Worth the Candle, Ch 168: Hollow

Valencia walked across the Isle of Poran in her red bikini, holding a devil in her maw, thinking through the conversation ahead and all the twists and turns it might take. The first step had been to convince everyone that she was fit to go, which had gone off without any real problems, and only very minor omissions and lies to get there. If they had known how high Valencia thought the risks were, they might have tried to stop her from going. It was, admittedly, unfair to prejudice the group’s decision with fabrications and by concealing the truth, but she had a good enough read on the assembled party that she thought they would probably have sided with her anyway, it would just have taken more time to get to that same point. Spending that time would have been worse for everyone involved, especially Juniper.

Juniper had warned Valencia, early on, that having someone like her on the team would mean that various problems would crop up to stop her most powerful abilities from functioning. On the physical side, that meant magics and techniques that could no-sell physical combat ability, or exotic ways of fighting that would make her demonic aptitude less worthwhile, or methods that would stop a non-anima with frightening efficiency. On the social side, that meant people who had extensively trained with the Elon Gar, entads that could conceal thoughts and emotions, or species whose physiology and thought patterns were rare enough or opaque enough that a devil would still have trouble. Over the course of their time together, they’d run into each of those problems, one by one. Bethel seemed like she would be the hardest.

Bethel was unique. She wasn’t just a sapient entad, she was a meta-entad, one who could be influenced by the intelligence and pseudo-intelligence of the entads she consumed or borrowed. Bethel prior to her marriage with Ropey was different from Bethel after the marriage, and during the ‘borrowings’ era, she had been pulling from various entads at various times, some of them with small intelligences of their own, picking entads up for brief commingling and then putting them down again. Valencia knew plenty about that, how a different perspective could suffuse your own, how augments could change the core without it seeming like that was what had happened.

Beyond that, Bethel wasn’t mortal. Nothing like her had ever reached the hells. No devil had worked to torture a Bethel, and the closest analogs weren’t all that close. There were species on Aerb that merged and split in various ways, and certainly there were unique biologies and values that mimicked something similar to Bethel, but nothing that was all of her, all at once. There were demons and devils that had dealt with sapient entads while possessing a mortal, but that was of very limited value given that infernals weren’t interested in them as a general rule, and reliably finding an infernal with that experience was impossible (or rather, very very difficult when access to anything like an infernal directory resided only in the memories of the infernals she captured).

Even if there hadn’t been basic differences like that, Bethel would give away only what she chose to. She assumed human form for reasons of her own, some of which appeared to be practical, e.g. communicating effectively with the mortals inside her, and some which appeared to be affectations, e.g. appearing with a body because she wanted a body. The latter was confusing to Valencia and it undoubtedly represented some unknown aspect of Bethel’s psychology, which was troublesome given that it would bring a greater context to the picture. The best guess Valencia had was that Bethel did want to be a house, but also desired to take part in the act of living within herself, in a way that seemed vaguely incestuous. It was only a guess though.

If she hadn’t had a devil in her, Valencia might have swallowed before crossing the threshold into Bethel’s vision, or steeled herself for what was to come, or done any of a number of things that regular people did when they were about to do something irrevocable and important. Instead, she just passed through the barrier like it was nothing, and then kept going through the other barriers after that without so much giving a sign that she knew they were there. At this point Bethel could kill with lightning, and at that point she could kill with cannonfire, and here she could slice through brain with ease. Eventually Valencia was in through the front doorway.

“Bethel?” asked Valencia.

“Yes?” asked Bethel, appearing right in front of Valencia. “Ah, my little one has an infernal,” she said, when Valencia didn’t flinch back.

“I do,” said Valencia with a nod. Better to get that out of the way now, since the lie wouldn’t be believed later on.

“Any special occasion?” asked Bethel, arching an eyebrow. She was in her human form, the one she’d taken to lately, with proper proportions, though it was the illusion rather than the false body. The illusion was always off in certain ways that others found imperceptible, but which were clear enough to Valencia. Most of it was just peculiarities from Bethel, small little details that were there because she liked them, rather than because she expected anyone to notice. The folds of the fabric in her dress were all decoratively done, with a cosmetic flair that you would never find naturally. Her hair was laying perfectly without being tied down, sprayed, or otherwise secured, in accordance with physics, but not in accordance with probability.

