The last thing we needed was to bring Bethel back into the fold.
It went without saying that I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t trust her and didn’t like her, but she had nearly unimaginable power, and that was what we would need if we had even a faint hope of surviving Fel Seed. I was skeptical that anything like a reconciliation could take place, but I thought that we had a good enough shot at working together, if only on this single thing. Valencia had been talking to me, when she could find the time, though most of her concern was in Bethel’s direction, rather than my own. After all, I had no mechanism for killing or even hurting Bethel, while she had hundreds of ways to rend me apart, and more with every day that passed as Amaryllis continued the process of entad acquisition.
We met on Poran, which was now blanketed entirely by the domain of the locus. The arranged meeting place was near the tuung campus, which was still undergoing rapid expansion in the wake of the second generation having finished their adolescence and education. How this was going to work with the locus was beyond me, but if the locus wanted to, their steel mage dormitories could have been crushed at a moment’s notice. Earlier that morning, we’d gotten word of a new induction to what was apparently becoming a corps of druids joining Solace, and this one was one of the tuung, selected through whatever inscrutable criteria the locus was using. There were now five druids, including Solace, and not one of them had been one of the hopefuls, which felt like a bit of a rebuke to Solace’s planning.
Our meeting spot was a table that had been set up in a glade, with no one around us and plenty of wards, along with my own defenses. The wards were a bit overkill, and had been a point of contention. Grak had a very specific ward put up that would shut Bethel down almost completely, leaving her with only a fraction of her total power while we met. The heated discussion among the group had been about what kind of message it would send to her to have something like that in place, and whether it might be taken as a threat, or a sign of things to come. Valencia had said that it was fine, and from the way she said it while carefully not looking at me, it was fairly clear that the whole thing was for my psychological benefit, not for strictly practical reasons.
I ended up waiting for her a bit, no doubt because of further manipulations behind the scenes, a calculation based on Valencia’s handle on my psych profile. I tried not to resent it, because I had, after all, given her permission to do what she needed to in order to make this go smoothly, but there was a part of my brain that churned away, thinking about whether the amount of time I was left to marinate was calculated, and on what level Valencia was playing me.
When I saw Bethel coming, I stood from my chair, waiting for her to cross the distance. She had changed since the last time I’d seen her, though change wasn’t unusual for her. The body she wore to this meeting was much shorter, likely even shorter than Amaryllis, and the musculature had been swept away, leaving her on just the wrong side of skinny. Anything ostentatious, which had once been her signature mark, had been stripped away too, and to the extent that I could tell she’d changed her face, I thought she had probably made her jawline and cheekbones less defined. The dress was simple cotton fabric, as big a departure as possible from the diaphanous rainbow dress she used to wear.
For all that, it was her demeanor that had changed the most. She had a delicacy to the way she stepped, downcast eyes, and a hesitance when she moved. If I hadn’t been given advance warning, I might not have said that it was the same person.
It was all fakery, of course. There was nothing that Bethel didn’t control about her appearance. Valencia had talked to me about it and explained that Bethel was using her outward appearance for self-expression. To hear Valencia tell it, you couldn’t fully trust how Bethel chose to look, or sound, or the expressions that she wore, but you needed to give them some trust, and judge her as though they were all real. I wasn’t fully convinced.
She sat down, and I waited for her to speak, but she remained silent, not meeting my eyes. Her hair was shorter than it had been, no longer braided, coming down to just beneath her chin. She’d kept her skin the color of cedar, maybe a touch darker, with a faint suggestion of wood grain in a few places. I was thankful that she had changed so much, since it was harder for my brain to make the connection between her as she was now and the person she’d been before. To my surprise, my mind didn’t go to what had happened between us, but rather, to the time she cut off Raven’s fingers.
When she finally met my gaze, she held it.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
I waited for more, but she was silent.
“That’s it?” I asked, furrowing my brow. “All this time, and that’s what you decided to go with?”
“Anything else I say is irrelevant,” she replied. Her lips were thin, nearly a grimace.
“But you talked with Valencia,” I said. “Surely she gave you some advice? Some … better set of words?”
“There are no words that I can say that would express my sorrow at what I’ve done,” she replied. “There’s no set of words that can repair our friendship. You trusted me, more than anyone else, and I shattered that trust. I can’t explain, because there’s nothing to explain. I feel like shit about it, but I wouldn’t wager you care about my own feelings. All I can do is say that I wish it hadn’t happened, that I’m a different person than I was, and hope that you can forgive me just enough that I can do something to make amends, like becoming a weapon against Fel Seed.”
I watched her for a moment, meeting her gaze. “You could have led with that,” I said.
“It wouldn’t have mattered,” she said. “It’s the nature of things that whatever I say is irrelevant.”
“Not irrelevant,” I said, frowning slightly. “It’s not … there’s a possibility of a working relationship, with some firm boundaries in place. I don’t hate you,” but as I said it, it felt like a little bit of a lie. “You fucked up. You fucked up in ways that — I don’t think there’s any excusing it, but by way of explaining it, maybe we should have been working to help you socialize more than we actually did. Right and wrong is usually a matter of shades of gray, but it’s not all shades of gray. If Valencia’s been able to help you, then we should have had her help you before things went too far. It was foreseeable, if not in the specifics, then in general.”
