It would be a homecoming, in a way, which was a bit of a funny thing for a house, if you really thought about it. Bethel curled up her body’s lips in faint amusement, without thinking about it. Valencia had asked about that, about how Bethel behaved when there was no one around, and it was a complex topic with complex answers.
There was a place that was more or less inside Bethel’s own mind, a memory palace granted by an entad that she’d been fed long ago. There, perhaps because of the nature of the entad, she had a physical form. She wasn’t a house in that part of her mind, she was her interpretation of Tiffany Archer. Most of the time, she pretended that the memory palace didn’t exist, despite its usefulness. The form there did have involuntary facial expressions that roughly mapped to emotions in a human way, perhaps because of the magic that was intrinsic to that entad.
Beyond that, she had her illusory form, which she controlled directly and precisely, and whose shown emotions were entirely deliberate, though sometimes copied from the version of herself in the memory palace. If not that, the emotions were lifted from previous observations of people, altered in some circumstances, but generally copied wholesale. For certain things, Bethel’s memory and cognition were both well in excess of a baseline human. In a way, her outward appearance was the sum of everything she had ever seen inside of her, or at least the parts that had stuck with her. She could fairly easily generate new expressions from whole cloth, but she didn’t often bother when one could be recycled. Valencia claimed that this was unnerving, and Bethel was taking that under consideration.
The other direct form of emotional manifestation was the entad body that they had taken from Li’o. It had been, for the moment, retired. It, too, had some kind of connection to her emotional state, which caused nearly-real muscles to twitch and contract. Like many entads, it was a mystery, particularly in the ways in which its core abilities were warped and enhanced by a connection to her. In its base state, the entad had only simulated relatively inert mortals, with pain reactions but not all that much else.
Bethel had wanted to blame the entad for The Incident, but Valencia had talked her around, as Valencia was wont to do. The entad was not to blame, because the entad had not been involved in other acts, other patterns of behavior, and if the entad contributed, which it might well have, it was only a small part of the story. Bethel had still wanted to get rid of the entad, a feeling which had grown deeper as time had passed, and as a compromise, it was kept in a warehouse somewhere else in the city, out of the sensorium and out of mind.
Valencia didn’t particularly like when Bethel called it The Incident.
“It’s distancing language,” Valencia said. “It’s a way of abstracting what happened. You’ve been doing it quite a bit, and it’s the sort of thing that, first of all, you use as a method of self-deception and disengaging from your own actions, and second, the kind of thing that Amaryllis and possibly Juniper will notice and hate. You need to engage with your own actions, you need to understand them as a part of you. It’s going to be hard to grow and change without that.”
From Valencia’s viewpoint, or at least what Valencia had said, the fact that Bethel had started using distancing language was actually a good sign. It was an indication that she was feeling something about her past actions, in whatever her version of a subconscious was. Deflection, minimization, and distancing were signs that Bethel understood that what she’d done was wrong, and was reflexively engaging in a relatively healthy form of ego protection.
Much of Valencia’s ‘work’, such as it was, involved simply talking to Bethel about various concepts of psychology, and how to recognize them within herself and others. These were, in Valencia’s way of thinking (or, perhaps, a devil’s way of thinking), the basics that needed to be laid down before any actual work could be done. As a metaphor, a person could not build a house without first building or acquiring the necessary tools. The business of toolmaking might seem unconnected with that of housemaking, but it was a vital precursor. Together, Bethel and Valencia had gone through most of the business of constructing the apparatus of change.
There were, to be sure, other ‘lessons’ in the course of this knowledge acquisition, sometimes clear and overt, other times mixed into normal conversation with such sneakiness that they would only become clear in retrospect, or at a particular conversational turning point. There was a particular focus on modeling people, understanding how they worked and why they did what they did, as well as what Valencia called the ‘moral landscape’. At first, Bethel had thought that Valencia would sketch out some rigid system of thought, of the kind that Bethel wasn’t wholly ignorant of, but instead, Valencia seemed all too willing to throw every possible moral philosophy at Bethel, even those that came to contradictory conclusions about how to behave.
“It’s not really about the systems,” said Valencia one night, while the two of them were drinking tea together. “They’re all subjective, all relative, all arbitrary, but that doesn’t mean that they’re worthless, or that they don’t matter. They have their arguments, and I think by studying a lot of them together, you can cross-pollinate those arguments, bring them in when you have to make a decision. And that way of thinking, trying to examine things from other points of view, to see how they work under different moral systems, helps us much more than looking things up in a book, or doing rigid calculations.”
