“Uh, yeah,” Juniper said, nonplussed. “We were all there when you got it.”
“No, I mean…” Gabriel let out an irritated sigh and nudged the sword with his hand. “Hey, c’mon. You’re embarrassing me.”
“He’s talking to his sword,” Fross stage whispered.
“If you’re certain this is a good idea.”
The voice was feminine, oddly resonant and actually rather pleasant, but it made everyone at the table lean back in surprise. Gabriel smiled smugly for a second, then his expression faded into awkwardness.
“So,” he drawled, “yeah. Belated introductions. Ariel, everyone. Everyone, Ariel.”
“I’m already quite well acquainted with them all.”
“That sword talks,” Juniper said, staring at it.
“And there’s that razor intellect for which you are so well known.”
“Hey!” Gabriel snapped, grabbing the hilt. “Be nice to my friends!”
“Of course. My apologies.”
“Yes, she talks,” he added, scowling, “and sometimes she’s kind of a jerk. She’s smart, though, and helpful.”
“How long, exactly, has this been going on?” Trissiny asked, staring at Ariel.
He sighed. “Presumably, she’s always been able to talk. I didn’t learn about this until after the battle this spring.”
“How long after?” she asked sharply.
Gabriel winced. “It, uh… The day everyone left campus. That’s when she started… Well, in fact, she sort of began lecturing me.”
“Surely you’re not going to contend that some lecturing was not needed.”
“That long?” Trissiny exclaimed, staring at him. “All summer?”
“It’s not like…” Gabe sighed again, planting an elbow on the table and leaning his forehead into his hand. “Okay, this is going to sound pretty dumb.”
“That’s okay!” Fross said reassuringly. “It’s never stopped you before!”
“Even the pixie is doing it,” Ariel commented. “You are truly the designated comic relief in this group.”
“Hush,” he said irritably. “Look, I wasn’t trying to keep this secret, okay? It’s just that… When I first found out, I sort of… Needed time to process. We talked a good bit, alone, and she helped me a lot with my magic. I mean, both my enchanting and getting to handle the divine. And the longer it went on, the harder it was to think of a reason to bring it up. I just… It wasn’t supposed to be secret or anything, it just turned into a vicious cycle where I couldn’t think of a way to say ‘hey, my sword can talk!’”
“There’s a method I like to use in situations like this,” Ruda said. “I’d say ‘hey, my sword can talk!’”
“Thank you, Ruda.”
“You got it, Arquin. Always here for ya.”
“She…helps you with magic?” Toby asked, peering quizzically at the sword.
“In fact, that is my primary gift,” Ariel said. “I require energy from the aura of a user to be fully active. Gabriel has a great deal of magic in his, but for most of the period after retrieving me from the Crawl—to which, I note, you have brought me back and which I will thank you never to do again—I did not choose to speak up because the power around him as predominantly infernal in nature. I would rather not have that gunking up my metaphysical works, as it were.”
“Wow,” Ruda commented. “Once you get her going, she really gets going.”
“Gabriel does not recall my first actual help to him, as he was in a hethelax fit at the time. It was during the battle of the hellgate; I altered the method by which his infernal aura manifested in berserking, allowing him to remain lucid and make conscious use of that power. I must say he did quite well with that, once it was done.”
“You enchanted him?” Fross exclaimed, aghast. “That’s incredibly dangerous! You could have killed him, or much, much worse!”
“Nonsense. Enchantment of sentient beings is dangerous because of the principle of recursive subjectivity, which does not apply to me. I am not a person; I do not have the psychology of a sentient being, and do not perform subjective mental processes. That is why I cannot do magic on my own, even when fully charged as I am now by long exposure to a powerful partner’s aura. I was able to make tweaks to Gabriel’s infernal power without risking damage to him precisely because I can apply spell effects using his own energy without being subjected to the irrational whims of his subconscious mind. This is what makes me a priceless aid to any spellcaster.”
“And so modest!” Ruda said cheerfully.
“So…you changed your berserking?” Teal asked, frowning at Gabriel. “You don’t lose control anymore?”
