Robynne took a sip of Pep MD and set her character, Isocruciatic, to follow Angela’s character, Convictiön. “Don’t forget to cast Stardust every once in a while. We’re in Pact territory until we get past this hill.” She took another sip; she was going to need the caffeine to fight off the fatigue she felt. She really should be sleeping so her body could recover.
“Right.” Angela’s voice piped in over the speakers. “And because we’re Accord, if we’re in Pact territory we’re flagged for PvP and could be targeted by gonkers?”
“Gankers,” Robynne chuckled. “And yeah, we can get ganked here.”
“I’m confused,” Angela said as she cast Stardust around Convictiön and Isocruciatic. “Why bother casting it? If there are truly gankers around here won’t they be so high above our level it won’t matter if we see them coming?”
Robynne considered that. “Well… I mean, we might be able to split up? I don’t know… I guess I’m just parroting good habits for PvP. It’s my natural setting.”
They had tried PvP. Angela had not enjoyed the experience. And, truth be told, Robynne hadn’t much enjoyed healing in PvP the way she did skulking in the shadows as Waveförm.
“Well, let’s just focus on getting over the hill. This quest reward gets me a new helm… and the icon for it has a purple outline. I’ve never seen that before. Is that good?”
“You know how blue items had better stats than green ones?”
“Purple items tend to have better stats than that.”
“Oh, that’s fitting since this quest is letting the Gargoyle shogun know we rescued his daughter. Storywise this would have a great reward!”
A groan echoed in the background of Angela’s audio. “Ace, I’m never going to forgive you for making my cheerleader roommate a nerd! This should NOT have been possible. It was bad enough I had to fight through Eli and his buddy always droning on about things that made no sense. I at least had my dorm as refuge. You’ve destroyed my only haven.”
Robynne smirked at hearing Mal’s annoyance. “Hey, they turned a nerd like me into a cheerleader. I don’t see why the reverse couldn’t be true.”
Angela giggled. Mal sighed. “What’d she say?”
“She said, ‘We turned a nerd into a cheerleader and she doesn’t see why the reverse is so surprising.’”
Robynne loved hearing Mal’s play-by-play commentary in the background. She had expected that bringing Angela into Aspect Realms and leveling up with her would be fun, but whenever Mal was involved, it was far more enjoyable. This was a welcome diversion after the humiliation that was the Cell-celia fight, getting her hand covered in bird sugar, and being dressed down by Kunapipi.
“Ang, why don’t you set your sound to your speakers instead of your headphones? That way Mal can participate.”
”Oh, right. Good plan… how do I do that again?” Angela was an intelligent girl, but navigating the arcane menus of a game as complex as Aspect Realms was still a bit new to her.
Robynne guided Angela through the maze-like network of screens. Once complete, she called out, “Hey Mal, can you hear me now?”
”Loud and clear,” Mal responded. “And, seriously, why don’t I ever get a break from hearing this stuff?”
“Because it’s awesome and interesting.”
Angela laughed. “Not exactly a scintillating rebuttal, Mallory.”
Mal sighed. “Cory-and-Eli-speak is infecting everyone.”
“You know,” Robynne offered with a yawn, “you could just play with us.”
She could practically hear Mal dismissively waving her off. “Pass. I’ve had plenty of chances with my brother to find out if I like that stuff. I don’t.”
“But you never played it with us,” Angela teased.
“I’m just going to go ahead and make the executive decision that the conversation is moving away from sounding like Cory-Eli banter.”
Robynne gave a chuckle that morphed into another yawn. “Executive decision? That sounds like Cory-speak too. I don’t think your mind is as uncorrupted as you claim, Mal.”
“Well, Ace, you can see now why I’m trying to limit it. Also, you sure you should be up this late after those injuries you got today?”
Robynne took another sip. “I feel fine,” she lied as she felt the spot where Cell-celia had punctured her abdomen. It was still quite sore. If Robynne moved the wrong way, she felt it.
“You sure?” Mal asked. “I mean, I know you took a lot less punishment than me, but I slept for like a full day after my beatdown.”
“It’s Friday night,” Robynne protested. “I can sleep in tomorrow.” No one said anything. Robynne could practically feel Mal and Angela sharing a look.