“There was some drama at the beach,” said Valencia. “Devils help me keep my composure and work through things.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to do that,” said Bethel. She was smiling, as she often did around Valencia. They had a relationship, of sorts, one which was founded on their mutual exclusion from society, though Bethel was a joyful (if mean-spirited) nonconformist, while Valencia would have taken a hypothetical pill to become human with only minor regrets. In some sense they were opposites, Bethel holding significant amounts of hate in her heart, and Valencia the target of hate, but it had given them something to talk about, on those rare occasions when they spoke to each other. There was also some natural distance between them, given that more than a few of Bethel’s magics didn’t work on Valencia: there was no thought-speech, and no spying on dreams.

“I don’t take in devils often,” said Valencia. “Mary doesn’t think that it’s good for my development. I try to just be me, when I can, but it’s not always so easy.”

“And the nature of this drama?” asked Bethel, arching an eyebrow.

“I wish I could pretend to be eager to tell you,” said Valencia. “Can I take a seat?”

“Certainly,” said Bethel. “It feels very good to be empty. Juniper had promised that I would be, once we got back to the isle, but I’d somehow imagined that it was an empty promise. And I have to admit that this spring cleaning has been good. Is the sitting room good for you?”

“Actually, if it’s alright with you, I’d prefer the solarium,” Valencia replied. “I’m not feeling particularly communal. And some clothes, if you could. Your choice. Transport when ready.”

“Ah,” said Bethel, frowning somewhat. “Amaryllis took Sable with her, for all of the Earth frippery. It looks like you’ll have to walk.”

“That’s fine,” said Valencia. “Walking helps me think. I’ll stop by my room, change clothes, then we can talk.”

“Allow me to speed things up,” said Bethel. The door to the entryway opened up in front of Valencia, and she found herself in the room that had been hers since they’d taken Bethel from the pit.

It was, naturally, closely patterned on the dormitories of Hogwarts. Valencia had been very exacting in what she’d asked of Bethel, back when the offer had first been made, and they had gone through a dozen iterations together, with minor tweaks here and there to make it conform more closely to the picture that Valencia saw in her head. The room was dominated by a four-poster bed with curtains that could be drawn closed, and there were souvenirs on the walls, some of them from Hogwarts, the others from their travels and adventures thus far, including postcards from Parsmont and Headwater, along with a dried rose that symbolized the prison Valencia had been taken from (not authentic, sadly). In a case above the mantle, there was a single arrow, one of Fenn’s, in memoriam.

The hardest part had been choosing the house colors. Valencia always thought of the houses as being about their best qualities rather than their worst, and choosing house colors was, in a sense, like making a declaration about who she was as a person, or rather, who she wanted to be. She had finally settled on Gryffindor, which was a safe and easy choice, but also the one that felt most resonant. Valencia wanted to be brave and courageous, a champion for those who had no champion. (In the hypothetical scenario where there were a pill to become human, this would have been the source of Valencia’s regrets, because she was powerful as she was now, and would be powerless as a human.)

Valencia changed quickly, casting aside the bikini and selecting one of the outfits she’d created for speaking to people about letting Juniper touch them. She settled on a beige dress with a knit sweater on top, a casual outfit that would put a person at ease. Valencia had no idea what it was Bethel would think of the ensemble, if anything, but it didn’t hurt to try, and if Bethel was paying attention, it might serve as another signal about what kind of conversation they were about to have. It was better that Bethel was prepared for it, eased into it as much as possible, so it wouldn’t feel like it had come from nowhere.

When Valencia opened up the door to her room, she was greeted not with the entryway, nor a hallway, but the solarium. Bethel was there, in human form, laying across a chaise-lounge. A chair had been arranged next to her, with a small table, on which was set a pencil and notepad.

