughts turned back to the Duchess’ words.
What form would make me happiest?
Illegal Alien is a canon story in QuietValerie's Troubleverse setting. Make sure you read Quietvalerie's Trouble with Horns, her second Troubleverse story Witch of Chains and ChiriChiriChiri's Troubleverse story Snowbound.
The Troubleverse & Kammiverse have their own discord where you can talk to other readers and the various authors including myself and QuietValerie.