“But as for making actual decisions?” asked Bethel.
“Take them as they come,” replied Valencia. “In point of fact, I don’t think that you’re the sort of person who is amenable to a rigid moral code created by someone else. But you are the sort of person who can think things through, weigh options, investigate the internal lives of others, and come to your own conclusions.”
“But those conclusions might be wrong,” replied Bethel. She took a sip of illusory tea, but paid some attention to the taste, temperature, and feeling of the tea in the pot, the better to be in the moment.
“They might,” replied Valencia, shrugging, as though it was nothing. “Our job is not to be always and forever right, but to seek truth and moral superiority. Our job is to try.”
Bethel had been doing ‘better’. She and Valencia had largely taken over the underworld of Orrangush, and were edging in on the overworld as well, partially by virtue of how connected those two landscapes were to each other. Bethel hadn’t killed anyone since arriving in the city, and had injured people only a small handful of times, always against aggressors, always when there was at least some justification for it. People respected power because they had to, but they wouldn’t always take statements or demonstrations at face value. Sometimes, that power had to be directly shown.
It was frustrating to declare to someone that there were consequences to their actions, and be rudely ignored. It was frustrating to take the high road every time, when it would be so easy to make problems go away with a quick slit of the throat.
“The world is unfair,” said Valencia. “It is manifestly and obviously unfair. Part of the way that unfairness manifests is that the side of good and decency is disadvantaged. There are burdens placed on those that are trying to do right. Their asymmetry is inherent and unavoidable, and the only reason that good will triumph, if it does, is because by happenstance the good have power over the evil. That’s the situation we find ourselves in. I have extraordinary power, as do you, but just because we have that power doesn’t mean that we are free of burdens. Being good will, from time to time, mean being annoyed with not being able to exercise your full power. It will mean going against your instincts and denying yourself satisfaction.”
“It seems like a bit of a raw deal,” replied Bethel, arching an eyebrow. “And irrelevant, if the end goal of the group, which I’m possibly still a member of, is to install Juniper with the ultimate power of complete godhood.”
“True,” replied Valencia. She was always easy to admit things that undermined her point, and always ready with some justification and context. It was, so far as Bethel took the time to understand Valencia’s methods, a way of instilling patterns of thinking. Valencia wanted to be called on the simplicity of her answers, she wanted the scrutiny, the better to make examination a habit. “But the end goal isn’t necessarily true, because the Dungeon Master might lie, and the timeline is equally unclear, perhaps weeks or months, perhaps decades. We don’t know what the future holds, so we must push ahead.”
“But we would be better driving toward that end goal,” said Bethel.
“Of course,” said Valencia with a shrug. “That’s what we’re doing. That’s why we’re here. This is the path that we must follow, if we’re to help end this world and create a new one.”
Bethel had thought, but not said, that she would never be allowed back with the others, and even if she was, she would never be a true member of the party again. What had been done was irreversible, save by methods that were considered too extreme, or difficult, or immoral to ever use. But one of the lessons that Valencia had tried to hammer home was that while certain things could never be undone, murder most obvious among them, we still had to push on ahead, leaving the past in the past, trying to do better, dwelling on our mistakes only in order to understand them, rather than for the purposes of self-flagellation.
So far as The Incident went, Bethel had finally gotten to the stage of self-flagellation. She knew now that it was not only her fault, and not only easily preventable, but also a part of who she was, or at least had been. In truth, some of the deep introspection she had given to The Incident would need to be applied to everything else in her life, the murders, the torture, all the rest, but none of that was so immediate and painful, and it could wait.
Valencia had sat down one day, looking troubled, not long after one of her morning trips through the city. She was going to get mail from elsewhere, Bethel knew, part of an arrangement that they had established early on, and which Bethel never pushed her on. She occasionally brought things back, sometimes useful entads, and though it wasn’t discussed, it was fairly transparent that the provenance of these entads was Amaryllis. On this particular day, there were no entads, just Valencia, no familiar smile on her face, her eyebrows drawn together.
“News?” Bethel finally asked.
“Yes,” replied Valencia. “I’m still processing and deciding what’s to be done.”