“Maybe Mallory is right,” Angela offered. “I… I know I was the one who suggested we play some tonight to help you get your mind off things but… maybe we should worry more about your physical well-being tonight than… well… I mean, we can play tomorrow. It’s not like Aspect Realms is going anywhere.”
Robynne groaned. How could she explain this? She enjoyed playing with Angela. Her unfamiliarity with the game gave her a sense of wonder Robynne hadn’t experienced since she first played. It was genuine joy at exploring the fantastic world to which most of her fellow Aspect Realms devotees had become jaded.
She also enjoyed leveling Isocruciatic, acting as Angela’s pocket healer. There was a rhythm to healing that she found soothing. It wasn’t the adrenaline rush of playing Waveförm, but that wasn’t what she wanted at the moment. She wanted something that required concentration but not stress. She needed that because…
“Ace, is this about your Uncle?”
Robynne winced. Leave it to Mal to cut right through everything. Then again, her element was electricity, which always took the most direct path. “I… don’t like thinking about it.”
“I didn’t either,” Mal assured her. “But once I told my parents it was like a huge weight was off my shoulders. I think it’ll be an even bigger weight for you.”
“Yeah. But all you had to do was tell them you were a hero risking your life. Not that you are a complet…” Robynne trailed off as she mentally berated herself. “I… I’m sorry, Mal. I didn’t mean to imply what you did was easy. I know it took a lot for you to tell them. I just…”
If Mal was offended, her voice didn’t show it. “No. I get it. Your Uncle sent you off to college a strapping former football player who spent his days playing video games. He’s going to discover the nephew he sent is now a buxom cheerleader… who spends her days playing video games. It’s going to be jarring, weird, and maybe the most awkward revelation in human history.”
Angela’s character stopped moving. “It’s more than that, Mallory.” There was a quiet intensity to Angela’s words that broke Robynne out of her self-pity as she listened. “You have your parents. Both of them. And Eli. When you went to your parents you knew Eli agreed with your decision. He had your back. For me and Robynne… all we have is our one parental figure.”
Robynne leaned back in her chair and looked up at the ceiling. Me and Robynne? That was right. When Angela had told Robynne about her history with Cammy, she had implied her father was not in the picture, that her mother had raised Angela on her own. She hadn’t gone into too much detail, but clearly Angela thought this was something important that she and Robynne had in common.
Up until recently, Angela had hid a lot of of her history with Cammy from her friends. Robynne did too. Was that because, like Robynne, Angela had spent a lot of her childhood alone? Solving problems herself until her mother came home from a long shift or something? It was what Robynne did for sure.
Robynne always found it hard to imagine what it would have been like to have others constantly around. Siblings to play with and annoy you? Two parents to care for you and meddle in your life? Intellectually she knew it was normal, but it was just so far out of her experience that—
“Hngk?” Robynne shook her head and opened her eyes. When had she shut them? “Oh… sorry… I…”
“Dozed off?” Mallory asked, her voice dripping with self-satisfied smarm. “I thought you said you had plenty of caffeine and you could sleep in?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” Robynne rubbed her eyes. This probably had been a bad idea. If Kara said she should sleep… “I’ll take that as a sign. Ang, I’m gonna log.”
“I’ll do the same.”
“Why don’t you go and turn in that quest and get your item?”
“Then our characters won’t be on the same page.”
“It’s okay,” Robynne assured her. “Frankly if you gained a few levels it wouldn’t be too much of an issue. We just have to be around the same level to quest together.”
“You sure?” Angela asked with just enough doubt in her voice to offend Robynne’s nerdy sensibilities.
“Trust me, Ang. I’ve played way too much of this game.”
Robynne gave a yawning chuckle and closed her game down. “Night Ang. Night Mal.”
“Good night, Robynne.”
Robynne shut off CandyStrike and stretched. She sighed as she took off her headset— her white and pink gaming headset that matched her white and pink gaming mouse and her white and pink computer. She really should have been a lot more specific with Cammy’s bribe.
Robynne took off her t-shirt and jeans and threw them in her laundry basket. Robynne had thought saying the company and model of headset and mouse would be enough. For the actual case, that had been an obvious mistake. Too many color options for every model. But the headset and mouse? Robynne had done a vigorous search, and nobody made white and pink models for either of them. Cammy had gone the extra mile to spite the uppity Robynne on that one. How rich did you have to be to consider expensive post-market modifications worth the price tag of spiting someone?