“This is about me, isn’t it?” asked Bethel. She was looking up at the ceiling, which was painted with all the constellations of Aerb’s multicolored night sky. The top of the solarium was the only part of it without windows, and it could be opened up at will if the weather was nice and whoever was inside wanted a view of the actual night sky.

“Yes, it’s about you,” said Valencia.

“Come, sit,” said Bethel. She wasn’t looking at Valencia, but that meant nothing, because Bethel could see everything inside of her.

Valencia walked into the room, not displaying any of the fear she was feeling. She was as perfectly in control of her physiology as any of the Elon Gar, but even they weren’t necessarily so perfect that they could fool someone who could literally see right through them. Some of it might show through, and Valencia had to accept that. She sat down on the proffered chair, leaving the pencil and pad untouched.

“Now,” said Bethel. “The first question I have is whether you were sent by the group, or whether you snuck off by yourself so that you could get time alone with me.”

“I think we should set that aside for a moment,” said Valencia.

“Of course you do,” said Bethel. “The second question I have is whether Juniper told you, or Amaryllis, or someone else, or whether you simply looked at him and saw the truth.”

“He told Amaryllis,” said Valencia.

“I thought he might have,” replied Bethel. “Hence the mention of drama.”

Valencia sat in silence, waiting Bethel out. So far there was no trace of malice, but the body was an illusion. If Bethel showed malice, it was because she had made a conscious decision to show malice. It was difficult to know whether her current disposition was good or bad, whether the weariness she was displaying was an act.

“I wish that I could undo it,” said Bethel. “If I had known he would be so weird about it, I would never have fucked him.”

“What did you think was going to happen?” asked Valencia. A part of her wanted to make that an accusation, but the infernal part wouldn’t allow that, not for a delicate operation, one with stakes, one with a purpose. The question came out calm and curious, a search for understanding.

Bethel reached up with her hands and created an illusion, adding to the illusion of a body on the chaise. This one was of Juniper, halfway naked, genitals not a part of the picture, laying in bed.

“I needed that,” he said with a happy sigh.

The illusion popped like a soap bubble. Beneath it, Bethel stayed silent.

“And why do you think that it went wrong?” asked Valencia.

“I didn’t understand him well enough,” said Bethel. “I didn’t understand how much his personal history would inform his reaction.”

“He said no,” said Valencia. Again, she had to reign back the venom and the accusation that would have colored the statement if she were reading from a script. “Did you think that you understood him better than he understood himself?”

“I don’t know,” said Bethel. “I supposed that he would have displayed reluctance no matter what, because to him it would be a commitment, rather than something transient. But once I was past his defenses, once we were in motion, I thought that he would appreciate it. I had seen it dozens of times before, the way that humans in particular will pair bond, how the act will bring them closer together.”

“Yes, that does sometimes happen,” said Valencia. “You knew that Jorge and I had sex?”

“You made no effort to hide it,” said Bethel. (This wasn’t strictly true. Valencia had made an effort to hide it from the others, who would have said she was moving too fast, or that she was too immature, or any other objections. Valencia had simply accepted that there was no level of scrubbing and scouring that would hide it from Bethel.)

“I appreciate you not discussing it with anyone,” said Valencia. This line was a test: Valencia had no special knowledge on that score, especially since she had, for the most part, made an attempt to stop using her powers of insight against her teammates (following the Fenn debacle).

“I say very little of what I know,” said Bethel. “Of course, in this instance, it wasn’t very interesting to me. Have you told the others?”

“No,” said Valencia. “Their reaction when I told them I was going on a date was enough to tell me what their reactions would be like when I told them more.” This was a diversion, one that Valencia had embarked on to allow Bethel some room to breathe. The less this felt like it was drilling down to the specifics of what happened with Juniper, the better.

“And what were the reactions of the assembled, when Juniper told them we had sex?” asked Bethel. She was bringing it back to the matter at hand, which was a bad sign.

“We have to talk about how Juniper understood the encounter,” said Valencia.

“Where you and Jorge grew closer, Juniper and I did not,” said Bethel. “Why were things different with your boyfriend?”