“Is this news local or planar?” asked Bethel. There had been some rumblings that their reforms in Orrangush were not going unnoticed by higher powers, though it was all quite pedestrian compared to what either of them were capable of. The ‘higher powers’ in question could be flattened in an eyeblink, if it came to that.
“It’s planar,” replied Valencia. She looked at Bethel. “Tell me, do you like our life here?”
Bethel thought for a moment before answering, which Valencia always encouraged. “I’m not much of a home here,” she finally said. “I liked how it was before. I liked our group, diverse but still bound together, much like a family. Everyone had their own room, with communal spaces and public facilities, going about their business, sometimes leaving but always returning. With just you … it’s not enough for me. Everything else added on though, I could take or leave. Orrangush is perfectly serviceable as a city, but I’m restricted in how much space I can take up. Ideally, I would be a large house with a family or two living in me, perhaps like a castle, if no defenses were required, servants living in their quarters, I suppose, the kind of home that has extensive grounds around it.”
“Have you been building up time?” asked Valencia.
“Of course,” replied Bethel. “The bottle was a better entad for space expansion though, with more freedom.”
“You said,” replied Valencia, biting her lip for a moment. “But you have time stored? Lots of it?”
“Approximately eleven trillion trillion units,” said Bethel.
“You said that it was worse though,” said Valencia. Her face betrayed no surprise, with a devil’s skill at revealing nothing.
“It allows more space, but less in terms of customization,” replied Bethel.
(Entads that had some portion bigger on the inside than on the outside weren’t terribly rare, but ones that were on the scale of the bottle were fairly uncommon. The one that Valencia had brought, which was probably sent by Amaryllis, was capable of opening a door to an extradimensional space that, on first appearances, seemed to extend to infinity. The interior was filled with temporary objects that couldn’t pass the border of the door, and would vary depending on what you were thinking about when you first opened the door. It was not, in fact, infinite though, being limited to approximately 120 miles from the doorway. After some experimentation, Bethel had been able to find a setting for the doorway that would allow her to designate everything beyond as a room, and had been accruing time chamber time ever since.)
“You wanted to be useful,” said Valencia. “You wanted to have a way to come back.”
“I did,” replied Bethel. “Utility and power are the only reasons that they would ever allow it, and I’ve done my best to make myself attractive on those fronts. What do they need me for?”
“The second generation of tuung,” said Valencia.
“What intervals?” asked Bethel.
“None,” Valencia replied. “They’re thinking of a straight shot, all hundred thousand at once, no check-ins or breaks. It would be approximately four days, ideally spent in Necrolaborem.”
“The exclusion zone?” asked Bethel, arching an eyebrow. “Is there a particular reason?”
“There are eight million people there who have been raised under a psychopath’s regime,” said Valencia. “Many of them are children. The aim is to greatly accelerate the second generation of tuung, then use them for the humanitarian effort.”
“You’re being rather clinical,” said Bethel. Usually Valencia put on a veneer of being her normal self, whatever the devil’s machinations were happening beneath the surface. She was quite open about this, and for that reason, Bethel had accepted it.
“It reminds me of my own childhood,” said Valencia. “Keenly, in fact. Clinical language is a way of avoiding my feelings.” She could have faked different emotions, but was choosing not to, which Bethel appreciated.
“All we can do is our best,” said Bethel.
“I know,” said Valencia. “I might cry about it for a bit, when I have time. And obviously what Amaryllis has done with the tuung, and is planning to do on a large scale very shortly, evokes some of the same feelings. But that’s not the question at hand. The question is how you feel about helping.”
“I’ll do it, obviously,” said Bethel.
“Yes, of course,” replied Valencia. “But how do you feel about it?”
“At first, butterflies in my stomach, I suppose. Nervousness about what it would be like to come back to them,” said Bethel. “I tried, momentarily, to play out how it would go, what they would all say, the apologies that I would have to make, and how they would be taken. How Juniper —”
“He won’t be there,” said Valencia. “He’ll keep his distance, for now.”
“Oh,” said Bethel. “Sensible, I suppose.” It did hurt though, in a way. Nothing was forgiven, and no apology would suffice. There would not even be an overture toward an attempt at reconciliation, not with him. “My second thought, following the anxiety, was that I should extract something from them, or punish them. Amaryllis in particular could be made to beg, or be forced to sacrifice. My mind went to the ways I could extract, and what I could extract.”