Opening her closet, Robynne pulled her old high school football jersey off its hanger and pulled it over herself. The one good thing about being so much shorter than she used to be was that all her old shirts became perfect sleepwear. The jersey was practically a dress on her current body, and breathed just enough that she could sleep under her covers without getting too warm.
Dressed for bed, she exited her bedroom for her bathroom. She paused for a moment to enjoy the sight of Kara comfortably snoring on the couch. There was something endearing about the simple fact that, after healing someone, she was too tired to even make it to her bed.
Sleeping under the covers: another change she hadn’t anticipated coming with her gender flip. Her tiny body got so cold nowadays. As a dude, she had always slept over the covers in nothing but boxers and was fine. As a girl, even when she wore sweats and a shirt her feet would feel like ice. She tried sleeping with socks on but that had proven impossible. It was so dumb; she could switch from nearly naked to completely clothed but socks were what kept her up?
However, sleeping under the covers in all those clothes had grown too hot, hence sleeping in her old shirts. That provided just the right balance and her feet didn’t feel like they’d been stuck in an ice box when she woke up. The comfort was nice.
But, as she watched herself brushing her teeth in the mirror, the biggest downside looked back at her. The reality was that she was a girl wearing a guy’s football jersey. She looked like a stereotypical cheerleader spending the night at her quarterback boyfriend’s place. How in the honey would she ever be able to explain to her uncle that the cliché staring back at her in the mirror was his nephew?
She spit out the toothpaste and didn’t bother flossing or using mouthwash. She couldn’t stand to see herself anymore. Besides, her teeth couldn’t rot away with her healing factor. Brushing teeth was just a common courtesy to everyone else to make sure her breath didn’t smell like death and Pep MD. And, seeing as she just transformed, her mouth couldn’t get much cleaner.
She hurried back to her room, avoiding eye contact with the mirror like it was some crazy drunkard muttering to himself on the street. She checked the window in her room to make sure it was unlocked. She didn’t know how long it would be before Noriko returned, and while she didn’t think something as simple as a window lock would deter the Hush Corps’ ninja, she didn’t want it to be difficult either.
She made a quick pass of her desk, cleaning off the empty cans of Pep MD. After that, she plugged in her headphones so they’d be charged in the morning. With a tired yawn, she nodded and crawled under the covers.
She struggled getting her scrunchie off her head with her body now laying on her overabundance of hair. Why hadn’t she taken her hair out of the ponytail before getting into bed? Or brushed it? Her river of hair was going to be a mess of riptides in the morning. That was a mistake she hadn’t made in weeks, though she was too tired to really…
Mistake. She… she had grown used to her routine before bed. How quickly the human mind adjusted. Adapted. She no longer woke up in the morning confused by the unfamiliar room, unusual weight on her chest, and how much bigger the world seemed. Even her annoying, Evelyn-like giggle didn’t bother her anymore. It was just her laugh.
She didn’t recognize this person. Who was she? If she couldn’t recognize herself, how was Uncle Taylor going to recognize her? The visit was less than a week away now. How was she going to explain any of this? Sure the Standridge Stones might help, but… this really couldn’t get much worse, could it?
How did she find herself in situations like this? Would the plan work at all?
Yes. The plan. The plan sure didn’t involve the Maiden spending a week in an empathic isolation cell. She had expected to be questioned when her entire Shrine unexpectedly showed up in the capital city. She hadn’t expected to immediately be thrown into the church’s inquisition cells.
The Scholar had been right. The heads of the church were corrupt. They feared the Maiden’s return. She feared they were, one by one, “interviewing” all her initiates and deacons to figure out why they had returned. They were looking for any hint of… something they could execute her for.
She felt so alone in this dungeon. Even out on the edges of the Other Power’s front she could at least feel Platicore’s abominations milling about along the horizon. But here it was as emotionally silent as a mausoleum. Was this part of their strategy? Other than their preliminary inquisition, they hadn’t asked a single question. Perhaps they thought if they left her alone they could break her down.
To that point, they had denied her almost all forms of entertainment. No books. No communication foci. No games. All they had given her was a simple ball.
