56 Little Lieu on the Chopping Block
In the deafening silence that follows my proclamation, I wish for the sweet release of death.
Instead, I get intensely checked out by a passing gray-bearded gnome. "I can see it," he says with a lascivious grin, then blows me a kiss.
"No sexual harrassment near my shop, or I'll cut off your grubby little dick and feed it to you." Arachne points to a sign in her shop window that says the same thing, but in emojis.
With a gulp, the gnome takes off, his stubby legs churning for all they're worth.
I try to thank Arachne for protecting my virtue, but she cuts me off.
"Boy, this goes for you, too. Why do you think I kept stabbing you last time? I was aiming lower, but you wouldn't stay still."
I immediately wrap my wings around to guard my endangered Little Lieu. "Sorry I impeded your castration attempt."
Arachne rolls her eyes. She has a hot eye roll, because of course she does. "You're just lucky Xiuying wasn't playing. She'd have castrated you in real life."
"Dude, don't even joke about that." My wings wrap a little tighter.
Taliesin's face scrunches. His insatiable curiosity is clearly warring with the little voice in his head that says, 'Hey, maybe stop talking to the possibly dangerous perverted genderbend boy.'
Finally, he can't take being left out. "Who's Xiuying?"
I smile fondly. "My sister. She and Arachne went to college together."
"She sounds terrifying." The brat sounds impressed again.
"Yeah," I say, proud, "she's a legend. And," I add a pointed look at Arachne, "she would at least hear me out before jumping straight to castration!"
Sighing, Arachne pushes open the ornate wooden door to her store and gestures for us to enter. "Fine. You have five minutes. But if you can't explain yourself, I really will tell your sister next time I visit."
I shudder. "Snitch," I mutter.
"Perv," she snaps back.
"Wow," Taliesin gasps, staring inside the store.
Arachne's spectacular taste has that effect on people.
Her store, Silken Strands, is glamorous and well-designed. There aren't many handcrafted goods yet, since the game's only been up for one day, but she already boasts an impressive collection of gear and armor.
The shop's only one-story; the devs weren't going to hand her a five-story department building, obviously. But I expect she'll be ready to expand and upgrade earlier than the devs plan, no matter how they try to stall her.
In real life, Arachne was a designer for a prestigious clothing line, and a costume designer for fantasy/sci fi films. But she always loved video games; that's how she became friends with my sister. She helped Xiuying design gear and skins for a game Sis was developing for one of her computer science classes.
I wasn't surprised to see Arachne in the beta; I was even less surprised to realize she had figured out the potential goldmine this game offered. Loving the freedom and opportunities this game provided way more than real life, she retired from her real-world career to become a professional lifestyle gamer in Viren's Refuge.
Right now, however, she looks more like a professional hitwoman about to make me her next target. "All right, start talking."
Taliesin stops gaping at the elaborate displays to listen intently to what may very well be my last words.
"It all started with the beta's seventh major update. I logged in the next day, and to my utter surprise, the system had force-changed my avatar to female! The AI wanted more comparison data, and there weren't enough female players, so I was volun-told."
They nod, with me so far.
"Normally, I wouldn't spend money on gear simply for aesthetics, but I couldn't waste this golden opportunity." I gesture to the hand-sewn lingerie along the back wall. "Your collection was ten times this during the height of the beta. I confess to wondering why anyone would buy it, then. Who needs more than the standard-issue underclothes?"
Arachne mutters something that sounds suspiciously like, "Ugh, straight men."
"I have since learned the error of my ways," I tell her solemnly. "In fact, if you decide not to murder me, I would be interested in paying you top dollar for new boxers."
Arachne looks skeptical, but Taliesin does a horrible job of hiding a laugh with a cough and gives me a knowing look.
Shit. He's seen Boxers Bro.
Biting back a groan, I continue, "Anyway, nothing like newfound tits to make a man expand his horizons. Imagine my shock when I find out your tiny scraps of fancy cloth are all imbued with hidden buffs! It's like wearing a talisman with underwire."
"Artistry and functionality should always go hand in hand, you neanderthal."
"How should I know? You hide the effects, so a person has to literally put on each item to find out it does something. Probably so male avatars won't find out what scary shit those bras can do."
"Huh?" Taliesin stares at the lingerie in confusion.
"Even in their underwear, as long as they shop from Arachne, no girl is defenseless," I warn.
Arachne looks pleased with herself.
"Curiosity got the better of me, so I had to try on every lingerie set. And then check myself out in a mirror. For science."
"But this was the beta? Didn't you look similar to your real-world self, but with boobs?" Taliesin asks, as if that wouldn't be enough to warrant quality mirror time.