That left the most fraught part of the conversation simmering in the background. It wasn’t ideal, but switching back to the previous subject quickly would require aggression, and at any rate, the groundwork hadn’t been laid yet. It would have been better that Bethel got distracted, but so far as Valencia knew, that had only happened a limited number of times in the past, under exceptional circumstances. The vagaries of Bethel’s mind were unknown; it was entirely possible that she was capable of tracking far, far more than a mortal mind could.

“Jorge had reservations,” said Valencia. “He’s always had reservations, about everything. I’m non-anima, raised in an abusive environment, and I’m more powerful than him in several respects. From an outside view, it’s a recipe for disaster. Jorge was smart enough to see that. The firsts, with him, had to be done carefully, tentatively, and with as much of his will and investment as possible.”

Valencia didn’t like looking at her own relationship like this, but here, it was necessary. Her life might depend on the comparison, and she understood Bethel poorly enough that she needed to tell the truth.

“You’re saying that Juniper had no will, no investment,” said Bethel. “And that’s why he’s been acting so oddly.”

“If you want to catch an animal, a trap will do,” said Valencia. “Pit traps, loop traps, these things will catch the animal, and from there you can use superior strength and cunning to keep the animal where you’d like it. Eventually, it will break, depending on the animal, and understand you as dominant, but some element of fear will always be there.” This was a mild lie. A person could be broken and rebuilt more completely than most people knew, but that was infernal business, rather than the mortal world.

“The analogy doesn’t hold,” said Bethel, frowning, but it was a frown of confusion, and while that was projected, it was still a good sign. “I didn’t trap him.”

“Imagine instead that you do things by steps,” said Valencia. “You allow the animal to lead the way. You give it food and shelter, you give it space when it needs some, you allow it to initiate, you respond as if you are as tentative about the arrangement as it is.”

“And that’s what I should have done?” asked Bethel. “You’re saying … Juniper was afraid of me?”

“He said no,” replied Valencia. “You pushed on, because ‘no’ wasn’t the answer that you wanted, and because you thought that it was a false no, one that was a product of his prudish upbringing and nonsensical moral stances, or his ill-fated pining after Amaryllis, or his sorrowful longing for Fenn. You pushed on because you had a human body for the first time, and you were experiencing sexual desire and sexual pleasure for the first time, and it would have been better if he had said yes, rather than no.” This was dangerous guesswork.

“I would never hurt him,” said Bethel. “He knows that I never would.” There was no doubt in her voice. It was pure conviction, an unnatural iron defense that would never naturally come out of a person except about the most obvious and plain facts. This was, of course, a projection, what Bethel wanted to be heard. Valencia was banking on it being false confidence.

“He doesn’t know you wouldn’t hurt him,” said Valencia. “When you pushed him back onto the bed, he was thinking about what escalation would be like, if he fought harder, if he brought his powers into the mix. If he used still magic, you could have countered it, if he struggled, you could overpower him, if he screamed, you might cut his vocal cords. He had Prince’s Invulnerability, but you could have wiped it away in an instant. If you had wanted to, you could have unmade the door to his room and locked him in there, never to see the light of day again unless you willed it, unless he did as you told him to.” Valencia’s cadence was carefully calculated to have a sense of urgency, which might help Bethel find some empathy.

Bethel was silent. She simply stared at the ceiling. The illusion was still ‘alive’, still simulating breathing, blinking, and doing the small movements that people couldn’t help. As illusions went, it was very, very good. Valencia simply waited, hoping that she hadn’t made a miscalculation. She could have gone longer or shorter, and some of what she’d said had been a fabrication, things that Juniper hadn’t said, but might have felt.

“Like I had yanked a rabbit up by the scruff of his neck and placed him in a cage,” Bethel finally said. The verbalization was slow and deliberate, an attempted framing of the facts. “But he enjoyed himself.”