“Actually, no; she says it was just for the one time,” he replied.
“And we will not be doing that again,” Ariel added firmly. “That was a crisis. Meddling with infernal power under any circumstances is a last desperate resort to be employed only in the lack of any other options.”
“Well, she does seem to have sense,” Trissiny said with grudging approval.
“As Gabriel is an arcanist who now possesses a considerable wellspring of divine energy, dealing with the infernal at all is off the table.”
“Gabriel is the one making the decisions in this partnership,” he said sharply.
“Of course, but Gabriel does, thankfully, possess the rudimentary common sense to follow excellent advice when he hears it, which is why this partnership has been largely successful despite his lack of inherent wisdom.”
“I like this sword!” Ruda cackled.
“You want her?” Gabriel asked sourly.
“I would be wasted on a non-magic user,” Ariel said with clear disdain. “As I was saying, making deliberate use of infernal power is most unwise. In fact, I believe we may be able to access his new divine powers to cut off the berserking effect entirely, though he has been reluctant to experiment.”
“That would be some of that wisdom you say I don’t have,” Gabriel snapped. “All right, that’s my thing on the table. Who’s next?”
“There really wasn’t much more to it, after that,” Merry said, her eyes on the steaming teacup she held in both hands. “The magistrate really chewed me up one side and down the other… But in an odd way, I think he had a soft spot for cases like mine. Anyhow, he didn’t throw the book at me; once he got done explaining what a dumbass I was, he made a pretty serious pitch for the Legions. The actual sentence for the trouble I caused would’ve just been a couple months in a cell, but he seemed to think this was what I needed to get over some of my more silly ideas. By the time he was done talking, I couldn’t really argue, so…here I am.”
She shrugged, took a sip of tea and set the cup down again. “I was gonna go off and save the world, you know? Or at least a village or something. Glory and riches, maybe a handsome prince, and generally not get stuck grinding myself down to a numb little lump of coal in pointless, menial jobs the way both my parents did. I was a stupid fucking child, is all.” She finally raised her eyes to look at them. “And…that was the last time I really liked myself. Here… It’s all about keeping my head down, doing the work, not making waves. Honestly, on a twisted level I’ve been enjoying being put upon by Syrinx. That was… There’s something noble about having an enemy who’s actually evil.”
“Words like ‘evil’ are tricky,” Principia said quietly. “I’d be careful about throwing that around. Most enemies are just people who have their reasons.”
“And this one?” Merry asked flatly, turning to stare at her.
Principia grinned. “No, I think you’re right. She actually is pretty evil. Just…general advice. I’m the boss now, I have to say stuff like that.”
“Well, apparently I’m still a stupid child at heart,” Merry said with an answering smile, “so maybe I have to listen to it.”
“I sort of get where you’re coming from.” Farah shifted in her seat when they all turned to look at her, but continued. “I was an acolyte at a Nemitite temple, and…I really loved it. I felt called to it. Honestly, after my enlistment is over, I think I’ll probably go back there. But… I was studying under Aleesa Asherad, who was the first victim of the priest killer last year.” She lowered her eyes. “You can’t imagine what that was like. Aleesa was one of the best people I ever knew. Intelligent, but also wise, and such a good teacher… It completely shattered us, all of us. It was like the whole temple lost its heart. And I…” She gulped, grimacing. “Well, I had a crush on this guy, and I tried to, uh, turn to him for comfort and got rejected. That was the excuse I used to leave the temple… But the truth was, I was just afraid. It was supposed to have been a safe place. How could something like that just happen? I…felt weak, and helpless, and didn’t want to anymore. I actually tried to join the Thieves’ Guild.”
“You what?” Casey exclaimed in surprise.
Farah smiled bitterly. “Yeah, well, who’s less afraid than the Eserites, after all?”
“Eserites feel fear the same as anyone else,” Principia noted. “We just turn it into motivation.”
“Is that doctrine?” Farah asked curiously. “Because Bishop Darling said almost exactly the same thing.”
“So you went to Darling?” Principia asked.