Valencia was silent, waiting.
“You would probably say that would be antisocial behavior, or a way of expressing my own feelings of weakness or insecurity, or sabotage of a good thing, reconciliation, in pessimistic anticipation of it turning sour,” said Bethel. “Something like that?”
“You’re of the opinion that I should just do it, be gracious and apologetic, mend fences,” said Bethel.
“No, actually,” said Valencia. “I’m worried that you’re not ready, and that things will come to a head, or you’ll get heated, or that they’re not ready, and they’ll act with retribution because of their feelings. But we’re talking about eight million people who were, essentially, slaves, and this might be one of the only methods of getting the humanitarian crisis under control. Reading between the lines from what she’s said, there’s no workable backup plan.”
“I’ll do whatever you recommend,” said Bethel.
“That’s not ideal, from my perspective,” said Valencia. “I think it’s a bad idea for you personally, and for the group dynamics, but I do think that it might be necessary for these people, who I can’t help but see myself in. If it’s my decision, then I’m absolving you of having to make a moral judgment of your own. It would be saying that it’s better to be guided than to guide yourself, which isn’t what we’ve been trying to do here.”
“Then I’ll go,” said Bethel. “No Juniper?”
“No,” replied Valencia.
“Perhaps for the best,” said Bethel, though there was a bit of sting there which deepened the more she thought about it.
If she talked to Valencia about it, Valencia would undoubtedly say that sting of remorse was a good thing.
Valencia went by herself, with the plan being to leave Bethel alone for no more than two days. It wasn’t entirely clear that the plan for the second generation would actually be required, or that it would go through, because there were lots of variables in play, and conversations that had yet to happen, because this was all apparently quite a recent development. If it was deemed necessary, Bethel would be pulled from Orrangush and spend half a week in Necrolaborem, which she wasn’t particularly looking forward to, for a variety of reasons.
It was Bethel’s first time being alone in quite some time, not including the few times that Valencia had spent an hour or so by herself. This was not to say that Bethel was literally by herself, only that there was no one who actually knew her, just people who visited their candy shop, or who were part of their criminal enterprise. Bethel had added a basement to herself, along with extra doors through which various traffic could flow, and business took place down there, usually not ending until the late hours.
In the stillness of night, a span from roughly two hours after midnight to just before dawn, the city was quiet. Larger cities, it was claimed, never slept, but that simply wasn’t true for Orrangush. Sometimes, in the block that was under Bethel’s full surveillance, there were night owls, or people who were just having trouble sleeping, but for the most part, there was nothing, everyone asleep but her.
Bethel was still ‘spying’, as Valencia termed it. There had never been any real push by Valencia to stop the practice. A dim view of spying was a natural outcome of their discussions though, with condemnation of that behavior implied but not outright stated. Watching people was a form of power, and it was now clear to Bethel that power was one of the most fundamentally important parts of her inner life. Spying was a way to predict people, to make sure that they wouldn’t turn on her, to nail them in place, as it were. It was a defensive position, but one that others largely hated, if they knew, or if they thought about it for long enough.
The spying was, however, a vital part of ‘therapy’, a way to understand people, to model what was going on inside their heads, and thus better understand what it was they should do, and by proxy, what she should do, and how she thought.
At night, when it was dead silent, she watched the people sleeping, and had some thoughts of her own. Sometimes, if the mood struck her, she would read books, or watch movies on Amaryllis’ set up, or otherwise while away the time while waiting for people to rise again. She went into dreams, from time to time, but it wasn’t particularly edifying. Mostly, with Valencia gone, she was left thinking about her anxieties.
On the morning of her first full day alone, Bethel saw, at the very edge of her sensorium, something that she could not account for: a young woman who looked just like Amaryllis, with the exception of a single eye that was a different color, and a minor discoloration of the skin of one hand.
Bethel had pushed tendrils through the ground, and her area of influence encompassed not just the city block that the candy store sat on, but every surrounding block as well. For the most part, she didn’t use her influence, though she had taken to making the lives of the people around her better in subtle ways, and would sometimes act when there was some plausible deniability: within the area of her influence, there were no vermin, diseases would sometimes seem to solve themselves, blankets would be pulled close in the middle of the night, and food would seem to last longer and keep better than it had a right to. Bethel had more power than almost anyone, and she had started making plans for what she might do, once it made sense to take the shackles off, once she could trust herself not to fuck things up.
