“Are you upset with me?” asked Val as soon as our group meeting had broken up. She didn’t wait until anyone else was away, and I could see Grak and Amaryllis share a look.
“Come on, let’s talk about this in my room,” I said, gesturing for her to lead the way.
We walked through the hallways of the safehouse; she knew the place better than I did, since I had been out and about far more than her, either helping to set up the other safehouses, helping Fenn gather up supplies, or training somewhere that would allow me a lot of room. The Cranberry Bay safehouse (really just a house, but Grak had at least given it modest wards) was pretty ordinary by the standards of Aerb, close enough to modern middle America that you could be excused for having missed the differences. The electrical systems were probably the more noticeable, with thicker cords, heavier light switches, and bulbs that seemed both fragile and weighty. I missed LED bulbs.
The paintings on the walls had come with the house, and I was half-tempted to stop and look at them. Instead, they passed me by, scenes of the cranberry harvest out on the bay that were probably iconic, if you weren’t a stranger in a strange land. We went into the room I shared with Fenn, which was warded against sound for obvious reasons, and I pulled a chair out from behind the roller-top desk so that she could sit on the bed.
“Are you upset with me?” she asked again.
“No,” I said. “I’d like to understand why you made your vote though, and I guess to talk a bit.”
Val shrugged. I was hoping that there would be more to it, but she just sat there, looking at the floor. I took a moment to look her over; she had long white hair, red eyes, skin so pale it was essentially white. She wore a blue dress with a floral pattern, something that someone must have picked out for her, though I couldn’t tell whose sensibilities were at work. There was something haunting about her in the light that filtered in through the window, like I was looking at a wisp of a person.
“You said that you want to save the locus,” I prompted.
“I do,” said Val with a nod. She still wasn’t looking at me.
“Do you know what a locus is?” I asked.
“Mary said that it was one of a kind,” said Val. “A creature that was hated and hunted.”
“Like you,” I said.
“Can you … you don’t have a devil in you right now?” I asked.
“I’m not eating one, no,” said Val. She looked up at me. “Mary said that it would be better if I didn’t, unless I needed one to get me through something hard. She said that around the group I wouldn’t ever have to have one, not if it was just to talk, because I’m still learning and you would all understand.”
I frowned slightly at that. “She’s probably right,” I said. “She usually is. But for this conversation to be productive, I think it might be helpful, unless Mary thought there was a reason that it wouldn’t be.”
“I need to learn and grow on my own,” said Val. “And it’s too easy to talk when there’s a devil to draw on.”
“Too easy?” I asked.
“Too easy and too hard,” said Val. She flopped backward on the bed and stared up at the ceiling. “It’s easy to see the things that I could say to get my way, there are memories that I can reach to when I don’t know something, but the devils …” She waved her hands helplessly in the air above her, which might have been a funny visual if she didn’t seem so distraught.
“You’re in control of the devils though?” I asked.
“They’re just a collection of parts,” said Val. “Not devils anymore, when they’re past my maw.”
“Okay …” I said slowly, trying to digest that imagery. “How would you feel about taking in a devil right now, in order to help you explain a bit?”
Val sat up and looked at me. “I’m worried that I would say things.”
“I won’t take anything personally,” I said. “You are still learning.”
Loyalty increased: Valencia the Red lvl 18!
“Okay,” she said softly.
There was a subtle change to the features of her face, and she straightened herself, gaining better posture. She scooted forward to the edge of the bed, and stared at me intently with her crimson red eyes. A delicate hand brushed white hair away from her face, framing it perfectly. It was like she’d just come alive.
“I feel so much better like this,” said Val. She stretched her arms out to the sides, then moved them in, pushing her breasts together, which I tried not to notice. “What I was trying to say was that they’re not really devils anymore, even if it sometimes feels like it, they’re parts and pieces that I can use. Without them, I’m missing pieces of myself. Amaryllis thinks that my upbringing might be the root of that, rather than because I’m a non-anima, but she doesn’t know enough one way or another to say for sure, and I haven’t happened on a devil that’s known well enough to confirm it.”
“Ah,” I replied.
She was looking at me with intent eyes. Her stretch had brought her hands around to rest on her knees, and her arms were still pushing her breasts together, showing more pale cleavage than the dress would normally allow for. She grinned at me. “The confidence is faked.”
“Faked?” I asked.
“I don’t feel it, internally, but there’s a part of the devil that knows what it’s like to puppet a human and pretend at being confident, so I can use that, if I think I can get what I want by pretending,” said Val.
“Val,” I said slowly. I had almost asked her what it was she wanted, but that was such an obvious trap that I was stunned I’d almost fell for it. ‘You,’ her answer would have been, said with all the seduction that she could muster, which I’d have wagered was probably a lot at the moment.
“You said that you wouldn’t take it personally, since I’m still learning,” she said, tilting her head to the side to get a better angle on me.
“I might have misjudged the risks on this,” I admitted. My heart was hammering away in my chest, and I told myself that it was fear and anxiety talking.
