Worth the Candle, Ch 184: The Further Adventures of Valencia the Red

Horus had always thought that the big, cleaving line that separated all things was between the planned and unplanned. The city of Orrangush was a mix of the two, with grand, sweeping avenues and square plazas, and between them, where bigger buildings hadn’t gobbled up space during city-wide redesigns and writs of eminent domain, there were the unplanned spaces, little shops and houses that followed the old, wandering roads from before the city had been remade. Horus loved the unplanned spaces, the way you could see them twisted and bent, a hundred hands sculpting them across time. The real treasures and delights were always in the crooked places, where every window had to be custom fit and wood was given a patina of oils from use. Beyond that, those were the only places that sold the sorts of things that Horus could afford.

The sweets shop seemed to come from nowhere, installing itself in an empty storefront overnight. Horus didn’t have the whole of Orrangush memorized, because if that had ever happened, he probably would have left for a newer, more exciting place, but he walked the particular road the sweets shop had sprouted up on often enough to know that the shop had come into existence within twelve hours, maybe less, without so much as a ‘Coming Soon!’ sign.

It was impossible to miss, even if you didn’t pay attention to stores and houses as a matter of habit. It shone with warm lights, the same electricity that everyone else used, but somehow crafted in such a way that it felt like a grandmother’s kitchen, or sunlight coming down on a clearing, or the warmth of a fire when you’d been doing hard work outside in the wintertime. The store smelled, too, of spices and sweets, strong enough that the scent would spill out onto the streets, and when the glass door opened and closed, the rush of air would bathe the street with more scents of exotic candy.

There were planned stores and unplanned stores, and Horus vastly preferred the latter. Some stores had been constructed with a place for everything and everything in its place, goods segregated out and carefully labeled. Other stores grew without a plan, or with a plan so far in the past that it was no more than a vague imprint left on the store’s present organization. Being unplanned wasn’t the same as being disorganized, though there was some natural overlap. A properly unplanned store responded to its customers, allowing their needs to dictate what went where, until eventually the goods would move around the various cupboards, shelves, and tables, like a garden of commerce growing wild.

The sweets shop was an unplanned store, though artfully and deliberately so. There were dozens of bins lined up, but they followed a curve in the wall, squeezing in places where they would fit. There were jars filled with candy too, sitting on tables together to make displays full of color, with small, empty bags stacked here and there so patrons could pick out what they liked. There were twirls of red and white, marble-like yellow candies, chocolates covered in multicolor candy shells, sweets like red twisted rope, and all manner of others, so many that it would have made you sick to try them all. One of the two women who ran the place was always behind the main counter, which had clearly been made from a huge old door laid on its side, one large enough that it could span half of the sweets shop’s small space with ease. If Horus hadn’t already been in love with the place, that door, haphazardly cut through and turned into a counter, would have sent him over the edge into adoration.

Horus went into the sweets shop only during off-hours, when the hordes of children that visited the place weren’t there, when there was no rush of people coming by after their lunch, when it was nice and quiet, with only one or two other people, or as was his preference, no one but himself and one of the two owners.

The two women who worked the sweets shop were odd ones. Horus had always felt that there were planned and unplanned people. When he tried to explain the concept, sometimes whomever had deigned to listen to him would get confused, or try to narrow things down. They would think that a planned person was someone like a princess, born into her role and trained from birth with exacting precision, and an unplanned person was someone like a bastard or a whoreson, born into the world with no place made ready for them. This was correct, insofar as Horus saw it, but it was a matter of extremes. A baker’s son could be a planned person, and a maid could be an unplanned person, it wasn’t really a matter of profession or birth, more about how they went through life, and how or whether they allowed life to shape them. Both the women who worked the sweets shop were unplanned people, to a degree that Horus had never seen before.

The shorter woman, with her kind and exotic purple eyes and tight-laced dresses, was always the more friendly of the two, without fail. She had a bright, effortless smile, no matter the time of day, and she would speak enthusiastically to anyone who seemed like they were remotely interested. If given the chance, she would talk at length about any of their candies, sometimes spinning a story that clearly had no basis in reality.

“These are Gibraltars,” said the shorter woman with a smile as she stood next to a cluster of children. Horus looked over, and saw her holding a small yellow candy between her thumb and forefinger. “They’re named after the Rock of Gibraltar, quite some distance away from here, not because they’re hard like a rock, though they are, but because there was a famous battle there, right around the time this candy was first created.”

The children looked up at her in awe.

“Now, these are a trif a piece,” said the black-haired woman, holding the candy forth and casting a critical eye on it, “But for children under eight, we offer testers, just so you can know whether or not you like them.” She reached into the jar beside her and pulled out a small handful of lemon drops, exactly enough so that each of the children could have one, without making a show of it. The one she’d been holding, she popped into her mouth.

One of the children held back, looking uncomfortable. He was the last to be offered a lemon drop, and when he didn’t go for it, the woman stooped slightly, getting on his level.

“You don’t fancy a Gibraltar?” she asked.

“I’m nine,” he said.

It took her a moment, but finally understanding dawned on her. “Oh,” she said, closing her hand around the lemon drop. “By what accounting?”

“Accounting?” asked the boy.

“When do you count from?” she asked. “From before you were born, from the day you were born, or sometime after?”

“Oh,” he said. “When I was born, I guess. My birthday.”

“It’s different in different parts of the world,” said the woman, nodding. “In Korea, everyone’s age is one the moment they’re born, and when the new year comes, everyone’s age goes up, all on the same day.” She took in his disbelieving look. “Oh, it’s true enough, different people with different customs. There are dragons that count from the day their egg was laid. But more important for you, in this store we use the Acrian system of accounting, from the second year after you’re born.” She held out the candy again. “By our way of thinking, you would still be seven.”

The boy looked at her like he was deciding whether or not to believe it, then snatched up the candy before she changed her mind.

Horus watched all of this while pretending to contemplate an enormous jar of something labeled ‘silver dragees’. When the children had all left, free candy in their mouths, the woman approached him.

“It’s not true, of course,” she said. “But I can’t resist the little ones.”

“I didn’t mean to eavesdrop,” said Horus.

“Oh, sure you did,” she replied with a smile. She held out her hand. “Rossa the Strong.”

“Horus Acreh,” he replied, shaking her small hand. “Did you say, ‘the Strong’?”

“It’s an appellation of my own design,” she replied with a smile. “I thought, if I was going to be called something, why not pick strong?” She shrugged. “It’s aspirational.” She looked over to the side and took the lid off a jar. “Would you like an Everlasting Gobstopper? As a tester, naturally.”