“Yeah… He paid for a really good shrine for Aleesa at the Temple of Vidius. I don’t even know why, but it made me think of him. He, uh, was very tactful, but he rather strongly suggested I was not a good fit for the Guild. But he did point me at the Legion.” She gazed thoughtfully into the distance. “And you know something, he was absolutely right. I…like this. I don’t plan to spend my whole life at it, like I said, but… I don’t feel afraid anymore. I feel strong. I know there are things in the world that I can’t begin to fight, but the Legion’s taught me how to stand up and fight, win or lose, if it needs to be done. I already got what I needed from my enlistment, and I’m very willing to give my all to Avei in exchange.”
She stopped, staring fiercely around at them. Merry raised her eyebrows in mild surprise, but the others smiled back.
“Well,” Principia said after a moment. “I guess that leads us to the ones we’re all really curious about.”
“It was at the battle,” Toby said, staring down at his folded hands. “At the worst part. I didn’t know where anyone was, I thought Triss had been killed… I was alone, demons were coming at me, and…I snapped. I was so angry. I let it out at them with sheer divine magic.”
“With the greatest of respect to your pacifism, Toby,” Shaeine said with a gentle smile, “I cannot think of a more understandable reaction in that situation.”
“It’s not that,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s… I felt the light blaze up in me, in a way I’ve never felt it before. So much… It seemed like it filled the whole sky. Like once I called on it, I wasn’t even in control anymore. Just for a moment, though. And when it faded…they were gone. All of them. Dozens, just…vaporized. Reduced to ashes.” He closed his eyes. “In two seconds I destroyed dozens of sentient beings.”
Gabriel reached over to place a hand on his shoulder.
“I know you guys have been worried about me,” Toby continued, opening his eyes again, but still looking downward. “In class, I have not been doing well making things out of light. It’s just… I can’t stop seeing that. My power, used to kill and destroy. Ever since, I’ve felt this…loathing. When I try to touch the light, part of me runs away from it. I don’t know what to do.”
“Have you spoken to Omnu about this?” Trissiny asked quietly.
“Of course,” he said, looking up at her. “It’s… I don’t know how it is with you and Avei, but under most circumstances, Omnu doesn’t communicate with me in words. That requires a ritual, which requires a sacred space… Well, generally, I can feel him there, and he’s a kind of emotional presence. When he wants to express something, it’s just these washes of feeling through my mind. It’s very…well, it’s beautiful, generally. But with this… All I get from him is comfort. Calm. A sense that it’ll be all right. And I don’t know how he can think that. I feel awful, because it’s so stupidly selfish to make such demands of one’s god, but it’s like…he won’t offer me what I need.”
“Gods, as a rule,” said Shaeine, “when they offer help or communication at all, do offer what we need. When what they give is in conflict with our expectations, it is not generally they who are wrong.”
“I’ve thought of that, too,” Toby said, grimacing. “I just feel…stuck.”
“Toby,” Trissiny said with a thoughtful frown, “did you feel burned at all, when you flared up at the demons?”
“No,” he said, frowning in response. “In fact, I thought that was odd. It was a huge amount of power. It should have burned me, at least a little.”
“It should have utterly incinerated you,” she said. Toby blinked at her in surprise. “I know that spell, Toby, though I’ve never heard of an Omnist cleric of any kind using it. The divine nova is… Well, you know what it is, you were there. Had you done that in a crowd of people rather than demons, it would have healed everything any of them suffered, right down to any scars they had. Two Hands of Avei have died doing that.”
“Died?” he whispered.
“It has to do with the nature of our faith, and of Avei’s support,” she said seriously. “It’s more power than any mortal can safely channel. Avei’s power is granted to us as a weapon, but only in proportions that mortals can bear. To call on her as…as magical artillery, that’s a tremendously serious thing. She has not forbidden it, but given us doctrines warning against such reliance on sheer firepower, and imposed a steep price if it is to be called upon. Only a Hand or a high priestess even has the right to make that request, and she knows, in so doing, that she is offering her life in exchange for calling down the goddess’s wrath upon her enemies.”