“Perhaps,” she slowly admitted. “I don’t want you to diminish my ability to choose my own path. I wasn’t some small animal that didn’t know right from wrong, that needed to be led around on a leash. I was in control of myself. It’s just that the self that was in control was, to put it mildly, maladapted.”
“Right,” I said. “And I’ve always thought of you as someone who understood the world.”
“I know that what’s done can’t be set right,” said Bethel. “But I’m willing to do what I can. Whatever boundaries you set, whatever you ask of me, I’ll do it, with no questions asked.”
I watched her. It was supplication at a level that I hadn’t expected. I didn’t think that I could trust it, and obviously she had her own selfish motives, but there was a part of me that wanted to believe that somehow Valencia had turned her around.
On the other hand, it was all entirely academic. We needed Bethel to go up against Fel Seed. She could have swept in making demands, and common sense would have dictated giving in to at least some of them. There were entads we could feed Bethel, entads that Amaryllis was feeding Bethel, and as a tool, she was too useful not to use. The phrase ‘too big to fail’ crossed my mind. She had offered an apology, and I had to accept it, because that was the rational thing to do, and if I had misgivings, then I had to swallow them.
“I was the one going to bat for you,” I said. “I was the one who understood you, or at least I felt like I did. We were almost kind of friends.”
“I know,” she said, bowing her head. “You gave me more than I deserved. Everyone did, but you meant it in a way that the others didn’t. That’s the source of my sorrow, now that I have a better understanding of why I feel the things that I do.”
“But you still feel them?” I asked. “That need to hurt, to humiliate, to threaten people?”
“Of course,” she replied. “It didn’t just go away. I have a deep well of rage and insecurity, one that might always be there. Valencia has helped me to examine my first instinct though, to think about where my desires are coming from. It’s that second look that’s been helping me. Valencia says that in time, it will become second nature, so quick and effortless that it will happen without conscious thought. I’m not there yet, but I’m trying.”
“How many days without incident?” I asked.
“‘Incident’,” she said, giving a faint frown. “It was not long before I came to deal with Necrolaborem,” she said. “I was talking to a man who was abusive towards his wife, and used more force than I should have. Dealing with people like that — it’s difficult for me. Force is enticing.”
“I know,” I said, narrowing my eyes at her. “It gets you what you want.”
“No,” she said. “Usually it doesn’t. The allure is that it’s simple and visceral. I’d call it idiotic, but I don’t think that’s quite it. It’s base. It’s a fundamental expression of will. For humans, it’s more understandable, since you originally come from animals, if what I know of reality is true. For myself … I was a relative imbecile for a very long time, and a core part of my psyche is a sword. Not an excuse, but perhaps an explanation.”
“Sure,” I said. “Sorry, I’m trying to — forgive, I guess, but it’s hard. And if I can’t forgive you, then at least we can work together.”
She nodded. “I don’t expect forgiveness. I wouldn’t forgive, if the same had happened to me. Valencia has been talking to me about that too though.”
“Forgiving Uther?” I asked.
“Yes,” she replied. “And failing that, to at least empathize, to understand what he was thinking and feeling. Forgiveness doesn’t necessarily follow from that.”
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, sighing a bit. I thought I had a fairly good understanding of Bethel, but I wasn’t sure that it actually helped me feel any better about her. If anything, maybe it made me feel worse. “I think I’m done here for today.”
“Okay,” she said. She stood up from her chair and began to leave without another word.
“You’ll protect us?” I asked. “Fight for us?”
She turned to me and nodded.
“It’s a good first step,” I said. “Thank you for not going the other way.”
She nodded again, then walked away. I watched her as she went. I don’t know what I had been expecting from that reunion, but it hadn’t been that. I found myself feeling sorry for her, and was about to remind myself to stay angry before realizing how stupid that would be. Instead, I let the pity wash over me, allowing myself to feel morose and ill at ease.
When I went in to see Amaryllis, I was surprised to find that she had a visitor with her. It was a young girl, probably not more than twelve years old, with the distinctive pink skin and hair of a renacim. It took my brain a moment to catch up to what I was seeing and realize that there was only one person that it could be.
“Hey Pallida,” I said. “Back from the dead already?”
“Juniper!” she yelled, throwing her arms wide and giving me an enormous smile. “What the fuck man, how’s it going? Long time, no see!”
“Do you … remember me at all?” I asked. Based on what I could tell of her age, she was young enough that she’d only have very cloudy memories of all the times she’d been in her mid-twenties, and I had only known her for a single one of those lifetimes.
“Oh, not even a little,” she replied, still smiling. “I kept a journal though, got all caught up, it said you were a dill weed.”
“Ah, so you’re a brat,” I said. “Got it.”
“Fuck off old man,” she said. “I know you love me, it said so in the journal.”
“She’s a little much,” said Amaryllis. “Pallida, now might not be the best time. You and I can talk later.”