“Oh,” said Horus. “Sure.” He took one and put it in his cheek. She’d been sucking on her lemon drop, talking around it, and now they had matching speech impediments. It was only once it was in his mouth that he thought to point out that he wasn’t under eight, in what might have been a joking way, but by then it was too late, and it would have been awkward.

“This is your thirteenth time coming to the shop,” said Rossa. “I was curious whether you were maybe here for more than just sweets?”

“I — I uh,” he said slowly. “I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“You like this place,” said Rossa, nodding. She moved the candy around in her mouth, and it clacked against her teeth. “Maybe you come here because it gives you a feeling that you don’t have anywhere else?”

“Maybe,” he said, swallowing lemon-flavored saliva. “It’s a nice place.”

“It’s warm, inviting, it’s got a good mix of smells,” said Rossa, nodding. “It feels lived-in, even though we both know that’s not really true, because we’ve only been here a week. But we don’t really sell that, do we?” she asked. “We don’t sell a mood.”

“I’m — I’m sorry,” said Horus. “I didn’t think — I didn’t want to bother either of you. I can buy more.”

“Oh!” said Rossa, looking taken aback. “Oh, it’s no bother, we’re happy to have you, whether as a customer or if you’re only looking, I’m only saying that the thing you’re seeking isn’t something that can be found here, and I want you to find the thing you’re looking for. I think that would be nice for you.”

“Oh,” said Horus. “And … what am I looking for?”

“A mood,” said Rossa. “Soft familiarity, a kinship worn by time, proof of the labors of love.” She shrugged. “Something like that.”

“And — and where could I find a thing like that?” he asked.

“That’s hard enough, in this world,” Rossa replied with a sigh. Her teeth came down and crunched on the lemon drop as she gave him a thoughtful look. “The modern world can seem cold and distant at the best of times, and these aren’t the best of times. I think the answer is that you have to either inherit it or build it up, if you don’t just stumble into it on accident.” She continued her thoughtful look, then went over to the big counter made out of a door and grabbed a pen and a piece of paper. “I know some people that might be able to help you. Can I write down some names for you?”

“Uh, sure,” said Horus. The woman, Rossa, began writing on a piece of paper very quickly. “I’m sorry, how long have you been in Orrangush?”

“This would be day number eight,” she replied. She lifted up the paper and took a moment to look at it, then handed it to Horus. “The first name and address is for a woman, older, looking for an apprentice. She does glassblowing and could use someone with strong lungs. The reason I put her down there is that I think you would like her workshop. The second and third names are a young woman and her father. She’s lodona, from a big family, and she’s been refusing the matchmaking that he’s been trying to set up for her. I don’t know for certain whether she’ll take to you, or you to her, but I think it would probably be worth your time.”

“I don’t — I’m not,” said Horus.

“Yes, you are,” said Rossa, nodding slightly. “The fourth name belongs to a tour company local to Orrangush, which I think you’d be suited for, though I’m not sure that it would get to the base of your needs. And then the fifth there isn’t a name, but a number, just tell them that Rossa the Strong said you should call. The man at the other end is the next kingdom over, but he owes me a favor, and he’s good at placing people.”

“Placing people?” asked Horus.

But then the door to the sweets shop opened, and the bell rang as a pair of teenagers came in. Rossa left him standing there, holding a sheet of paper with names, addresses, and numbers on it. Horus had questions, that was only natural, but he was feeling strange, off-balance, like he was walking through a dream. He had never spoken more than a few words when he was in the sweets shop, except to say what he was buying, or the usual pleasantries, and here they’d had a whole conversation, all at once, one that had cleaved him down to his core.

Rossa gave him a small nod and a smile as he left, one which he felt too unsteady to return. She’d said that it was his thirteenth time, and it only hit him once he was out of the store that by rights, she should have had no way to remember that, not with how many people came and went.

Horus looked down at the list he’d been given. There were opportunities there, possibilities, all crafted specifically for him. He had never really thought that anything might happen between him and the woman who ran the sweets shop, but there was something bitter about being told so plainly that he should go find another woman, one who was in the middle of matchmaking.

Yet that seemed to be where his feet were taking him anyway. He decided that he would talk to the woman and her father, just to see what they had to say.

“That man, Horus. Which of those was the real one?” asked Bethel, once the day was done. She was being good, and keeping up with her appearance, even when they were alone. Nephthys, she was called, in this time and place.

“They were all real,” said Valencia as she took off her apron. “The one I thought he would pick was the marriage prospect. The number was … not fake, but a long shot, and he might have been turned down.”

“And was there manipulation on your part?” asked Bethel.

“There’s always manipulation,” Valencia replied. “When you’re in a position of power over someone else, I think it’s inescapable that your actions are tainted by that power. The best you can do is to pretend that power doesn’t exist, and to hope that they trust you enough to do the same, because then things can proceed as they normally would. But in a case like this, where I had information that I was trying to get across, and I knew that man well enough from having seen him and looked him over, there was undeniably some element of unsavory power difference between us. I’d never claim otherwise.”

“You think it’s moral,” said Bethel. “You were giving him a choice, knowing what that choice was likely to be, but you had his best interests at heart.”

“Hrm,” said Valencia, pretending to think. “I think that to live in this world as powerful entities, we have to shoulder the burden of our power. It’s something that I try to keep in mind.”

“You don’t think that we should be out there, in the world, doing more?” asked Bethel. “More than pointing lonely men in the direction of receptive mates, or giving away candies to children?”

“I think we need to straighten things out between ourselves,” said Valencia. “I think that we need to know how to be better people. There’s a cost to doing what we’re doing now, a large one, but for the moment I think that it’s a cost that’s worth paying.”

“We could control this entire city,” said Bethel. “We could feed every hungry child. You give away candy to those children? Surely you noticed the malnutrition of the youngest two, the shabby clothes, if not the marks of trauma those clothes hide?”

“I noticed,” replied Valencia. She was aware that her voice was tight, but there was no need to control that, to hide the emotion that she felt. “There’s certainly a temptation to barge in, to give them full meals, magical healing, a better life than the one they currently have.”

“And the reason that we don’t, the reason that those children get small kindnesses instead of large ones, is that you worry that it would spiral out of control in some way, or lead to unintended consequences, or that we would have our paper thin cover blown and be forced to relocate.” Bethel had on a rather cruel smile. “Boo hoo.”