"Nope. They assigned me an avatar purely based on relative weight and height. For the first time, I was grateful for my skinny Asian body from my dad; mixed with my height from Nordic mom, my female avatar was a dropdead sexy Amazonian woman!"
Taliesin looks intrigued despite himself.
"This led to difficulties trying on lingerie. Amazons only have one boob. But I had a job to do, for science and the betterment of mankind..."
"So you rubbed that one boob with double the fervor you might have shown a pair," Arachne says drily.
"I did indeed!"
"I doubt that was the only new body part you rubbed that month."
"IT WAS A LEARNING EXPERIENCE. FOR SCIENCE."
"What do you mean?" Taliesin asks.
"Nothing," Arachne and I say in unison.
"Ahem. So there I am, squeezing my singular tit with one hand and trying to clasp my new bra with the other—"
"That's it. The final scraps of the image I first had of you are officially gone," Taliesin tells me flatly.
"—and that silky shit's way harder to get on than off—"
"Like your nerd self has all that much experience unhooking other girls' bras," Arachne scoffs.
"—so I lose my balance and fall through the changing curtain—"
"How your clutzy ass falls down putting on a damn bra, I swear to God," Arachne mutters.
"Did you want to hear my explanation or not?!" I demand.
"Nothing you've said so far has explained why I walked into the private changing area for groups, to see you surrounded by half-naked women and squeezing Fiona's double-ds!"
"She told me to squeeze! It would have been rude to refuse!"
Taliesin and Arachne skewer me with matching unimpressed scowls.
"No seriously! When I fell into their room, these girls all flocked around me to see if I was okay, then they helped me fix the bra, told me my hair looked fantastic, and someone gave me a mint. It all happened so fast! It was like being surrounded by a sorority of fairy godmothers."
Pursing her lips, Arachne nodded, like this sounded like a fairly normal occurrence.
"Then one of them laughed because I was still absently squeezing my boob, and asked if I was stressed. Apparently, girls think of boobs as stress balls attached to their bodies?"
Arache shrugged, as if to say, "Yes, obviously."
"So then another girl says, 'If you really wanna destress, borrow Fifi's beauties!' And the one I assume was Fifi was all like, 'Here ya go!' and then I was squeezing a pair of marshmallow glories, and everyone was assuring me that I still looked great even with only one tit, and someone complimented my eyebrows, and someone else gave me another mint.
And then you walked in, and all hell broke loose."
Arachne crossed her arms. "That's because in all that time, you never told them you were actually a dude. I recognized your gamer tag, and when I asked what the hell you were thinking, you didn't have a good answer."
"How could I answer? You told them I was a guy, and they all started shrieking and throwing things and trying to skewer me with weapons. I was bombarded with [Safe Haven] warning messages. I had no choice but to run, and then when I saw you next on R3, you tried to cut off my dick. Didn't give me much of an opening to explain."
"I feel like maybe the girls overreacted a little," Taliesin says, finally having my back like a good little fanboy. "This is VR, not reality."
"But like you said, in the beta, everyone looked pretty much like themselves," Arachne argues. "At least close enough to be freaked out by a guy spying in a changing room."
I nod, feeling a little guilty. "And that's fair. But you can see now that I didn't actually come here to peep! I was plenty happy staring at myself."
She's still frowning, but she looks thoughtful. "At least tell me this genderbend experiment accomplished something useful?"
"The devs wanted to know how maneuvering worked, since a lot of players will likely want to play a different gender, so I reported the few differences I noticed. And they had me infiltrate a city filled with my avatar's people to see if the NPCs would notice anything off about me."
"So you went to the Amazon Land of Women and tricked them, too?"
"If it makes you feel better, the system gave me no warning before switching me back. My save point was in the Amazonian city, so when I materialized in my male form, I was immediately captured."
The worst part was they thought I was Zeus trying to be all sneaky and rapey (as per his usual), but that a Goddess had trapped me in a mortal form so the Amazons could turn the tides and teach me a lesson, and also for breeding purposes.
So I was nearly turned into a sex slave by three hundred one-tittied women.
Not as thrilling as you might think. Especially considering the Amazons praying mantis their male lovers once everyone's had their fun, and I didn't want to end up decapitated, my corpse left to rot in the ocean.
(Also, like, a lot of hype and expectation that would be difficult to live up to. I admit to a degree of performance anxiety.)
Luckily, I managed to escape with my virtue and head intact, but my next report was more strongly-worded than usual.
It's clear from the expression on Arachne's face that she knows the myths just as well as I do, and she hears plenty of what I don't say aloud of my harrowing experience. I think I may detect a hint of pity.
She's silent for some time. I wait her out, though, and finally, she relaxes her stiff posture and offers me a small smile. "Fine. We're cool."
I release the tension I'd been holding, and thank the gods my sister won't be killing me any time soon.