“Boots, I know it’s been a while since I’ve made fun of you for it,” Ruda commented, “but I feel it’s appropriate here to state that your religion is fucked up.”
Trissiny glanced at her and sighed before turning her attention back to Toby. “The point is, it’s not just Avenists who have used that spell. Salyrite clerics have also managed it, but Salyrene has different rules. She simply won’t do it under the majority of circumstances, but when she does, it’s using her clerics as a focal point while also protecting them. They always came away unharmed.”
“So…” Toby frowned deeply. “Wait. You’re saying…”
“I am saying,” she replied, “you did not kill those demons. Omnu did.”
There was quiet around the table for a long moment. The sounds of talk, laughter and clattering dishes from the Visage’s other patrons washed over them, leaving no impression.
“That can’t be,” Toby whispered. “Omnu is peace. Omnu is life.”
“They were demons,” Teal said quietly.
Toby shook his head stubbornly. “That shouldn’t matter! Omnu has used his power to defend against demons, but that kind of aggression…”
“What, exactly, is involved in getting an actual conversation with Omnu?” Gabriel asked, tilting his head.
“Well… The ritual itself isn’t too hard. It just needs to be performed at a major temple. It’d have to be the one in Tiraas, there aren’t any others of sufficient importance to the faith on this continent. I would have to have the use of the main sanctuary to myself for a few hours. I really hate to create that kind of imposition to others of the faith…”
“Honestly, man, I think you really need to do that,” Gabriel said seriously. “Aside from the fact that this is bothering you… Even not being Omnist, I get where you’re coming from. This looks like weird behavior from him. If you’re gonna be his Hand in this world, you need to understand what he’s doing, especially when he’s using you to do it.”
“I suspect that monks at the temple will not begrudge you its use,” Shaeine added.
“For what it may be worth,” said Trissiny, “different rules apply to demons. Against demonic forces, ‘no quarter’ is considered acceptable terms of engagement for both the Silver Legions and most mortal armies.”
“Yes, yes,” Ruda said, rolling her eyes. “Grr, smite, stab…”
“Knock it off,” Trissiny said curtly. “The reality is you generally can’t take demons prisoner. They are psychologically incapable of behaving, for one thing; in the rare event they will even try to surrender, they don’t stay that way for long. They’ll attack the moment they get a chance, and often before there’s a reasonable chance; it’s like they just can’t stand not fighting. Also, mortal forces simply cannot properly care for them. It takes a warlock to keep a demon on the mortal plane in anything like good shape, and most warlocks banish their familiars back to the infernal plane when not using them precisely because it’s difficult. Our healing is lethal to them; many species can’t even eat the food in this dimension. There are two which are known to be allergic to water. Killing them is not only the sole possible response, it’s generally the only mercy we can offer their kind.”
“That may all be true,” Gabriel muttered, “but it still has disturbing overtones.”
“I never claimed it didn’t,” Trissiny said grimly. “It’s not as if we long for combat with demons, Gabe. If Avei’s forces had our way, they would just stay in their realm, where they belong.”
“That’s…actually sort of good to know,” Teal said quietly. She fell silent when the others turned to look at her, but Shaeine squeezed her hand encouragingly. “It…I… From the same battle… I gave Vadrieny full freedom to fight. However she needed to.”
“Oh,” said Fross. “Ouch.”
“Yeah,” Teal said glumly. “It… Well, it was a hell of a thing. Pun not intended. She… One guy actually tried to surrender. He was dead before he finished getting the word out. I mean, I understand war, but that’s…y’know…murder. I had to watch it from very close.”
“Teal,” Trissiny said quietly, “based on what Vadrieny knew of the hellgate, she has intact general knowledge of demons?”
“Yeah, I see where this is going,” Teal said, “and yes…she’s said sort of what you did, that demons can’t be trusted to surrender. I… Well, I wasn’t sure how much credence to give that. She didn’t explain it in detail the way you did, and… She’s been pretty offended that I have a hard time with it. It’s hard having a relationship like this, see? We can’t lie or keep secrets. It’s very intimate, but it’s really dicey when there’s any kind of intractable conflict.”