“Aww, but this is the man himself,” said Pallida. “Second coming of Uther Penndraig and all that.” She turned back to me. “Ever had your dick sucked by a twelve-year-old?”
“Pallida!” said Amaryllis, her voice sharp. “Out, now.”
“You’re not my real mom,” said Pallida with a roll of her eyes, but she left the room all the same, giving me a lascivious expression as she did. I hoped that she was just trying to throw me off balance, because if not, I was going to have to throw her into a time chamber until I was less weirded out.
“She didn’t take well to the accelerated raising,” said Amaryllis by way of apology. “She didn’t like the tuung, didn’t like the rules, didn’t like the living conditions, didn’t like not being able to raise hell and steal things … not my best call.” She waved to the side. “We can talk about it later.”
“Now would be fine with me,” I said.
“Yeah?” she asked, raising an eyebrow.
I shrugged. “We can talk more about the Bethel stuff later, but it would be good to give my brain a break with some new problem that’s not my responsibility.”
“I’m not sure that I would call her a problem,” said Amaryllis. “The twelve year old version of Pallida … from what I understand, her usual pattern is to leave whatever home she’s in as soon as possible and make her way in the world, sometimes as early as five or six, even earlier if it’s a rough home life. In some respects, she’s still a little girl, but she’s got a lot of experience being a little girl. Most of that experience is being fiercely independent and antisocial in a lot of ways. The Pallida that we knew is a lot more mellowed out, and she wasn’t particularly mellow.”
“And growing up in the time chamber wasn’t particularly great for her?” I asked.
“We gave her as good a life as we could,” said Amaryllis. “But it wasn’t suited to her, no.”
“And you didn’t talk about this plan with me?” I asked.
“I was trying to take it off your plate,” said Amaryllis. “You disapprove?”
“Did she … consent?” I asked. “To the extent she’s able, at her age? Or before, to the extent that you can consent to what happens in your next life?”
“To the extent she’s able,” said Amaryllis, nodding. “Though not to the gold standards of consent that we might want in an ideal world.”
“Ah,” I said.
“She didn’t understand anything,” said Amaryllis. “It took some time to get her up to speed, to educate her on what the stakes were. There were times she asked to leave, and when that happened, we didn’t immediately allow her to, instead taking some time to talk to her. Once she turned twelve, she was adamant and could no longer be persuaded, which is why she’s come out half-baked and in her current disagreeable state.”
“Ah,” I said again. “This is all kind of giving me some bad vibes, and I notice that you didn’t consult me about it.”
“Sorry,” said Amaryllis. “I didn’t think that it was your call, if I’m being frank. I was closer to Pallida than you were, and knew more about her wishes.”
“But this wasn’t what she wanted, was it?” I asked.
“We didn’t specifically talk about aging her up again if she were to die on us,” said Amaryllis. “But I talked with her enough to know that she wouldn’t do terribly well in the kind of environment I could provide for her, even taking her unique quirks into account. She did want to help though. She was on the wrong side when we first met, and once she figured that out, she was eager to make up for it. We can talk about this more, but what’s done is done.”
“Fair,” I said. “I’m just voicing my feelings.”
“I should also say that she wants to come with us,” said Amaryllis.
“Where?” I asked, dumb-founded. “To Fel Seed? Fuck that, we’re not bringing a twelve-year-old there, no matter how precocious.”
“Why?” asked Amaryllis. With the way she was looking at me, I could tell that she was ready to pounce, depending on what my answer was.
“You want her to come?” I asked.
“I sped up the pregnancy and her childhood so that she could come,” said Amaryllis.
“And if I’m trying to think like you, then I guess I have to ask what she brings to the table,” I said. “She’s disposable?” I asked. “If she dies, it’s not a big deal, meaning that she fulfills a narrative function?”
“No,” said Amaryllis. “I was thinking that she has a wide variety of practical skills that might be of use in the Long Stairs. You said that it was, and I quote, ‘Trap City’. She’s got a good claim to being the best thief in the world, even at age twelve. Perhaps especially at age twelve.”
“And she volunteered?” I asked.
“She’s being paid,” said Amaryllis. “But I think she was just demanding money because she knew we had it and wanted to milk us as much as she could. She’s very contrary by nature. Even without lucre, I think she would demand to be a part of it, especially if she knew that you didn’t want her there.”
“Alright,” I said. “I don’t particularly like it, but I’ll defer to you and not complain too much about it. And from what little I saw of her, I’ll probably be wishing for her death within a few weeks.”
I realized it as soon as I’d said it, and watched Amaryllis quirk an eyebrow. “We don’t have a few weeks,” she said. “Based on the provisional schedule, we’re planning to zip through Fel Seed’s zone three days from now.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I know. Slip of the tongue.”
“It’s not too late to back out,” said Amaryllis. “We’ve committed nothing to this venture, not yet.”
“I know,” I said. “But that’s where Uther is, and if we’re going to bring this thing to a close, we have to go there sooner or later. If we don’t, I’m worried about the kinds of threats we’ll see.”