“We’re here to talk and understand,” said Valencia. She kept her voice level, though she’d been trying to do that less these days, because Bethel took pleasure in getting a rise out of people, and if the tone was too level, she would seek to provoke emotion. It was a careful balancing act. “We’re not here to help the needy, we’re not here to right wrongs, and we’re not here to upset every apple cart we think might be in need of upsetting. Once we’re finished … maybe. Right now, I want to focus on restraint, and on being the sort of person who doesn’t approach every problem with maximum force.” These were old conversations, retreads, but retreading was good, because it helped to wear in grooves.

Bethel moved to the window and drew back the curtain to look outside. The shop had short hours, which left plenty of time for observation and discussion. They couldn’t spend the entirety of every day doing therapy, even with Valencia speeding through sleep with the time chamber, but they were packing the hours full of conversation. What Bethel was getting up to during that downtime was of concern, but thus far, she’d appeared to be forthright about her activities, even if they were skirting (or outright breaking) the boundaries they’d set up.

“Alright,” said Valencia. “You think that we should be doing more here.”

Bethel turned back to her with a piercing gaze. It was the same mask as always, only showing what she chose to show. That wasn’t because Bethel was particularly guarded, though she was, it was just the nature of her existence. Bethel had nothing like the physiological connections that other people had, linking up her emotions with her outward appearance, so she was left to project, always consciously so. “I do,” Bethel finally said.

“Because you honestly want to help people?” asked Valencia. “Or because you think that’s a tactic that I might be sympathetic to?”

“Can’t it be both?” asked Bethel.

“Do you actually want to do good?” asked Valencia. “When you see someone in pain, do you want to lessen that pain?”

“Depends on the person,” replied Bethel, frowning. “Are you actually asking me that? Don’t you know by now?”

Valencia paused as her model of Bethel was rapidly updated and chains of logic clinked against each other. “How much do you think I know?” she asked.

“Well, everything, I suppose,” said Bethel. “I’ve made no attempts to hide anything from you. I’ve been forthright in everything I’ve told you. I really, honestly do want to make things go back to the way that they were, and if you have an infernally assisted plan, then that’s a path that I’ll willingly walk. When we go back, it will be with your clearance. You’ll assure the others that I’ve changed. I’ll be their house again.”

“It’s not going to be that easy,” said Valencia. “I can’t in good conscience allow you to believe that’s how it will be. Juniper won’t want to live in you for quite some time, even with my assurance, even with my explanation of what we’ve been doing and what we’ve learned here. What we’re doing are steps toward becoming better, on an absurdly accelerated timescale, with, yes, the end goal being a reintroduction to the party, capable of honestly addressing their concerns and ensuring that nothing bad happens between us and them again.”

“Much more a concern for me than for you,” said Bethel. “Juniper holds affection for you.”

“He’s guarded around me, and rightfully so,” said Valencia. She waved a hand. “It’s not about him, it’s about us, and our relationship with the world. So tell me, if you value good for its own sake, what does good look like to you?”

“What do you mean?” asked Bethel. The tone of her voice made it sound as though she suspected that this was a trick. It was a trick, but not in the usual sense, since Valencia only planned to use some framing and follow-up questions that would (ideally) help with the process of reframing how Bethel looked at the world.

“Imagine that you died tomorrow, and in your final moments, the Dungeon Master came to you and said that you could make any changes you wanted to the world,” said Valencia. “You would have no limits whatsoever and no worries about time, just carte blanche to alter the world. What would you do? You can take your time to think.”

“And what would you do?” asked Bethel.

“I don’t want to poison the well with my answer,” replied Valencia. “If you’d like, I can share my thoughts once you’re done. Again, it’s fine to think about it first. I would prefer that you think out loud though, because I’m more interested in your thoughts than your answer.”

“I think you want me to say all the obvious,” said Bethel. “No pain, no terror, nothing forced on anyone, a happy world where every day is better than the last and nothing negative happens to anyone at all.”

“But that’s not what you actually think?” asked Valencia.

“For a very long time, the best moments of my life were when I was enacting justice,” said Bethel. There was a challenge in her voice, daring Valencia to object.

“You mean that you slaughtered anyone who came inside you,” said Valencia.

“No, not just people who came inside me,” replied Bethel. “People outside too, those who came too close, or people who I took a disliking to for whatever reason. You haven’t mentioned the torture, but you don’t need to pussyfoot around it, because when I say justice, I mean that too. In a world without pain or terror, there would be no badness, but with no badness, there would be nothing to bring justice against. It would simply be gone, replaced by nothing.”

“You yearn to right perceived wrongs,” said Valencia. “In this perfect world, do you think there would be nothing to replace that yearning? Nothing to replace the warm feeling of satisfaction when you’ve dealt out perceived justice?”

“You said that I would be dead, not able to live in the world I had created,” said Bethel. “So I suppose the question is whether I value justice, in the abstract, for its own sake, or whether it’s simply because justice makes me feel good. I’m not sure that I know. I would be depriving others, but not myself.” She frowned. “You are very good at interesting questions.”

“The point isn’t to be interesting,” said Valencia. “I’m trying to provide some conceptual handles on different emotions, lenses and ways of thinking that will help you. You get some thrill from righting wrongs, which might be motivated by moral considerations, but is also simply satisfying as a process of exercised control over the world.”

“Thrill sounds cheap,” said Bethel, not objecting. “And do you really think that it’s simply about control?”

“Control might be the wrong word,” said Valencia. “In truth, it’s more complicated than that. Did Juniper ever tell you about his uncle that wanted to shoot someone?”

“I don’t think he did,” replied Bethel. “Wanted to shoot someone … for the fun of it?”

“The way that Juniper described it, it was a fantasy,” said Valencia. “He wanted someone to break into his house so that he could shoot them in a way that was both legally and morally acceptable. It was a fantasy of retribution and justice, a way of being a hero in his own mind. When people see wrongs out there in the world, they sometimes construct these fantasies as a way of trying to reconcile the inherent unfairness of the world and their own powerlessness to stop it.”

“But I’m not powerless,” said Bethel. “We aren’t powerless.”

“Our fantasies don’t have to make sense,” said Valencia. “Fantasy is rooted in psychology, and there’s no rule that states your psychological makeup is a rational and coherent whole. Perhaps for you, the fantasy of retribution, the pleasure of it, stems from those areas of your life where you haven’t been able to exercise control, where your powers have not helped you.”

“Uther,” said Bethel. “Always back to Uther.”