“Can I make a suggestion?” Trissiny asked.
“Um,” Ruda said pointedly.
“Please,” said Teal, nodding at Trissiny. “I respect your opinion.”
Trissiny nodded in return. “Well, I’m sorry to have to say it, Teal, but in this case, my opinion is that you haven’t been very fair toward Vadrieny.”
“…okay, that’s not what I was expecting to hear,” Gabriel admitted.
“I don’t mean just this, the difference of opinion about the demons,” Trissiny went on. “From what she said to me, that night on the lawn… Vadrieny has gone to great lengths and bent over backward to accommodate you and your way of thinking, which is inherently alien to her. And really, that makes perfect sense, considering you have to live on this plane, in mortal society. But…have you done anything to tend to her needs?”
“I’m not sure I understand what you mean,” Teal said a little stiffly.
“I’m not talking about demonic stuff,” Trissiny said quickly. “Obviously, no, it’s best not to get her involved in anything like that. But Teal…she’s a warrior. I know how you feel about violence, but take it from someone who knows… If you have the skill and the inclination to fight, sometimes the best way you can express your care for the people you love is to defend them. And let’s face it, we all lead interesting lives. We can all do with some defending from time to time.”
“What are you suggesting?” Teal asked.
Trissiny smiled. “Well… You’ve been practicing with us, learning to use martial arts to fight without inflicting harm. When we’ve fought in our various adventures, Vadrieny has always been careful not to hurt anyone…I mean, before the hellgate, anyway. Isn’t there grounds for a compromise, there?”
“You want to train the archdemon?” Gabriel asked, his eyebrows shooting upward.
Trissiny shrugged. “I’m actually not sure how… I mean, she could seriously hurt someone. But… What if we taught her to fight, too? I’ve seen her fight, it’s all slashing and screeching. I’ve had the thought more than once that she doesn’t retain much of your muscle memory.”
“Boy, is that the truth,” Teal said, grimacing.
“I think this is actually a really good idea,” said Toby, looking more animated. “It’s a way to let Vadrieny be herself without bringing her into conflict with the demands of mortal life. And that can only be good. She deserves to be appreciated and accepted, too, and to be able to express her own nature.”
“Yeah, but how?” Ruda asked. “Boots had the right of it. Training in any kind of martial arts involves some inevitable injuries. In her case, that would almost certainly make someone extremely dead.”
“Um.” Juniper raised a hand timidly. “I could spar with her?”
Everyone turned to stare at her.
“That would sort of help me, too,” the dryad went on. “I don’t have anybody I can safely spar with, for the same reason. I watch you guys practicing, and I really get the feeling all my exercises aren’t giving me the same level of experience you get. Also, Professor Ezzaniel kind of harps on that.”
“That leaves us with the same question of how, though,” said Fross. “Sure, you’re in no danger from any kind of demon, but… If she so much as touches you, poof.”
“A countermeasure could be arranged,” Ariel chimed in. “At issue is that Vadrieny’s physical form is a manifestation of infernal magic and would be nullified by contact with the dryad. I’ve not heard of this specific measure being exercised to protect a demon—I’m sure I needn’t explain why—but there is a precedent of using the Circles of Interaction to do similar, preventing the annihilation effect without actually augmenting the power being protected. It’s difficult magic, though, and as I said, there are no standing measures to use it specifically for the infernal…”
“Bet you anything Tellwyrn could work something up,” Gabriel mused.
“She probably would, too,” Ruda added. “It’s explicitly for educational purposes, right? If nothing else, we could go to Ezzaniel first. Bet he’d be fuckin’ delighted to be able to get these two into the ring. He’ll pitch the idea hard.”
“Guys,” Teal said quietly, tears glistening in her eyes despite her broad smile, “thank you. So much. From both of us.”