She tossed the ball with her right hand against the wall. She caught it with her left. She tossed the ball with her left. She caught it with her right. Throw right. Catch left. Throw left. Catch right. Back and forth and back and forth. It was meant to be a mockery, this simple training for younger initiates in the Tranquil Discipline. Its rhythm helped put the mind in a calm state. Alternating hands improved dexterity. But the real trick was the fact the ball itself was a simple focus.
It was attuned to Tranquility. If she let her mind wander it would absorb that emotion, making the ball bounce more forcefully. She supposed, given her situation, that the Inquisitors thought this being the only source of diversion would frustrate her. Her negative emotions would cause the ball to bounce erratically… in theory.
In practice, it only proved that the heretical cronies of Vice-Arcon Liff didn’t ever truly dedicate themselves to their training. She intoned Tranquility for hours, focusing on nothing but the peace it brought. The ball bounced evenly. Throw right, catch left. Throw left, catch right. Over and over.
She quieted her undertone of smugness. It wasn’t befitting a Maiden, and she couldn’t take full credit. As bad as things seemed, the High Spirits kept her even. The heretics could corrupt the church through decades of careful planning, but they could never build walls that would keep the High Spirits’ power away from the Maiden. Part of her wished to use that power to break the walls that contained her, but the Spirits intoned Patience onto her soul.
If the Spirits intoned Patience to her, then a solution would eventually show itself. It was just a matter of when.
The lock on her door clicked open. She shot up into a defensive stance, catching the ball calmly in her right hand even as she did so. She hated being so blind. How long had it been that she couldn’t feel someone approaching her door long before it was opened? She pushed her ruby-red hair out of her eyes, needing her sight much more than she usually would.
A tall, imposing woman clad in the armor of a royal bodyguard ducked through the doorway. She intoned Determination with such force that the Maiden could see lightning dance at the edge of her sword. The hint of a smirk curled at the corner of her lips. Something about her was… familiar.
The bodyguard stepped aside, revealing a tall, stunning woman in the doorframe. Her eyes rippled like the ocean herself. Her hair ran the entire length of her body, nearly touching the floor as she stepped into the cell. The unmistakable dawnlocks of a member of the royal house, her hair transitioned from a golden yellow at the roots to the purest white at the tips. One look at her and the Maiden recognized her friend.
Then again, she didn’t need her eyes. For more identifiable than her gorgeous hair were the Princess’s unmistakably pure intonations of Honesty and Conviction. Though time had molded her into a beautiful woman, the years had done nothing to dampen the clear sincerity of her soul.
The Maiden knelt on the ground, offered a silent prayer of gratitude to the High Spirits, then addressed the only noble she truly trusted in these dark times. “Princess ϖȜ⎅ƥ⌬ϖȜ₪Ȝ. Your Highness. Yours is an intonation I feel truly blessed to be in the presence of once more.”
“Oh, please dispense with the formalities, Lady ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝. We have been friends far too long for this.”
The Maiden blushed and looked away. It had been so long since anyone called her “Lady”. “Your Highness, you know I forsook that title long ago when I joined the clergy.”
The Princess gave her bodyguard a look. Without a word she nodded and walked out into the hallway. It was then that the Maiden realized who the armored woman was: the Princess’s bodyguard, the Soldier. Even as little girls, the Soldier had stood at the Princess’s side, protecting her. Her family was raised from birth to be the royal family’s closest confidants. From cradle to grave, they stood by their sides. How little ⊈⍝⎅⎅≭⌬ƥȜ had grown!
A shout came from the hallway. The Princess’s eyes locked with the Maiden’s. She intoned Urgency. “And you have that title once more. I granted it to you and you accepted your Princess’s call and disclaimed yourself of your shrine and its duties. We did this through personal communique and at my behest.”
Abandon her shrine? No. She was a Maiden. The shrine was her solemn duty. “Princess. I can’t…”
The Princess grabbed her arm, intoning both Desperation and Remorse. “Trust me and play along.”
“What is the meaning of this?” A male voice demanded in the hall.
The Maiden could feel her hair wanting to stand on end as the cold Determination of the Soldier flared in the hallway. “Do not walk past me or I will assume you are endangering the Princess’s safety and will be forced to take severe action.”