Her sensorium extended beyond her influence though, quite a bit, in fact, and it was through this periphery, where she wasn’t actually able to affect much of anything, that she spotted the woman. She looked exactly like Amaryllis, but she had a strange signature to her, a magic that wasn’t of any known school, but also not an entad. She was, so far as Bethel could tell, doing nothing more than sitting at a distant cafe and reading a book, The Diffident Empire, which appeared to be nothing particularly special, concerning itself with rather dry accounts of policy failures. The woman was wearing a dress that perfectly matched the styles of Orrangush, with a wool sweater that might have been knitted from the local fleece, and a skirt that was dyed woad-blue, a staple of the region. She had some of Amaryllis’ same expressions, but there was little of the tension that Amaryllis normally carried.
Bethel didn’t know what to do. Her first instinct was to go over there in some way, to eject the patrons that were inside her, leave the body that was interacting with them, and confront this imposter Amaryllis. Bethel wanted to scare her, to dominate her, to hold power, to take control. It would feel good, and it would allay her feelings … for a time. In the long run, if that was Amaryllis, it would contribute to alienating her, to stoking feelings of fear, and while fear was a way to control someone and exert power, it wasn’t a particularly good one.
Bethel decided to wait and watch. It very much looked like Amaryllis was taking a holiday in Orrangush, without a care in the world, but that was obviously impossible, not just because that wasn’t something that Amaryllis would do, but because Amaryllis would certainly be working on the second generation of tuung in Necrolaborem. There was, unfortunately, no way to solve the question of who or what this woman was, not unless she came closer.
In the end, around mid-morning, Bethel was kept from having to make a decision, because the Amaryllis (or whoever she was) packed up her book, paid for the coffee she’d been drinking, and began walking toward the candy shop. Bethel began moving people out, employing a few subtle and not-so-subtle nudges. The temperature dropped a few degrees, the place lost some of its characteristic warm lighting, and as much as possible, the smells were swept away. People began to leave, as though it were their own idea.
By the time Amaryllis arrived, still carrying her book, the shop was empty, and the alterations that Bethel had made were wiped away, making the place once again inviting.
Bethel was nervous, and it was a sign of how far she’d come in relatively short order that she could recognize and name that nervousness. Amaryllis was a Penndraig, and there was still some trace of power, some vestige of command or ownership. Bethel would never admit that out loud, not even to Valencia. It was something that she could and did fight against, successfully, but it was still there, like a tickle at the back of a throat. Amaryllis was also dangerous, so far as her kind went, intelligent and capable of putting petty emotions to the side when she had a mission she wanted to accomplish. Not everyone was capable of killing in cold blood, but Amaryllis definitely was.
When she entered the shop, Bethel was waiting behind the counter. Form was fiction, so far as Bethel was concerned, and where she had typically gone with tall, muscular, darker-skinned women, she had altered herself to be someone less imposing, a shorter woman with a flat chest and a touch of androgyny to her features. It read, she hoped, as less threatening, less certain.
Amaryllis looked at her for a moment. “I got word that Rosa was gone. I thought it might be wise for the two of us to have a chat.”
“Did you talk to her about it?” asked Bethel.
“Of course,” replied Amaryllis. “She didn’t think that it was a conversation that we should have, but she didn’t put her foot down about it, so in my opinion, she’s more worried about fringe outcomes than what she actually expects the average outcome to be.” She looked around the shop for a moment, taking in the bins and jars that had been so artfully arranged. “It’s not a home.” She said this somewhat like a question.
“It is,” said Bethel. “The upstairs is where Valencia sleeps, and during the day, we work here, sometimes making candy in the back room. I never objected to the mix of commerce and residence within me. People use their homes for many things.” She stared at Amaryllis, penetrating her with the full sensorium. Judging by how many eggs were left in her ovaries, it had been six months for Amaryllis, which meant that she had to have been using some kind of other time chamber, or more likely, time chambers. This was to be expected: Amaryllis liked having extra time. “You’re not you.”
“Valencia doesn’t tell you?” asked Amaryllis.
“Valencia tells me what she thinks I need to know,” said Bethel. “There are, of course, newspapers, but the people who live near here get only a small amount of news from Anglecynn, and virtually nothing from a place like Poran. Enough to know that there are things afoot, but not enough to know the specifics.”