“I had a bad feeling about it from the beginning,” Casey said, shaking her head. For all the difficult nature of her story, she seemed totally calm. “I mean… That night. Even when she was offering to sponsor me, I was seeing her running Andy through. He was seventeen, and no threat to her, and she just put a sword in him and grinned like she was having the time of her damn life. All three of the other Bishops, being sane people, ripped into her over that, and she shrugged it off like they were being melodramatic or something. Yeah, I knew going in that Basra had something truly rotten in her core, but she was offering me a way out. The Church had my family; the Empire had managed to get custody of us kids, but… Everything was up in the air and it was looking very likely that everyone I ever knew was going to be imprisoned for the rest of their lives, at least. As a Legionnaire, I could gain some credibility, save myself, and maybe work toward getting some of the others out.” She shrugged. “I guess with my upbringing, I’m sort of predisposed to be willing to make deals with devils. Basra Syrinx just might be the most dangerous thing I’ve ever had to contend with, though.”
“Well,” Merry said after a short silence, “that really puts things in perspective for us, I guess. It’s just, it’s a hell of a thing, Elwick. You get that, right? Nobody expects to find they’ve been bunking with a warlock.”
“I am not a warlock,” Casey said firmly. “The Wreath does not teach kids to use infernal magic; they go to great lengths in legacy families to keep the young ones away from it. I know what it feels like—that’s how I warned Basra that night in her house when the Wreath attacked—but that’s it. Nothing proactive until you’re old enough to have self-control, and then they teach slowly. The point of a good infernal education is to ensure you can do everything safely before moving on to the next thing. Children would just kill themselves; it’s a path that doesn’t allow for mistakes. Honestly, the Black Wreath are just about the only people who do handle the infernal professionally. Even the Strike Corps, even the Church’s holy summoners, have a lot of attrition from accidents. The Wreath can’t afford to be so sloppy.”
“See, this is leading into the thing I think we’re all concerned about,” Principia said. “I am still a member in good standing of the Thieves’ Guild. Szaravid is still a Nemitite at heart. Are you still Wreath, Elwick?”
Casey drew in a deep breath and let out a sigh. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking specifically about that very thing. What I keep coming back to is that this experience, Basra aside, has been the best thing for me. I grew up with one religion; I’ve spent the last few months surrounded by what could be considered the opposite religion. I’ve heard them both rail against the evils of each other, and heard the absolute sincerity in it. In this position, I can kind of see where both have points, and where both are wrong.” She shook her head. “I don’t think I could ever be Wreath again. I’ve just got too many questions. It wasn’t all bad; Elilial’s ways are all about cleverness, and let’s face it, if it wasn’t for that I’d be as deep in Syrinx’s thrall as poor Covrin is right now. But there’s a strength, a sincerity to Avenism… It’s hard to put into words. Hearing the priestesses talk about justice, though, I have no trouble understanding why people believe. I don’t know what I am, girls, but I’m gonna figure that out. And I’m pretty sure no religion owns all the answers.”
There was quiet at the table while they digested that. After a few long moments, Ephanie cleared her throat.
“Well… Unless you have more to say, Elwick?” Casey shook her head. “Right, then. That’s about as good a segue as I could ask for. Well, I was raised in an Avenist temple, obviously. Joined the Legions at sixteen. I was a Lieutenant upon being dishonorably discharged.”
“What’d you do?” Farah asked, then clapped a hand over her mouth. “Um. Sorry. I just…”
“It’s okay,” Ephanie said with a bitter little smile. “To answer the question, I fell in love.”
“They kick you out for that?” Merry asked.
“Pretty sure it’s the circumstances,” said Principia. “Which we’ll find out, if you’ll all shut up.”
“Thanks, Sarge,” Ephanie said wryly. “I… Okay, I’m not going to go into the details of my courtship, that’s not really germane. But yes, he was a Huntsman of Shaath. Quite aside from the insult this was to the Sisters…” She trailed off, lowering her eyes and frowning.
“It’s okay,” Principia said after a moment. “I was serious before, Avelea, we do all need to have this out, but you take what time you need.”