“He was formative for you,” said Valencia. “The man who raped you got away with it, suffering no negative consequences whatsoever for the way he treated you, and is regarded by nearly everyone in the entire world as the greatest hero who ever lived. It’s very understandable to feel rage about that, and as there’s currently no way to effectively smear his legacy or physically attack him … well, in a perfectly mundane person we might see those same fantasies of bringing justice to those who have transgressed. But it goes beyond Uther, because you were used as a weapon of war for decades, and had all sorts of indignities and harms thrust upon you in a way that was manifestly unjust. I don’t want to make this all about Uther, and I don’t invoke his name. I think you’re much more than what he did to you.”

Bethel was silent for a moment, which Valencia took as a good sign. The language she’d used had been precise, the mention of rape a specific one, intended for effect, an attempt to draw a parallel. They didn’t often talk about what had happened with Juniper, in part because this was bigger than that one incident, and in part because the specifics of that encounter as relayed by Bethel were too muddied to really be helpful. A discussion about a singular event would inevitably tend to get into the technical aspects, relitigation of what happened, and that was harder to control, with more emotion involved, than the broad strokes of how to think and behave.

“So, what does your perfect world look like?” asked Bethel. “You said that you would tell me.”

Valencia paused for a moment, evaluating whether or not to be honest. There were lies she could tell that would be instructive or helpful, a part of the therapy, lessons of their own … but they would be lies, ones that would have to be maintained in virtual perpetuity, not just this one lie, but all the other lies that would have to exist by implication.

“If I’m picking for everyone else, then I would give them what they wanted,” said Valencia. “The world would be empty of justice, but people wouldn’t need justice to be happy. They wouldn’t need evils to fight against, they would be happy and content with each other, with their families. No one would ever have to do anything they didn’t want to, and there would be no disputes to be resolved except if everyone agreed to them ahead of time.”

“Hrm,” said Bethel.

“I know it doesn’t sound appealing to you, because you’re in a particular mind to notice the lack of the feeling of justice,” said Valencia. She shrugged. “It would obviously be just, because by definition there would be no crime or wrongdoing.”

“You get no thrill from killing the infernals?” asked Bethel.

“Some,” said Valencia, nodding. “But I take them into me, and see their memories only after the fact, so it’s blunted. The justification for their murder comes only after the murder has already happened. They’re creatures of almost pure evil, all of them, and I feel no shame or sorrow in removing them from the world, but in a way, my powers growing stronger have sapped any joy I once got from it. I want to eliminate them, but it’s driven far more by compassion for their victims than by retribution.”

“And you seek to take this happiness from me?” asked Bethel. “To make my acts of violence no longer so enjoyable?”

“No,” replied Valencia. “I’d only want to ensure that you never acted violent when it wasn’t appropriate, may that day soon come.”

Therapy had its ups and downs.

Walking around with a devil constantly in her head was taxing in a way that Valencia hadn’t expected, and she found herself depending on their skill at compartmentalizing and coping. Ever since the theory had been brought up that she was gaining an infernal’s skills absent their attributes, she had been wondering what was going on at the game-mechanical level. She often tried to put things in that context, which she thought was rather helpful as a way of making sense of the world, even if it didn’t end up being accurate. There were two attributes that governed the ability to withstand stressors, Poise for withstanding social pressure, and Wisdom for withstanding mental pressure, and these were the two that were being tested on a routine basis over the course of their so-called therapy.

In the same way that she was hampered in combat by the body of a young girl, she might be hampered in her mental efforts by a brain that was still continuing its rapid development after years of isolation and abuse. She was a superb fighter, but her innate physical disadvantages would make every fight harder than it had to be. Similarly, she was a masterful conversationalist, but if those skills were, as theorized, based on her personal attributes — if an infernal’s skills were being degraded by being run through her brain — then it made sense that it could be so tiring. At least, that was the theory. They hadn’t been able to recover the manual that governed the game, and it was entirely possible that it had nothing at all about non-anima in it.

Valencia took breaks, from time to time, not actually letting herself be empty of a devil, but just some time when she wasn’t ‘on’. That naturally meant leaving Bethel for a bit, which had taken her a few days to be comfortable with, not just because of what Bethel might get up to in her absence, but because Bethel could easily strand her a long way from home.

Valencia smiled as she walked, waving at faces she’d seen once or twice in the sweets shop. Being out in the world without worrying about Bethel was nice, removing a layer of concern, and now that she wasn’t the only one with non-magical skin, there was much less to worry about from warders. Life could have been better, but she was happy, because the world was wide and colorful.

She killed devils and demons as she went. Therapy with Bethel required regular intake of devils, but it was important not to be too regular about it, because that would potentially give the infernals information about who or what was causing this unprecedented threat. Through the whole history of Aerb, only a handful of infernals had ever been killed. Since Valencia had gotten her powers, tens of thousands had died. In the context of two and a half trillion infernals across nine thousand hells, this wasn’t very many, but it was enough that they were, certainly, on the case. For every infernal she took into her, which was only a fraction of those she killed, she combed through their memories, trying to find some piece of the puzzle that would show their response. Most infernals were entirely disconnected from all but their local hell though, and usually they were disconnected from most of that hell, only concerned with an area of a few dozen miles, their town or estate, and the souls within it.

“Excuse me,” she said to a shopkeeper, careful not to pick up the threads of conversation that would delve into his life, careful not to steer him in any particular direction. These were important strategies to practice, here where it was safe. “How much is the flour?”

“Third of an obol a pound,” he replied, looking her over.

He didn’t find her very attractive. A devil’s insight was incredible overkill to know that, but she wasn’t sure that the thought would have come to her, unbidden, if she hadn’t had a devil in her. She didn’t particularly care whether or not the shopkeeper felt she was attractive or not, he was an older man in his fifties and certainly not attractive to her, and besides that, there were a hundred worse things in this world. Still, it was a lack of control of her powers that frightened her, because it meant that she might fail at a moment when it was important.

She killed another demon on the way out of the shop, tasting its memories by rote … and finding that she’d unexpectedly bit into a motherlode of information. She kept walking, not wanting to attract attention, then quickly found a small table in the outdoor section of a restaurant and sat down with the notebook she carried with her everywhere she went.

As a rule, Valencia rarely targeted anyone important in the hells. Targets were selected at random, not with a preference for demons or devils, and at random intervals. Valencia had been sleeping in the time chamber almost exclusively for some time now, even before the recent unpleasantness, which meant that there was no indication, if looking for a pattern, that there was any pattern at all. Amaryllis and Jorge had largely been responsible for this protocol, which had been created with both operational security and political neutrality in mind. The hells had their own magics, their own physics, and they had ways of reaching Aerb, if they had cause to. A random scattering of deaths would naturally be alarming to the hells, given their unprecedented nature, but an attack would be something else, something that they were much more conceptually equipped to deal with. It was important that their response be put off for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, the demon that Valencia had just eaten painted a grim picture of how far along the infernals were.