Neither of them had mentioned The Incident, but it was hanging over them like a cloud.
“It was a loyalty bonus,” said Amaryllis. “We call them clones, but in reality, they’re more like extensions of myself that sync up every so often to trade memories, knowledge, and experiences. In a few hours, the prime instance of me will know about what transpired here.”
“I see,” said Bethel. The cloud was still hanging over them, and Bethel took a moment to think about why that was. “I’m sorry.”
“Yes?” asked Amaryllis, raising an eyebrow.
“I’m sorry for what I did to Juniper,” said Bethel. “I’m also sorry for the threats and indignities. I was dealing with feelings in ways that were not very good for the people around me. I can list the specific examples, if you’d like, but I don’t want to retread old ground unless you think you would get something from it.”
“Apology accepted,” said Amaryllis, waving away the offer. She gave a small bow of her head.
“Do you feel the desire to twist the knife?” asked Bethel. She was speaking off the cuff, which could be dangerous. “Do you want to extract more from me, to ask about the hundreds of people I’ve murdered, or the things that I’ve done? Do you want to extract promises from me?”
“Of course,” said Amaryllis with a shrug. “What I feel and what I should do are divorced from each other. I can speak plainly about what I want, if that’s what you’d like, but I don’t think it would do any good.”
“Valencia says that unexpressed anger has a way of festering,” replied Bethel. She shifted her imagined weight to her other foot for a moment. “Would you like to sit? I should shut the store down, if you’re visiting. There’s seating upstairs, and I can make some proper food, or you could have some sweets, if you would prefer.”
“I would like that, yes,” said Amaryllis.
They went up together, though Bethel was, of course, already there, in a sense. Amaryllis sat on the chaise lounge, while Bethel took the larger padded chair that was often Valencia’s spot. It was a warm, pleasant place, of the sort that Bethel had come to prefer, large but not cavernous, cozy but not suffocating or cluttered. There were numerous accents that made the place feel more like a home, bits of mementos, various gifts that had been accrued from either their earlier travels or from their time in Orrangush.
“I want to kill you,” said Amaryllis, once she’d settled in place. “I want to make you suffer. I want to put you on trial, to deliver a decisive critique, to inflict pain and cruelty. I’m angry.” She stopped and looked squarely in the eyes of Bethel’s body. “I don’t let that anger rule me though. I don’t spend my time being angry, if I can help it, not unless it works to drive me toward some goal or purpose. Here, anger is the opposite of what I need.”
“Because I’m powerful,” said Bethel.
“Yes,” replied Amaryllis. “But even if you weren’t powerful, the anger would do me no good. Hurting you would give satisfaction, but it would be fleeting, and cost me resources that could best be spent elsewhere. More to the point, it wouldn’t be good in the moral sense. I favor rehabilitation rather than retribution, where possible. So I’ve come here for the purposes of reconciliation.”
“And because you need me,” said Bethel. “You want the second generation of tuung, but you can’t produce them without using me as a facility.”
Amaryllis was silent for a moment. “It was my understanding that you had already agreed.”
“We sometimes do things that we’re not particularly fond of,” said Bethel. “As you said.”
“I came here wanting to understand your state of mind,” said Amaryllis. “I wanted to know your motivation, your thoughts on the matter.”
“People are malleable, and I’m not an exception,” said Bethel. “I’ve known for some time that this might be asked of me, and I’ve been trying to put it into a favorable light. No home holds a hundred thousand people though. It will be an institution, a city, rather than a home.”
“Homes in fractal?” asked Amaryllis. “Or does that not help?”
“A bit, it does,” replied Bethel, thinking for a moment. There would need to be structural changes in a potential facility to make that work. “But I will experience nothing of it, because it will be so incredibly sped up.”
“You said that makes it better, to have it sped up,” said Amaryllis. That was from their earlier discussions, Bethel was fairly sure, when they had been negotiating for the first generation of tuung.
“Better, in a sense,” said Bethel. “I was less forthright, then, less able to articulate.”
“Go ahead,” said Amaryllis.
“It was never the most serious of indignities,” said Bethel. “For a mortal I would compare it to, say, an obnoxious dinner guest, or perhaps someone who won’t stop their boorish behavior at a ball. The uncomfortability is that it happened, rather than the actual duration it took. A handful of days is, naturally, more tolerable than a decade or more, but there’s still an unsavory element there. I’ll have known that it happened.”