The Princess looked ready to start begging. The Maiden…
The Maiden couldn’t just give this up, could she? Even if it was necessary for whatever the Princess was planning? She had sworn an oath to the High Spirits. She had forsaken her title. How would she fix the Church of the High Spir…
No. There was no fixing this. Their society was broken. All the checks and balances had been shattered. The Empress was trying to set herself up as some sort of goddess to primitive people and the High Archon himself was joining her. The Scholar had already explained that their plan was suicide. As if to accentuate the point, she could feel the influence of the High Spirits stirring her to action.
She fought back a tear and gave the Princess a nod. This was the end of life she had worked so hard for. Faith, in the end, hadn’t been enough. They had tolerated wickedness in their midst for too long, and it had rotted their church to the core. She wouldn’t let that rot touch anything else.
The Princess turned and walked out of the cell, standing tall with her shoulders back. The Maiden did the same. Whatever the Princess was planning, she clearly needed to pretend to be in on it.
As she exited the cell, the world exploded into a vibrant bouquet of emotions. The Princess’s calm Conviction, the Soldier’s barely restrained Determination, two Inquisitors’ Anger and Doubt, and…
The Maiden narrowed her eyes for only a moment before recomposing herself. She intoned Tranquility, doing everything she could to smother her undertone of profane Rage. Behind the two Inquisitors stood one of the worst heretics the Church of the High Spirits had ever harbored. The robes he wore profaned everything she held holy.
Liff, the Vice-Archon of Tranquility, a man who she knew to lay with whores and intone Detachment despite his calling, stood there gazing imperiously at the trio of women. He intoned a mix of Detachment, Indignation, and Doubt: all forbidden emotions. It was as if he did it just to spite the Maiden and dare her to question his “authority.”
She felt towards the Empathic Plane and let her mind rest on her daggers. If he gave her an excuse, she would be ready to question this evil man’s “authority” on the twin points of her blades. Politically, killing him might be a bad move, but no holy being would question his death. If his heresies against Church doctrine weren’t enough, he was aiding the High Archon in the subordination of the Church to the Empress and conspiring to enslave other worlds.
“Princess ϖȜ⎅ƥ⌬ϖȜ₪Ȝ, what a surprise to see you in the Halls of Inquisition.”
“I find myself similarly surprised to see you here, Vice-Archon Liff. I wasn’t aware Vice-Archons of Tranquility oversaw Inquisitions of nobility. Or oversaw them at all.” The Princess’s tone was even and cool—bordering on cold, actually. She wasn’t the same girl the Maiden remembered boldly proclaiming the truth wherever she went. This was the tone of someone who had learned to play the court’s games.
Liff frowned, not even bothering to hide his intensifying intonation of Indignation. “A recent change, from the High Archon.”
“Of course,” the Princess said. “He seems to be making lots of those lately.”
“It is his prerogative, Princess. It is the Church’s duty to keep the nobility in check should they stray from the path the High Spirits have laid out for us.”
The Maiden’s eye twitched at that. Fortunately, it was the eye she always kept behind her hair. She didn’t let his mocking raise negative and forbidden emotions, though. She continued to lightly intone Tranquility. If this got physical, between herself and the Soldier, it would be over in an instant. Two corrupt Inquisitors and one heretic were no match for a Maiden of Tranquility’s speed and the Soldier’s strength.
The Princess gave a warm smile. “And believe me, Vice-Archon, we in the nobility are so glad to hear it. I don’t think any High Archon has ever been so dedicated to keeping the nobility in line. Why, were he keeping any closer an eye, he’d be practically in the Empress’s bedchamber.”
Liff had no slimy retort to that. Frankly, neither did the Maiden. Nobility never spoke of such things as the Empress’s affair with the High Archon so brazenly. She supposed the Princess still was her friend of years gone by if she was willing to make the ruling class uncomfortable.
“Watch your words carefully, Princess,” Liff growled. “You seem to be implying the Empress and the High Archon are having an affair.”
The Princess raised an eyebrow in confusion. “I was simply making a joke, Vice-Archon. I apologize, I forgot how delicate the sensibilities of a man of high office can be. A man such as yourself must not tolerate much in the way of slight sacrilege, even in jest.”
Liff fumed. “What are you doing here, Princess? And how did you get down here? The inquisition cells are highly secured and…”
“And,” the Princess butted in, “no place for members of the nobility. So why were you holding my Lady-in-Waiting?”