Derrodok Iz’getch, Defiler of Entrails, Rimpoche of Lethnish, was a major figure in the 2674th hell. If Valencia could have known ahead of time exactly which demon she was going to eat, she might not have chosen him, but that would have contributed to a pattern. At any rate, the point was moot, as she could only know ahead of time with either access to an infernoscope tuned to the location of her tendrils, or prior knowledge from a previous infernal’s very recent memories.

Six days ago, Derrodok had been given a briefing memo on everything that the infernals knew about what they were calling the Existence Failure Events. Valencia began to rapidly write down everything in the report, filling page after page, not stopping to think too hard about anything else, such as the minor political vacuum that Derrodok would be leaving behind, or the dozen-odd mortals he owned and regularly tortured. Instead, she focused on the briefing, which laid out in detail a number of rather concerning steps the infernals were taking.

First, there would be an all-hells taxation going into effect within the next two weeks, funneling resources toward the Omega Hell, where research would be taking place into the EFEs. Second, there would be research teams assembled on every hell in order to track and catalog every EFE that they could find, which would presumably be compiled and cataloged. Third, a large number of infernals would be conscripted from across the hells, focusing on those with particular knowledge of esoteric magics, planar phenomena, and Uther Penndraig (not that he was expected to have anything to do with it, the letter assured, but because he was automatically implicated in any major threat). Fourth, fresh mortals, especially those who held security clearances in life, would undergo interrogations by specialists, with compensation toward anyone who delivered them into control of the Omega Hell at the base of the hellchain. And finally, there was an enormous bounty for anyone who brought an end to the EFEs, not just a bounty for infernals, but one that would be communicated to Aerb itself, a guarantee of a life of paradise in the hell of their choosing, in perpetuity.

When Valencia was finished transcribing the briefing letter as best she was able to remember it, she stared at it with a glum look. Derrodok had been planning to resist the imposition, which would impact him a fair amount, which Valencia imagined would be a common response. There might be a war amongst the infernals, as there had been in the past, or a series of disorganized wars that each happened on their own hell. The stakes were high though, and eventually everyone would be coerced into cooperation, as they had been in the past. The hells were mobilizing, and much faster than expected. Compared to the time of the Apocalypse Demon, this represented a fairly small mobilization of forces, but it was clearly laying the groundwork for something bigger. And if this was the briefing that was being given to a demon of Derrodok’s importance, that probably meant that those in charge knew more, and worse, that there were likely other, less public plans in place. This briefing, after all, would be assumed to be seen by mortals who spied on the hells through infernoscope: it was the information that they didn’t care to hide or couldn’t effectively conceal.

What Valencia had been quietly doing in the hells was going to intrude into the real world, and soon.

It was hard to go back to her pleasant shopping after that, but not impossible, because Valencia was very, very good at dealing with the horrifying and upsetting. The infernals almost always had memories of torturing mortals, sometimes brief, sometimes persistent, and even if she was able to stop herself from thinking about the torture while those memories were available, the hells were always on her mind. That was aside from a life spent living in a cage, a science experiment of her father’s, possessed by demons and devils on a fairly regular basis, and always treated as though she was a violent manipulator.

Valencia was quite aware that she was a broken thing stitched back together with infernal lessons, the kindness of new family, and the moral teachings of Harry Potter. She was not, in any sense, like the people she saw around her, which was perhaps why her relationship with Bethel was relatively good. They had a kinship of sorts, and even if Bethel weren’t an extremely powerful individual whose assistance would almost certainly be required to accomplish important goals, Valencia would have been inclined to help her, rather than to give her up as a lost cause. Valencia was trying her best to be good, and most days she thought that she was doing a damn sight better than most people were, no offense meant.

(Lack of action was its own problem though, and Bethel was making too much sense on that front. It was hypocrisy and inconsistency, which weren’t good for making progress, a well of disagreement that wasn’t likely to go dry soon. But such things weren’t for break time, when the world was waiting to be seen.)

Valencia had chosen Orrangush because it was less regulated than some other parts of the Empire, but also with a high standard of living that she’d thought would help to make therapy a little bit easier. The people of Orrangush were, for the most part, friendly, and their social systems made it so bad behavior was at least partly regulated away by peer pressure and ostracization, to the extent those mechanisms worked. But for all that, Orrangush wasn’t perfect, as no place on Aerb was, and another point of getting away from Bethel was to learn more about their new and temporary home, the better to set up instructive encounters and prepare for observations that Bethel might make.

There were, naturally, all the cases of the haves and have nots, those people with too little or too much, with hunger, homelessness, and sickness being the most prominent examples. Beyond that, there were domestic issues that were rarely effectively policed anywhere in the world, the kinds of crimes (if they were considered crimes at all) for which the perpetrator was often shielded from justice by either the power dynamics of the relationship, the consequences of reporting, or the troublesome nature of what constituted enough evidence for a conviction. Valencia was an astoundingly good judge of people and what they had been through, and while Bethel wasn’t quite so good, she had overwhelming forensic capabilities and a disregard for privacy that they were still working on.

During these walks and breaks from the therapy, Valencia had quietly identified a small handful of cases that might be cause for further discussion with Bethel about the nature of justice, revenge, and the sins of mortals. Valencia had, by this point, scouted the majority of their neighborhood, including those people who had passed close enough for her to give them an inspection. Some of these she was handling quietly on her own, not just because that would help with Bethel, but because it was a good and right thing to do.

The trick was making them disappear without drawing suspicion to herself, whether that was from Orrangush or Bethel. If caught by Bethel, or even merely asked, Valencia would have explained what she’d done and why, but it would be better for this to be done without Bethel ever having any knowledge of it.

Henick was a typical abuser, driven by a desire for power and control. He had been in the military and kept as a prisoner of war for eight months (something she’d learned from gossip rather than superpowers). Perhaps that was the source of it, if it needed to have a source, which Valencia didn’t particularly feel that it did. His targets were his two small children and his wife, the former more than the latter, always following typical patterns of abuse: outbursts, followed by periods of relative calm, sometimes with apologies and reconciliation, but more often with nothing but the justifications that Henick created in the moment. He was a good case study, in that he was rather typical, and there was much that Bethel might learn from him about the internal feelings that were the wellspring of his behavior … but he was operating freely, without any repercussions. If he walked into the sweets shop, and Bethel had figured it out, it was entirely possible that she would have taken matters into her own hands.