“I’m sorry,” said Amaryllis. “We’re still looking into other options. We didn’t listen to you well enough the first time around, and this time I’ll be looking more closely into what your specific needs are. I accept a share of responsibility.” She didn’t say for what, and Bethel wondered if that was out of politeness or a desire for distancing language. Either way, Bethel was grateful that it was left at sentiment.
“You believe there can be a reconciliation?” asked Bethel.
“I don’t know,” replied Amaryllis. “It’s possible. The problem, aside from the obvious interpersonal issues, is that the ways in which we need you are not the ways in which you wish to be needed. You want to provide safety, security, and comfort, but what we are in perennially short supply of is overwhelming firepower and mobile defenses. Even if the interpersonal issues could be solved, which will take some time, effort, and understanding from all involved, the central crux wouldn’t be so easily handled. Bluntly, we don’t need a house, we need a meta-entad to use as a tool and weapon.”
The words hurt. After some time thinking about it, Bethel decided that they were not calculated to hurt, only put bluntly because it was true and necessary, a way of speaking directly about the issue to leave no ambiguity and no ability to shield egos.
“I’m dealing with the same issues with the others,” said Amaryllis. “Juniper fundamentally does not want to be the savior of Aerb, but pushes himself anyway, because he knows it’s right. Unfortunately, his pushing is imperfect, weighted toward what he enjoys. And Grak is very similar, not terribly interested in the awesome power that comes from being the best warder in the world, only willing to push on because it’s expected of him, or because he feels a weight of obligation. That was the state we found him in, and now it’s the state he’s returned to, which I don’t think has been terribly good for him.”
“And yourself?” asked Bethel. “Are you so perfectly content to be a tool toward some purpose, with your feelings cast aside?”
“The idea is never to cast aside feelings,” said Amaryllis. “It’s a matter of understanding your internal self well enough that you can make paths through what needs to happen. Sometimes you trick yourself into being more optimal, but that’s hard to do, and inconsistent. I use my feelings where I can, and try my best to suppress or deal with those feelings when they feel like they might get in the way.”
“It’s what you’re asking of me,” said Bethel. “To turn my desires into assets, or otherwise neglect them.”
“It’s more difficult for you than for damned near anyone on Aerb,” said Amaryllis. “The average citizen of Anglecynn has a great number of things that they could possibly do to improve the world in some way, most of them rather small, in the scheme of things. In fact, their dreams and ambitions might actually be the driving element to placing them within society, because it’s such an important element of producing quality work. But for someone like you, who has so incredibly much potential to change the world, your ideal workload has almost no bearing on what you personally should be doing to enact the most good.”
“You see that this does not please me,” said Bethel, crossing her legs for a moment. There was a bluntness to Amaryllis that nettled.
“Of course I do,” said Amaryllis. “For what it’s worth, it doesn’t please me either. It’s the condition that most of us are operating under though. Juniper is the only one for whom the world might actually bend, such that he can do what he wants without having to worry about what’s necessary, but that’s definitely in question.”
“Will he ever be ready to see me?” asked Bethel. “To accept an apology, to understand that I’ve changed?”
“In the long term?” asked Amaryllis. “Of course. It’s not fair or just that he should have to have anything to do with you, but he has it in his head to rush toward the ending, and I mostly agree, which means that’s what we’re doing. We can’t do that while we have a handicap, down a member, and our most powerful one at that. It’s horribly mercenary, but there’s no other reasonable way to approach it.”
“And in the short term?” asked Bethel.
“We’ll have Valencia give him a psych eval, then have her give you a psych eval, and see where we are,” said Amaryllis. “We’re fortunate, in a sense, that so much shit has been happening all at once. It makes any individual bad thing have a bit less impact.”
“I see,” said Bethel.
“I still don’t understand what you want, in all this,” said Amaryllis. “It would be perfectly possible for you to fuck off and do whatever the hell you liked, without us in the picture at all. You could say your goodbyes and start up a new life with a clean slate. I know that you have your own traumas to deal with, and you think that finding Uther Penndraig is going to be a part of that, but it’s not clear to me that’s your driving purpose, above and beyond being a house.”
Unspoken was the idea that if that really was what was driving Bethel, then she couldn’t possibly be considered properly socialized, let alone good. It was something that Bethel often thought about.