“Women are like pets to them,” Ephanie continued after a moment. “Just…exactly like that. Expected to be decorative, and useful. Women offer and receive affection, but… We aren’t equals. Not truly people. As a Huntsman’s wife, I was subordinate. Expected to be obedient. To kneel at his feet, do whatever he ordered…be patted on the head when I pleased him and whipped with a belt if I didn’t.” She swallowed heavily, painfully. “And I loved it. Everything about it felt so right to me. It was like I was only just discovering who I was. A pet. I loved it so much I was willing to turn my back on everything I had been raised to honor. It was…who I was. Am.”
“Okay,” Merry said. “That is seriously—”
“Everyone at this table,” Principia interrupted, “should think very carefully before passing judgment on anyone else.”
“That…is completely correct,” Merry said, flushing. “Sorry, Ephanie. I will be shutting up now.”
Ephanie shrugged, still wearing that dark little smile. “Well, I can’t say you’re wrong. It’s pretty messed up, isn’t it?”
“Humans,” Principia said, shaking her head.
“Excuse me,” Casey said, “what was that just now about making judgments?”
“Well, I’m sorry, but human cultures have this thing about sexuality that still boggles my mind after two centuries,” Principia replied. “Some people are submissive by nature. I don’t get why that is such a challenging thing for Avenists to wrap their heads around when they’re all up in arms about how women shouldn’t be judged if they happen to be gay.”
“In the end, that was exactly the problem,” Ephanie said, nodding. “Some people are submissive. I… Well. The problem is, according to Shaathist doctrine, all women are. And that is a lie. It started to fall apart for me, almost immediately. Being alone with Feldren, I could truly enjoy the way our relationship was, but all those other women there… They’re constantly trying to bring in women, you know. Not just because Huntsmen aspire to have multiple wives and they need that gender imbalance, but because women leave. Because most women just are not designed that way. It’s not hugely unusual—a lot of women get by just fine in the cult of Shaath—but it is most definitely not intrinsic. Girls raised in the cult are just… If they don’t naturally fit the mold, they have every spark of life beaten out of them so they’ll be good, dutiful wives some day. That, or they run. It got to the point where I couldn’t get away from it. Even alone with my husband…the reality of what I was doing was there. By being there, by allowing myself to be this trophy, the tamed Legionnaire they held up as an example to all the others, I was complicit. I couldn’t live with myself that way.”
She sighed deeply. “And, in the end, I figured out that my own marriage was totally imbalanced. He never… It was so important to me. To give myself over to someone so completely. It was a huge intimacy, a huge gift… And Feldren never truly appreciated it. To him, that was just what a woman was; there was no inherent significance in it. He loved me, sort of, but the way one loves a prized possession. I wasn’t his partner… Not even his lover, not truly. I was deeply valuable to him because having won me, he proved his manhood beyond what most Huntsmen could ever hope.”
Ephanie paused to take a sip of her mostly cooled tea. “Well. Getting out wasn’t terribly difficult. I went to a temple of Avei, spilled the whole thing out to the head priestess. She didn’t even lecture me; Avenists are big on responsibility, and making it known you understand exactly how you screwed up goes a long way toward getting back in their good graces. Anyhow, religious incompatibility is grounds for unilateral divorce under both Universal Church doctrine and Imperial law. I didn’t know where to go or what to do with myself, but the priestess took me back to the main Temple, arranged a sit-down with the High Commander, and got me re-enlisted. My record is wiped out—the black mark of my leaving is gone, but I also have to start at the bottom of the ranks. And let’s face it, even with me officially forgiven, it’s going to be a very hard road, earning back the trust of the Legions after what I did. But…if they’re willing to have me, I’m willing to do it. So…here I am. A little sadder, a little wiser, and moving on.”
She turned to meet Casey’s eyes. “And I entirely understand what you were talking about, Elwick. Having been through two opposing cults, I see now why Avei’s teachings are important, in a way I never did, having taken them for granted growing up. But I also see how the Sisterhood is not right about everything. For all their talk about women being free to make choices, they come down hard on any choice that doesn’t fit their worldview. It’s…an interesting place to be. I’m not sure where or how I’m going to end up, honestly. But for now, I’m here, and I feel like I’m…sort of okay.”