Valencia had instead talked him into leaving Orrangush, which took roughly an hour of her free time. The conversation had been personal in a way that would have been completely unacceptable in normal social circumstances, one of the barriers that Valencia faced quite often, but once his guard was down, it was easy to shape their talk and convince him to leave his family with what savings he’d managed, seeking to reclaim some of the glory he’d felt during his time in the military.

Now, with the family abandoned, Valencia felt she had a duty to make sure that they were looked after.

She brought sweets for the children and a packed dinner for the mother, with portions large enough that the three of them would have food for several days. It was just at the limit of what the mother would accept from her, in part because Valencia was always willing to sit and listen, engaging in some therapy with much lower stakes and a much more pliant subject. It was, again, weirdly personal for Valencia to be there, but she had the excuse of being foreign, and Aerb was a wide enough world that people rarely asked for specifics, not that Valencia didn’t have lies at the ready to answer for her eccentricities. The work of speaking to the wife was mostly in convincing her to reconcile with friends and family, to rebuff her husband if he returned, and to build herself a new life, to the extent that would be possible.

The last thing that Valencia had to do, when that was finished, was to write her letters. She had started out simply writing them when she was within Bethel, but that meant that Bethel could read the letters, and necessarily made the letters a part of their interactions, most of which were measured and monitored closely. Valencia had gently requested privacy, and Bethel had said that she could have privacy when she was outside, which had been the end of that conversation, at least for the time being. One letter went to Jorge, hastily written and full of pleasantries, and the other went to Amaryllis, written in a difficult cipher, which largely reported on the state of the hells. She sent both off with the telepost, hoping that they would find their way with all due haste, piggybacked on the bulk teleport network.

And with that, it was time to return home.

“Did you have a good time, out and about?” asked Bethel when Valencia returned.

“Acceptable,” replied Valencia. “Anything of note while I was away?”

“Arguments from the neighbors to the east,” replied Bethel. “I can play it back for you, if you would like?”

“Is it good or bad?” asked Valencia. “Something to model, or something to critique?”

“A bit of both,” replied Bethel, smiling slightly.

“Then let’s see it,” replied Valencia, nodding. “Could I trouble you for dinner while I watch?”

“Of course,” replied Bethel. “The stew has been cooking, and will just need to cool.”

Annad walked through the city with his enforcers following in his wake. Wherever he went, people stopped and stared, their eyes catching on him and then holding there as their brains caught up to their vision. He was well-known, the face of the operation in Orrangush, and he’d done his work to ensure that he and his men could be identified at a glance. It didn’t do to explain to people who you were and why they should be afraid of you, not when those explanations were always so much more effective when they came across in whispers from a third party. The two hulking men behind Annad certainly helped, as did the weapons they were visibly carrying, entad lookalikes.

The sweets shop he was going to had opened for business, practically overnight, nine days ago. That was enough time for him to send in someone less conspicuous to scope out the place and give him a report. It was also enough time for word to reach them about the way things worked in Orrangush, and for some nice, sotto voce whispers to be overheard by the new proprietors. So far as Annad could find out, the two girls who ran the place weren’t local, though there were limits to how much legwork he was willing to do for people in a neighborhood like theirs. Their accents were off, their particular flavor of human was unknown, and that was good enough. Annad’s warder had walked by the place and surreptitiously placed a monocle to his eye, and seen that there was an aura. That was worrying, but not entirely unexpected given how fast the move had taken place. It was something that Annad was going to keep in mind: these girls had some kind of entad magic, which meant that they were worth more than usual. Fortunately, there only appeared to be a single entad in play, at least so far as the warder could tell.

Annad had picked the timing of his visit carefully. The shop was only open for six hours a day, from noon until just before dinnertime, short hours that spoke to hobbyists rather than hard workers with their nose to the grindstone. That, again, spoke to money. Annad liked to have his visits at night, when the mood was better suited to an explanation of the opportunities that he could provide and the risks inherent in turning him down. But as that wasn’t a reliable option, given the short hours, he’d opted for right at closing time, when he could exert some force by overstaying his welcome, and when the place would be more or less cleared out.

The smaller of the two, Rossa ‘the Strong’, was sweeping the floor as he approached the shop. Annad was hard to miss, and his enforcers were even harder to miss, given that they were a pair of aborians, one of the largest of the mortal species, with claws made for rending trees and specialty oversized pistols at their hips, decorated to look like they might be magical.

Rossa saw them, but she didn’t react like she should have. Her eyes didn’t go wide in surprise or confusion, she merely glanced at them and kept on sweeping, without giving them any more notice. Annad reached forward and opened the door, stepping inside.

“Oh, sorry,” said Rossa. “We just closed. We’ll be open tomorrow, starting at noon.” She had bright, friendly, apologetic eyes, and a surprisingly disarming expression.

“You always turn away paying customers?” asked Annad.

“When they come in off-hours, yes,” said Rossa.

Annad watched her for a moment, trying to take the measure of her, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his pocketwatch, making a show of looking at it. “By my reckoning, I have another three minutes left. And the bells haven’t rung six yet.”

“Ignore my companion,” said the taller woman, Nephthys, from up the stairs. She was visibly muscular, outside the norm for a human, but probably just an outlier, unless she had some broshe blood in her. The scout had said that she had a sour look on her face, but as she traipsed down the steps from the second floor she looked practically joyous. “We’ve been keeping hours short as we get our legs beneath us, but we’ve been meaning to expand anyhow, and you’re right, we shouldn’t be pushing away customers.” She craned her long neck to look past Annad to the enforcers standing outside. “Are your friends coming in?”

“No,” said Annad, finally stepping through the door entirely. “They’ll wait outside for us.”

“And what kind of sweets are you interested in today?” asked Nephthys, beaming at him. “We have a wide selection, including a few specialties that can’t be found anywhere else on Aerb.”

Annad regarded her. If she had any reaction at all to him as something other than a customer, she was hiding it well. When Annad was eight years old, he’d taken an axe to the face, and his parents hadn’t had the money for healing until after the wound was set. He’d grown to like the scar well enough as he’d aged, and even gone so far as rejecting an offer to have an imperial soul mage reverse the damage entirely, which was apparently what it would have taken.

“You’re new in town, the two of you,” said Annad. He took a step toward some of the candies, looking at them as though making up his mind about which to get.