“He did,” said Valencia. “But for a human, and most of the other mortal species, physical pleasure is sometimes distinct from psychological pleasure. The fear response and arousal response follow many of the same pathways, using the same internal mechanics. It’s unclear to me, from what he’s said, whether this was a feeling that grew with time and had been steadily polluting everything, or whether it was true dissociation. The matter is also complicated by his newfound ability to think through two things at once.”

“Fuck,” Bethel swore. She sat up from the chair she’d been reclining in. “He should be the one here, telling me this.”

“He’s afraid of you now,” said Valencia. “Over the last few days he’s been thinking of every threat you’ve ever made against him, every description of murder and torture you’ve regaled him with, and it’s steadily been poisoning his opinion of you even more than it was right after you had sex.” Valencia elected not to call it a rape. That would inevitably bring about a semantic conversation which she didn’t want to have, one which wouldn’t prove fruitful.

“How do I fix it?” asked Bethel. “What words do I need to say in order to make things right? Or I’ll have you do it. You say the words to him.”

“There are no words,” Valencia lied. “It’s going to be a process, and by necessity, it’s going to be a long one. I’m going to help, that’s why I’m here, but for it to work properly, you’ll need to build up trust, which is never easily done. Worse, you will have to place yourself in a position of submission.”

“I didn’t exercise power against him,” said Bethel. The word ‘submission’ had been a gamble, one that Bethel was obviously reacting against. “I didn’t hurt him in the slightest, he had Prince’s on, I couldn’t have hurt him without deliberate intent. I never suggested that I would, and I never said that I would.”

“When people exercised power against you, was it always with a threat?” asked Valencia. “Sometimes they would tell you to do things, and you wouldn’t know how they would react if you said no, even if you said no in a deferential way, even if you had your own good reasons, even if you were perfectly compliant in all other ways.”

“I am not like them,” Bethel growled. Again, it was with an unnatural force and a completeness of confidence that was too perfect.

“Power is the same across the face of the hex,” said Valencia. “Coercion, consent, these are complicated subjects, and I would never suggest that any two situations were exactly equivalent, but the structures of interaction often have recurrent notes, unpleasant melodies that echo each other.”

“You were sent here to manipulate me,” said Bethel, eyes narrowing.

“I sent myself here,” said Valencia. “The others urged me not to go.” This was a dangerous point, it was always dangerous, a consequence of people knowing who and what she was. A lie would have served her well here, or a deflection, but Valencia was attempting the long play, not the short one, not the one that would let her leave to safety.

“And what course of action did they propose instead?” asked Bethel.

“It was between destroying you, capturing you, or fleeing entirely,” said Valencia.

“For this one thing?” asked Bethel. “After all that I’ve done for them?” She stood up and began to pace, another affectation, another projection, but that was a good sign, because it meant she wanted to portray her mood. She wasn’t shutting down. The moment of danger would be if or when there was no open line of communication. “It was Amaryllis, wasn’t it?”

“Primarily, yes,” said Valencia. “You’ve done a very good job of putting her on edge. For her, this is the watershed, the moment that distinguished between being able to live within you, and not. She could put up with threats, so long as those were idle threats, and violence, so long as it was directed against the right targets. I wouldn’t frame it as her waiting for a reason to act against you, I would frame it as an eventuality that she had hoped would never come.”

“And yet you’re here,” said Bethel. Her voice was tight. “They’re not going through with their initial plans. Amaryllis wouldn’t have sent a hostage.”

“No, she wouldn’t have,” said Valencia. “I’m here to talk. I want to explain things to you, in the hopes that with time, we can mend things.”

“Is there a trump card?” asked Bethel. “Is there some weapon that they plan to use against me, some method of killing me that I wouldn’t have thought of?”

“You shouldn’t ask me questions that you don’t expect an honest answer to,” said Valencia. “I don’t think that’s fair to either of us. But the answer is no, they don’t have a weapon. Grak can ward against you, with difficulty and uncertainty, but you knew that.”

“I want to talk to Juniper,” said Bethel. “I want to speak with him.”