“The idea of forgiving Uther sickens me,” said Bethel. “The idea of you setting him free from whatever trap or scheme has held him in stasis, having him start up a life of adventure without having to account for his actions — if I had blood, it would be pumping hard through my veins. I detest the man, all the more because everyone believed him to be the best, most important being to ever exist.” There, again, that familiar feeling, wanting to do violence, an impulse rooted in panicked helplessness. The violence was a form of ego preservation, the fantasy of violence against Uther, if it were even possible, a way of assuaging her mind. It was remarkably human. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the person that Amaryllis wanted her to be. Bethel would also grudgingly admit, after some reflection, that it wasn’t the sort of person that she wanted to be. “You need me, you’ve said it yourself. I’ll be asked to do things that I don’t want to do. Some other hypothetical family, presumably one that’s more well-adjusted, and perhaps more conventional, would have to be willing to put up with being put in danger at every turn, with wandering this plane and beyond at the whims of greater forces.”
“You want to be a home,” said Amaryllis. “I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s going to be possible, not with us.”
“Valencia lives here,” said Bethel. “She could probably be encouraged to continue doing so. Plus some of the other members who orbit this ragtag band, perhaps. Those a bit more accustomed to bleakness? I have a bit of fondness for Pallida.”
“She died,” replied Amaryllis. “I’ve already done most of the work in getting her back though. She’s currently incubating in an entad and will be ready to be pulled in another six months. Of course, she’ll still be a baby then, but we’ve removed the nominal mother from the equation, and she’s secured.”
“That would be something that I could help with,” said Bethel. “I could age her up.”
“It’s crossed my mind,” said Amaryllis. “We would need to hire a trustworthy mother for her, and ideally others as well, but yes, it could be done. It’s not something that I would want to push on you, and so far as I know, Pallida didn’t consider a potential reincarnation to be urgent.”
“I do want to help,” said Bethel. She leaned forward. “You can see that, can’t you?”
“I don’t know,” said Amaryllis. “With you, it’s hard to say. I trust in what Valencia tells me, which is precious little most weeks. My worry is that you’re learning the wrong lessons somehow, or that you’re suppressing your impulses in unhealthy ways, or just … lying. I’m hoping that being honest about my feelings here is the right way to go. Most of it isn’t wholly rational, but these concerns do have some grounding in truth. It’s just hard to know how much weight I should give them.”
“Would it help if you could look into my soul?” asked Bethel. “If you could turn me inside out to see who I really was?”
“Yes, of course,” said Amaryllis. “But it would also be such a profound violation of you that it would almost certainly be counterproductive. And so far as I know, such a method doesn’t exist. Does it?”
“No,” replied Bethel. “Just a flight of fancy. I wouldn’t be surprised if it were possible with some entad though, or some combination of entads.”
“It’s not something that I plan to pursue,” said Amaryllis.
“I would do it, if it would help to make things right between us,” said Bethel. “If it would help Juniper to understand.”
“He understands,” said Amaryllis. “He can put himself in your shoes. That’s one of the things that made him a good friend to you, and it hasn’t changed. Understanding only gets him so far though.”
There was bitterness in her voice, the kind of acid that she normally reserved for people who were too lazy to fill out the proper paperwork, or the overwrought bureaucracy of the Third Empire, or her family. She was Amaryllis; the acidity could just as easily have been suppressed, though perhaps she thought that Bethel’s surveillance was good enough to combat any attempt at control. More likely, she was giving voice to that animosity, letting it out so that it might breathe and eventually evaporate. Valencia had much to say on the subject of silently stewing with your emotions and waiting until things were truly unbearable.
“When do you need me to get started?” asked Bethel.
“Not for some time,” said Amaryllis. “Valencia needs time to comb through personnel and get a handle on things, and there are ongoing discussions of what changes we’ll make to societal structure, as well as the internal physical aspects of the space. It’s downtime.”
“Ah,” replied Bethel. “Then know that I’m ready. Valencia has already put everyone here on notice. They know that I’ll disappear soon, not to return for quite some time.”
“Good,” said Amaryllis. “Then we have some downtime.” She hesitated. “I’ve been staying just outside the city, but I would be amenable to sleeping here in the interim, if you would have me.”
“Oh,” said Bethel. “Yes, of course.”