“We’re all here,” Principia said firmly. “And we’re in this together. And for my part, knowing where all of you come from, who you are… Hell, you’ve more than earned my trust.”
“Likewise,” said Merry, then grinned. “And I can’t help noticing that we do have an interesting selection of skills and backgrounds, here. Not every Squad One is anything impressive, but girls, I do believe we can make that list.”
“Oh, we will,” Principia said, grinning. “I absolutely guarantee it.”
“It’s just…all my fault,” Juniper sniffled. “I ruin everything.”
Jack, for a wonder, was nuzzling affectionately after, rather than lunging (again) for the mushrooms or trying to escape. She held the jackalope close, running her fingers through his thick fur.
“I am concerned, Juniper,” said Shaeine gently, “that your feelings of guilt are leading you to blame yourself for everything.”
“Shouldn’t I be blamed?” Juniper said miserably. “I killed that poor guy for the stupidest possible reason, and now I’ve destroyed my own sister because I was dumb and careless and thought I could do something I couldn’t. I’m such a—”
“Stop it,” Trissiny said firmly. “June, Mother Narny used to tell me, ‘guilt asks who made the mess; responsibility asks who’s going to clean it up.’ I think that’s very good advice, which you should consider, here.”
“But I feel so awful,” Juniper whispered.
“Your sister’s hurting,” Gabriel said, reaching over to squeeze her hand, then jerking back when Jack twitched forward as if about to lunge. “But Triss is right. Look, we’re your friends, okay? When you hurt, we’re right here with you. We’ll do whatever we can. But…don’t make the pain your whole world, all right?”
“Learn the lesson,” Shaeine said, nodding. “Do not repeat your mistake. Let yourself heal, and go on to do better.”
The dryad sighed. “How, though?”
“Ain’t gonna be done in one conversation,” Ruda said. “Arquin’s right, doll; you’ve got us. Your’e not in this alone. And I’ll tell you somethin’ else, Aspen is gonna be fine.”
“How?” Juniper demanded. “How is she possibly going to be fine?”
“Because Tellwyrn is working on that.” Ruda grinned. “Let’s be honest, here. Arachne Tellwyrn is a stubborn, crotchety, pushy, disagreeable, vindictive, conniving old goat who has the social skills of a dragon with diarrhea and three toothaches, but she is fucking good at what she does. More to the point, underneath all the bitchiness, the old bag cares. It doesn’t come out all that often, but we’ve all seen by now how hard she works to take care of people who need it. There’s real love buried somewhere in that cranky little package, not to mention more power than anybody could possibly know what to do with. If she’s on this, then Aspen couldn’t possibly be in better hands.”
Several of them wore smiles by the time Ruda came to the end of her speech. Finally, Juniper managed a watery one herself.
“So,” she said, looking around at them. “Are we okay, then?”
“Well,” said Toby, leaning his arms on the table and smiling, “guys, I have to apologize, but I’m about to say something paladiny. Ruda, try not to laugh.”
“I make you no promises, Caine.”
“Life isn’t about being okay,” he said more seriously. “Much of the time…you just can’t. The world is full of suffering, and unpredictability, and a lot of getting by means coping with the bad. Life, in the end, is about knowing how to be okay, and working toward it.” A warm smile bloomed on his face. “And in the end, we’ve got each other. We’ve all got our supports outside this group. We will be okay, somehow, and for now, that’s enough.”
“Aw,” Fross gushed. “That was really paladiny.”
“Thanks,” Toby said, grinning up at her.
“Even though that’s not a word.”
“Is now!” Gabe said cheerfully. “I appreciate the example, Toby. I need to work on being more paladiny.”
“Work on being less demony, and you will be halfway there.”
“Do you wanna go back in the sheath?”
“Yes, please. I’ve been sitting in a puddle of some kind of mushroom-derived alcohol for half an hour. For the love of all gods past and present, wipe me off before putting me away.”
“Well, that’s that sorted, then!” Ruda said brightly, brandishing her bottle of rum as if in a toast. “On to the fun part of the evening! Who wants pork and mushroom stew?”