“It will take some time before he’s ready,” said Valencia. “Imagine him as a mouse you caught in a cage. He might come back, once he’s been let out, but he’s afraid for the time being, and will be for quite a while, especially if you’re in a position of power over him, which you are just by being yourself. And because he’s a person, not a mouse, he’s feeling other unpleasant things as well, betrayal, shame, guilt, embarrassment, none of which will be helped by talking to him, not now.”

“You’re speaking of separation,” said Bethel. “You’re talking about long timescales.”

“Weeks,” said Valencia. “Maybe months.” She was hoping she wouldn’t regret that in two months time. “I don’t think it was severe enough that reintroduction is impossible. I even think that you could be friends again, but the path forward takes time and care. It can’t be rushed, not if we want a good outcome.”

“You’re suggesting that he lives somewhere else,” said Bethel, crossing her arms.

“I am,” replied Valencia. “More to the point, I’m suggesting that you leave the Isle of Poran.”

“And this was the plan all along,” said Bethel. “This spring cleaning, the promise that the tuung would have a place to go for a week, even this time away on the beach, even the locus being removed from me.”

“No,” said Valencia. “Juniper wanted a private conversation with the locus. I suspect that he told it first, before he spoke with anyone else. The tuung were temporarily removed for your benefit, at your request. And everything else was simply kismet.”

Only that last part was a lie. Valencia had known something was wrong with Juniper, and suspected that it had to do with Bethel, and she was the one who had arranged everything else, acting as deftly and silently as she could to poke and prod Amaryllis in the right ways. It was just shy of being a violation.

“Did you think that I would do well, away on my own?” asked Bethel. “Did you think that I would accept that punishment, even if I accepted that I’m responsible for what Juniper is feeling from moment to moment?”

“You won’t be alone,” said Valencia. “I’m planning to go with you.”

Bethel stopped her pacing and turned to Valencia. She was suspicious, or choosing to display suspicion. “Why?” she asked.

“Because I consider you a friend,” said Valencia. “And I consider this a tragedy. It would have been preventable if I had been watching closely, and more easily mitigated if I had caught it right after it happened, so I share some portion of responsibility. I want to help, and I want you to be my home, even if you can’t be a proper home to the others for a while.”

Bethel was still for a moment, her face displaying no emotion, and Valencia carefully kept her features controlled as well. Death could come at any moment, and if it weren’t death, then it would likely be torture or maiming. Bethel was less likely to be violent to someone who couldn’t heal back from it, but she was a killer as part of her self-identity.

“He thinks that I hurt him,” said Bethel, after some time had passed. “They all think that I hurt him. It was his choice to be hurt.” Some uncertainty had finally crept into her voice. More importantly, it was displayed uncertainty, an uncertainty felt internally and shown to a second party.

“No one chooses to be hurt,” said Valencia, and though that wasn’t even remotely true, it was true enough that she didn’t think Bethel would argue. “The question is whether that hurt could be foreseen or not.”

“And you think that I’m culpable,” said Bethel. Something in the illusion had changed, subtle little differences that together created an impression of malice. Bethel’s eyes were more sunken, the shadows around her darker and deeper, and the incidental folds of her clothing created points, almost spikes, rather than the aesthetic curves they’d been before. Her fists weren’t quite clenched, but she was showing strain in the muscles of her hands. More than that, the atmosphere of the room had changed, the lighting lower, the atmosphere colder. If you didn’t know better, you might attribute that to a passing cloud.

“He said no,” replied Valencia. “Your culpability began when you decided that you knew better.”

For a moment, Bethel seemed as though she would snap, but that moment passed, and she relaxed. “You can undo it,” she said. “Repair it, rebuild it.”

“I can,” said Valencia. “It will be different from before, and it will take time.”

“Then tell me what needs to be done,” said Bethel.

Valencia nodded. She had to pretend that she knew more than she did, that the path forward was clear instead of muddy, but she’d muddled through this much, half-blind and afraid, and if she could do that, she could make it through the rest. That was the Gryffindor spirit, after all. “We leave now,” said Valencia. She finally picked up the pencil and paper from the little table. “All I need to do is say my goodbyes.”


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Worth the Candle, Ch 168: Hollow

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