Liff blinked. “Lady-in-Waiting? Princess, she is a Shrine Maiden. If you think you can simply have her declared your Lady-in-Waiting and walk out then…”
“She resigned her post the moment she stepped into the capital city. Her resignation was given out in the field.”
“Impossible,” Liff blustered. “Her reports said nothing of this.”
The princess cocked her head to the side in curiosity. “Her reports? But Vice-Archon Liff, I thought you said you hadn’t received messages from Maiden ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝ or her Shrine in months. I was in intelligence briefings with the High Archon himself in which he stated that based on her Shrine going silent, you thought the Other Power had advanced.”
Liff’s Indignation morphed into Frustration. The Princess continued. “So, imagine my surprise when I come to the inquisition cells and find the very Maiden the High Archon said had gone silent. Not only that, I found many of her Shrine in cells. To the untrained eye, why, it would seem you wanted us to think the Shine was dead, and when they inconveniently showed up, had them hidden away.”
Liff clenched his teeth so hard the Maiden thought they might crack under the strain. And though she could feel his intonations of Fury she didn’t need her empathokinetic sight to know how enraged he was; the tips of his ears burning as red as the Soldier’s uniform.
Finally Liff managed to get some words out. “Yes, well, see, the Maiden was on a special mission to…”
The Maiden was surprised to find her own mouth move. “My orders are well known to the Princess, Vice-Archon. She knows how mundane my mission was. We have been in contact for months.”
Some of Liff’s Fury melted off into Confusion. Clearly he, like the Maiden herself, hadn’t expected her to talk. “You… have?”
“Yes,” the Princess insisted. “Lady ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝ and I have been in contact. Though her mission may be mundane, she received a vision from the High Spirits, a vision that could turn the war against the Other Power completely around. The reason you stopped receiving communications from her was that she realized their import and had reason to believe Platicore may have been intercepting her communications to the former Vice-Archon of Tranquility. Thus, she started alerting me through an old, but secure, communication channel we used to have before she left to the Church’s service. After all, any visions concerning the Other Power would clearly affect much more than the Church.”
The Princess stood imperiously, intoning Triumph that bordered on Smugness. It was odd to feel the Princess flirt with sinful emotions, but it appeared to have the desired effect on Liff, as he seemed to relax a little. It looked as if he was used to nobility flirting with sacrilege. Is this what the Princess had practiced while the Maiden was gone? Reading her political opponents and playing with or against their expectations as she read their faces? “I see. Yes, that would explain the… communication gap we had with the Shrine.”
“Indeed,” the Princess agreed. “Due to the sensitive nature of these visions, I implored her to resign her post in the Church, retake her noble title, and become my Lady-in-Waiting. Given the way the war is going, I wanted her close to me where she would be safer, under the protection of my bodyguards.”
“And I assume,” Liff sneered, “you’ll be providing me with documentation of this?”
“No. I will not.”
Liff blinked. “You… won’t?”
“No. I will not.” The Princess reiterated.
Liff’s mouth opened and shut a few times like that of a bewildered fish. Then he shook his head and chuckled. “You expect me to buy this tall tale, Princess? Without documentation? You think I’m going to let you walk out of here with…”
The Princess blazed with Righteousness. The halls shook so vigorously all but the Soldier and the Princess fell to the ground. The Maiden worried the entire Conventacle of Inquisition would collapse around them. But just as it seemed they would all be crushed, the Princess doused her Righteousness with… Derision?
The building stopped shaking, but now it was the Princess’s voice that boomed. No longer was she merely flirting with forbidden emotions. This was someone who had practiced using Derision. Sure, this Derision didn’t have the pure sincerity her channeling of Righteousness had, but this was still a careful, intentional invocation of someone clearly trying to get a specific reaction. The Princess, it seemed, was ready to lose her own soul if it meant making sure this gambit worked and kept the Empress away from the nascent civilizations of the universe. “Vice-Archon, need I remind you that three months ago the Benevolent Discipline demanded records of my mother, the Empress? Or did you forget that those same people who were demanding records of the Empress were found to be Platicore sympathizers? Do you not remember this?”
Liff shuddered, clearly unsure what to make of the Princess so quickly moving between holy and profane intonations. “Y… yes, Princess. Of course I remember.”