“We can cut through the shit,” said Rossa. Annad looked at her. He had a good handle on women, and the kind of woman who swore, and he hadn’t pegged Rossa for the type. She was looking at him with hard eyes, hand gripped tight around the broom. Her knuckles were white. “You’re here to offer us protection, and if we don’t take you up on your protection, you’re going to make some threats about the kinds of bad things that could happen to us.” She took a breath and glanced at Nephthys. Rossa was breathing harder, and her eyes had finally gone wide, hinting at manic thoughts. The change in demeanor had been sudden. “If you leave now, —” She stopped and looked at Nephthys again. The tall, muscular woman was still smiling. “Nephthys, listen to me, I know you think this man’s life is —”

“Oh, he’s a bully,” said Nephthys. She was grinning at Annad, ignoring her companion. “Aren’t you?”

“No,” said Annad, straightening to his full height. “I’m a businessman. When the police fail to render their services as they should, someone needs to stand up and do things properly in their place. I don’t know what you’ve heard, but my business is protection, not bullying. I’m a professional.”

He was starting to grow uncomfortable. The real, honest fear in Rossa’s eyes wasn’t directed at Annad, it was directed at her companion. Neither of them looked uncertain about him. It could all be an act, but that kind of stage play put on for him would be a plan with far too many ways to go south. Annad had seen all kinds of reactions to his business model, and anger wasn’t uncommon. Once or twice he’d seen wives tell their husbands not to get angry, that it wasn’t worth it, that nothing good would come of lashing out (which was entirely true). Putting it in that context, he thought maybe he understood this situation a little bit better, with Rossa warning off Nephthys from doing something rash. On the other hand, it was entirely possible that these two had more power than they seemed. Annad was perfectly aware that in the grand scheme of things, he was just a man with a handful of entads whose only real training was in clawing his way up through the ranks of the criminal world.

But what would a magus be doing running a sweets shop? And weren’t they both frightfully young to have amassed any power? The little one couldn’t have been much older than fifteen, the taller one in her early twenties.

“Morally speaking,” said Nephthys, looking over to Rossa. “Why should this man live?”

Rossa folded her arms, frowning. “All people deserve life.”

Annad could feel a cold sweat on the back of his neck. This wasn’t how this was supposed to go, and it wasn’t how it had ever gone before. They were speaking as though his death was a foregone conclusion. What he needed was time, time to figure out which brand of mages they were, and what he could do about it.

“All?” asked Nephthys. “Really? All?”

“All,” repeated Rossa. “If we had infinite resources, I would give everyone their own infinite plot of land, with their own infinite resources, because I think that’s the moral thing to do.”

“And yet we don’t live in such a world,” replied Nephthys. “So men like this should, in your view, go to prison, a prison which is paid for with the labor and resources of their betters. When you say that he deserves life, what you mean is that he deserves to be kept alive, away from others, at my expense.”

“Not necessarily your expense,” said Rossa.

“I can leave,” said Annad. “I can give you privacy.” He tried to be firm as he said it, but there was no way to leave without sounding like a coward.

“Hush,” replied Nephthys. “We’re deciding your fate.”

Annad tried to move, and found an invisible wall of force blocking him. He touched it, experimentally, and found that it completely encircled him. It was a ward, one which he’d somehow stepped into without being able to see it. Such things weren’t supposed to be possible, or at least not easy, not unless you knew for certain where your target was going to be well in advance.

“My men,” Annad began. He turned toward them. They looked uncomfortable, standing there.

“Why don’t you call them in,” said Nephthys. “Better that they don’t complicate things.”

Annad hesitated. If he called them in, they would be caught in this web too, pinned down by these people with too much power. If he shouted a warning, they might run and get help, the warder, or the entire team, but that might seal his own fate here, under the thumb of this muscular woman who had used advanced magic without showing any sign of it.

Nephthys moved over and opened the door, looking back at Annad.

“Run!” he screamed. “Find help! They have magic!”

To his immense surprise, the enforcers moved into the sweets shop, squeezing through the doorframe, which was only just wide and tall enough to accommodate them.

“What the hells are you doing?” he asked. “I said to run!”

And with that, his men seemed to register actual shock and concern. The bigger of the brothers, Herk, moved to push Nephthys aside, but his arm passed through her, then met solid air. All at once, the shades at the front of the shop went down, blocking out light and obscuring the interior from view. The two aborian brothers began to shout, but their screams came out wordless, behind some kind of ward that had been built through impossible means.

“They’ll notice that I’m missing,” said Annad.

“He’s right,” said Rossa. “If we let them leave now, with the fear in them, and promise them to secrecy, we might not have to move.”

“Oh, I don’t particularly mind moving,” said Nephthys.

“Staying in one place to get repeat exposure to people is part of the therapy,” said Rossa. “If we make a scene and murder a few people everytime someone moderately antagonistic comes to visit us, we’re never going to get anywhere.”

“I’ve been good,” said Nephthys, pouting slightly.

“You’ve acted good,” said Rossa. “But you’re a long way from the mindset that you’ll need. You can’t just kill everyone who looks at you wrong.”

“He was going to threaten us,” said Nephthys. “If we didn’t give him money, he was going to say that maybe this place might catch fire, or maybe there would be burglars. And if we kept not paying, he would pay men to light this place on fire, or break our windows, or poison our candy.”

“I wouldn’t,” said Annad.

“He wouldn’t poison,” Rossa clarified, though who knew how the hells she knew that. “The other things, yes. But we could easily spare the money he asked for, handed it over without a problem, and continued on with our lives. I understand that you have your reservations about letting him free when he’s going to prey on other people who don’t have our advantages, but we could have talked about this after he’d left. We both know that the money means nothing to us. We know that he would eventually return to take from us again, and if he didn’t, we could track him. It could have been handled later.”

“I was impulsive,” said Nephthys, nodding. “This is true.”

Annad was quiet. He didn’t think that he could say anything that would help his case. He was now entirely convinced that he was going to die, a feeling that he’d had only twice before in a life that had been marked by violence and danger. ‘We both know money means nothing to us,’ the little one had said.

“To go back to the earlier argument,” said Rossa. “Yes, keeping men like him jailed requires resources, but they don’t need to be your resources, someone else might volunteer theirs.”

“So you believe, hypothetically, that this man should be kept in a small room at your expense for the rest of his natural life, segregated from the rest of society?” asked Nephthys.

“No,” said Rossa. “There will always be opportunities for rehabilitation.”