“I would share you with Fenn, or be your secret,” said Val. She stopped, with confusion crossing her face. “No, that’s –” She looked at me. “I’m relying on the devil too much, letting it guide my path, that would have worked, but it’s not me. Amaryllis explained the, the biology, I know how, it just seems so gross.” She dropped her pose and looked at her hands. She looked up at me. “This is what I think I was trying to say.”
“Too easy and too hard,” I replied with a nod. My heart was slowing back down.
(If Tiff could have seen inside my mind at that moment, she would probably have been either furious or disgusted, maybe both. Or, no, she probably wouldn’t have been furious or disgusted, she would have said that I’d grown up in a culture that often portrayed infantilization as sexy, and that either biology or culture had wired me with an instinct toward protecting and sheltering women, and conflating that desire to help and protect with romantic or sexual thoughts. That was how it happened in the movies. Tiff probably wouldn’t have faulted me for my desires and emotions, only for my actions. I was the one that was furious and disgusted.)
“Too easy to see the paths in front of me, too hard to know which one to go down,” said Val. “None of the parts and pieces help me make sense of who I am or what I feel.” She looked up at me. “I love you,” she said. “I know that you don’t love me back yet, and Amaryllis says that’s just misplaced attachment, something that I’m going to have to find a way to get over, but she has her own issues with you, so I don’t know how good her advice is.”
I swallowed. Frick. “The devils, or pieces of a devil, they don’t help you with judgment.”
“No,” said Valencia. She pursed her lips, looking at a spot on the wall a few feet to my left as though she were angry at it. Maybe this conversation was easier for her if she wasn’t looking at me. “I could fake it. Pretend, maybe. But it would be so hollow.”
“Tell me why you want to put our effort into saving the locus,” I said.
Val looked at me. “I guess I just don’t want to be the weird one anymore.”
I laughed at that, first a little and then a lot.
“That was a joke,” I said.
Val nodded, smiling slightly. “I can do jokes.”
“But there’s a real reason?” I asked. “Something better than just Amaryllis explaining it to you when you didn’t have a devil in you to see through her?”
“My place in this family is awkward,” said Val. “Fenn doesn’t like me, because I’m in love with you, and I’m not as willing to pretend that it’s nothing as Mary is. Grak is dour and unhappy, which means that he’s unhappy with me just by default. Mary is putting effort into me, but I have to have a pretty stupid devil for her to not be too transparent.”
“Transparent how?” I asked, curiosity getting the better of me.
“I can tell what she’s thinking,” said Val. “Other people are so easy to pick apart. It’s myself that I have trouble with. She told me not to say anything about the things that I could see in people.” She looked me over. “You agree with her, but you want to know anyway. Should I tell you?”
“No,” I replied. “She’s just … very hard for me to read, for some reason. Grak too, but in a different way. Social superpowers seem like they would really come in handy.”
“It’s not always pretty to see people laid bare,” said Val. Her eyes were locked with mine, and now I was the one that wanted to look away.
“If there’s anything that you’re getting off me … I won’t deny that you can probably see through me, but we can’t always be the people that we want to be, even when we know who we want to be,” I said. “That’s probably going to be your challenge.”
“I wasn’t talking about you,” said Val with a small laugh and a shake of her head. “Everything I see in you is beautiful, even the flaws. Perhaps not the flaws, but the way you work against them. It’s very appealing.”
“Uh, good, I guess,” I said. “I didn’t mean … I’m not really equipped for this kind of conversation.”
“I know,” replied Val. “That’s also appealing.”
“Even though you can see through people anyway?” I asked.
“Amaryllis reacts by trying her best to speak defensively, hiding herself more, shielding her secrets, trying to deflect me away from the places that she doesn’t want exposed,” said Val.
“But of course it’s too late,” I said. “You’ve seen everything.”
Val nodded. “You just open yourself up and allow that vulnerability to show without embarrassment or shame. You admit when you’re at fault. You take a step back to look at yourself every once in a while. Most people don’t do that. Fallatehr never did.” I noticed the wording there, ‘Fallatehr’ and not ‘my father’, and I wondered whether that was a devil’s instinct for massaging the language, or whether it was indicative of how she thought of him.
“Well, I’m introspective enough to realize I’ve been finding this experience a little bit terrifying, and open enough to say that,” I said. “And I still don’t really know what your interest in the locus is.”
“There are so many things that I could say that would convince you,” said Val. She had a slight frown on her face.
“But they’re not true?” I asked.
“I’m trying to figure them out,” said Val. “The problem is that they sound so good that I’m almost convincing myself.”
“Don’t try to convince me,” I said. “We already had our vote, we’re going to put the locus first, I want to know why you care because I want to get to know you, however confusing the concept of ‘you’ is to you right now.”
Loyalty increased: Valencia the Red lvl 19!
“I don’t have a soul,” said Valencia. “I’m worried that’s going to define me. You don’t care, you don’t even seem to think that it’s worth thinking about, probably because you’re not used to having souls, but you’re the only one that doesn’t care. Earlier this week Amaryllis was talking about what kind of options I would have to disguise my looks, because people would kill me without giving it too much thought if they knew what I was, even if that’s not what I am anymore. I’m hoping that the locus, when we meet, is the second person that truly doesn’t care.”