“Then you will, of course, remember that my mother declared the communications of the royal family were exempt from the demands of the Church. And you do recall that the High Archon agreed to this, given that we do not know who is and isn’t a traitor amongst us?”
“Y… yes, Princess.”
“And now, here you are, blatantly disregarding this decree and demanding records of me, your Princess? Have you become so drunk on your new position, Vice-Archon, that you ignore the edicts of your Empress’s and the High Spirits’ chosen voice?”
“N… No, Princess.”
The Princess started to pace in a confident, sensual manner that reminded the Maiden of the Empress herself. She could see cracks in the Princess’s act. The years hadn’t dulled the Maiden’s memories. She could see this wasn’t who she was naturally but an act she put on when she needed it. There was something poetic about using the Empress’s own tools of control to undermine her goals. “No? Then why would you ignore this edict, Vice-Archon? If you will recall, my mother, the Empress, branded those who demanded her records in the Benevolent Discipline traitors. Platicore sympathizers. And now, here you are, demanding records from a member of the royal family. Just like those the Empress branded traitors. I wonder… are you also a Platicore sympathizer, Vice-Archon?”
Liff shot off the ground, clearly shocked at how quickly this conversation had turned. The Inquisitors looked to one another, clearly unsure what to do. The Maiden, on the other hand, couldn’t help but smile. When had her friend become so adept? She wasn’t aware of all the events the Princess spoke of, but it was clear that she was turning the Empress’s self-serving maneuvers to her own advantage.
The Maiden wasn’t pleased the Princess had invoked unholy emotions to sell the act, but given what was at stake… perhaps that could be forgiven by the High Spirits. There were, after all, tales in holy script about good men having to do evil things for a righteous cause. Though she loathed it, the world was not always so clean that your motivations could be judged by what emotions you intoned. It was, however, a subject for another time in a more private setting. The Maiden stood up and watched Liff desperately search his mind for what he should say next.
“P… Princess. Forgive me. I misspoke.”
“Yes, my apologies, Princess. What I should have said was that I hope you would provide us with those documents… assuming, of course, they are properly redacted. We… lost many records when my predecessor… passed on. It would do a good deal of help for our records if you could provide us with what you deem necessary.”
His predecessor. The Scholar’s grandfather. The Maiden’s idol and a shining example of all that was decent in the world. He had been assassinated. Liff had been in on it; so had the High Archon. Both would be brought to justice. A sin so great as removing the most pure and wonderful person the Maiden had ever known from this world wouldn’t be forgotten. Such crimes had to be paid for, both in this life and the next.
“I see. I am glad to hear you misspoke. I’d hate to wonder if you, a Vice-Archon, would meet the same fate as those traitors. Very well then, Vice-Archon Liff, we shall take our leave of you now. Come, Lady ⌬⎅Ϣ₪⍝. We absolutely must get you into something more befitting my Lady-in-Waiting.” The Princess punctuated her statement with an inane giggle. Fake. For the Vice-Archon’s benefit. She really had become good at these political power struggles and conversational contests.
The Maiden followed the Princess past the stunned Liff. He sickened her. She pushed away her darker thoughts and focused on her friend, the Princess. The years had definitely changed her. She didn’t know the full game the Princess was playing with the corrupt Church and the Empress, but it was clear she had learned to play the game well, and, if her intoning of Derision was any indicator, how to play dirty too. She had always assumed the Princess had lines she wouldn’t cross. If the Princess was really willing to go this far, their situation must be even more dire than the Maiden had been told by the Scholar.
It was deeply concerning… but also fascinating. Whether or not their suicide mission worked, at least the Maiden’s final days would be spent doing something worthwhile and interesting. Much better than languishing on the edges of the world and waiting for the Other Power to consume them.
As if to confirm she was doing the right thing, she could feel the High Spirits soothe away her undertone of Rage at having to see Liff. Yes. She finally had to embrace the truth. She was no longer fighting the good fight anymore, but a political fight. Politics always involved the tainting of one’s soul. But she would gladly bear that mark on her being if it meant saving another world from Platicore’s spite and the Empress’s conceit.
Yes, this moment would mark the beginning of the end for the Ardent Empire. Despite that dark thought, however, the Maiden found herself optimistic, invigorated by the righteousness of their cause.
It was a strange thing, she observed, to stare down oblivion with a smile.