“Rehabilitation that comes with costs,” said Nephthys. “Costs that you’re hypothetically paying?”

“You’re thinking about a hypothetical world in which I’m resource-constrained and have to choose between prison and rehabilitation,” said Rossa.

“I do love that you know what I’m thinking,” replied Nephthys with a grin.

Annad surreptitiously looked down at the ground, trying to see whether there was something he could use to escape this ward, a loose floorboard and some way to slip beneath it, or something that was equally unlikely to be true. He moved his foot to the side, checking that the ward was actually encompassing him, and found that it was. This talk about eternal prison wasn’t making him particularly calm.

“We live in a reality of resource constraints,” said Rossa. “We can’t pay millions of obols for everyone to live their best life. If it came down to it, I would kill men like him, if it meant better men could live better lives, but it’s a question of margins, and I don’t think that Juniper would agree.”

“So you suggest what?” asked Nephthys. “That I don’t torture these men to death and dump their bodies deep underground where they’ll never be found? That I let them go, so that they can use violence and intimidation to steal from people in return for nebulous ‘services’? And worse, obviously.”

“Just a moment,” said Rossa, holding up a hand. “I think I took the wrong tack.”

“The wrong tack to convince me?” asked Nephthys. “And what, praytell, is the right one?”

“This man is a product of his environment, as all people are,” said Rossa.

Annad continued surreptitiously checking for gaps in the ward, moving his hands where they were more out of sight, especially from the bigger woman.

“I’m listening,” said Nephthys. “He’s a product of his environment, and in theory, if he’d been raised better, he might not have turned out such a shitheel.”

“I don’t mean a product of his environment in a historical sense, though that’s probably true,” said Rossa. “I mean that here and now, he exists only because there was a gap within this society for him to exist within. If we kill him, that gap will remain, and some other person will come to fill it. Perhaps more efficiently, perhaps less, and yes, you’re thinking now that you could simply kill all possible candidates for his position —”

“It’s sometimes mildly annoying to have you know what I’m thinking,” said Nephthys, frowning.

“I’m saying that your thought is right,” said Rossa. “You could become the entity that keeps the gap closed by killing anyone who steps out of line. You could kill everyone with the temperament and training to fill that gap. But that requires time and resources, resources that you’ve already said you’re loath to spend. To actually fix the problem, to eliminate men like this from the world without spending absurd amounts of limited resources, we need to use them.”

Nephthys was silent, frowning as she considered that. Annad had no idea what expression he should have on his face, so stayed as carefully blank as he could, though he was sweating profusely, and he was certain that fear was showing on him. It was a fear he hadn’t felt since he was much younger and smaller.

“Ah,” she finally said. “It’s moral to use men like this, immoral men, because they must pay a price for their immorality. Is that so?”

“I’m not sure that I would put it like that,” replied Rossa. “What I mean is that this man exists as he does because there’s a space for him to exist within this society. What we can do is to provide a new place in society for him and people like him, while at the same time closing the gap. We can use him. We can subvert him.”

“But that would be an exercise of our powers,” replied Nephthys. “One you think is moral? And not just because you’re trying to save his life like the naive waif you are?”

Rossa didn’t answer, instead turning to Annad. “We could easily kill you,” she said. “I hope that’s clear to you now. We have power beyond whatever you’re thinking. You probably imagine we’re mages with a fair number of entads? Well, we’re more than that, a lot more than that. Not gods, but demigods, of our own varieties. We’re here because we’re trying to work some things out about ourselves. Now, what we need from you, in order for you to keep living, is for you to make this city a good place to live. That’s not going to happen by you doing good deeds, it’s going to happen by making some systemic changes to how things are done. To that end, we’re going to make a new order in Orrangush which uses you and your people as a tool. And yes, to answer your next question, we’re going to be making a lot of changes, and yes, this will impact your relationship with your superiors.”

Everything she said, it seemed as though she was pre-empting the next question he was going to ask. If they would be believed, they were offering him entrance on the ground floor of some new criminal enterprise, except it wasn’t clear that there was anything criminal about this.

“What do you want me to do?” asked Annad.

“He’s just doing this out of fear,” said Nephthys, frowning. “That’s not a good basis for getting people to do things. He hasn’t even asked what happens if he doesn’t do as we say.”

“I’m well aware that it’s not a good lever,” replied Rossa. “But we’re going to be giving him at least some of what he wants in his heart of hearts, prestige and power, along with the occasional bout of violence.”

“Oh, but I’m not allowed to engage in bouts of violence,” said Nephthys with a pout.

“Of course you are, when the situation warrants it,” replied Rossa.

“No,” replied Nephthys, shaking her head. “Because every time someone comes along with some moronic plan to do harm to me or the people inside me, I’m told that I should exercise restraint, that I should just hold them in place for questioning — questioning which, I might add, is never the way that I would do it, which must never start or end with dismemberment or physical violence.” She glared at Annad. “Even now, this thug, you would think less of me if I sliced him up.”

“Think in the long term,” replied Rossa. “Even if you think the world is better off without him, important people feel otherwise.”

Annad heard the phrase ‘important people’ and temporarily stopped searching for a seam in the ward. That implied that they somehow weren’t important people. He had been assuming that people like this answered to no one, not because they were more powerful than him, but because they were more powerful than him in ways that seemed like they should have been impossible. An imperial fireteam of trained mages, those he would have had the conceptual framework for, but this … and they weren’t even the important people.

“I can’t believe you’re stooping to social blackmail,” replied Nephthys, shaking her head.

“I know what you’re feeling,” said Rossa. “He’s scum, and you want to end him, not because it would be good, but because it would be satisfying. That’s part of growing up though, knowing to choose what’s good over what’s satisfying.”

“‘Growing up’,” said Nephthys, shaking her head. She turned to Annad again. “Well then, you heard the woman, you’re going to be working for us now. Your life is contingent on you being a good person, or at least being a bastard in our service. The same goes for everyone currently in your employ. Perhaps, with time, you’ll come to appreciate our unique offerings as your employer, or perhaps I’ll flense off your skin and feed it to you.”

“Don’t think about running,” said Rossa. “If you leave Orrangush, we’ll know, and our ability to track you is virtually unparalleled across all of Aerb. If you start preparing to leave, we’ll know. For your own sake, work with us.”

“And if he does?” asked Nephthys. “What work, precisely, are we talking about, little one?”

“Intervention,” replied Rossa. “I’m ceding you some ground. It’s true that we should be doing more, but we have to do it right.”

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Worth the Candle, Ch 184: The Further Adventures of Valencia the Red

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