I kept my mouth firmly shut. It’s not a person. That didn’t seem like the kind of thing that you could say to someone who had just finished explaining that her entire life was going to be dominated by people thinking that she wasn’t a person. I hoped that she couldn’t read all that from me, and then realized that I was doing exactly what she’d complained about Amaryllis doing, which was flinching back from the all-seeing eye.
“I don’t really care about the locus,” I said. “I’m sorry, it’s just … for the same reason that I don’t really care that Fenn is a half-elf, and that I don’t care that you’re a non-anima, I don’t have the proper frame of reference to think about things like an Aerbian would. Sometimes that’s good, sometimes it’s not. To me it’s just a mystical deer, and neither mysticality nor deer have ever jelled with me, so …”
“You don’t need to explain anything to me,” said Val. “I know that you don’t want to hear it, but I’m yours, completely. If anyone else ever fails you, if the world ever seems against you, you have to know that I’m in your corner.”
I paused, then smiled, then tried to decide whether it was actually going to be funny when said out loud. “Unless there’s a vote that’s not going my way?”
To my relief, Val started laughing.
“How was that for you?” asked Amaryllis after I made my way back to the common area. Val had returned to her own room; Fenn and Grak had left to go out into the city.
“Exhausting, but good,” I replied.
“With a devil, or without?” asked Amaryllis.
“With, for most of it,” I replied.
“Juniper, I want you to take me seriously when I say that’s very dangerous,” said Amaryllis.
“Yeah, I learned that the hard way,” I said. “I don’t know what class of demon she was chowing down on, but it was very, ah, stressful, like if I hadn’t been careful she might have talked me into … I don’t know.” Except that I do know. Blegh. Bleeeegh. Bad brain.
“Devil, not demon,” said Amaryllis. “Devils are the thinkers and talkers, demons are the fighters.”
“Right, I know,” I replied.
“And I meant that it was dangerous for her, not for you,” continued Amaryllis. “She needs to grow and become her own person, and I’m very concerned about what might happen to her as a person if she’s constantly leaning on the devils. Have you realized that it’s possible she’s lying?”
I frowned. “I was going to ask ‘about what’, but I’m anticipating that the answer is ‘everything’.”
“I think she’s telling the truth about her power,” said Amaryllis. “We don’t know for certain, because the description is vague. I also think that she tells the truth about whether or not she’s currently leaning on infernal understanding. Neither of those are, by necessity, true. And if she keeps a devil in her at all times, then it might be that she’s just faking her base state.”
“I can see her loyalty increases,” I replied. “I don’t think that she can fake those.”
“True,” said Amaryllis. “I’m just concerned. I’ve spent more time with her than anyone else, and not just because we were prisoners together. I think that of the four of us, I know her best.”
“That’s probably true,” I nodded. “I’ll do my best to defer to you.”
“And I think that we have to be a little bit watchful,” she continued, “I don’t think it’s probable, but given her demonstrated ability, it’s at least possible that she voted the way she did in order to provoke you into spending some time with her, and whatever you two talked about, the outcome might have been one that she was steering, especially if you came away feeling ‘good’.”
“I was really hoping that with Fallatehr dead we could leave that kind of thinking behind,” I muttered.
“I was too,” said Amaryllis. “I am too, still hopeful. I think that Val is as she presents herself to be, small and lost, confused and in need of support, alienated from the world and trying to grab on to a pillar of stability … and when she has a devil inside her, some of her problems go away, and some are compounded.”
“Can I say, you really did a one-eighty on her.” Amaryllis’ hair had grown out slightly, more of a pixie cut than the close crop it had been. She hadn’t re-dyed it; I could see red at the roots. She still, somehow, managed to make the look work, despite no obvious effort put into her appearance.
“She helped me,” said Amaryllis. “I told you that.”
“You went from thinking of her as ‘the non-anima’ to, I don’t know … being like her sister. Or her mother.” I wasn’t sure quite how to characterize it.
“You think I’m matronly?” asked Amaryllis with a raised eyebrow. I shook my head, and she let it pass. “She’s a non-anima with the primary aspect that makes them terrifying completely removed from her. There’s a reason that if one is born they’re killed before the mother has a chance to see the newborn. Each one is a way for the worst of the hells to enter into the mortal world. The ones that everyone remembers, the successful ones, married themselves to the infernal, became a willing tool of abject evil.”
“But they were still people,” I said.
“Yes,” said Amaryllis, slowly, hesitantly. “But I’m not sure that the distinction is one that matters.”
“It seems to me like what you do and do not consider a person matters a lot,” I replied.
“Not for them,” said Amaryllis. “Whether they’re people or not, the solution would have been the same. The quality of life a non-anima can expect to live, the things that they would see, the death and destruction that they would be complicit in? It was, is, better to end them.”
“Maybe don’t say that kind of thing around Val,” I said with a frown.
“She already knows, without me saying it,” replied Amaryllis. “You can’t keep things from her.”
“Yeah,” I winced. “Not even if you’re just trying to be nice. Let’s hope that this locus thing goes how she hopes it does.”